As with other kinds of mature technology, microphones have been around for so long they may not be getting the respect they deserve. Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner each filed patents in 1877 for a carbon microphone. Edison won a prolonged legal battle and the patent became his alone. The basic technology of a microphone has changed little since then, but Edison would likely marvel at the many improvements made to his original design.
Basically, a microphone houses a transducer or sensor that converts sound into an electrical signal. However, the relatively simple nature of a microphone does not stop manufacturers from bragging that they make the best one on the market. The truth is, many of the major manufacturers can legitimately claim to be the best because the superiority of a microphone is truly in the ear of the beholder.
“I equate choosing a microphone to choosing a paint brush,” said Steve Savanyu, Audio-Technica director of educational services, “Just as there are different brushes for different paints, there are different types of microphones designed for specific applications.”
An array of Audio-Technica microphone models might look almost identical, but each would have a characteristic sonic signature or color, Savanyu said.
While microphones may be taken for granted in some circles, they are essential and taking on greater importance among those who are using video to document something, and in many of those cases broadcasting the video is not part of the equation, said Chris Lyons, Shure’s manager of technical and educational communications.
But while it is easier to produce HD-quality video, it is still difficult to record good sound, said Lyons, who recommends that an external microphone be used. “The best, most sophisticated cameras still don’t do well with sound on their own, but it doesn’t take a lot of expensive gear to get really good results if you use it right.”
In addition, government users should choose a wireless microphone based on its features, sound quality, durability as well as service and support. The obvious features to consider include knobs and switches, while the less obvious attributes include transmission range or frequency availability. A videographer considering a wireless system might want to mount the microphone’s receiver on the camera.
“I could have the best wireless system in the world, but if it doesn’t have a camera-mounted receiver it’s not that useful to a videographer, at least if they are doing work in the field,” Lyons said.
The main types of handheld microphones are the cardioid, or unidirectional, and the omnidirectional. Cardioid microphones, in the hands of experienced users, are suitable in noisier settings, but the sound quality is considered by some to be sterile. Omnidirectional microphones can be desirable to videographers, because those microphones pick up ambient noise that is useful in setting the scene.
Shure’s FP2Lyons said Shure’s FP wireless handheld series have all the necessary features for a full array of uses, with the FP2 models available in cardioid (SM58) or omnidirectional (VP68) versions.
In addition, the FP microphones features include automatic sync up with the receiver, a light-emitting diode indicator for control lockout, Infrared radio frequency sync, low battery indicator and audio input gain for adjustment of audio level.
A microphone feature that can only be experienced is its durability. Shure microphones go through a variety of tests, including the fabled droptest. That involves dropping several microphones at least 10 times from six feet onto a hardwood floor. “It is surprising how far they bounce when they hit the floor,” said Lyons, “the grill can get deformed and dented, but it has to keep on working.”
However, users will select a microphone for different reasons, such as weather. Bridget Broullire, station manager of Rockville 11, the government channel in Rockville, Md., said her station seeks “microphones that can handle various weather conditions [for] battling wind is always an issue.”
In addition to the weather, Broullire prefers the Shure SM58 to capture both an interviewee’s answers and a reporter’s questions. Other soughtafter features include ease of operation and long battery life, and the batteries must be easily swappable, she said.
Technica’s BP4001Audio-Technica’s Savanyu argues that a wired handheld microphone offers an attractive simplicity compared to wireless. “There are so many potential issues with wireless: batteries, interference from things you have no control over or finding an open channel and having to deal with the microphone and transmitter,” he said. “I call that cable my insurance policy.”
Savanyu recommends Audio-Technica’s BP4001 (cardioid) and BP4002 (omnidirectional). Both feature a dynamic element and a frequency response of from 80 Hz to 18,000 Hz. Responses below 80 Hz are deliberately rolled off to avoid rumble and wind noise, he said.
“In a situation where the production team is dealing with non-trained talent, who might not be well-versed on how to properly use a microphone for an interview, the omnidirectional is more forgiving because it picks up from all directions,” Savanyu said. “It will also pick up more of the background sound which will give more believability to the interview.”
In addition to the microphones being long and slender to accommodate a microphone flag, the BP4001 and BP4002 have internal shock insulation that is going to minimize handling noise by the interviewer, especially if the interviewer is wearing jewelry on their hands, he said.
Voice’s RE410Electro-Voice makes the 635A, arguably the most popular electronic newsgathering microphone in the world. A basic, wired handheld microphone— known as the Buchanan Hammer, after the Michigan town—Electro-Voice now offers a number of advancements from that venerable model, including the RE-2 transmitter, which provides extended range because of its internal wave antenna, and the RE410 condenser for low handling noise and crisp sound and off-microphone performance.
In addition, the RE-2 transmitter has a liquid crystal display feature that makes it impossible to install the battery the wrong way. The backlit display shows the group, channel, frequency, transmitter battery level, diversity operation as well as RF and audio signal level meters, as well as the battery level. The RE-2 receiver also features Auto- ClearScan that, in seconds, finds the clearest channel in the clearest group from more than 1,100 possible frequencies.
Sennheiser’s SKM 2000-XPThe Sennheiser USA SKM 2000-XP wireless handheld also features a number of advancements that Thomas Edison likely would appreciate. Its rugged metal housing contains electronic hardware that produces 20 fixed frequency bands with up to 64 compatible presets.
Frequencies are set in steps of 25 kHz, and transmitters can be configured from the receiving menu making it easier to synchronize with the receiver using an infrared interface. An auto-lock feature prevents buttons from being pressed accidentally.
Sony’s F112Focusing on durability as well as performance, Sony’s wired F112 was designed for heavy-duty field use with an emphasis on newsgathering and field production. Its metal body attaches to a recently developed omnidirectional capsule for highly sensitive voice pick-up from all directions. Frequency response is from 60 Hz to 17,000 Hz. It is designed for optimum balance when combined with a Sony wireless plug-on transmitter.
Røde’s ReporterDesigned in Australia, the Røde Reporter is omnidirectional with a transducer capsule that is internally shock-mounted for rejection of wind noise and other lowfrequency environmental noises below 70 Hz. It features a boost between 4 kHz to 10 kHz to accentuate speech. The top end is 15 kHz.
The Reporter’s anti-glare black matte finish is designed to appear discreet, on camera, and it can be used with field recorders that do not supply phantom power.
Perhaps without realizing it, viewers might judge a video product by its sound quality, therefore, using a better microphone is an easy way to upgrade, said Shure’s Lyons. “Most of the information is in the sound and there are only a few instances in which the image conveys the message,” he said. “Ideally you want to have both.”