The author shoots with the Shure VP83F at Great Falls Park in Potomac. Md. (Photo by Mary Ellen Dawley)
Cameras get all the attention, but good audio makes the difference between an average video and a great video. When budgeting for production equipment—especially in budget-challenged government agencies—it’s common to go for the gold with cameras and scrimp for the tin in microphones and other audio equipment. However, to use a visually oriented cliché, scrimping on audio gear would be short-sighted.
That’s why I was delighted to review Shure’s interesting and small new shotgun mic, the VP83F LensHopper. Although the mic’s list price is $436, its typical street price is around $350.
Shure’s new LensHopper mic comes in two related versions. One is the VP83, which is a microphone only and does not have a recorder. The other is the VP83F, which has a built-in digital recorder. Both versions output mic-level signals on a 3.5mm connector that plugs into a standard 3.5mm jack on zillions of affordable video camcorders.
Both versions of the LensHopper have a standard mount that slides into a camera’s hot shoe, and both come with built-in windscreens, shock-mounts and a “shotgun” mic element that measures only 4.5 inches long. Both versions use the same condenser mic element, which is powered by a single AA battery in the VP83 and two AA batteries in the VP83F.
Of course, the VP83F has something that the VP83 does not: a built-in digital audio recorder. That means that the VP83F can record high-quality audio at the same time it is feeding audio into the camera’s mic input, giving you automatic audio backup during a shoot.
Recordings on the VP83F are saved as uncompressed 24-bit WAV files sampled at 48 kHz, so the quality is quite high—better than CD-quality audio. Both LensHopper mics come with a coiled 3.5mm cable that is about 12 inches long unstretched and about 24 inches stretched. The VP83F, since it has a built-in recorder, also has a headphone jack on the base, just above the hot shoe mount.
I already mentioned that the two LensHopper mics have a mount that slides into a camera’s hot shoe, but they also have a standard 1/4-inch screw hole on the underside of their mounts. That means that the mic can be attached to a tripod or other standard camera support device.
I received the VP83F, which weighs around 8 ounces (225 g) loaded and ready to record. The unit records on a microSD card, which mounts under a door at the front of the mic. The VP83F’s two AA batteries load in the same location, just under the microSD slot.
On the back of the mic’s body, facing the operator, is a control panel with two buttons, a small joystick control and teeny-weeny LCD display for setup and readout. The mic comes with two AA batteries, but does not come with a microSD card. The VP83F will work with cards up to 32 GB, and it uses memory at the rate of about 1 GB for every two hours of audio.
Despite having tiny controls and LCD display, the VP83F takes a bit of setting up to get the levels right for recording and headphone output. If you are a certain age or older (and you know who you are!), you will need reading glasses to see the small LCD display. There is a bit of space for a larger display, and I wish Shure had built in something just a little bigger.
Making initial adjustments, then later adjusting levels on the fly in the field, were simple enough once I climbed the short learning curve. I must admit that, after several uses and a few hours of recording, I never did quite get the hang of stopping the built-in recorder. I could pause it and I could turn the mic on and off, but never was sure how to stop recording without checking the manual.
Shure describes the electret condenser mic element as “supercardiod,” which is perhaps a notch down from “shotgun” in the directionality department. Compared to a MUCH longer shotgun mic that I have, the Shure VP83F did not have quite the same reach or side-rejection capability, but we’re talking about the difference between a 4.5-inch mic (the LensHopper) and an 11.5-inch mic (my traditional shotgun).
That size difference works for the VP83F as well, as mounting it on a camera is far less awkward than using a long shotgun. For one thing, the small Shure LensHopper never got into my wide video shots the way that my traditional shotgun mic often does. The VP83F’s sound quality and directionality is quite good, too. It recorded clear, natural sound from interview subjects that ranged from 3 to 6 feet from mic.
I used the VP83F on several shoots, both for interviews and for nature sounds. It does a good job with both, supplying crisp and clear interview audio with a natural balance of bass.
In one shoot, I interviewed both a man and a woman near loudly roaring river rapids, and the VP83F punched both voices out of the noisy background. One of the features in the setup menu is a low-cut filter that rolls off below 170 Hz. That helped to mute the river’s roar and bring up the voices.
MORE INFO MODEL: Shure VP83F LensHopper
LIST PRICE: $436
Using the Shure mic on several one-man-band shoots, the simple technique was to record the audio on my camera and not bother with the mic’s internal recorder. However, one shoot involved a speaker at a podium, whom I shot with two cameras. Instead of putting the VP83F on a camera and shooting from 15 feet away, I got out a tiny tabletop tripod and screwed the mic to it. I then placed the tripod on the podium and started the mic’s internal recorder.
With its small size, the Shure VP83F was not distracting, and it recorded perfect sound. All I had to do was spend an extra minute during editing to sync up the sound with what the camcorder captured. I got clear voice without any distracting room ambience, exactly what I wanted.
I did another shoot in an auditorium where I was about two-thirds of the way back in the room. The on-stage presenter was amplified, and the VP83F gave me pleasant, intelligible audio without a tiring amount of room ambience.
Compared to my much longer traditional shotgun mic, the Shure VP83F didn’t quite have the same reach. One other drawback of the VP83F is that it cannot be angled or pointed in its shockmount—it points only straightforward. The mount for my shotgun can be pointed, and the traditional shotgun can be easily handheld as well.
As I mentioned earlier, the VP83F has a 3.5mm consumer-style connector. It’s actually a tip-ring-sleeve (three-conductor) connector, and it has identical audio on the tip and ring contacts. In other words, it is a monaural microphone, but it supplies the same monaural audio on the left and right channels when plugged into my camera’s stereo input. Having a stereo mic would be nice—lacking that, it’s good to have identical audio on the left/right channels.
One very good feature of the VP83F is that you can set its volume to compensate for either low or high ambient audio levels. This mic level setting is independent of the headphone jack level, so you can lower the mic audio without changing the loudness that you get in the headphones. It’s surprisingly easy to adjust both mic and headphone levels in the field—it’s quite a capable device.
If you are using a small camera that doesn’t scream “I’m a professional!,” the Shure VP83F LensHopper is a shotgun mic that will allow you to continue to fly under the professional radar. Although it looks unusual, it won’t immediately flag you as being a news or documentary crew.
Like any shotgun mic, it will let you get good run-and-gun sound from an interviewee standing at a comfortable distance. The big benefit of the VP83F is its internal recorder, which provides both backup audio, as well as enabling the mic to work as a completely independent recording system.
The Shure VP83F is a good-sounding shotgun mic that’s well made and easy to handle. With its built-in recorder, it adds a new dimension to field audio capture that makes it more flexible than a traditional shotgun mic.