Video Recording: Improving Sound Quality – Audio Equipment

Beachtek DXA-2t

This is part of a series of three articles on improving audio quality during video production while using consumer-grade equipment and software. The article was first published several years ago, so some of the actual models show are outdated, but the principles still apply.

This article focuses on the equipment you can use to get good sound quality while doing video recording with consumer-grade camcorders; the other two articles are on:

If you are satisfied with the audio recorded with your camcorder, you don’t need to waste money on purchasing audio equipment. In general, however, most consumer-grade camcorders don’t record audio very well. There are several reasons for this:

  • The internal (or on-board) microphone may not be of the best quality to begin with.
  • You may not be able to control the audio input level or easily change this level while recording. The recording levels may end up being too low (leading to a poor signal-to-noise ratio) or too high (causing distortion).
  • You may not be able to monitor the audio effectively as it is being recorded. You will need to use headphones, but some camcorders do not have an earphone jack and with many other camcorders, the audio signal sent through the headphones during recording is not as clear as it should be. Also, in audio recording, it is helpful to have a visual display of the audio input so that you can see if the levels are too low or high. Many consumer-grade camcorders don’t have this visual display function.
  • There is not much flexibility when it comes to  choosing the sound you want to record. Whatever is loudest and closest to your camera, that is the sound you get. A related problem is that some internal mics, because of their placement, are especially good at picking up the sound of wind.
  • Because on-board mics are housed in the body of the camera and are next to moving parts (especially in camcorders recording on mini-dv or tape) and electrical components, they may also pick-up mechanical sounds and humming noises.

Having a a professional-grade camcorder would solve many of these problems, but there are various equipment set-ups you can apply to consumer grade cameras that can help you deal with at least some of them. The approach you choose would depend on your budget, recording needs and technical expertise, as well as the equipment you already have. Seven approaches are discussed in this article:

  1. Dedicated external mic mounted on a hot shoe
  2. External mic → camcorder mic port
  3. External mic → XLR audio adaptor → camcorder mic port
  4. External mic → mixer → XLR audio adaptor → camcorder mic port
  5. External mic→digital audio recorder
  6. Digital audio recorder
  7. Digital audio recorder → XLR audio adaptor → camcorder mic port

This article is just a brief introduction to the kinds of equipment that you can use. Once you decide on the audio recording approach that’s best for you, you will need to search for more information about what equipment is available (online or at your local audio equipment store) and would work best with the video recording equipment you already have.

1. Dedicated external mic mounted on a hot shoe

Most consumer-grade cameras have a hot shoe on the top—a kind of slot for attaching accessories like microphones and flashes.  For some camcorders, there is a dedicated microphone specifically designed for that model of camera. If you use a Canon HG10 camcorder, for example, the corresponding microphone is the Canon  DM50 mic (pictured below). You just fit the mic onto the hot shoe and you would not need to connect it to the microphone port.

Canon DM-50

Pros: With this kind of mic, you will get better sound quality. The mic will also be much more ‘directional’, that is, it will pick up more of the sound it is pointed at. With some microphones, you can choose whether you want the mic to focus on the the subject in front of you or to pick up more of the ambient sound from all around. This is a useful feature, so you might want to make sure that your mic has it. Another advantage is that you can easily manage both audio and video recording at the same time without having to worry about cables, mic stands or power supplies.

Cons: The problems related to being unable to control levels and properly monitor sound still exist. Also, you may want to get more control over directionality and proximity (i.e., to choose where the microphone is pointing, what polarity is being used and how far away the mic is from the subject being recorded). One additional problem is that if you upgrade your camcorder, the microphone will probably be rendered obsolete as well.

2. External mic → camcorder mic port

Many camcorders have a mini-jack port for external microphones. If you use this set-up, you will have greater flexibility in choosing a mic that meets your needs and budget. The problem I have encountered with this set-up, however, is that the audio will be affected (e.g., distortion, missing audio channel, audio suddenly cutting out) if the connection between the mic and the camcorder isn’t secure. This is especially problematic if your camcorder doesn’t have a headphone jack; you won’t be able to monitor the input to check that everything sounds OK.

When choosing a microphone, there are several things to consider:

2.1 Polarity

  • Hyper-cardioid or shotgun mics focus on picking up sounds within a narrow angle in front of the microphone. They are good for recording interviews and sporting events (to pick up sounds on the field). For interviews or drama productions, your mic would still need to be quite close to the subject.
  • Cardioid: These focus on sounds at the front, pick up a little from the side and are good for interviews or for reporters using a hand-held mic.
  • Bi-directional (or Figure 8): These record sounds from the front and back and reject sounds from the side.
  • Omni-directional: These record sounds from all around and are useful for recording ambient sound and discussions (where everyone is seated around the table).
  • Multi-directional: These allow you to choose from a selection of different polarities.
Rode NTG-2 Shotgun Mic

2.2 Lavalier vs. handheld vs. shotgun

Lavalier microphones are the small mics you attach to a person’s shirt collar. They are great for interviews and other types of video recordings where the voice is the most important thing.  Lavalier mics are normally omni-directional, but because they are placed on the actor or announcer, they don’t pick up a lot of ambient sound. I find that even inexpensive ones can give you a very clear sound. If you are doing a man-on-the-street style interview, you would might want a handheld mic. Shotgun mics are the long-bodied microphones used for isolating distant sounds (or they be held overhead actors performing a dramatic scene and pointed downwards to pick up their dialogue).

