Assemble the last location microphone kit you’ll ever need
Everyone says audio is 50-percent of video. But would you pay as much for your microphone kit as you would for your lens kit?
Producers, directors, and camera operators regularly ask me to recommend sound equipment that will deliver better audio tracks than they get with a cheap on-camera microphone, inexpensive lavaliere mic, and a small handheld recorder.
Each one is shocked at the price of the equipment I recommend. But it’s really a question of value.
Buy once, cry once
Professional location-audio equipment costs a lot of money. A very minimal kit runs about $4,000 USD. $10,000+ is more realistic for a small kit with industry-standard boom mics, two wireless systems, and a mixer/recorder.
However, audio equipment also has a much longer useful life than modern digital cameras. I’ve been through several cameras in the last few years, but I still regularly use a mixer and a couple mics I bought 15 years ago. It helps to think of the audio equipment as more like tripods than cameras.
In a series of articles I’ll help you assemble a simple location-sound kit to capture uncompromised audio quality. My recommendations won’t need to be discarded as your needs grow and change.
The key elements of a simple audio kit are microphones to capture sound, wireless systems and cables to move sound, a mixer to control sound, and a recorder to preserve sound. In this article we look at microphones and wireless systems.
Short-shotgun mics for exteriors (and some interiors)
No single microphone will capture the best audio in every situation. But a good short shotgun mic on a boom pole can cover many, especially exteriors and non-reverberant interiors. While short-shotgun mics would not be my first choice in a room with hard reflective surfaces such as concrete floors and big windows, many can work well enough in better-behaved interiors.
If you will just buy one microphone, it should probably be a short shotgun. Here are some solid choices.
The Rode NTG3 (under $700 street price) offers a worthwhile step up. The NTG3 sounds good, has a decent off-axis response so people don’t sound too weird if they’re slightly out of the mic’s sweet spot, and rejects most electrical interference, and holds up in humid conditions. It’s my least-favorite of the mics listed here, but it does its job.
I own and like the AT4073a, the predecessor to the BP4073 ($700). Both mics are a bit bright, but not in a bad way; the difference is more an issue of taste rather than quality. They don’t reject as much reverberation on live interiors as the other mics listed here. But they are solid microphones and make great exterior mics that match well with the interior-friendly Audio-Technica 4053b hypercardioid.
The CS-3e ($1450) has great reach, great rear and off-axis rejection, and works well in echoey interiors. It generates a bit more self noise than some other top-end mics, but in many real-world situations you won’t notice that. You will, however, notice and appreciate the CS-3e’s ability to capture clear dialog in noisy real-world locations such as city streets. The CS-3e is one of my all-time favorite microphones.
Schoeps CMIT 5
As you might expect, the CMIT 5 ($2200) captures that lovely Schoeps sound with good off-axis response. This mic is great in controlled or at least fairly quiet locations without loud extraneous sounds and speakers. A mic I admire and really should buy.
DPA 4017B and 4017C
The 4017B and 4017C ($1800, $1630) are transparent and have lots of reach. They’re directional as you expect from a short shotgun, but have a smooth off-axis response. They’re very light. The 4017B is about 8.3-inches long, the 4017C is only 6.1-inches; very compact. These are the hip new mics that all the cool kids are using. My limited experience with a 4017B impressed me, and trusted cranky colleagues are very happy with the 4017 line. If I don’t buy a Schoeps CMIT, I will probably buy one of these DPA mics.
Hypercardioid mics for interiors (and some exteriors)
When recording interior scenes and sit-down interviews, I prefer to work with a hypercardioid microphone. In fact, I prefer to use a hyper outside if I know I’ll be able to get the mic close to the subject (and we’re not at a noisy location where I’d want a CS-3e). Yes, there is some crossover in pickup pattern between short shotguns and hypercardioids. But in general, a good hyper offers a wide pickup pattern, smooth natural sound, and increased control over dialog and ambience balance to fit what camera captures and what the scene needs.
