A Key To Improving Your Video — Get Good Audio

October 15, 2009

 

By ROB SHEPPARD 

Video has gotten a lot of attention lately, especially now that nearly all still cameras include high-quality video capture. Many non-TV news organizations are expanding its use for possibilities on the web. Adding video to your own skills can make you more marketable in today's world. And it can give subject matter and interviews a sense of immediacy and reality that no other media can offer.

One of the keys to good video is good audio. Audio is often given less attention because you don't "see" it while shooting. The camcorder doesn't necessarily make audio easy to record or check, especially compared to the visual part of video. Yet it is often said in the video and film industries that good audio makes the visuals look better.

You could spend a lot of money on audio gear, and if you were going into full-time documentary production with high-end production values, you might need to do that, or at least hire a good audio person who brings his or her own gear. But most journalists today who are exploring video are looking to it as a way of expanding their capabilities and cannot afford to invest a great deal of money in gear.

The low-priced camcorders available today are very good, but one thing to keep in mind is that at the less-expensive level of camera, you will find mixed acceptance by broadcasters. And if the audio is poor or worse, then the acceptance of that video becomes unlikely.

If you are mainly going to the web, an inexpensive but good camera will be fine. But you still need quality audio. There are four basic ways of recording audio:

  • Built-in camera mike
  • Handheld mike
  • Lavalier mike
  • Shotgun mike

Let's get rid of the first one right away. If you want good audio, forget about a built-in microphone. Such microphones cannot be placed or aimed properly and they pick up camera motor noise as well as any handling noise. This is one serious shortcom- ing of some digital SLRs that now record video. And when buying a video camera, be sure you can add an external mike.

A handheld mike gives the look of a traditional news journalist, but it can be hard to use for interviews if you have no experience with it. It also looks really odd when held with a disembodied hand in front of an interview subject, and it looks pretty dorky if the interview subject is holding the mike.

The best audio solutions for most on-the-run video shooters are lavalier and shotgun mikes. You will find excellent models from Sennheiser and Audio-Technica in a range of prices. Azden also offers many lower-priced models that work quite well. Low-priced camcorders will have a simple mike jack, usually a mini-plug, which can be fine. High-end camcorders will use professional audio gear with XLR-plugs that include some special electronics — be sure you get a microphone with plugs that fit your camera.

A lavalier mike is a small microphone that clips onto the subject's collar or shirt near their face. Wireless is convenient, but can be problematic in some locations, whereas a wired mike that plugs directly into the camera will always give good sound. Lavalier mikes are very good in noisier locations as they can be placed close to the sound source (the interview subject, for example).

I find a shotgun mike is excellent for anyone who needs to shoot quickly and easily all by themselves. A shotgun mike can give excellent audio quality and you are not dealing with a lot of cords. You attach it to your camera and its narrow angle of audio acceptance can give you excellent audio with most subjects. The biggest thing to watch here is the recording environment. Sometimes a slight change in mike placement (which might be camera placement with a shotgun mike) will have a huge difference in sound. You may also have to get closer to your subject. Canon and Panasonic make a couple of excellent, inexpensive shotgun mikes, plus Sennheiser has a good little one, too.

A very important addition to your tools if you want good audio is a good set of earphones. This also implies that it is very helpful to have an earphone jack on your camera! The sound from your camera's tiny speaker is not going to tell you what your audio is really like. Only by listening to what your microphone is actually "hearing" can you tell what your audio really sounds like. This can be a huge help in deciding on an interview location or microphone placement. A number of manufacturers make good, small headsets, including noise-canceling earphones that will help you better hear your audio. I have a pair of Sony noise-canceling earphones that are easy to carry, reasonably priced and work well.

Rob Sheppard worked in professional video production for many years before becoming editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and a group editorial director at Werner Publishing. He helped start PCPhoto (now Digital Photo) and HDVideoPro magazines. Now he works independently and video is an important addition to his capabilities.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue.

ROB SHEPPARD