2.3 Wired vs. wireless

You can  also use wireless mics. Wireless lavalier mics, for example, are a good choice if you are shooting a video and you want some long shots (where you can see the actor’s entire body). For wireless mics you need to get a system—including the clip-on mic, batteries, a transmitter which the actor wears, a receiver which is mounted on top of the camera and a cable that connects the receiver to the camcorder’s mic port. The system you buy should ideally be produced for use with a camcorder (Bill Myers has an excellent video explaining this set-up:

The receiver for most lavalier mics normally goes directly into the mic port of the camcorder. However, I have a couple of lavalier mics, but they are not made for camcorders, so I have to run the output from the wireless receiver through an adapter or mixer. or:

Azden WMP-Pro Wireless Lavalier
Sony ECM_AW3 wireless microphone: mic (left) and receiver (right)

(Update: May 2012) In the last couple of years the bigger manufacturers have started producing different kinds of camcorder microphones. For example, I have been using the Sony ECM-AW3 wireless microphone. With this model the transmitter is built into the mic (so you don’t need the on-screen talent to wear a separate transmitter. It has a range of around 50 meters and the signal can pass through walls. The silver capsule-shaped mic/transmitter is around 7.5 cm in length has a diameter of around 2.5 cm, so it is small enough to wear comfortably, but not small enough to be inconspicuous. It is very useful in situations where you don’t mind the viewer seeing the mic. A capsule of the same size and shape acts as the receiver and plugs directly into the camcorder’s mic port.

I was recently asked a question about wireless handheld microphones. These transmit a signal to a receiver, which you would then connect to the mic port on your camcorder. They would be good for conducting news-style interviews. Most models are designed for use on stage and come with relatively large receivers. There are not that many wireless handheld microphone systems for camcorders and it seems that the cheaper mics don’t work very well, so you should consider getting one of the well-known brands (Sennheiser, Shure, AKG and Audio-technica all have good reputations for their microphones). You can consider trying the Audio-Technica Professional VHF Wireless Hand-held Camcorder Microphone System or Sony’s Wireless Handheld Mic Camera Pack (model UWPV2/4244).

2.4 Dynamic vs. condenser

There are two main kinds of microphone: dynamic and condenser. Dynamic mics tend to be more durable. Condenser mics tend to be more sensitive to a wider range of frequencies, but they are more fragile and  may be too sensitive if recording really loud sounds. Condenser mics also need a power supply, either a 48v phantom power supply or batteries (48 volt phantom power usually comes from studio mixing panels, but is also a feature of some digital audio recorders and some audio adapters. A portable phantom power supply can also be bought separately).

2.5 Windshields/windscreens

These can be bought separately and are attached to the microphone or placed in front of it. They help cut down on wind noise and p-popping (the distortion caused by the sudden rush of air if you say plosive consonants like p, b and g directly into a mic).

Pros: The advantages are similar to those listed for the custom-built mics— you will get better sound  quality and even better control over directionality. You will also have greater flexibility to record in a variety of different situations and environments.

XLR to mini-jack cable

Cons: There is still no way to adequately monitor and control audio input levels. Also, the set-up is becoming more complicated. You now have cables to handle and you might have to deal with batteries, power supplies and receivers. You may need to get a mic stand to hold the microphone in place while you are filming or you may need to get someone to hold the microphone. The mini-jack port on the camera may also pose a problem. Most higher-quality microphones use XLR jacks and some lower-quality ones use 1/4 inch audio jacks (too large for the mic port of your camera), so if you are using a higher quality external microphone you can either use an XLR to mini-jack cable or use an audio adapter (see Set-up 3). You will get better sound quality with  the adapter.

Also, as mentioned earlier, the mini-jack ports on camcorders sometimes have connectivity problems; unless your jack is inserted in just the right way, the sound may not be recorded properly (e.g., no sound, one missing channel, distorted signal, etc.). This can cause problems especially when you are moving the mic around.

3. External mic → XLR audio adapter → camcorder mic port

This set-up solves a few of the problems mentioned in the preceding paragraph. In this set-up, you  use higher-quality XLR microphones (with three-pin XLR connections) to an XLR adapter (which can be mounted on the base of the camera), and you can also convert line outputs (like from a mixer) to mic inputs (for the mic jack in your camcorder. These adapters—produced by companies like BeachTek and juicedLink 9Azden has now come out with a model as well)—also come equipped with audio level controls (now you can finally control audio input levels while recording). They cost from around 250 to 400 USD. They are very useful, so if you are doing a lot or recording where the audio is important, I would recommend you get one.

