This question comes in from Suna (@sunathanlater on Twitter).
What Is the Best Sound Equipment for Voxpops?
I have to admit that this question stumped me for a moment… Not because I didn’t know what sound equipment to recommend, but because I didn’t know what a voxpop was before looking it up. You are writing in from the UK, so I assume this is a common term used there to describe what we in the US call an “on the fly (OTF)” or “man on the street” style interview. For those unaware, voxpop is short for vox populi, a term that has a very interesting meaning if you’re interested in going down the rabbit hole. For your purposes though, Suna, I’ll try to keep my answer on track.
To understand what sound equipment is best-suited for an OTF, you first have to understand what sound equipment is best-suited for interviews in general. Ranked in order it goes:
- Lavalier Microphones. This type of microphone will always produce the highest-quality sound from a subject because it is clipped on their shirt, very close to their mouth. It is also directional, so it best picks up audio from the subject’s mouth (if that’s where it’s pointed) and not from other sources around the subject. Ideally you would plug a lavalier microphone into a wireless kit, so that you have some flexibility, but even if you have a wired lavalier mirophone plugged into your camera and you are tethered to your subject, you are going to get better sound than by using any of the other options.
- Shotgun (Boom) Microphones. This type of microphone will produce high quality sound from a subject, or a group of subjects, because it will be close to the subject. Beware, though, because shotgun microphones are less directional than lavalier microphones and can pick up audio from unintended sources if they are close enough to your subject. Often times in television and film we will record sound from both lavalier microphones and shotgun microphones for safety purposes. The downside to a shotgun microphone mounted onto a boom pole is that you need a boom operator… and not all small crews can afford this.
- Shotgun (Camera-Mounted) Microphones. This type of microphone is similar in function to the shotgun (boom) microphone. In fact, some shotgun microphones are interchangeable, it’s just a matter of where they are mounted (camera or boom pole). However, the audio you pick up from a camera-mounted shotgun microphone will be very different than the audio you pick up from a boom-mounted shotgun microphone. Because your camera will be further away from your subjects, the camera-mounted microphone will pick up a lower-quality audio that can sometimes be muddled by the surrounding environment. Camera-mounted shotgun microphones can also pick up audio from operation of the camera, such as a loud zoom or focus servo, or heavy-handed button pushing by the camera operator. For these reasons, the camera-mounted shotgun microphone is the least desirable of the first three… but still more desirable than the alternative…
- Camera (Internal) Microphones. Nearly every camera, whether it’s a video camera or a DSLR camera that shoots video, comes with an internal microphone these days. Under no circumstance are you to use these microphones for interviews unless you absolutely cannot afford to use the other options. Even the most expensive video camera’s internal microphone will produce lower-quality audio than the least expensive lavalier or shotgun microphone, so you should make it a priority to find a way to use one of the microphone types listed above.
There are a million different microphones on the market in each of these categories and I cannot give specific recommendations here because I am not a professional sound guy and I have not tested nearly enough of these microphones to be an authority in any way. I can, however, tell you that there are inexpensive options for lavalier and shotgun microphones that will still produce high quality audio at a fraction of the price. I recently picked up this shotgun (camera-mounted) microphone ($30) and this lavalier (wired) microphone ($30) for my DSLR camera and they sound great.
Finally, each OTF/voxpop is going to have its own circumstances that dictate what is or is not possible for recording sound. You have to be prepared for all circumstances and use your best judgment. Don’t feel bad if for one reason or another you cannot use a lavalier microphone. I’ve worked on several documentaries that use a mix of interviews shot with lavalier microphones, shotgun microphones, even camera microphones, and still go to air on the biggest television networks there are.
At the end of the day, story is what’s most important. Your audience will accept bad production value as long as you are giving them good story.
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