Sound Advice: Using the Camera Microphone

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Most of you consider yourselves visual professionals, and as such may have little concern for capturing good audio. Yet I'll wager that many of you find yourself increasingly wrestling with sound, and probably wondering how best to deal with it. It might be rich content in an article you are writing, or audio for a video, or your latest YouTube rant. In any case, as media formats converge, a basic working knowledge of all aspects of content production become essential. This column will demystify that process and help you to get what you need.

It may seem odd to bring you this very first article about such a specific topic as using the camera microphone, but there is an audio crisis out there in the videosphere, and this is an excellent way to get you thinking in audio, and I'd rather hit you right away with something you've probably already encountered.

This piece should really be called: "OMFG, Stop Using the Camera Mic" because the truly awful dialog sound that is associated with far too many videos is almost always due to the wrong-headed use of the "on-board" camera microphone. Raise your hand if you have done that. It's not that you should never, ever use that microphone, but relying upon it for your audio on-location, especially talking (dialog) is a big mistake that will ruin your show.

Take a few minutes (now would be a good time), and go to YouTube or a similar venue and listen to the shows posted there. You will find folks talking to camera in close-up shots, but sounding like they are five, ten, or a hundred feet away, which they probably are. I will never forget seeing the video with the guy doing an instruction video about an expanding garden hose. He speaks to the camera from three feet away, and then keeps talking while he walks to the other end of his yard and becomes completely inaudible. It was funny, but truly painful to watch. Don't be that guy. The audience for these shows feels disconnected from the person on-screen and as a result they are uninterested in the message being delivered. Although viewers probably cannot articulate why the show does not resonate with them, they will simply tune out.

For recording sound on location, there are two fundamental truths to grasp. You can apply either of these approaches, although I would urge you to seriously consider the first one: hire a professional sound person. Budget for it. Beg if you have to. Not only will this skilled professional bring the right tools to get the job done, they will apply a level of focus and expertise that you absolutely need if you also want your program to stand out.

Think about it. On the shoot, you will be busy. Maybe you're doing your own camera work, or directing, or producing, or even starring in the program. Even if you know something about capturing audio, you will not have the time or focus to get it done. If you have an audio pro on set, they will wrap themselves around the sound, care about it, and capture it properly. Your responsibility is to find the budget to hire the right person and to provide the time and space during the shoot to allow them to do their work. You 'll have far better sound and consequently, a far, far, better show. Isn't that what you want?

But let us say that you just don't have a budget for a sound department. Heck, you can't hire a camera operator either, or even buy lunch. You're not getting paid either, and hundreds of dollars per day for audio or anything else, for that matter, is just not an option. Take a deep breath—we can figure this out together. This is problematic on several fronts, but it can be done while still capturing good audio. There are a couple of overriding things to keep in mind that will help you dodge the worst errors.

Here's the number one thing to remember when doing sound for video: for recording dialog or any on-camera voices, (an interview or a conversation, for example) never, ever use the camera microphone, or, in fact, any microphone mounted directly on the camera. Camera microphones range from awful to decent, but the quality of the mic is actually beside the point. The real issue here is about microphone placement. Focus with me for a moment (pun intended). With a camera lens, you can visually zoom into a person's face, pan left and right, change the focus, and other cool maneuvers that keep things visually interesting. But the microphone on the camera does not follow along! The microphone does not zoom into the sound. And the camera (with the mic mounted on it) is almost always too far away from the subject to gather good, or even marginal sound. Using the on-board camera mic from too far away will kill your show dead, dead, dead. Do not, do not, do not do this.

It's a simple fact that you must get a microphone (depending on the type and situation) within approximately 24 inches of the person's mouth in order to get good dialog sound. Ideally, more like 12 inches. Everything depends on the type of microphone being used, the surrounding environment, and the expertise of the person using it, but even the best professional shotgun microphones which are designed to pickup sound from a distance, typically need to be within 30 or so inches to get a warm, full sound. And that is what you are trying to get: a warm, full, intimate, "I want to listen to more of this person" sound. That built-in camera microphone won't do that due to the distance from the subject, and is also probably a stereo mic designed to grab sound from a wide perspective—usable if you want general sounds from the environment—but terrible for dialog.

Then there is also the concept of audio perspective to consider. Picture and sound usually "feel" about the same distance away from the viewer. This varies considerably, of course, (think of a far away shot of someone talking—you probably still want close-up sound), but in the commonly used close-up or medium shot of someone talking to camera, the sound must match sense—the perspective—of the distance to the person from the audience's viewpoint. A full, warm sound engages your audience, and keeps them tuned in and paying attention.

If you are on your own, go ahead and use the camera microphone for general sound capture such as environments and backgrounds, but do not use it for capturing close-up dialog or speaking to camera in any form. Follow that simple rule, and your show will immediately stand out among the noise and clutter of so many poorly recorded videos. Stay tuned to this column, and in subsequent articles I will give you the tips, tricks, and know-how you need to capture great audio. 

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Jeff Jacoby practices sound art and design, radio production, directing, producing, writing, and performing, and happily serves as Associate Professor of Audio & Radio in the Department of Broadcast & Electronic Communication Arts at San Francisco State University. Jeff has served on the faculty of Quinnipiac University, Real Art Ways, The Media Arts Center, and the National Radio Project. Current projects include Into Sonic Space (sound art installations), The Traveling Radio Show (creative radio program), and collaborations with artists working in a variety of mediums. Jacoby has been recognized for his work with an Emmy award and two Emmy nominations, two Benjamin Franklins, two Crystal Radios, four BEA Best of Competition awards, and two Ciné Golden Eagles, among other honors. His work has been heard on PBS, NPR, commercial radio, at art festivals South by Southwest, Black Maria, Festival du Cinéma de Paris, ASIFA East, and in galleries across the country. Jeff lives in San Francisco with the brilliant visual artist (and CreativePro author) Sharon Steuer. For more information visit jeffjacoby.net.

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