Figure 3 shows a good cross section of the types of microphones you should be considering for your shoots. Let’s briefly identify them, and then cover the three characteristics of microphones you need to learn before buying.
Figure 3.An assortment of microphone types. Click the figure to view the full sized image in a separate browser window.
On the bottom is a handheld microphone, the Shure SM63 ($198 list) like those frequently seen on game shows and news broadcasts. As the name suggests, it’s meant to be held in your hand during operation.
When you can use a handheld microphone, it’s almost always the best alternative, with a great blend of quality and ease of use. It works well in many one or two-person shoots, or when one interviewer is talking to multiple interviewees. You can also attach them to stands for hands-free operation in speeches, concerts, and conferences.
The Shure EZB/O ($188 list) shown in Figure 3 is a boundary or surface-mount microphone. These microphones are designed to be attached to desks or stage floors to pick up sound from multiple speakers and are typically used in conference rooms and theaters.
The two lavaliere microphones shown in Figure 3 are each designed to be attached to an individual, and used hands-free. The Shure SM 11 Lavaliere ($175 list) is a “wired” lavaliere connected to the camera via cable, while the Sony Lavaliere is part of the Sony WCS-999 wireless microphone system ($149.99 list) that sends the sound over a wireless signal to a receiver mounted on the camera. Lavalieres are excellent alternatives when you have one or two individuals speaking, offering excellent quality and unobtrusive, hands-free operation. However, they’re tough to transfer smoothly from person to person during the shoot like a handheld. In addition, because they are smaller, lavalieres are less robust than handheld microphones, so typically don’t last as long.
Two microphones shown in Figure 3 that are mounted on a camera’s accessory shoe are the Sony ECM-HS1 ($69.99), which connects via an intelligent accessory shoe, and beneath it is the Sony ECM-Z27C ($149.99 list), which connects via the attached cable with a 3.5mm adapter.
While the HS1 can only work on Sony camcorders with intelligent accessory shoes, the Z37C can work with any camcorder that has an accessory shoe and a microphone port. If the camera’s microphone port doesn’t supply plug-in power, a small battery can power the Z37C.
These two Sony microphones share several characteristics. First, they are shotgun mics designed primarily to pick up sound from directly in front of the camera and eliminate sound from the sides and behind the microphone. In addition, both are monaural mics which pick up only one channel, not stereo mics like most others shown in Figure 3.
In addition to shotgun mode, you can also switch the HS1 into zoom mode, where the pattern of sound picked up by the microphone mimics the current view of the camera’s zoom lens. When the zoom lens is pulled completely back into a wide angle view, say to show an entire stage, the sound pickup pattern is also very wide. When the lens is zoomed in telephoto mode to focus on a single performer, the microphone pattern is similarly focused, eliminating all sound except that directly in front of the camera.
As we’ll see, shotgun microphones produce better sound than most camcorder microphones, but are inferior to handheld or lavaliere microphones. While generally more flexible and easier to use than the handheld or lavaliere, if quality is your primary goal, shotguns aren’t your best alternative.