If you’re new to making videos and want to make a significant improvement in quality then the first thing you need to look at is audio. While today’s cameras capture incredible video they often fall short when it comes to good audio. The simple fact is this – bad audio is often the first thing people will notice about a video. Someone might watch a video if the picture is out of focus or a little shaky, but they’ll rarely accept audio that sounds terrible.
Poor audio might be the one reason, more than any other, that people will turn off a video. Microphones built in to most cameras are usually not very good and they can’t be properly adjusted to make much of a difference, so the way to capture better sound means using a a better microphone, an external audio recorder or any of a number of other solutions.
In this article I’ll talk about how I improved the quality of the audio in my videos and share some of the important principles I use to get the most from my audio gear. You’ll see some of the equipment I use and I even made a new a video to show how different microphones perform in various locations in my office/production studio.
In this article I’ll be talking about some specific cameras, microphones, audio recorders and more. All of the equipment I’ll talk about is my personal gear and I paid full price for it. That means no manufacturer compensated me in any way and any opinions I share are exclusively my own. Also, while I do use some specific models and brands that doesn’t mean they are the only solution. I use Tascam audio recorders, for example, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get similar (or better) results if you used audio recorders from Zoom or Sound Devices.
I’ll share my experiences using the gear I own and you can use that information to buy the same gear, similar gear from another company or substantially more capable gear (at added expense, of course). This article is not meant to be a thorough explanation of audio engineering, microphones, recording devices or audio capture techniques. That’s a gigantic subject that easily consumes 4-6 years of study at the college level – in addition to the many years of experience you’ll need before you can call yourself an expert. In addition to audio capture it’s good to know how to edit and mix your audio. In this post I hope to share some good information and possible inspire readers to learn more about the complicated subject of audio. Books like the Location Soun Bible by Ric Viers is an outstanding resource I own, personally, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the subject of capturing good quality audio. For around $20 I think the Location Sound Bible is a bargain.
Why Your Audio Kinda Stinks
“Sound is 50 percent of the movie going experience, and I’ve always believed audiences are moved and excited by what they hear in my movies as least as much as by what they see.” – George Lucas I looked high and low to find out where and when George made that quote and I was never able to pin down a specific article or interview, but a lot of people credit him with the statement. As someone who enjoys movies (and made a career of engineering and building some very large audio/video systems before moving into design and photography) I think the statement is right on the money. Audio is important and if you don’t get it right then the entire video (or movie) will be a failure.
Today’s cameras make it pretty easy to capture great video. Not only is the “automatic” mode on the camera pretty decent, you can always see a good representation of what you’re recording on your camera’s LCD screen. Most of the time what you see is exactly what you’re going to get. Sound, on the other hand, isn’t always as easy. In fact, it can often be totally different than you think (and you may not know for sure until you try to review your captured footage after the shoot).
My go-to camera for most video shoots is my Sony A6000 since my clients don’t need 4K video (in those cases I use my Sony A6300 or will rent a monster camera like a Sony PXW-Z90V). When it comes to my A6000 the picture quality for videos is excellent right out of the camera. What isn’t great is the audio quality from the small microphones that are hidden behind two tiny holes on either side of the lens mount.
These kinds of microphones are common on just about every small camera. My Sony a5000 places the microphone openings on the top of the camera which works, generally speaking, unless you’re looking for clear vocals from a subject directly in front of the camera. Built in microphones are great for capturing ambient or background audio. Crystal clear vocals that are perfectly balanced with any background sounds, on the other hand, are a big challenge for any in-camera microphone.
Because of the limited space in a smaller camera – and the emphasis on image quality – the built-in microphones are anything but awesome. Another problem is the distance between the microphones doesn’t allow for a wide stereo sound. Finally, the preamps in the camera are average at best (and often very low quality). To really make the situation difficult most cameras won’t give you any control to improve your audio or a headphone connection to really monitor what’s being recorded. Some cameras may have meters and input level controls, but my Sony a6000 has almost no options for customizing the audio capture.
