Which Camcorder Microphone Should You Use?
Published on May 17, 2011
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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This article was last updated on March 28, 2019
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