Choosing Audio Gear For Any Budget

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RØDE Wireless Filmmaker Kit

One of the most commonly asked questions by video and digital cinema shooters is, “Which audio gear should I buy?” It’s not an easy question to answer because there’s no single answer that applies to everyone’s situation. If you have the budget and resources, always hire a professional sound mixer. Capturing crystal-clear audio of your talent and subjects is both an art and a science that relies heavily on theory, experience and resourcefulness. A person who’s not a professional sound mixer won’t have a fundamental understanding of how and why sound behaves the way it does and how to capture it accurately. Simply put, it’s not realistic to always achieve professional results capturing sound if you’re an amateur. There’s so much more to it than merely gear.

We have to be realistic, though; there’s a huge amount of production work performed the world over where a professional result is expected without giving the video or digital cinema creator the budget and crew resources to achieve it. For some reason, a professional sound mixer seems to be the crew position most often not budgeted for, even though sound is a crucial element in any visual media. It’s a paradox of the times. The good news is that with some budgeting and some training, while you can’t hope to always match the results a professional would obtain, you can elevate the quality of the audio you’re capturing.

Sound Gear For The Non-Sound Mixer

The question persists, which audio gear should I buy? Of course, the answer can vary radically, depending on the needs of your project and based upon your skill and knowledge level, as well. Let’s take a look at three different packages at three different budget levels that have been assembled for non-sound mixers. For the sake of clarity, we’ll assemble a simple package that should serve the needs of the average shoot, perhaps to record a sit-down interview, record a simple narrative scene with two talent, or capture ambient audio at an event.

These packages won’t cover every sound situation and won’t include half a dozen channels of wireless microphones and all of the accompanying accessories to shoot a family roundtable scene with half a dozen actors. As a starting point, let’s take a common, basic sound package that will consist of a mixer/recorder, a boom microphone and accessories, a wired lavalier microphone and a wireless lavalier microphone system, and some basic accessories to make it all work as a package. These choices are completely arbitrary; all are decent-quality products, chosen from known name-brand gear. Feel free to make substitutions for your own brand preferences or for items that are on sale that you can get a deal on. These packages are simply meant to be a starting point in assembling a kit with what it takes to actually record quality sound in typical production situations.

The Basics: About $1,350

This kit is recommended for someone on the lowest possible budget, probably using a smartphone, or a mirrorless or DSLR camera to capture video, but still needing to record pro-quality sound.

Mixer/Recorder: Tascam DR-40 Handheld 4-Track Recorder ($179.99 street). At this level, many users are shooting with mirrorless and DSLR cameras that generally have terrible internal audio quality. They probably don’t have a dedicated person to actually mix live, so a separate multi-track recorder is recommended. The Tascam has two XLR mic/line inputs with phantom power and internal stereo microphones. It sounds surprisingly good for the money, but it’s not pro gear designed to take abuse, so treat it gently.

audio gear for video
Tascam DR-40

Boom Microphone: Audio-Technica AT875R ($169.99 street). This was conceived as a camera-mounted microphone, so it has excellent rejection of handling noise; it’s small and short and sounds amazing. It requires 48v phantom power, which the Tascam recorder supplies. The AT875R punches way above its weight class as far as sound quality and is equally at home on exteriors and interiors.

audio gear for video
Audio-Technica AT-875R

Microphone Mount: Auray DUSM-1 Universal Shock Mount ($39.99 street). A basic microphone suspension mount for not a lot of money.

Wind Screen: WindTech MM-25 Fur Fitted Microphone Windshield ($29.95 street). Provides up to -20 dB of wind-noise reduction.

Boom Pole: K-Tek KE-89CC Avalon Series Aluminum Boom Pole With Internal XLR Cable ($179.55 street). This name-brand aluminum boom pole extends from 2’5” to 7’10”. Internal cabling makes for easy deployment.

