Using External Microphones

If you read my post about External Microphones, you’ll remember that I left you with a new mic and no idea how to use it! Time to remedy that fact. Get comfortable in your computer chair, because I’m starting now.

I left you with a note that a shotgun microphone is probably the best for a beginner, but I didn’t tell you why. The reason comes from ease of use. As I learned the hard way on iSundae, jumping headlong into the world of multiple microphones and mixers is not for the first time mic user. You’re better off with a good shotgun mic and a converter cable to get it to your camera.

A lot of sound quality comes from how you hold the microphone. With any microphone, you want to point it right at where the sound is coming from. In most cases this is your actor’s mouth. You’ve probably figured out that this means that somebody will have to hold the microphone. You’re right! “But how do I hold it?” you ask. Well, I’ll tell you.

First of all, never, never, never set the microphone on the ground. Have you ever put your ear on the ground and listened? No? Go try it. I’ll wait (it works better on hard floors). Okay, you’re back. Notice that your hearing is amplified? You can hear anything that touches that floor. So can your microphone. Get the picture? Memorize that, folks. It’s probably one of the best sound rules you can know.

The pros have special poles for getting the microphone off the ground and right over the actor’s head. They call them “boom poles” and sell them for bundles of money that almost nobody on a budget can afford. Let me tell you a secret: Those “boom poles” are just glorified broom handles! Go to the hardware store and buy a paint pole, a paint roller, and a roll of duct tape (better yet, go to a musician’s supply store and buy some gaffer’s tape, which is more expensive, but it does a better job). Take the rolling part off of the roller, screw what’s left to your paint pole, and tape your mic to what was the paint roller. Ta-da! Instant boom pole. The second picture is of my custom boom pole that I made out of some discarded microphone stands. It has the advantage of not having to tape the mic to it. I bring this up to point out that all the pole has to do is raise your mic off the ground. It can be whatever you like!

Boom Pole My Boom Pole

Of course, a boom pole is not always practical. This is when you take the mic off the pole and hold it. Find somebody (like you!) who is passionate for good audio to do this, because they’ll probably have to crouch or lie on the floor or ground for take after take. Strong legs are a plus, too. Just make sure you point the microphone at the actor’s mouth. Also, don’t move your fingers (this applies to boom poles too)! This makes a drumming noise that is not only nasty-sounding, but also a pain to remove.

For both of these applications, the microphone operator should be moving the mic to follow the audio. This means that if an actor is walking, he must follow them (quietly!). If there are two actors in the scene, he should be moving the mic to point at the one who is talking. This takes practice, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right on the first take. Make sure that somebody is wearing headphones to monitor the sound, and test the sound before you start shooting. Testing is quite simple. Plug in the mic, plug in some headphones, put the actors where they will be, and tell them to talk in normal voices. You’ll know when you need to get closer.

How close should you get with the mic? As close as you can without getting in the shot. You’ll have to decide which method works best for the particular set. Don’t worry, it comes easy with practice (notice a pattern?).

My Microphone StandOne last thing. You may see some microphone stands advertised and think, “I can’t afford $50 for a pole on a base!” Neither can I. Here’s the stand my dad cooked up out of spare parts. Again, the point here is to show that you can improvise almost everything but the cables and microphone. You don’t have to settle for the expensive glorified broom handles that they sell to pros. Make it up and have fun doing it!

If you got anything out of this discussion, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and tell us about your microphone adventures.

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