Our essential guide to all things audio will build into a definitive overview of how to master sound in motion productions, and we start by looking at the fundamentals you need to know. – Words Rick Bronks
or so many professional photographers these days video production has become a key requirement of the job, driven of course by rapidly increasing client demand. But while ultimately you might have no choice but to dive in, there’s no denying that moving into the world of motion can feel overwhelming to the beginner. It seems that, just as you think you’ve got your head around it all, something else to consider will appear over the horizon.
You’ve doubtless spent hours perusing endless websites, reading every review you can find and cramming on training videos you hope will get you up to speed on the minutiae of filmmaking. I know what it’s like because I’ve been there myself and have the scars to prove it.
My background was broadcast TV and documentary work, but I left that world behind to pursue life as a photographer. It wasn’t long, however, before my clients realised my production background. I was subsequently trained up as a video editor and self-shooting director and soon motion became a key part of the mix. That was about ten years ago now, and these days I’d say I’m shooting 80% video to 20% stills, with motion set to take over still further throughout the coming year.
Why the background? Well, in the halcyon days of making TV shows with a full crew it was – and still is – hugely obvious that audio is not seen as a ‘bonus extra,’ but as something that’s as important – and sometimes more so – as the visuals. The truth is that, however well-crafted your footage might happen to be, it is, quite literally, ultimately only half of the story.
So, what about that bag of kit that you’ve acquired to ease your move into the world of motion? You have it all right? The lovely fast lens, spare batteries, possibly a bespoke filmmaking tripod, a set of LED lights that can output in 12 billion colours, ability to shoot in 8k…but wait? No way to record sound properly? And when I say properly, I don’t mean the mic you got from Amazon for ten quid, I’m talking something with the potential to make your work sing – it’s patently not just about the images.
I do understand the reality of being a self-shooting camera op, sound engineer, photographer, client liaison and editor. It’s absolutely the way we all need to be thinking, especially in a post-pandemic world. Re-training and repositioning your offering to the marketplace is crucial and, where video is concerned, it’s critical that you look at delivering a polished, fantastic product that looks and sounds incredible.
Hopefully this is why you’re here. Over the next six months we’ll be taking you on a comprehensive audio journey that will aim to cover off all of the dos and don’ts, the kit you should be looking at acquiring and the techniques and tips that will take you from novice status through to someone who is more confident about working with sound.
Ultimately this series, produced with support from audio specialist Sennheiser and top filmmaking retailer CVP, will build up into a complete pro-orientated and easy-to-understand user manual that will walk you through all of the things you need to know about the creation of super sound.
Acquiring Your Sound
Right from the outset, there’s something you need to know, namely that most cameras that come with the ability to shoot video have terrible mics built into them. If you look at your hybrid camera, even one that’s fairly high up the food chain, you’ll probably see tiny little holes around the viewfinder area on the top or front. These are likely to be the mics.
They are also likely to be the worst microphones you could possibly rely on for decent sound. It’s not that they won’t record it, it’s the fact that they will record everything in the area around the camera. They aren’t totally useless as we’ll discover later in this series but, for now, the best option is to not really rely on them at all.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to talk about the supplementary mics you’re going to need. Just like you’d change camera lenses depending on the shot you’re looking for, there’s not one single solution for achieving the audio you need. Sure, there are some mics out there that are more versatile, but you’re here because you want to take your audio seriously, so here’s where we’ll get into each of the main mic types, along with the typical features that you might be wanting to consider.
As with a lens, each type of mic will have its own particular characteristics. Some are better for speech, some for music, others might be best suited to noisy environments and so on. They might also feature some kind of cable if they plug into a wireless transmitter or straight into camera, or perhaps into a mixing desk or field recorder.
There are generally two main connections to consider. First off is the one you’re likely to know from your headphones, namely the ubiquitous 3.5mm jack plug. The more professional alternative is the XLR plug, which stands for ‘External Line Return,’ and, commonly, there will be three pins in one end and three holes in the other. Lots of mics now come with adapters so you can use either XLR or 3.5mm depending on the way that you’re looking to work.
So what are the advantages of XLR over 3.5mm? Well. the XLR connectors are called ‘balanced’ cables, and these are specifically designed to reduce noise and interference, which can be especially helpful if you’re working with longer runs. They will deliver a purer signal with very little loss in quality, so that what goes in at one end is effectively exactly what comes out at the other.
If you’re simply plugging your microphone into your camera, however, it’s likely that you’ll be looking to use just the 3.5mm input on the camera, although it’s worth noting that higher end hybrid cameras can come with XLR sockets these days – or there could be an XLR adaptor available from the likes of Tascam that will add this facility – while, when you move on to field recorders and external recorders an XLR socket is more likely to be featured.
Overall, you should try to avoid using 3.5mm connections over longer cable runs, since the longer the cable the more chance there is that the signal will drop and the sound will be lousy. Short runs, for example a mic in a hot-shoe socket that’s plugged into the camera, will mostly work fine, although your signal will still not be as clean as that provided by an XLR connection.
XLR cables will also lock into place, which is obviously a good thing since it prevents any noise created by movement. Some 3.5mm cables likewise might have a locking collar on them, but it’s not as common and, overall, XLRs are built well and designed more for a pro-level environment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main thing that will affect how a mic picks up sound is called the ‘pickup pattern.’ This refers to the area around the mic that’s more or less sensitive to noise, and what direction might be best for picking up a voice or whatever other sound that you might be looking to record.