XLR Cable: Canare L-4E6S Star Quad XLRM To XLRF Microphone Cable ($31 street). Canare is a very
high-quality cable, a crucial link from your boom mic to a camera or recorder. Buy two—one for the boom, one for the wired lavalier.

Wired Lavalier Microphone: Oscar SoundTech Lavalier Microphone TL-40 ($200 street). Oscar SoundTech makes very high-quality pro-level microphones for significantly less money than mainstream-brand lavs, and they sound excellent.

Wireless Lavalier System: The RØDE Wireless Filmmaker Kit ($399 street). This is a complete wireless lavalier system that includes a high-quality lavalier mic, transmitter and receiver. The system operates on the same 2.4 GHz system as many wireless Internet devices and cordless phone systems but, through frequency agility, manages to sound as good as most UHF systems that cost twice as much.

Headphones: Sony MDR-7506 Headphones ($79.99 street). They’re needed to be able to accurately monitor your camera or recorder.

audio gear for video
Sony MDR-7506 Headphones

The Step Above: About $3,000

This kit is recommended for users utilizing higher-end cameras like the Sony FS-5/FS-7, Canon EOS C200/C300, Panasonic EVA1 or Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro who need to record pro-quality sound and have a bit more budget to increase quality and feature sets.

Mixer/Recorder: Sound Devices MixPre-3 Audio Recorder/Mixer ($649 street). It features Sound Device’s new Kashmir analog microphone pre-amps and functions as a digital USB audio interface for streaming, with on-board mixing and recording capability. The MixPre-3 also can accept HDMI video from a camera and match its embedded time code internally.

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Sound Devices 633 Compact Mixer

Boom Microphone: RØDE NTG3 Shotgun Microphone ($699.99 street). The microphone features radio frequency (RF) interference properties that avoid annoying noise and interference caused by nearby RF sources such as radio antennas, WiFi networks, Internet devices, power lines, etc. Special attention is paid to the accurate, directional pickup characteristics and its frequency response, sensitivity and low noise floor.

Microphone Mount: Rycote Universal Shotgun Mount ($49.99 street). A high-quality microphone suspension mount with excellent handling characteristics.

Wind Screen: RØDE WS7 Deluxe Microphone Windshield ($59 street). This RØDE windshield provides excellent noise protection against high wind and adverse weather conditions.

Boom Pole: K-Tek KE-89CC Avalon Series Aluminum Boom Pole With Internal XLR Cable ($179.55 street). This name-brand aluminum boom pole extends from 2’5” to 7’10”. Internal cabling makes for easy deployment.

XLR Cable: Canare L-4E6S Star Quad XLRM to XLRF Microphone Cable ($31 street). Canare is a very high-quality cable, a crucial link from your boom mic to a camera or recorder. Buy two—one for the boom, one for the wired lavalier.

Wired Lavalier Microphone: TRAM TR50 Lavalier Microphone ($310 street). This industry-standard wired lavalier microphone has excellent sound quality and a huge amount of accessories available.

Wireless Lavalier System: Sennheiser AVX Camera-Mountable Lavalier Pro Digital Wireless Set ($899 street). This is a complete wireless lavalier system that includes a high-quality lavalier mic, transmitter and receiver. The system operates on a unique-for-a-wireless-microphone 1.9 GHz system, resulting in outstanding sound quality without the hassles of UHF frequency management.

audio gear for video
Sennheiser AVX Lavalier Wireless Set

Headphones: Sony MDR-7506 Headphones ($79.99 street). These are needed to be able to accurately monitor your camera or recorder.

Sound Professional Level: About $9,000

This kit is recommended as a starting point for users who are thinking about potentially making the move to pro sound mixing. At this level, this simple kit is easily expandable to a full pro-level kit by adding more lavalier and shotgun/cardioid microphones, more wireless microphone systems and specialized accessories, multiple length booms, etc.

