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Sound equipment for film

15 July 2016

  • Lavalier microphones are good for interviews and presentations
  • Radio microphones let your subjects move around, but they’re expensive
  • Directional microphones can help to limit unwanted sounds
  • You may need an audio recorder if you’re filming with an SLR

Sound is vital. You need to choose the sounds you want, and cut out the ones you don’t want. The best way to do this is to use separate microphones.

Why you need a separate microphone

The big problem with any in-camera microphone is that it’s near you, not near the the sound. Move closer or further away to get different shots and the sound will change. And it’ll probably pick up sound from all around, including stuff you don’t want.

Even if you buy a better on-camera microphone you’ll only get good sound up close. You really need to put a microphone near the sound you’re trying to record. Only use in- or on-camera microphones if you’re working in a hurry (e.g. in a news or event situation) and don’t have time to set up separate mics.

Comparison test of microphone options for iPhone filmmakers.

Types of microphone

Lavalier microphones

Lavalier or ‘tieclip’ microphones – worn on clothes – are a good way to record voices if you don’t mind having people attached to the camera by a cable. (You can avoid this by using a radio mic or separate audio recorder – see below). The Audio Technica ATR3350IS is quite cheap and has a long cable, but the output level is too low for some cameras and recorders. It comes with an adapter to connect it to a smartphone.

The Rode Lavalier mics are more expensive but better quality.

The Rode Smartlav+ is made to be connected to an iPhone or other smartphone. You can use this – or the ATR3350IS – as a cheap alternative to a radio mic: put the phone in an actor or presenter’s pocket (running the Rode REC app), then sync the sound later.

Directional microphones

You can use a directional (supercardioid) microphone. This will mainly pick up sound from in front, cutting out sound from other directions.

The Rode NTG-2 can be held above the action on an extending boom pole. This is the traditional way to record sound for a drama scene (you’ll need someone to hold the boom for you).  The NTG-2 and higher-quality options like the NTG3 use professional 3-pin XLR connections, which keep noise down when you use long cables. (You’ll need an adaptor if your camera doesn’t have XLR inputs). For working outside, you’ll need a blimp and windshield as well – see below.

The Rode VideoMic Pro is designed to be mounted on the camera. It has its own built-in elastic suspension system to cut down handling noise. It’s good with DSLRs as you can boost the output level, so you shouldn’t need a separate preamp. Fit a Deadcat windshield and you can use it outdoors as well as indoors.

You can use the VideoMic as an inexpensive substitute for a pro directional microphone, by mounting it on a boom pole and connecting it to a basic audio recorder like the Zoom H1 (see below) clamped to the boom with a little Gorillapod. You’ll need to synchronise the sound when you edit.

Audio recorders

If your camera only has basic sound recording options – like many still cameras – you may be better off recording sound with a separate audio recorder and then syncing the sound up in your editing program. Pro editing programs like Final Cut Pro X can do this automatically.


I’m a fan of the little Zoom H1.  It’s very affordable and records great sound indoors with its built-in stereo microphones. It’s a good, economical solution for interviews and presentations, and even indoor drama if you hide it behind props.  You can connect external microphones, but you’ll need ones with a good output level to avoid hiss. It does suffer from wind and handling noise so it’s not great outdoors.

The Zoom H4nSP has two XLR inputs for use with pro microphones.

The TASCAM DR-60D Mk II, designed specifically for DSLR filmmakers, is a four-track recorder/mixer with professional XLR mic inputs, so you can combine several microphone inputs. Unlike the Zooms, it doesn’t have a built-in microphone.

Radio microphones


Radio microphones are quite expensive, and some can be tricky to use. But they are a great way to get really good sound quality without a lot of cumbersome equipment. The new Rodelink Filmmaker Kit is straightforward to use (I’ve been using one over the summer: review here) and more affordable than most. It includes the excellent Rode Lavalier microphone.

The more expensive Sennheiser G3 system is popular with professional video makers.

Windshields

When you film outside, you’ll need something to cut down wind noise. Foam covers are useless for this: you need something furry. You can get basic wind gags like the Redhead for small microphones and audio recorders.

For anything above a gentle breeze you need to fit a furry cover to a proper windshield : a tube-shaped enclosure with the microphone suspended inside it on elastic support, and a furry cover. The Rode Blimp is designed to fit the NTG-2, NTG-3 and NTG-4 directional mics.

Cheap tip: Put an audio recorder on a mini tripod in an IKEA Fyllen laundry basket for recording ambient sound outside – it makes a handy windshield.

Headphones

 

You should listen to the sound on headphones while you record, if at all possible. I use Sony 7506 studio headphones.

Audio Technica’s ATH-M30 are a lower priced alternative.

Using sound in your film