If you already own a separate mic then you might have found the literature that came in the box somewhat confusing, consisting of lots of graphs about sensitivity together with diagrams illustrating pickup patterns. Fortunately you don’t need to memorise these, but it’s not a bad idea to look at the pickup pattern of your particular mic (or mics) to see where they should be placed to enable you to achieve the best sound.
We’ll be talking about pickup patterns as we go through the different mic types, and this will help define which mics should be used for particular situations. All mics have a pickup pattern, so we’ll be dipping in and out of this as we move through the series and discuss different mics and kit, but to start things off here are the main types that you need to know about.
These are good for interviews and moving subjects, and are the easiest to use since they record audio from every direction. Use this type of mic if you can’t control the audio source well, perhaps because you’re covering a press-conference or a talking head that’s moving around a lot. They are the most flexible, but the trade-off is that they are also the noisiest.
Perfect for documentary, weddings and events, these mics feature a really flexible pickup pattern and are very slightly directional, so you’ll find that there’s a small bias towards the front of the mic but they will still pick up sound from around the sides and back. You’ll need to look out for the fact that they will pick up background noise if they’re not in a quiet or controlled environment.
These mics have a highly directional pickup pattern, which is really good for isolating audio. Hypercardoid mics tend to be used as shotgun, or on-camera, mics, and they are perfect for vlogging and documentary-style recording and sometimes musical instruments. The main difference between the assortment of hypercardioid mics that are on the market is how much of the rear and side noise is rejected.
Indie film makers love this type of mic because they give focused frontal recording, but incorporate a small margin of error so that, if talent should drift a little off mic, all is not lost. These are the mics that will typically be found on boom poles. They do pick up some noise from behind the mic, however, so you’ll need to be careful to avoid operating noise. Some handheld mics also use this pickup pattern, which helps filter out background noise.
❚ Cassius’ Mobile Filmmaking YouTube Channel: youtube.com/c/gomakefilms
Main Mic Types
Perhaps the most common mic type is the ‘lav’ mic – or Lavaliere or clip mic. Whatever, it’s the one that you’re most likely to get first, and it can come in wired or, more likely, wireless form. Later in the series we’ll be diving deeper into the different flavours of wireless mics, but for now we’re looking at the characteristics of the actual capsule, which, for the uninitiated, is the bit at the end of the wire that picks up the sound. As usual, the more you spend the better the product tends to be.
Lav mics generally have the smallest capsule, and this enables them to be hidden effectively. It’s the mic you’ll see newsreaders and presenters on TV wearing clipped to their clothes while, in the theatre, they are often taped to the actor’s forehead, cheek or hidden away in their clothing. In its simplest form the capsule is clipped on, connected to the camera or a recorder via a wire or wirelessly to a receiver, and you’re good to go.
The majority of lav mics will be pretty good at picking up the voice of the person they’re mounted to, while they can also pick up noise around the mic as well. This is because many, such as the Senneiser XS Lav Mobile, are omnidirectional, while there are also unidirectional and cardioid versions available. I tend to use cardioid only when I know the talent won’t move much and I can set the mic on them.
When I shoot documentary, or drama I don’t want the mic to be seen on the clothing, and this is when I’ll work with an omnidirectional lav mic. These pick up sound pretty well regardless of direction, so they don’t need to be in line with the mouth and you can get really creative with where you place them. For example, they can be secreted under the brim of caps, inside a collar, tucked inside spectacle frames or even hidden beneath hair. We’ll take a deeper look at how to hide mics and mount them a little later in the series.
These get their name from their shape, because they’re long and skinny, and the pickup pattern is predominantly from the front. As a visual way of describing the pattern, think of a water sprayer set to stream. It’s a staple of the film and TV world, but is really versatile and perfect to use in a wide variety of situations.
Shotgun mics, such as the Sennheiser MKE 600, might be used handheld, especially in the news world, where they can be mounted into a ‘pistol grip.’ They can also be secured to a pole to act as a boom mic, and you’ll see them on film sets, with the sound recordist or boom operator holding one above or below the talent just out of shot but as close as possible to the person being recorded.
It’s really important to monitor sound delivered by a shotgun mic through a set of headphones, because it’s easy for talent to drift out of range. This isn’t a mic you can set and forget. When outdoors you’re also likely to need some kind of windscreen on the mic. We’ll look at this a little later, but essentially a naked shotgun won’t be very forgiving, even in the slightest of breeze.
These are the standard vocal mics for stage use and they’re also common in news environments, a good example being the Sennheiser e935. They usually feature a Cardoid pickup pattern, which means they will be more forgiving if the voice moves away from the front of the mic. Generally, they’re very robust as well.
Sennheiser produces a wide range of pro-spec audio products to fit a variety of price points, so head for en-uk.sennheiser.com/microphones to check out the range.
Get an Audio Demo
If you’re new to audio then book up an appointment or a webchat with a member of the CVP tech team at its showroom in London’s Fitzrovia, where you’ll be able to talk to an expert to receive a high level of impartial, commitment-free, brand agnostic advice to help you on your way.
Mics such as the Sennheiser MKE 400 that sit in a camera’s hot-shoe often connect with a 3.5mm plug.
An external mic will always give you better quality sound, whether you’re on a big production or just a vlogging shoot.
Sennheiser MKE 200 features
Sennheiser XS Wireless Digital Lavalier Set
Sennheiser MKE 400
Scan here to watch the video by Rick Bronks that accompanies his first feature in our audio series.