Mics come in several different varieties and knowing them will help you pick the right one for the job in making your videos. You can’t just use any mic and get the best results, so choose wisely.
If you cruise to your favorite mic store or website, you’ll find an outrageous array of mics to choose from. Why so many mics? Good question. Apart from the competitive spirit of mic brands, every mic serves a different function. Just like a great lens, mics help you capture the right sounds to record.
Before we jump into which mic you should get, let’s talk a little bit about the categories mics come in. Warning! This is going to be like an episode of Bill Nye Science Guy, so if all the technical stuff bores you, just jump down to CHOOSING YOUR MIC.
MICS – POWERED OR UNPOWERED
For some of you, it might be surprising to hear that some mics need power. Should you go get an extension cord? Nope! Actually, please don’t. Seriously.
Unpowered mics, or dynamic mics as the studio engineers call them, are what you typically see outside of the studio environment. That’s because they’re more durable and cheaper. This is what you see most live music using.
Dynamic mics are great at handling abuse. Those end of speech mic drops… perfect for dynamic mics. They also handle really loud volumes like the 13-year-old screemo kid trying out his mom’s mascara. But, that comes at a price. They aren’t as accurate and sensitive as the other kind of mic…
The powered or condenser mic is more like a refined wine. Think of it like the grandpa who loves Chopin and will only listen to it on those old vinyl records. Condenser mics require what’s called phantom power, which sounds sinister but is actually harmless. Most preamps have a switch to send power to condenser microphones through the XLR cable.
Condenser mics are generally more sensitive (like Grandpa) but they are also more accurate. If you’re recording something with less volume or that has subtle sounds, a condenser mic is probably better.
Review: Just to help you remember:
- Dynamic Mic = Invincible Screamo Kid
- Condenser Mic = Sensitive Classical Grandpa
MICS – PICKUP PATTERNS
Contrary to popular belief, pick up patterns are not the way mics try to find other mics at bars (ba dum dum). The pickup pattern for a mic is just how close you need to get to record a sound.
Pickup patterns, or polar patterns in the studio world, come in three basic varieties:
Omni (omni-directional) microphones pick up sound from every direction. Some of them are designed to hear sounds from really far away, but most will become louder the closer you are to the source of the sound.
Cardioid mics limit sounds that are farther away or, in some case, in the wrong direction. This is helpful if you’re in a louder environment and want to only pick up a single source of sound, instead of everything.
Cardioids come in a couple of varieties too. A hyper-cardioid mic is even tighter or closer than the pickup pattern of a cardioid. Super-cardioid mics are even more directional. These are sometimes called shotgun mics (I don’t really know why, except that they’re really long). A shotgun mic is what you see on movie sets where the person is holding a mic on a pole above someone’s head.
Cardioid mics are great for video because you can control sound better. They reject sound from one direction and pick up sound from your source. That’s why a lot of videos use shotgun mics.
Bipolar mics are not like your cousin who has manic/depressive episodes. Instead, they are like a cardioid mic that has a pattern like a figure eight. So they pick up two sources at opposite ends of the mic. This is useful for interviews or mic sharing, but really isn’t very useful. If you’re in a tight spot, you can use a bipolar mic, but it’d be much better to use two mics.
CHOOSING YOUR MIC
Finally, let’s get to choosing a mic. Just like using a hammer or a screwdriver, or for your ladies foundation or concealer, choosing the right mic will help you get the best results.
Most people making videos should start with a lapel, or lavalier mic simply because they’re cheap. You can get a lapel mic for around $20 and just plug it into a smartphone. Instant wireless mic.
The second mic most people should get is the best shotgun mic they can afford. Why? They accomplish the two biggest challenges in video – they reject unwanted sound and pick up sounds from farther away.
You can still use a shotgun mic at close range, so basically, you get a mic that works from farther away and a mic for close-ups. If you can spring for the money, get a condenser shotgun mic. They’re more sensitive and will pick up more sound from farther away.
Tip. Not all shotgun mics are created equal. There are a lot of on-camera shotgun mics that aren’t that good. Shotgun mics use physics to get the pickup pattern right, so you can look for how long they are. Generally, longer is better (get your mind out of the gutter. this is serious).
If I have a choice between a $200 on-camera mic that’s 6 inches and a $250 shotgun mic that’s 12 or more inches, I will always take the second one. It’s just going to work better. It’s worth mentioning, those on-camera mics are convenient, but they make up for their lack of size by making everything louder which makes many of them really noisy.
Anything beyond those two mics is just upgrading in my opinion. You can get wireless lapels to make them easier to use. You can get more or better shotgun mics, but those are the ones most filmmakers will use.
If you do a lot of explainer videos, where you’re sitting at a desk, you can still use your shotgun mic, but it might be more economical to just get a desktop mic.
A quick word about connecting your mic to your video. You have choices with some mics. Standard on-camera mics usually use a 1/8″ jack (looks like a standard headphone jack). Some microphones, like the Blue Yeti, can connect directly to a computer.
Most pro level mics use an XLR plug that looks like a mic cable plug with three dots forming a triangle. If you’re using a condenser, you will likely want to use a mic preamp or mic pre. This makes a huge difference. Some people pay thousands of dollars just for a mic pre.
Now you should now enough to select your mic. Get out there and play with some and see what you can do. You’ll be amazed at the difference just a little attention to you audio can make.
I’m going to be posting every Thursday about audio for video. You might want to consider subscribing so you don’t miss out on how to use the mic you choose.
I also have a great resource you can download on how to keep your videos from sucking. If your like me, you made some sucktastic videos. Get this resource and unsuck them.