Upgrading to an External Microphone
One possible solution for most Sony cameras is to buy one of their slick add-on microphones. I own both the Sony stereo microphone (the $110 ECM-XYST1M) and the small Sony shotgun microphone (the $68 ECM-GZ1M). They both use Sony’s proprietary multi-interface shoe (the small connectors inside the flash shoe) and they give you a nice way to improve sound without much additional effort. Just attach the microphone, like the stereo ECM-XYST1M pictured below, and it automatically works when you record a movie.
The ECM-XYST1M is my favorite microphone when I’m out and about traveling or on vacation. It’s a great general use stereo microphone that sounds much better than the built-in microphones on the a6000. When the (included) wind protector is in place it does a great job of capturing sound outdoors.
Another option is the shotgun style ECM-GZ1M microphone. Unlike the stereo offering this microphone is mono only and will do a decent job of picking up sound directly in front of the microphone (on-axis) and rejecting sounds from the sides (off-axis). Here’s a look at the ECM-GZ1M shotgun microphone installed on my Sony a6000: The ECM-GZ1M is a cool add-on microphone that really does a great job of picking up sound from directly in front of the camera. I love this microphone when I’m speaking on camera outdoors and I want to cut down on the ambient noises of the environment. The only downside is that there’s no way to really balance my voice with the background sound.
Microphone Placement is Everything
While the small Sony microphones are great for when you’re out in the field and need some on-location sound neither work very well when it comes to dialog – especially in a studio environment. The problem with both Sony microphones, when used indoors, has to do with how they naturally capture the room acoustics along with any dialog. If you make “talking head” videos then using on camera microphones five or so feet away will result in distant sounding dialog with a noticeable echo – unless you spend big money to acoustically treat your room.
With dialog it’s best to have a microphone super close to the speaker. A lavaliere microphone can be a big help (and Sony makes a slick bluetooth clip on microphone solution) but for the absolute best sound a microphone as close to the speaker is always best. This is something that is extremely noticeable when you’re recording indoors.
Here’s a quick video I put together to show the difference between the built-in microphone, Sony’s Shotgun microphone, an inexpensive lavaliere microphone and my Senal shotgun microphone just outside of the frame:
Talk about a difference! What should really stand out in the video is how the $35 lavaliere microphone, when placed properly, can outperform a microphone that costs three times as much that is improperly placed. With a little post processing (digital equalization) the inexpensive lavaliere can sound downright incredible.
While there might not have been a gigantic difference in sound between the $35 A.Lav and the $600 Senal/Tascam setup there is a difference in how much time you’ll need to spend in post getting the sound right. The shotgun microphone and digital audio recorder require significantly less post processing – and that means less time editing your video.
Different Microphones for Different Situations
I have several microphones and all of them work best for specific situations. For my Skype calls and direct to computer voice recordings I have a large diaphragm USB microphone that just rocks. When I need to capture dialog in my home studio or out in the field there’s nothing like having a shotgun microphone boomed just outside the frame of the shot. For interviews and back-up recordings lavaliere microphones work incredibly well. And for stereo recording there’s nothing like having a pair of matched microphones you can place where they’ll capture exactly the sound you want. Here’s a look at four different types of microphones I own: I even own a Tascam TM-ST1 mid-side microphone for those special situations where I need to capture sound to be post-processed for either mono or stereo audio. I like to use my mid-side microphone for situations where I have on-camera dialog and I want to have total control of how much ambient (background) sound is mixed in with the dialog. A mid-side microphone can do it all in a single package, or it can be used to capture background audio – completely separate from any dialog – for mixing later in post.
Mid-side microphones are a unique audio capture solution that might be the subject of a future article. Long story short: microphones are tools and they come in different styles each with very specific uses. It’s like picking the right hammer for your construction project. A 15 pound sledge hammer is overkill for installing shingles on your roof and a framing hammer won’t do very much if you’re doing demolition work. It’s all about picking the right tool to get the job done.
The type of microphone used for capturing background sounds could be completely different than a microphone you would select for capturing dialog. Choosing the right microphone for a given situation – and using it properly – can make or break the quality of your sound.
