Articles about recording audio with camcorders usually jump into a discussion about various types of microphones. I think they ignore one of the most important accessories you can add to your video setup. It isn’t something that records sounds; it does quite the opposite—a pair of headphones.
You need to be able to monitor what’s recorded. If your camcorder supports monitoring while recording, a pair of headphones allows you to hear the audio and determine if you’re sending too much (or not enough) signal to the camera.
Many camcorders have audio-level displays that simulate audio meters on a mixing board. However, these displays often are small and react slowly to fast- changing audio signals, and the level display tells you nothing about the quality of the audio. If someone is speaking, it doesn’t tell you if they can be understood. Headphones allow you also to hear whether background noise is drowning out the audio you’re trying to record.
While you can use small earbud-style headphones, those that cover the ear and block out external noise are a much better solution.
Headphones are great even if you just use your camera’s built-in microphone. The microphone is another important consideration. If you opt to capture sound with the built-in mic, know where it’s located. Keep your hands away from it so you don’t record the sounds of your fingers on the camera body. This microphone may pick up buttons or switches you engage, so try to make adjustments before you start shooting.
When you use a built-in microphone, get as close to your subject as possible. Don’t forget that the distance between subject and mic changes as you walk away. If you stand 25 feet away from your subject and zoom in, you’re still 25 feet from the sound source. If you need to stay far away from your subject, consider other options.
If your camcorder has an external mic input or “active” accessory shoe, your audio options definitely increase.
There are three microphone traits that are commonly discussed:
1. How is the microphone mounted?
The usual options are handheld, camera-mounted and lapel-mounted.
2. What is the coverage or directionality of the microphone?
This refers to how the mic picks up sound coming from different directions. Some terms used are omnidirectional, bidirectional and shotgun.
3. Does the mic require power, either from a battery or from the camera?
At first, the options may seem overwhelming; in reality, unless you purchase an expensive professional microphone, the first two traits are combined. For example, a camera-mounted microphone usually has a shotgun style of pickup; a handheld microphone has something closer to omnidirectional.
It might be easier to consider your microphone choices in the same way you’d select lenses for a camera. A shotgun microphone is like a telephoto lens. It has a narrow pickup pattern and is useful for recording more distant sounds.
A lapel or lavaliere microphone is like a macro lens, getting close to your subject and minimizing distracting background noise. Lastly, a handheld mic is similar to a standard lens, useful in many situations as long as you place the microphone close to the subject. But to carry the lens analogy a little further, recognize that with a few exceptions, none of these microphones is a zoom—the pickup pattern doesn’t change.
Next, consider how a microphone is powered. Unless your camcorder is capable of powering a microphone (check your manual), you’ll need to stick with battery-powered mics or “dynamic” mics that don’t require power.
Before you run out to buy a microphone, do some homework about your camcorder. What type of connector does the external mic jack use? Most likely it’s a 1?8-inch mini. Is it mono or stereo? This is just as important as the connector size. Connecting a mono plug into a stereo jack will give you problems.
Your camcorder may have a hot-shoe (similar to an external flash attachment on a still camera) that allows you to mount an external microphone onto the camcorder.
The hot-shoe also has electrical contacts to pass audio from the mic to the camcorder. Unfortunately, there’s no universal standard for this accessory shoe, so verify that the external microphone will work with your specific camera.
While I usually joke that the audio is the squeaky part of the picture, in reality, it can be just as important as the moving image. TV stations know that they’re less likely to lose viewers if they have “technical difficulties” involving loss of picture with the sound intact, than if they lose the sound but not the picture. While your audience may be captive, they’ll appreciate your attention to the sound in your movies.