Depending on the brand and model you buy, you may also get the following features:

  • Phantom power (a 48v power supply for use with condenser microphones, but only the top-of-the-line adapters will have this feature )
  • Two inputs (you can record from two microphones at once)
  • Line/input switches (you can also choose input from line signals like line outs from a mixing panel)
  • Stereo/mono outputs (you can choose to combine the two input channels as a mono signal or assign them to left and right tracks).
  • A visual display for audio input levels (to warn you when your incoming signal is too strong—but this is only available on the top-of-the line adapters).
JuicedLink DT454 XLR Audio Converter

Pros: You can control and monitor audio input levels and you have greater flexibility when it comes to arranging mic set-ups. You can use different microphones for different purposes.

Cons: You will need to spend some time setting up the equipment and testing levels before you are ready to start recording. Also, you will probably need different mics for different purposes.

4. External microphone→audio mixer→audio adapter→camcorder mic port

The audio adapter is required  in order to turn the line output of the mixer into a mic input for the camcorder. I would recommend against using this set-up as it seems to be getting unnecessarily complicated and would require setting a lot of different levels before recording.

5. External mic → digital audio recorder

With this approach, you are recording the main audio separately using a digital audio recorder. When you edit your video you will have the video/audio recorded from the camera and a separate audio file from the digital audio recorder. You combine the video and audio during the editing process.

Handy H4 digital audio recorder

Pros: Basically this set up takes care of all the problems mentioned at the beginning of the article. You can easily control and monitor the audio input levels and can get input from a greater variety of sources, including internal mics, external mics, wireless clip-on mics and line outputs. For example, when recording a musical performance, you can use the digital audio recorder to record directly from the mixing panel. This can provide the main audio source for the video. In the editing process, you can mix it with the audio recorded using the camcorder (at a  much reduced level), which will have picked up the audience noise and the audio that was bouncing around the performance venue.

Similarly, if you are recording a dramatic scene, the mic and digital audio recorder can be positioned closer to the actors (while still staying out of the frame) while the camera can be positioned further away. If you were recording a discussion, you could use the digital audio recorder on its own (using the recorder’s internal mics) or set it it up to be used with an omni-directional mic. In short, you get a lot more flexibility now that the audio and video are handled separately.

Tascam DP008 digital audio recorder and mixer

Cons: This set-up is complicated, especially if you are using things like wireless microphones. It would take some time to set everything up and test levels. If you are using a handheld shotgun mic, for example, you are starting to look at having a three-person crew: one person to operate the camera, a second to handle the mic and a third to monitor and record the audio (of course, you can use tripods and mic stands, but if you are doing everything yourself, you will have a lot to take care of at once).

Note: In professional film-making, audio and video are often recorded separately. This is one of the reasons why film clappers (also known as clapperboards or slates) are used at the beginning of a shot. The editor can synch up the video and audio by matching the sound of the clapper to visual image of the closing clapstick.

6. Digital audio recorder

In this set up, you are just recording the audio using the internal microphones of the digital audio recorder (during the editing process, you add the sound file to the video). There are three main advantages to this set up:

  • Digital audio recorders usually have two internal mics, so you will be able to get a decent stereo recording (this can be helpful when recording concerts).
  • They are small and are portable (you won’t need any cables or mic stands).
  • The smaller recorders are discreet (if you are holding one, you won’t stand out as much as you would if you were holding a shotgun mic with a a long cable attached to it).

These microphones are usually not very directional, however; they pick up sounds from the side and front and only slightly block sounds coming from the rear. Therefore, they tend to pick up a lot of ambient sound.

I have been using two digital audio recorders (pictured below) to record discussions and live acoustic music performances: The Sony PCM-10 and the Roland R-05. They are a little pricey, but the sound quality is very good.

Sony PCM M10 Digital Audio Recorder
Sony PCM M10 Digital Audio Recorder

7. Digital audio recorder → XLR audio adaptor → camcorder mic port

This is a variation of Set-up 3, but you would use the digital audio recorder as microphone.

Roland R-05 Digital Audio Recorder

The headphone or line output of the digital audio recorder is fed into the XLR adaptor. The only advantage this has over Set-up 5 is that the audio is now recorded on the camcorder. I use this set-up sometimes for oral discussions (using a Roland R-05 recorder) when I don’t plan on doing any editing afterwards.


Good quality audio recording doesn’t really work with a one size fits all approach. Different recording contexts may require different kinds of equipment and different set-ups. In the end, your choice of equipment and set-up depends on your needs and budget.

Further Reading

~ by longzijun

Return to Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s