Like nearly everyone who enters the field of video as a generalist I always thought that the choice for on camera interview microphone was either between different brands of shotgun (hypercardioid pick up pattern) microphones or between different brands and models of lavaliere microphones. Then one day I stumbled across a person on the web named, Curtis Judd. He's got a terrific YouTube channel that's all about professional, production audio for video. The information there is pretty amazing and the bonus is that he has a thoroughly professional, on camera-demeanor which makes his video programs a joy to watch.
Here's the latest video that tweaked my thinking about recording dialog: Curtis Judd/Mics
It was here I discovered the Samson C02 supercardioid (and super cheap) microphone and came to understand it's usefulness and high quality as an indoor dialog microphone. Here's that article: Curtis Judd/Samson C02. But first let me back up and explain what I learned....
When I started getting back into video it seemed that every article I read and every magazine that discussed video production recommended getting a good "shotgun" microphone. These are microphones that have strongrejection of sounds from the sides but with most of the emphasis coming from sounds in front of the microphone. They do this by using a slotted interference tube in front of the actual diaphragm. The slotted sensor tube helps cancel sound waves coming from the sides of the microphone. It's not perfect system and if one looks at diagrams of various microphone polar patterns one finds that the usual shotgun microphones that are widespread in the consumer market don't have patterns that are that much tighter than shorter cardioid or super-cardioid microphones.
Shotgun microphones work well in wide open spaces where there is not a lot of reverb or echo and they work well when used in the same way as shorter microphones; the closer they are to the sound source the better the sound. Short microphones are either perceived to be not as sexy or not as directional as conventional shotgun microphones and are less sexy to the average consumer. I was in that camp as well and spent about a year and several thousand dollars trying to find a shotgun microphone that sounded good when used for a single person interview in a tight room. I've purchased the Aputure Diety Shotgun, the Rode NTG-4+, the Rode NTG-2, the Sennheiser MK600, and rented the "legendary" Sennheiser MKE 416. There's also an AKG something roaming around in one of the equipment bags.
Through sheer strength of will and lots and lots of reverb absorbing sound blankets I got to the point where the audio I could get through these microphones was......usable.
Some required phantom power to operate and I rushed out and got pre-amps and digital audio recorders that could provide it.
Some will immediately say that I should rush out and buy a Sennheiser wireless microphone set up and depend on lavaliere microphones instead. I'll readily admit that this is a decent option for sound that really does side step most of the issues caused by reverb, echo and phase interference found in shotgun microphones. The downside with lavalieres is that their placement makes them sound a bit flat and homogenous. Lower frequencies are well produced (maybe even over represented...) but as you go up the frequency scale sound becomes more and more directional and lavalieres placed at chest level start to lose the higher frequencies; the sibilants and texturing frequencies that are an important part of overall voice structure. All the stuff I want to hear in an audio recording.
I have a nice collection of wireless Sennheiser stuff, and other lavaliere microphones, but I have issues with the sound from any of them. Plus, I dislike the process of using them. Matching transmitters and receivers, setting the levels between the two, placing them on talents, clothes rustling against the mics, etc.
So, when I came across Curtis Judd's article explaining the foibles of shotguns and the shortcomings of lavalieres I paid attention. Judd's choice for voice recording is the $600 Audio Technica 4053b super-cardioid microphone which is half the length of a typical shotgun microphone. It's about the size of a hotdog. But he swears by it and provides ample samples to back up his contentions.
A few months ago my friend, James, bought one of the 4053b's for his system and he'd absolutely raves about the sound quality he's been getting. Wonderfully accurate voice recordings with no noise to speak of...
I waited a bit, still not convinced that I couldn't engineer my way into good sound with the shotguns and then I read a review Judd wrote of five different super-cardioids. He covered everything from the high price spread to the most popular to a peculiarly different, low cost choice.
He'd found a microphone from a company called Samson. The microphone is the C02. It looks like a silvered metal variation of the AKG 4053 and has the same basic specifications. In his tests all five of the microphones made the grade and exceeded the parameters Judd sets for professional work with microphones. All exceeded the noise floor he finds essential for good working performance. They all sound different but they all sound good. At some point the subjective nature of sound means it's all a matter of opinion. His test led him to prefer the Samson CO2 over a few of the more costly choices in his test.
The kicker is that while the top choice, the Audio Technica 4053b, is $600 the Samsons come as a matched pair in a nice case, with decent stand mounts for about $130. Yes, that's the price for a pair! I bought a set and when they came I was pleased with the overt build quality and the overall package (case, mounting gear). They require 48V phantom power in order to work so I hooked up my set into a Tascam 60ii and took a listen. They were really good. But I was still in the mindset of trying to make my much more expensive microphones work well. I let the Samsons languish on the shelf ---- until yesterday.
Ben and I were going to shoot five different interviews in the Serra Lounge at Zach Theatre's Topfer Theatre. The room is big enough to light well but one entire wall is glass and, while there is industrial carpeting on the floor it's a bright and bouncy (audio-wise) space. I had packed the usual list of shotgun microphones with the idea of using one (perhaps the NTG-4+) on a "fish pole" quite near the interviewee and putting the Sennheiser 600 (self powered) on top of the B camera in order to get a scratch track for matching in post.
Before I finished up the packing I sat down and watch Curtiss Judd's YouTube program about small room miking one more time. After I finished I grabbed the box with the Samson mics and tossed it into a grip bag with the idea of auditioning them on site; if we had time.
Yesterday afternoon Ben and I got our first interview set up ready with a half hour to spare. We were using the Aputure LightStorm LED panels and our images on camera looked great. Really great. With everything set I mounted one of the C02 microphones on the fish pole and ran it into the Saramonic SmartRig+ preamplifier and put on my isolating headphones. I asked Ben to stand in at the microphone position and talk. After I got my levels set perfectly, with indicators bouncing between minus twelve and minus six I was just stunned at how much better these cheap-ass microphones sounded than my $400 Rode Shotgun. Smooth, clean, clear sound with wonderful high frequency texturing. It was the audio equivalent of cleaning off a dirty window! But the biggest benefit is that there were no artifacts caused by frequency interference.
James and Curtis Judd were right on the money. This is the way to record ultra clean sound in a small, live room!
It was a day of revelations for me. That the effectively $70 dollar microphone, used as designed and intended, could be head and shoulders better than a $400 microphone that had (now obviously) been designed for a different use. This is not to say that the shotguns are bad microphones; they are not, they are just designed for different uses and different environments. But the short, super-carioids are dynamite in small, live spaces.
They are now a permanent part of the day-to-day kit. Along with the (visually unimpressive) Saramonic SmartRig+ the Samson C02's are the best value I have found in sound gear to date.
The other big story of the day was just how well the Atomos Ninja Flame worked with the Panasonic FZ 2500 to provide near perfect ProRes video. Astounding. I'll be covering this in a different blog. Or maybe a video.
A good shooting day yesterday! My assistant, Ben, made me appreciate the extreme value of not only a second set of hands but also a smart co-conspirator. I'll be happy for him and sad for me when he heads back to college in September...