Mixer/Recorder: Sound Devices Six-Input 633 Compact Mixer With 10-Track Recorder & Automixing ($3,328 street). Designed for production audio mixing and recording on set and in the field. The unit is housed in a compact, lightweight molded metalized carbon-fiber chassis and features six analog inputs: three XLR microphone preamplifier inputs with selectable phantom power, high-pass filters, input limiters, faders and variable pans, as well as three line-level TA3 (mini-XLR) inputs. The first XLR input can also function as an AES digital input and accept AES3 or AES42 inputs with +10 V phantom power for digital microphones. The two XLR outputs can also be used as four channels of AES output.

Boom Microphone: Sanken CS-3e Mono Shotgun Microphone ($1,450 street). Provides convenient camera-mountable size with the directional signal reproduction and range expected of larger, professional shotgun microphones. The CS-3e is designed for directional dialogue capturing in studios or on location. The microphone implements three directional capsules arranged in a front-to-back array, resulting in phenomenal supercardioid directivity at high, mid and low frequencies.

Microphone Mount: K-Tek Nautilus Shotgun Mount ($66.50 street). A universal microphone shock mount that’s designed to offer suspension and vibration absorption to any shotgun mic. The mount features a spiral design that applies an even distribution of force in three dimensions. This allows you to move the mic in any direction no matter which way the microphone is oriented.

audio gear for video
K-Tek Nautilus Shotgun Mount

Windscreen: Auray WSS Series Professional Windshield ($74.95 street). This windshield has an inside depth of 18cm and is designed for use with many shotgun microphones. It features a specially manufactured open-cell foam matrix surrounded by a layer of 25mm-thick simulated rabbit fur. This diffusion technology lowers wind velocity in a controlled air space around the microphone, thereby reducing wind noise without muffling the sound. It also features an airtight tapered rubber base that seals out wind from the rear of the microphone, greatly improving isolation and rear wind protection.

audio gear for vidoe
Auray WSS Series Professional Windshield

Boom Pole: Ambient Recording QP 480 Mini Feature-Film Boom Pole ($504 street). The boom itself is fashioned out of multi-layer pull-wind carbon tubing with a wall thickness of 1.55mm, giving you a stiff and well-balanced pole. This allows you to pivot, swing and aim a microphone in a controlled manner. At the tip of the boom is a stainless-steel 3/8” thread for attachment to shock mounts. Screw locks provide greater security.

XLR Cable: Canare L-4E6S Star Quad XLRM To XLRF Microphone Cable ($31 street). Canare is a very high-quality cable, a crucial link from your boom mic to a camera or recorder. Buy two—one for the boom, one for the wired lavalier.

Wired Lavalier Microphone: Sanken COS-11D Miniature Omnidirectional Lavalier Microphone ($469 street). Intended for professional speech capturing in sound reinforcement, presentation, theatrical, broadcast and recording applications. Its miniature capsule yields a wide frequency response, omnidirectional polar pattern and moisture-resistant construction while measuring just 0.15 inches (4mm) in diameter.

audio gear for video
Sanken COS-11D Miniature Omnidirectional Lavalier Mic

Wireless Lavalier System: Lectrosonics UCR411a Wireless Microphone Kit ($3,124 street). The kit pairs the UCR411a with the SMV body pack transmitter. The system combines digital hybrid technology, diversity reception and rugged components to achieve pristine audio signals at long range. The UCR411a offers over 256 selectable frequencies over a 25.6 MHz band to avoid interference from local RF sources. The Sanken COS-11D above can be purchased with a detachable TA-5F connector for use with the Lectrosonics transmitter.

audio gear for video
Lectrosonics UCR411a Wireless Microphone Kit

Headphones: Sony MDR-7506 Headphones ($79.99 street). They’re needed to be able to accurately monitor your camera or recorder.

When combined with skill and instinct, any of these three sound kits will allow for pro-level sound capture. Once you’ve bought the gear, using it will train you to really listen to shooting situations and help you build your sound mixing skills with practice and hard work. Sound recording and mixing aren’t easy, but are well worth your time and effort.

Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.

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