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Digital Camera Mic Questions

Barbara Thompson

I am in the market for a digital camcorder and have questions for experienced speakers who use them. I plan to use the camcorder for putting more video on my Web site like YouTube recordings and making clips from my speaking events. All my questions are about the use of microphones. In addition to the microphone issue, I am looking for a camcorder that will give great-looking video with zoom abilities. Recording good video in a typically lighted speaking room would be a big plus. I am willing to pay $750 or less for the camcorder. In the model you are aware of, do you consider the onboard microphone to be adequate or do you use an external microphone that requires a jack on the camcorder? If you use an external microphone, what make and model of camcorder with microphone jack do you use, and how would you evaluate it overall? If you feel that the onboard microphone is adequate, what make and model of camcorder do you use and how would you evaluate it overall?

— Arden Bercovitz

The camcorder feature you’re looking for allows an external audio input. Unfortunately, this feature has all but disappeared from anything but top of the line camcorders, with one notable exception.

I recently bought the Canon ZR800 camcorder, on sale at a major camera store. It was less than $200, works like a charm and will do just what you’re asking for. It’s a fine little unit, you’ll be happy to use. Be sure and get a tripod that will allow you to pan and scan up and down smoothly. I intend to use it with a hard-wired microphone, with a roll-down backdrop set up in my office.

— Dave Crisp

I videotaped for Toronto CAPS presentations (and put them on DVD for their library) and often listened to the output. If the speaker uses good, loud, speaker/sound amplification to suit the room, the camcorder will pick up more or less OK — that is audibly and intelligibly, but not great sound. The advantage of using the built-in mikes is they pick up audience reactions, laughs, etc., to some extent.

For home-made video clips I use my wireless mike unit (a standard Audio-Technica 600 series; $400 in Canada) and plug it into the camera unit (a Canon ZR800; $300 in Canada — not many of the newer camcorders have mike-in plugs, so you have to check when buying). Canon is the sharpest pictures and this input works very well so I can use a lapel mike at a distance from the camera. This camera has a pretty good zoom.) To get audience sound, though, and to run the wireless mike into the camera and a sound/speaker system, you need a sound board/mixer, which come in small and mini sizes to link them all together and you’d need another mike input into the sound board with a mike to pick up audience reactions. I haven’t gone quite to that yet although I own the mini-version pieces to do it. It’s a fair bit to carry around and to set up on your own prior to speaking, but theoretically if you practice shouldn’t take more than about 20 minutes, assuming you don’t have early arrivals who get miffed if you’re too busy to chat with them. And it cuts into your welcoming time unless you come really early and have access to the room to set up early. If you also have books and handouts and whatever, this starts to add up.

I think more sophisticated systems would go well over the $700 you’ve set as a limit.

— Alex Brown

I am not a video expert, but I love music and digital audio, and I think my response will be helpful.

The most-critical two issues when dealing with audio recording are levels and mic placement. On-board microphones on video cameras will always do a poor job of recording a speaker, for two simple reasons:

  1. You cannot monitor and set the levels properly.
  2. The mic is in a terrible location, attached to the video camera.

Your mic should be near the speaker and away from any distracting noises. The video camera is the worst possible place to position the mic, because the camera operator will bump up against it, operate the zoom, move it around, and do other things that will cause noise and problems. There is also usually no way to control the recording levels on a video camera. The video camera might set sound levels automatically, to try to achieve an even volume. Most of the time it is not a very good result.

Pros will not use an onboard microphone on a camcorder. Pros do not usually use an external microphone plugged into the camcorder. Pros use dedicated sound equipment and recordings that they later sync to the recorded video. If you want broadcast-quality recordings, you need to invest in sound equipment in addition to video equipment. You might record audio with your camcorder to help sync your audio recordings to the video, but you will rarely if ever use the audio recorded with your camcorder in a high-quality production.

You might be able to use a single-camera, external mic set-up if you want the look and feel of an on-location, live broadcaster. They do use handheld mics that go straight into the camera, and combine the audio and video together immediately into the live broadcast. Typically these live recordings are full of glitches and problems. Newsrooms are ready to cut away from the live feed at any time because of the sound and communications problems. Most speakers will not want to record a one-time performance this way. You will not get a reliable result. You might get a good 10-minute segment out of a one-hour speech, but you cannot rely on it to get the full speech at high quality.

Also, a good-quality video will use multiple camera angles and multiple cameras, cut together into a pleasing final product. People are used to seeing fairly rapid cuts in their video and get bored in single-camera settings. Some pros like working single-camera, but it is an art, and harder to do well than multi-camera shooting. In a multi-camera shoot, you really need an independent audio track, recorded straight from the speaker, getting a consistent sound. If you cut between the audio pick-up of each camera each time you cut between cameras, you will get a choppy result.

People expect the sound to be consistent, even when cutting from a 4-foot close-up to a survey of the crowd 100 feet away from the speaker. Watch a live recording of a comedy club or a talk show, and you will see what I mean. The audio does not cut or change when the camera does. It is a separately-recorded, independent element. An audio person does the job of mixing the audio, blending crowd noise and the speaker into a pleasing mix. Then the video is synchronized, and a video person will create the final edit, cutting between different camera shots, but preserving the audio mix set by the sound person. In a live broadcast, all this work is going on in real-time by several different people.

The process I am describing may be overkill for a basic “talking head” broadcast on YouTube. A good external mic and a single camera can do a good job for a single, stationary, talking head. You can even stitch together camera cuts, just by recording the same material with the single camera, moving the camera around with each “take” that you record. You can then edit the final result together, and it will feel like a multi-camera studio production.

