Microphones: finding the right DSLR mic

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Some of the microphones I use in the course of my DSLR video work, from left: Sennheiser ME66 shotgun mic, Sony ECM-XM1 short shotgun mic, Shure SM58 voice mic, and Sennheiser MKE 400 shotgun mic. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Our modern DSLR cameras can shoot amazing video. This has been the biggest change in digital photography in the last 5 years—quality video is now possible with a modest investment in gear. But getting quality results requires some additional equipment, mainly in the form of a different tripod and some decent microphones. Today we’re going to look at some of the microphones for video that you might want to consider. There’s also an accompanying video that you can watch to actually hear how these various microphones sound. (I STRONGLY suggest that you use headphones or earbuds when watching/listening to the vid.)

NO SHORTCUTS

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A bunch of great microphones, from left: Sennheiser MKE 400, Sony ECM-XM-1, Shure SM58, Sennheiser ME66, Rode shock mount (top right) and an audio ‘mini’ to standard XLR audio cable adapter. ( Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Let me go ahead and say it right here: there are no cheap, fantastic shortcuts to great audio. This really is an area in which the old cliché, You Get What You Pay For, applies in full. I have yet to find any great microphones that were cheap. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the microphones for video you might need.

SHOTGUN MICROPHONES

These are long, skinny mics that concentrate their capabilities out in front of the camera, with sound-gathering falling off the further off that axis the sound is located. This makes them great general-purpose microphones for lots of situations: you point the camera, the sound that’s recorded matches what the camera is pointed at.  You’re going to need one of these, and a way to mount it to your camera.  I have three of them that I’m going to show you:

Sennheiser ME66—this is a workhorse mic that’s been around for a long time and does a fantastic job. Long and skinny, it can be a bit difficult to mount directly to a DSLR camera, although I’ll show you how I do it with a Rode microphone shock mount:

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A Sennheiser ME66 mounted on top of a Canon DSLR with a Rode shock mount holding the mic in place using the camera’s hot shoe. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Sony ECM-XM-1 shotgun mic—a shorter version of the Sennheiser type, also a decent mic. The shorter barrel makes this an easier mic to mount and use, although you’ll still need a shock mount and an Audio Mini to XLR adapter to hook the whole rig together. I’ve found this mic can be susceptible to wind noise even with a windscreen on.

Sennheiser MKE 400—this tiny little mic is made specifically for DSLR cameras and mounts directly onto your camera’s hot shoe. The coil cord plugs directly into your camera Audio Mini jack, no adapter needed. Of all the microphones for video that tested in the shotgun group, the sound this thing generates is the cleanest to my ear. The downside: the rubber shock-mount system that’s built into this mic is flimsy. Mine has broken and so have several others amongst my staff. (I was able to epoxy mine back together, but the whole thing is just damned delicate.) In the ‘sound check’ video below I speak of reservations I’ve had about the sound quality of this mic in the past, but that’s not what I’m hearing in the test itself!

OTHER MICS TO CONSIDER

Shure SM58 Vocal Mic— This is the type of microphone you see TV people using out in the field. The thing that makes these microphones so special is the way they handle sound: they’re constructed to be most responsive to the typical frequencies of the human voice, recording these frequencies in a warm and pleasing way. Another great feature: they record the voice that’s right there in front of them but very little else. You can take one of these into a noisy environment and record an interview, and as long as the mic is close to the person that’s speaking, you’ll come away with clean audio and not too much background noise. Fantastic, actually. You’ll need an audio cable with standard XLR connectors on each end. Get a 6 ft. and a 20 ft. cable and you’ll be good to go.

Sennheiser Wireless Lavalier Microphone Set—Wireless lavs are the tiny microphones that you see TV people wear in studio and also out in the field when doing explanatory pieces. It’s a tiny mic that runs down to a small, battery-powered transmitter unit which is clipped to a belt or simply put into a pocket. The transmitter sends a signal to the camera, where a matching receiver unit picks up the signal and sends it into the camera. This stuff isn’t cheap: the Sennheiser Evolution series are the cheapest decent models out there and run about $500 per set. The frequencies are adjustable, incidentally.

SOUNDCHECK VIDEO

Now let’s see how all of these microphones actually sound! I did my ‘sound check’ of all of these mics out in my back yard, and you’ll hear some street traffic in the distance and even my dog barking at one point. But that’s all to the good: we use microphones in ‘real world’ environments all the time, so what better way to test than out in such an unfiltered place? So check out the video. It’s going to give you some things to think about.

Microphones for Video: The Discerning Photographer from Andrew Boyd on Vimeo.

CONCLUSION

So there’s my roundup of basic microphones for video for you to consider. As you can tell by listening to the sound on the video, different microphones yield strikingly different results, and sometimes the most expensive solution may not be the best solution. A surprise for me was how well the little (and cheaper) Sennheiser MKE 400 did in the sound check. Also interesting was seeing just how dramatically the Shure SM58 Vocal Mic dropped out the background noise that’s so discernible in all of the other microphones.

Finally, I know I have a bunch of TV video guys out there, and probably a few filmmakers as well. Please chime in and tell us all what you think–you guys know a ton more about this than I do! Love to hear your thoughts, guys.

Only you know what your needs are, but hopefully this has helped explain the basic audio landscape that you must figure out. Good luck!

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page ,Google+ page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

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2 Comments on "Microphones: finding the right DSLR mic"

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  1. matt rose says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I use the Sennheiser MKE400. I sometimes used an extension cable and put it on a stand to get closer to a stationary subject. It does pick up ambient background sound but I think most shotgun mics do that. The plastic sound dampening part of the mount does seem fragile but I don’t shoot video that much and keep it in a little case when not in use. I would recommend using a small piece of black photo tape to tape the foam windscreen to the housing as it easily falls off and could get lost. I had to order a new one after mine got lost.

    Here is a link to a piece on which I used it. I put it on a stand on the interview section and it was on my camera hot shoe for the rest. I think if you want carry only one mic, it is a good option.

  2. Hey Matt! Yes, I was surprised by how well the MKE 400 did in my test of mics. And at 200 bucks it’s comparatively a bargain.

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