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Which Camcorder Microphone Should You Use?

Which camcorder microphone should you choose? And why not just use the microphone that’s already built into your camera?

Let’s start with this last question —

Nearly every video shooter will recommend you avoid using the microphone that’s on your camera. I agree with this recommendation — unless it’s your only option, and then it’s perfectly fine.

Don’t feel like you have to wire your children with a clip-on microphone at birthday parties. (The other kids might give you strange looks, and they’ll be deserved!)

If I’m shooting spontaneous video, I’ll use the on-camera microphone a lot.

However, if I’m shooting something that’s planned, or formal, or for business, I’ll use a separate microphone to capture audio. There’s a big difference in the quality for a few different reasons.

The On-Camera Microphone’s Flaws

The microphone is in the wrong place.
The microphone placement should be near the person speaking. Frequently this is someone far from the camera. You end up picking up unwanted room noise because of the distance between the person and the microphone.

Frankly, the reason the microphone is on the camera is because it’s built for the camera person to do the talking. If you’re a parent narrating your child’s birthday party, this is perfectly fine. It will get your voice and your child’s voice (even though they’ll sound distant).

But if you’re shooting for business, you don’t want the off-camera, out-of-frame camera operator’s voice. You want the subject in the frame, so the microphone needs to be on them.

Most on-board microphones are omnidirectional.
This means they pick up sound coming from every direction. This type of of microphone is not awesome when it’s across the room because it picks up all the sound waves bouncing off the walls and ceilings. Again, I’m referring to unwanted room noise here.

Sometimes the on-board microphone is lower quality.
My experience with on-camera microphones is that they’re definitely improving, but some cameras have poor quality built-in microphones. HDSLR cameras are guilty of this.

Bad on-camera microphones can make your voice sound unnatural, empty, and flat. You don’t want that.

Anyway, it’s usually a bad idea to use your camcorder’s microphone. It’s a better idea to attach an external microphone to your camcorder.

By the way, this is one of the reasons I recommend you require any camcorder you purchase have an external microphone jack. See my post: What Camera Should You Buy?

It’s a nice convenience to record audio and video together in the same device, so make sure you purchase a video camera with an external microphone jack.

Okay, so which microphone should you choose for your camcorder? Well, there are three basic categories of microphones for video production…

The Handheld Microphone

This is your typical stick microphone.

These are great if you’re a reporter, or if you’re singing on stage. The microphone is fast and easy when you want to point it at different people’s mouths (such as in an impromptu interview).

Also, they tend to be inexpensive and rugged.

But this kind of microphone definitely has its downsides.

First, it’s a main player in the frame. It’s prominent and distracting. It’s nearly as big as your face, and it’s in the frame. There’s really no way to hide it.

Also, it takes up one of your hands. If you need the freedom to move your hands around without changing the audio quality, then this microphone might not be a good choice for your application.

(Oh, and if you do use this microphone to do an interview — don’t give it the interviewee. Make sure you’re the one holding it. Otherwise they’ll take control of the interview, and good luck getting it back from them. Also, they don’t know how the proper distance to hold it from their mouth, so they’ll blow out the viewer’s eardrums! You’ll thank me for this tip…)

The Lavalier Microphone

This is the most versatile of all microphones in my opinion, especially if it’s wireless.

A lavalier mic is also sometimes called other things, such as a lapel mic, a clip-on mic, or a lav mic. They’re all the same thing.

I have a love-hate relationship with lavalier microphones. I love the freedom of being able to walk around and use wild hand gestures. I love how small and insignificant they are in the frame. I love how you have a tendency to forget about them, and how non-intimidating they are.

But I hate how expensive they are, and how they tend to have poor sound quality for the money you spend.

It’s too bad, really. You have to spend A LOT of money to get decent audio quality from a lav mic. I’ve personally purchased several different models, and I’m not 100% happy with any of them. And they continue to get more and more expensive as I work my way up the model price range. I’m hoping that eventually I’ll find a happy medium.

Still, because they’re so versatile, nearly every video shooter will find they need lavalier microphones in their audio kit.

The Shotgun Microphone

This shotgun microphone is my favorite type of microphone for video, but it too has its downsides.

First, what’s to like? Well, the audio quality is excellent. You can spend a lot, but even a mid-range shotgun microphone captures excellent audio quality.

Also, it’s usually out of the frame (above or below the frame, pointing at the subject’s mouth). When you can’t see the microphone in the frame at all, it helps especially in narrative situations where you definitely don’t want to see a mic in the frame.

Also, a shotgun microphone is highly directional so it helps focus the audio recording on what you want to record, instead of capturing everything all around you.

Naturally something this awesome needs some downsides. Well, in this case, the main one is that you frequently need a second person to help you, because they hold the microphone above the subject’s head.

The shotgun mic is usually mounted on a boom pole, but you can also use a pistol grip (such as the one I show in the video) and just point the mic toward a person’s mouth.

When you need a second person with you, just for sound, that can make things more expensive, and less convenient.

