SciCast – Film School

Gear — Sound

We’ve lost count of how many otherwise-excellent SciCast films are ruined by their soundtracks. Specifically, by the viewer not being able to hear what people are saying.

It’s no great surprise, though, as the built-in microphones on most cameras will only get you so far. About three metres, actually — that’s the typical working range of the things, if you’re lucky. If your camera doesn’t have a microphone socket, there’s not a whole lot you can do to fix this. But if it does, you’ll want to look at microphones.

Lapel Mics

Even a cheap microphone can make a huge difference. The first option you should consider is a lapel mic, a ‘lavalier’. These are the ‘tie clip’ microphones you see newsreaders wear, and wired versions can be had for around £35 (here’s one example). These things pick up beautifully clear sound from the person wearing them, and will cope well enough with somebody standing right next to them too.

They have very limited range, however: they’ll sound muffled if whoever’s speaking is more than a metre or so away. We’re big fans of — don’t laugh, now — taping them to broom handles and holding them above your performers’ heads, using them like professional boom microphones. It looks ridiculous, but works far better than it has any right to.

They’re not perfect, of course. Lapel mics aren’t directional in the least, so you’ll pick up lots of background noise from all around. They’re also rubbish outdoors, where even the faintest whisper of wind will drown out your performers. And finally… you’ll trip over the cable.

But the cheapest way of turning a decent film into a great one is to record the sound well, and a wired lapel mic will do the job in most circumstances. It’ll also allow you to get the microphone very close to the subject, picking up detail you wouldn’t know was there until you listened. An excellent example of this is the water droplets film, which was recorded with a cheap lapel mic. The deliciously crunchy crackling sounds of the boiling water really add to the film.

Wireless lapel mics

‘Radio mics’: these are exactly like the wired models, only with a radio transmitter attached and a receiver unit you cable to your camera. You may already have a set of these for school performances, in which case you’re all set — just make sure you have lots of spare batteries.

If not, radio mics don’t come cheap. Well, they do, but the ones that work aren’t cheap. Sennheiser and Sony are good brands, but the ranges start at a few hundred pounds for a set. Ouch.

Shotgun mics

You can get camera-mounted accessory microphones for domestic cameras, usually directional ‘shotgun’ style designs, from around £60. You get what you pay for, though — we’ve tried cheap Audio-Technika Pro24CM and ATR6250 mics and they’re delightfully dinky, but their output levels are so low they barely qualify as microphones. We had a lovely-sounding Sennheiser MKE300, but they’re a bit flimsy and it didn’t last very long. We’re currently hankering after the Røde VideoMic range, but they’re costly.

There’s also the problem that a microphone mounted on the camera is closer to your hands moving around than it is to the person who’s speaking. Guess which is going to sound louder?

When you see the professionals using shotgun mics, they dangle them from big boom poles, right over the head of the performer — and that works. You’re achieving something similar when you tape your £35 lapel mic to its broom handle, but without the directional sensitivity that makes shotgun mics so special.

Proper shotguns tend to use a type of connector, called ‘XLR’, that simply doesn’t work with domestic cameras, but there is one exception — Røde’s NTG-2. You can power it off an AA battery and hook it up to a standard 3.5mm jack socket; it works brilliantly. The downside? The list of bits you need tots up to about £250-worth. It’s the best sound you’ll find, though: contact us if you’d like a shopping list.


If you’re using a proper mic, you ought to listen to the sound to make sure it’s working. Traditionally, the sound recordist is a different person to the camera operator, and it’s worth following that pattern — it’s a responsible job. You also start to notice the world in a different way, and that’s an experience worth sharing.

Any old headphones will get you started: iPod earbuds are as good as anything, though the cable’s a bit short. If you’re buying, Sennheiser PX100s (£30 on the high street) are brilliant value, though again the cable’s a bit short.

Zi8 Problems

Back on the Cameras page, we sang the praises of the Kodak Zi8, partly because it has a socket for external microphones. Trouble is… it’s very picky about the input levels it can handle. We could have sworn ours used to work with the wired lapel mic we linked to above, but it doesn’t any more; the cheap Audio-Technika mics we mentioned don’t produce a signal it likes, either.

We’ve managed to hook it to our big professional Røde NTG-2 and Sennheiser radio mics, but they each cost several times what the camera did. Crazy. Drop us a line if you find a cheap microphone that works well with it, we’d love to hear!

One last thing: the Zi8 has an audio input, but there’s no headphone socket. So you can’t hear what you’re recording until you play it back. Annoying.

Recording after the event

If you’ve read this far, you’ll have gathered that recording sound is as much of an art as shooting the pictures is. There’s one really smart work-around that can save you a lot of grief — don’t even try. Instead, plan and shoot your film so the sound you capture isn’t critical, then record voice-over or even dialogue later. The microphone on a laptop computer is usually rather good, as long as you don’t bang the table, and you can do as many takes as you need until you get it right.

Not always possible, but a clever work-around when you can.

Dual-system audio

OK, now we’re getting tricksy: if your camera can’t record decent sound, give up, and record the sound on something that can. Tape something like a Zoom H1 (from £75) to that broom handle we keep going on about, or hide it under a table near your performers. Record sound on that, and take really careful notes about which recording on the camera matches which recording on the audio recorder. Then match them up in your edit software.

Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen? You’re absolutely right. Yet this is what hundreds of professional productions all over the world do, and it’s an approach that’s come back into fashion thanks, in part, to the number of cameras out there that are rubbish with audio. We won’t say it’s easy, though.