Audix SCX1HC or Audio-Technica 4053b
Both the SCX1HC ($500) and 4053b ($600) lower-cost hypercardioid mics have a good natural sound, but a bit of noise and less-natural off-axis response than the two mics mentioned below. You can tell when a speaker moves away from the mic’s sweet spot. But when used well, these deliver solid audio at an affordable price.
Sennheiser MKH-50 or Schoeps CMC 6 preamp with MK 41 hypercardioid capsule (AKA, CMC641)
In my world, the MKH-50 ($1200) and CMC641 ($1622) are the industry-standard hypers. And while many mixers will tout the merits of one of these microphones over the other, almost all will agree that you can get great results with either. The MKH-50 has a reputation for being more resistant to humidity, interference, and abuse. Many consider the 641 to sound a bit better and have a smooth off-axis response that offers a generous sweet spot. This is handy when speakers move around unpredictably or when you need to cover more than one person with a single mic. Both are great, but I fall into the Schoeps camp. The Schoeps 641 is my favorite microphone and the one I turn to as often as I can; it makes my work both easier and better.
Wireless audio systems
Wireless microphones are the simultaneous curse and blessing of modern video and film production. They neither sound as good as, nor do they provide the reliability of a well-positioned microphone on a boom. But modern lavaliere microphones capture and wireless transmitter-receiver systems deliver audio quality and signal reliability that’s good enough for lots of work. This especially helps when you don’t have a dedicated location audio person. However, the systems worth buying or renting aren’t cheap.
The lowest-priced wireless system that I find reliable enough for my work is the Sennheiser G3 system ($630 for the EW 112-P package with body-pack transmitter, receiver, and lavaliere mic). When used away from interfering signals and with the transmitter and receiver within, say, 100 feet of each other, they work well.
However, the ME 2 lav bundled with the G3 is the package’s weak link. A smart move is to replace that mic with a good general-purpose lav such as the Oscar SoundTech OST-801 ($125 wired for G3), Countryman EMW ($190), or Sanken COS-11D ($380). Keep the bundled ME 2 lav as a spare.
If you need better audio quality, stronger interference rejection, greater range, and improved robustness than the G3 provides for talent-to-recorder use, you can buy better wireless systems. But your G3 systems can be used to feed scratch audio to cameras, send IFB audio to crew and clients, or provide backup for your main wireless.
The (North American) industry standards
In North America, the two most common brands of professional wireless systems are Lectrosonics and Zaxcom. Both companies provide superior audio quality, fantastic after-sales support, and most significantly, and superior signal quality and integrity. This is particularly noticeable when working on locations with crowded radio-frequency interference such as press conferences, busy cities, and film sets with an increasing number of wireless devices (and faulty BNC cables). And both companies offer wireless systems that work across a wider frequency range, giving you a better chance of finding a clear frequency to transmit your audio. Clarity concerns more audio pros as the spectrum used for wireless mics gets auctioned off in the US and more crowded everywhere.
Lectrosonics LMb or Zaxcom RX200
Both Lectrosonics and Zaxcom make a wide variety of transmitters and receivers. I’ll focus on just one system for each. Both make multi-channel receivers that keep bags compact and save a bit of money. For Lectrosonics, you can combine two lower-cost LMb transmitters and a two-channel SRc receiver for about $5000. For Zaxcom, two TRXLT3 transmitters and one two-channel RX200 receiver will run around $5750. Both companies offer a wide variety of transmitters, receivers, and options. But budget at least $2500 per audio channel to buy into their latest technology.
Build a kit that will last
Microphones are a place to start building a simple location-sound kit to capture uncompromised audio quality. All of these choices currently command high resale prices, and can also be repurposed to fit your growing needs. This is equipment that I own or at least have used and that I trust.
In skilled hands, this kit we’re building can cover small documentary and corporate jobs, as well as some indie narrative films. It’s not designed for jobs capturing more than three audio sources. And frankly, if a gig has more than two or three sources, you absolutely need an experienced location-audio pro or team handling sound.
None of these choices are inexpensive, but all are worth their price. Next time, I’ll recommend specific small field mixers and compact recorders, so that the output from these mics has a place to go.
YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN THESE