Still, if you can get someone to hold the mic for you, I highly recommend you use a shotgun microphone. Personally I own two shotgun microphones: the Sennheiser ME66 and the Sennheiser MKH416 (the better of the two).

Which Camcorder Microphone Should You Use?

Again, that depends on what you’re shooting. But if you’re a video shooter who needs to be versatile, you might find that you need to own all three types of microphones.

Or you can own the ones you use the most, and then rent the others. Sometimes people forget about this option.

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21 thoughts on “Which Camcorder Microphone Should You Use?

  1. Great tips..

    Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Omran. I’m glad you like them. :)

  2. Aren’t you supposed to put some suggestive abstract as your YouTube poster frame?  ;-P

    1. I don’t imagine that would be ideal for my audience. LOL! ;-)

  3.  Thanks Izz.
    Major important topic well produced.

  4. Hi Izzy. Thanks for this video! I have a shotgun that mounts on my camera… it’s fine when I need something
    quickly or unexpectedly. Most of the time, I am shooting interviews in controlled situations. I have always been told to use Lavaliers…. are you suggesting shotguns with boom poles are better for these types of interviews? Thanks, Katherine

    1. Hi Katherine,

      Yes, in my opinion a shotgun is better to use if someone is not moving around. That said, most video shooters will use both. They’ll have a shotgun mic and a lavalier mic, with each running into separate channels. That way you can blend the two channels in post and get the best of both worlds.

      It changes, but I find that 60% shotgun with 40% lav can sometimes get good results.

      I hope that helps! :)

      1. Thanks, Izzy. 

  5.  Excellent article! Thank you. I would just like to add that I use the Zoom H2 Digital voice recorder for my videos. Since I do cooking videos, I have a very controlled environment. I am usually talking to the camera and the Zoom H2 picks up the sound well. I however, have to sync it up in post production. It is a bit of a pain, but I have gotten a technique down. The Zoom H2 is a very cost effective option for the emerging film maker.

    1. There is a wonderful little plug-in that you might like to try called Plural Eyes. It syncs up the audio for you. I virtually always do multi-camera shoots, I really appreciate the time and frustration it saves me. There is a one month free trial without any limitations that you might like to try.

  6. Izzy – Have you looked at the little Zoom Q3hd video recorder with built in stereo audio?  Curious if you are a fan or not.  Thank you for your ongoing presence and expertise…  Mike Davis

  7.  Great video again!
    Thank you Izzy!I will show it in our videoclub next season. (if I may do that).

  8. What is the best way to capture quality audio in an outdoor/windy environment? Thanks for the tips!

    1. Hi Justin,

      I’ve covered this topic in the membership videos. If you’re a member, just
      bring up the “audio” category in the member’s area.

      If you’re not a member, you should look into it:

      http://www.izzyvideo.com/membership

      Basically, it requires microphone accessories such as a blimp and/or wind
      screens. These accessories protect the microphone from the wind. Also, it’s
      a good idea to place your subject between the microphone and the wind
      source. This can help block the wind too.

      Thanks!

      Izzy

  9. Great intro to microphones. This topic is so deep, it is hard to know what to leave out. The condenser mic is a very important piece of my kit. Some rooms are so bright (acoustically) that shot guns make it worse, a condenser mic works very well. You also get better sound for the same price if you compare it to a shotgun. Wired or wireless? There is another question. Mixer? Field recorders? You gave a good intro but people should know how important it is and how much training and skill it takes to get it right. 

  10. Great post! Have a few questions. I recently just got a Canon 60D and I’m trying to figure out what kind of audio route to go. I do a lot of interview videos and I also shoot sporting events, so a lot of movement but I’m not keying on a specific person when it comes to audio. The thing is my Canon has a mic jack slot and I’m not sure if I should buy an audio converter box from audio jack to XLR? So one big question I have is should I buy an audio converter box so that I can have more access to XLR mics with my camera? I guess once I know your advice on that then I can start looking for mics. Thanks!

    1. Most people use a separate audio recorder with their Digital SLR (such as the Canon 60D). Even though there’s an audio input, the audio-recording capabilities are not excellent.

      If you’re already a member, you should definitely check out all the videos in the members library on the subject. I show the equipment I use…

  11. you answered ALL my questions about mics in an easy to understand way, thanks so much! I’ll have to check out this website ;)

  12. […] the way, a camera-mounted shotgun mic is often sufficient for these kinds of interviews because the camera is quite close to the […]

  13. I’m looking to film speeches as well as some discussion panels at conventions. What mics would be best for that? Is a camera mounted shotgun mic significantly better than the on camera mic or do you have to get it near the speakers? How near do you need to get it and what options do I have to do so?

    1. The mic has to be very close to the subject. The good thing about discussions panels is that they usually have mics for the audience to be able to hear the panelists through the loud speakers. You can sometimes hook directly into the house mixing board.

      If you don’t have those, you need the mic to be up on the person speaking, a lav mic on their clothes, or a handheld mic or something. An non-camera mic won’t work because the mic is far away from the person speaking.

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