If you are considering putting live performances on YouTube, or doing multi-speaker interviews, you want something more. The closer you can get to the process described above, the more polished and professional your result will be.

Also, a funny thing about video: human beings forgive video problems far more easily than audio problems. Give someone grainy video but with a great, clear recording of a speech, and they are usually happy. Give them bad audio and a crystal-clear video and they are usually disappointed. Even if the spoken words are not perfectly synced to the movement of the lips on the video, most people’s brains adjust for this automatically. Too much echo or noise in the audio, though, and the final result screams “amateur.” Everyone notices the noise and audio problems.

In films and TV shows, though, they really do invest a lot in audio. Most of what you hear in a film is “ADR” or “additional dialog recording.” They shoot the film, record the audio several ways on the set, and then throw out all of that audio recording. What you hear in the final movie is the ADR — the actors returning to an studio at a later time, sitting in front of a mic in a sound booth, and re-recording all their lines in a sterile environment. Sound engineers then mix in sounds, action noises, and so on, then overlay that perfectly-pure audio that they get from the ADR studio recording.

Strange, but true. Sometimes they use the on-set audio, but usually they use the ADR. The lips we see on screen are not uttering the words we hear, but our brain does not care. As long as the match is “good enough,” most people prefer the higher-quality audio from the ADR to the noisier audio that really does match the on-set acting.

A final caveat: I am a former musician and much more interested in audio than video. Some people are more visually-oriented and might rank video as being more important than I do. I spent about $500 USD on my audio recording equipment, and have used that for years. I just spent about $400 on a video camera, because I want to start doing some basic video shoots, mostly for self-critique. I do not care at all about the audio-quality on the camera, because I never expect to use its audio in any final product. I will always have my audio-recording equipment on hand if I am also doing a video shoot.

Sorry for the length, but audio is a passion of mine. It is hard to stop once I get going.

— Robert Karl Skoglund

When I got kicked off Maine Public Radio, some folks who had been listening to me for 28 years bought me a Canon GL 2 so I could move into television. The GL 2 is around $2000 but has a $250 rebate.

When the Donald Trump show came to Maine, I went to see how they set up the room and how they handled the audience. I asked the sound man what they were using for mikes, and ordered a Countryman E-6 before I went to bed that night.

The GL 2 is what my friends who manage the little cable stations in Maine suggested I get. And if Trump is using the Countryman E-6 it must be the best you can get. So that’s what this little one-man operation is starting out with here as we move into bigger and better things.

— Jim Bouchard

I would highly recommend adjusting your budget a little, even if that means waiting a little longer to get quality audio.

Here’s why: everyone is used to crummy resolution for Web video, but nobody wants to strain to hear audio above noise.

I recommend investing in a “pro-sumer” level camera and pro audio gear. You can get a return on your investment by also producing some DVD products for BOR sales! The camera will cost you between $1,200 & $3,000, there’s quite a range.

I use a JVC, but Sony and Panasonic also make great cameras. Here’s a link for a list from B & H Photo; I’ve done a lot of business with them and they’re a great company.

If that list isn’t sorted by price, you have that option.

These cameras are set up to handle pro-audio inputs. I use a wireless mic system from Sennheiser that also feeds my PA when I’m speaking. You can easily create a setup to feed the PA and camera simultaneously. I do this by using two receivers on the same frequency. There are other, less expensive options but this works great AND serves as backup.

Here’s the mic I use with the camera-mounted receiver.

Don’t worry, I don’t get commissions from B & H, I just find them good to work with!

The mic would cost about $500 for one setup, so your whole budget can be about $2,000. That may be more than you initially wanted to spend, but I can say from experience that the extra investment in quality gear will be returned to you many times! It’s much more versatile and you won’t be dealing with break-downs associated from using consumer gear to do a pro job.

— Ed Primeau

You need to purchase a mini DV camera that has an external microphone jack usually 1/8th inch. Then, purchase a wireless battery-operated microphone, lavalier from B and H Photo Video in New York. Best prices, best service.

— Barbara Thompson

We decided to go with the Canon HV20 camcorder. We got it from B&H Photo and Video (www.bhphotovideo.com) for $699. The camcorder was recommended by a family member who is a professional videographer. We opted to buy a complete starter kit that included the camcorder for a cost of $1,117. When you buy from B&H, they supply you with a free “Jump Start” CD that covers all aspects of the camera in great detail including recommended settings for optimal performance. Including the required microphone jack, the camera records in both high definition and standard definition and will also take still photos. The camera comes with a USB cable that is used to download the still photos to your computer. To download the videos to your computer you need to have an IEEE1394 ("firewire") cable. This cable is not supplied. We purchased a 13-foot cable and an expansion card for my computer from B&H for $79.

Additionally, we purchased Vegas Movie Studio version 8 from Mike Stewart, the video guy (www.internetvideoguy.com). When you buy from Mike, he includes a free Vegas Movie Studio 8 tutorial that covers the complete movie editing process. He also promotes a program called FLV Producer for $99 that takes movie files and converts them to a flash file and installs your choice of 11 TV-like players. This allows you to create easy-loading files to transfer to your Web site that can be played by visitors with both Windows and Macintosh computers.

SpeakerNet News is produced by Rebecca Morgan and Ken Braly. It is not affiliated with the National Speakers Association. Send comments or suggestions