11.19.2012

Can we talk about microphones for a second?


I know every time I write anything about video or microphones almost everyone tunes out and it kills the blog for a couple of days. But I can't help it. I bought my Sony cameras partly because they are good, efficient video tools and microphones are generally one of the cogs in production that make a difference. Miles of copy have been written by video professionals about really good microphones and, without a doubt, you can get a really good microphone for $600 and up. But how many of us really need to sport the absolute best if video generally plays second fiddle to our still photography? While I'd love to be booking the kinds of video projects that require perfect sound recorded at the time of shooting the reality is that the market I find most welcoming for video productions are the same smaller ad agencies and small businesses that buy my photography.

Most of the work I've done in video for the past few years has ended up being targeted directly for the web. Sound quality is important but there really is such a thing as "good enough for the web." For a lot of what I do I need more microphone flexibility than raw excellence. By that I mean the primary goal I have is to use a microphone that I can position off the camera and as close to the subject as possible without having the microphone in the shot. My secondary (but still important) goal is that the microphone not obviously color the sound with glaringly inaccurate reproduction.

I have a set of Sennheiser wireless microphones that are complex, expensive and give very, very good sound. But they are a pain to set up and calibrate. Just like people who have both a big DSLR and a small mirrorless camera I find myself, more and more, using more traditional, straightforward microphones that are hooked to my camera with a cable. And I find that my mid-to-low priced units can sound almost as good as my more expensive microphones if I use them well. I hate to say it but to some extent it's not so much about the gear but how you use it that counts.

In this blog I'm going to talk about the three microphones in my sound box that I use all the time but I want to  issue this caveat: I am not a sound expert and when the budgets are ripe and succulent I always hire a sound person who brings along his owner mixer, microphones and sometimes a separate digital recorder. My microphones make their appearance when I'm shooting for a web video or an "in-house" presentation for a company. Where big stake are involved I tend to dial-a-pro.  You should consider that too.

The microphone above is a nice, plastic microphone from the Australian company, Rode. It's called a VideoMic. It's monoaural, shock mounted and runs off a 9V battery. It's fairly directional but not nearly as directional as a true "shotgun" microphone. That's okay by me because a wider pattern means I can be a bit sloppier in placement.  Too might a pattern and being off axis makes for poorer, not better sound. This microphone is pretty inexpensive at around $150.  I use it to record sound on sets where I can't show a microphone in the scene.  If I use it within two feet of a speaker or actor and aim it correctly the sound is very good.  Ben and I both have one of these and we count on it for most stuff. When you put a wind screen over it (dead cat) you can make good use of it outdoors. This is my first line tool for projects where I have someone who can hold this microphone on a pole and position it and reposition it while we shoot. 



The microphone just above is Rode's inexpensive stereo microphone. I use it a lot in the studio when I can use it close to my subjects because it's a pretty nice voice microphone. It has a stereo plug that goes straight into my camera's 3.5mm plug.  It records a left and a right channel and it's best use is as an all around documentary mic in a small, quiet room where you are trying to mic two or more people in conversation but have only one mic and one set of eyes and ears with which to monitor said mic. There's a lot of usage cross over between this mic and the one at the top of the article. From time to time, if the venue is quiet enough, I will mount this mic on a fishpole and use it the same way I would use a short shotgun microphone to record dialogue.

If there are no operational caveats; if you can use this mic as close as you want and at the angle you want, you can get amazingly good sound from it. It's not a high decible level performance mic. I don't think you'd want to use it with a rocker who screams. But for general work it's a champ. Not as directional as the VideoMic but that can be a blessing. Around $249. If you are working alone and fast, off tripod, it's great to be able to stick the StereoMic in the accessory shoe of your camera and put the audio recorder on ALC and just go. At least you'll have good "natural sound" to use in your edit...

Finally I want to tell you how I use my "kit lens" of a microphone, the Olympus ME 51S.  This is the microphone that Olympus sold in the SEMA-1 kit that contained an adapter to plug into the port on the back of Olympus Pen cameras.  You could plug the microphone directly into the adapter and use it as a better "on camera" microphone or you could attach it to a stereo, 3.5mm to 3.5mm cord and use it off camera. The whole bundle is well under $100 and the SEMA-1 adapter is the only way to get off camera microphone audio into your camera when recording.

The microphone consists of two omni-directional microphones so in a live room it tends to pick up every sound with very little discretion. But most lavalier microphones also happen to be omni's and they work very well in isolating the voices of speakers and actors when the lav microphones are position on a lapel or shirt plaque, close to the speaker's mouth.  And, not surprisingly, the little Olympus works well in those kinds of applications too.

I helped a friend with a video for an association over the weekend. We had a lot of microphones to choose from but we chose to go with one of these. We clipped it to our interview subjects' shirts and cabled it back to a Sony a77. Even though we did not use one of the mixers that emits a non-audible tone to over ride the ALC of the camera the microphone was surprisingly un-noisy. And the camera managed to intelligently work it's auto level controls so that there were no big, fast spikes in spurious noise. We reviewed the sound this morning on small monitor speakers and it was actually quite good.