Using an Audio Recorder
If you’re working “in the field” then using an add-on microphone will let you capture noticeably better sound than what’s built in to the camera. Getting a microphone from the same manufacturer as your camera is a simple solution to improving your audio. For a Sony camera a Sony microphone (with their proprietary multi-interface shoe connection) should connect quickly and easily while a non-Sony microphone probably won’t have an option to mount directly to a hot shoe or send the audio in to the camera.
Most really good hot shoe mount microphones will need to plug in to a microphone input (usually a stereo 3.5mm connector). Some cameras have just such an input, but my Sony A6000 is not one of those cameras. My first solution to this issue was to get myself a good audio recorder I could use both on camera as well as off camera.
My audio recorder company of choice is Tascam – but you can find awesome recorders from Zoom, Sound Devices and other great companies. I picked up a Tascam DR-22WL for it’s awesome features and it’s just awesome (sadly it’s been discontinued). It has it’s own stereo microphones (in an X-Y configuration) along with an auxiliary 3.5mm stereo microphone input and 3.5mm headphone output.
What I love the most about my DR-22WL is the flexibility and small size. I can connect a wired lavaliere microphone to capture audio when I’m in my studio or in the field or use the built in microphones for capturing ambient sound in stereo. Best of all it can be controlled with a smartphone app using the built in wifi capability. Here’s a look at my Tascam DR-22WL: An external recorder gives me a number of great audio capabilities that don’t exist in even the best digital still cameras (with video capabilities). Features like control of your audio level (and a sound level meter to properly set your level) and a headphone jack are a big plus here. But the biggest difference is going to be in pure sound quality.
Unlike the highly compressed sound built in to a camera, you can record super high quality WAV files up to 96kHz/24 bit. That’s higher quality than what we hear on a CD (44kHz/16 bit) and way higher than compressed MP3 files.
The built in microphones are set up in a stereo “X-Y” configuration and they sound great, but the 3.5mm microphone input gives you the flexibility to use several different kinds of microphones like the Rode Videomicro shotgun microphone or the Aputure A.lav. It even outputs phantom power on the 3.5mm connector for microphones that require it.
I like the sound of my DR-22WL so much I picked up a “dead cat” style windshield and a cold shoe adapter to let me mount the Tascam DR-22wl right to my camera’s cold shoe. With this configuration I can capture awesome sound when I’m out in the field. Here’s a look at my DR-22 (with windscreen) mounted on my Sony a6000 with a pair of Sennheiser HD 449 “over the ear” headphones: I absolutely love this setup for running-and-gunning since it gives me some seriously great stereo audio capture capability and it’s not cumbersome to use. The DR-22wl is almost completely plastic so it’s not “professional grade” in build quality but the plastic housing is super light. It may not enjoy being dropped three feet to a hard surface, but if you take good care of your gear it should last a long time.
The big downside of using an external recorder is the added steps you’ll need to take in editing to align the sound captured by your recorder with the video from your camera. There are several methods for getting a good reference for aligning audio with video, but the one of the best is to use a simple production slate (also called a “clap board”) like you see used in hollywood film production. I’ve found this to be a pretty easy process, but if you’re not into editing then this is definitely something you need to keep in mind.
Note – The DR-22WL was unique in the Tascam line (along with the more professional DR-44WL) due to it’s built-in wifi and ability to be controlled by an app. Unfortunately, the DR-22WL was discontinued by Tascam at the time I wrote this article and while a replacement with built-in wifi doesn’t exist you might be able to find a DR-22WL on Amazon. Also, there are plenty of great options including the super inexpensive Tascam DR-05 (about $99) or the Zoom H1n (about $119). Both Zoom and Tascam are well regarded companies and any recorder from them will get the job done without breaking the bank. For studio use there are a few very important features missing, the biggest is professional XLR inputs (important for using microphones like my Senal shotgun microphone). If using professional microphones is your goal then you need to look into a better audio recorder like my Tascam DR-60mkII.