I've started to think of microphones the way I think about lenses. The cost is not always a good determiner of their usability. While an L series 50mm 1.1.2 costs somewhere in the $1500 range an enormous number of people swear by the 50mm 1.8 EF lens (the nifty fifty) and do very good work with it. Under certain circumstances the L lens might shine but for everyday work and everyday budgets the nifty fifty is a perfectly workable compromise.

We've also found that slower aperture zoom lenses can routinely outperform faster, more expensive zoom lenses in the same focal length ranges. In the Sony line the Sony 55-200DT is an excellent performer and, if you never need fast, you'd probably have a hard time distinguishing files from it (at $199) and the 70-200mm 2.8 Sony G lens (at $1995). Same thing with microphones. Use a high end production digital audio recorder, perfect microphone placement and an acoustically optimized setting and you'll get amazing sound. Videotape in a mall with a lot of background noise and non-optimum acoustics and you may find the microphones are equally challenged.

I mentioned that I have a wonderful set of Sennheiser's wireless microphones and they do sound great. But I've compared them to the big ME 51S and they are both better than my current talents or ability to make one appreciably better than the other.

Our video project worked well.

Side note:  All three images were shot with one small, Fotodiox 312 AS LED panel positioned about a foot and a half above the microphones, shining straight down. The rest of the light was just fill from windows around the studio. A quick and easy set up. No filters required.













16 comments:

Paula said...

I'm starting to get into audio/video more with my OMD and I've got the SEMA-1 kit on my Christmas wishlist. :)

Van said...

Have you played around with the "Pro" models of the Rode mics? They're a little more expensive, but sound much better and are much more compact.

Kirk Tuck said...

I have played with several, including their NTG line and they are very good. Much better? In perfect settings, yes.

Libby said...

Add some pickup pattern diagrams and talk about XLR inputs and you'll drive everyone away for sure ;-)

Kirk Tuck said...

Libby. How true. And I was just getting ready to launch into a discussion of acoustic foam tiles...

D&E Photography said...

Very helpful Kirk. Damn the blog ratings full speed ahead!

Honestly I find video amazing but soooo foreign and perhaps that's why we (stills folks)become scarce when these discussions crank up :)

IRA said...

One thing to consider is that the choice of mic pre-amp can make just as much difference as the choice of mic. It's similar to the way a lens + a sensor (or film) combine to give you an end result. A mediocre pre-amp can easily negate the difference between your $100 mic and your $1000 mic.

bobfoto said...

Quite a few years ago I remember a letters to the editor comment in "Rangefinder" magazine where some very "old school" photographer was complaining about all of the articles about the internet and Photoshopping in the magazine. I put that comment in the same category as the folks who tune you out every time you write about video.

Craig Yuill said...

I once read that videographers considered sound to be just as important as video image quality, if not more so. One video-related magazine I read years ago considered a decent external microphone to be an essential accessory for a camcorder set up.

I bought a nice little external Sony microphone for a camcorder that had a rather noisy tape-drive motor that was easily picked up by the on-camera mics. The improvement in sound made the $80 cost of the little Sony worth it. I've found the on-board microphones of my current camcorder and DSLR sufficient for my needs. But I've kept the little Sony in reserve for times when I may need better sound.

If I may bring up a video-related topic - a while ago you mentioned you were working on a book about creating videos with DSLRs. Is that book still in the works?

Kirk Tuck said...

That's so true. But it's important to make a few distinctions as most of our cross over readers will probably start out using the electronics in their DSLRs as the pre-amp. Pre-amps are an incredibly interesting topic. I'm enmeshed in that learning curve right now...

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Craig,

I've gone back and forth with my publisher on that book. At first they wanted nothing to do with it. They'd done a video book years and years ago that never sold. Different time and circumstance. Now they are interested but I'm thinking of doing it as an e-book instead. I'm consumed by getting the novel finished by Christmas and then I will turn all my attention to video and film. I'll keep you posted on the progress of the book. There are so few good ones on digital video out on the market...

(If anyone has a favorite I'd appreciate you pointing us to it...)

Michael Matthews said...

I'll buy the e-book on video. Right after I buy the e-book or Kindle version of the novel.

In the meantime, speaking of audio for video, have you seen and heard this?:
http://vimeo.com/31066145

It helps to have a good speaker system.

Marino Mannarini said...

Video rocks! Never mind the bo***cks, Kirk, keep on posting!
Marino

Jan Klier said...

Sounds is important. And as in any production there is a trade-off between what is needed, what can be done, and what makes business sense.

One of the best intros into sound recording I've read in a while is this series of blog posts. Skip the video, and click on the various chapter links at the bottom: http://nofilmschool.com/2012/06/series-great-sound-recording-tutorials-zacuto

Gregg Mack said...

Kirk, I wear hearing aids, so I don't hear what you are saying in this blog post. :-)

What I am surprised about how you lit the three photos in this post. You said that you "positioned about a foot and a half above the microphones, shining straight down".

If that is so, in the 3rd photo (Olympus mic), was it hanging by the wire when you photographed it, and then rotated it 180 degrees for this post?

If not, I might need some sensory aids for more than just my hearing!

Kirk Tuck said...

HI Gregg, You are absolutely correct. I hung the Oly mic by its cable and then rotated it when I posted. I loved being able to light them all with one little battery powered LED. So simple. And so easy to see as I set up...