the Tascam DR-60mkII 4 Channel Recorder
The XLR is a professional locking connector that has been the industry standard connection since the 1950’s. Unlike typical consumer connector ( like RCA or phono plugs) the XLR connector is typically used to terminate balanced cables with three distinct pins (a positive signal, a negative signal and a ground) and there are several advantages to using a balanced system. You’ll get lower noise, higher dynamic range and the ability to run insanely long cables without a loss in quality. Additionally the connection is solid and won’t accidentally disconnect thanks to the integrated locking system of the XLR connector. If you’re serious about audio then you need a system that can work with balanced connections. A recorder with XLR connections will cost more but it’s totally worth the money. Here’s a look at a Neutrik XX series XLR Connector: I picked up the Tascam DR-60mkII 4-channel audio recorder because it had several features that were important to me including two XLR microphone inputs. I love the form factor along with the two balanced inputs I can use to connect a pair of high quality microphones. There are several awesome features on the DR-60mkII which makes it perfect for my studio use, so I’ll put together a full review of this recorder in a future blog article.
With the Tascam DR-60mkII I have an awesome audio recorder with considerably more functionality and connectivity than what you find in an entry level portable recorder. You do give up built-in microphones, but for my use that’s not a big deal. My Tascam DR-60mkII was a perfect match for my professional grade shotgun microphone (the Senal MC-24ES) and I use it to record almost every video I create. Is it perfect? Definitely not – but when it’s priced under $200 it has no business being perfect. The audio quality is great, but it lacks liner gain controls for the inputs (you can hear stepping when you increase or decrease the input trim knobs). It’s also limited to two balanced XLR inputs and doesn’t include any way to work with timecode gear. Again, I paid under $200 for my DR-60mkII and I haven’t seen timecode capabilities in any recorder under $500, so this isn’t as much of a complaint as it is a reason to upgrade in the future.
With the Tascam recorder I can now boom a microphone just outside of my camera’s frame of view and get audio that is impossible to capture with the built-in microphones of a camera. In my studio I place my DR-60mkII close to where I’m working (on it’s own tripod) to let me start/stop the recording instead having to stand up and going to the camera. This is important because people often look better with longer lenses and that means placing the camera further from the on-screen subjects. Remember, when the microphones are further away your vocals will sound distant and there will be a lot of room ambience that will make your audio sound terrible. Here’s a look at my Senal shotgun microphone mounted on a boom arm:
Wrapping It All Up
This article was all about getting better sound and I shared some of the equipment I use, personally, when I’m making my videos. The bottom line is this: the microphones built in to most cameras are not as good as using a dedicated microphone (lavaliere, shotgun, etc.) and the audio recording capability of a camera is rarely as good as what you can get from an external recorder.
To complicate the subject there are several different types of microphones (stereo pair, shotgun, lavaliere, mid-side, etc.) and different ways to connect them to your gear (USB, 3.5mm phono, 1/4″ phono, XLR, etc.) so it’s not as simple as just going out and buying a new microphone. Beyond picking the right microphone It’s just as important to know how you use it. In other words – there’s no substitute for good technique.
An inexpensive microphone placed properly can outperform a super expensive microphone that is used wrong. It’s also important to remember that spending big money is not always a guarantee of success. I’ll take a $35 wired lavaliere microphone clipped to my shirt over a $400 microphone located across the room when it comes to capturing dialog.
Achieving maximum performance from your gear starts with good technique. Once you master your craft with inexpensive equipment, upgrading to superior gear will give you some seriously awesome results. If you can get acceptable performance from a properly placed $35 microphone just imagine how good your sound will be from a $200 microphone placed where it will work best.
In my studio I use a professional quality shotgun microphone on a boom arm as close as I can get it and I absolutely love how good it sounds. Some day I may upgrade my microphone and recorder, but right now the sound is so good (especially when compared to my camera’s built in microphones) it’s not a priority for me. The final word is this: If you want to make an improvement to your audio then it’s a great idea to invest in a good microphone and an audio recorder because improving your audio means improving 50% of your video.
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