$35 or $399 microphones and what you really need for a quality audio setup

posted in Photo Gear Reviews

$35 or $399 microphones and what you really need for a quality audio setup

I cannot say I’m completely new to video and I also cannot say I’m a video pro. I’m somewhere in between like most of us photographers navigating this video trend that is going to stay here.

Last week, I reviewed the LED lights that seemed like an appropriate starter kit for someone getting into video. I’ve seen many people do just fine with that minimal setup. But as soon as you talk video, microphones and audio recording takes front and center.

Many people say that your clip may not be perfect, but if the audio is horrible, you are completely out of luck. So this time, I decided to do a recap of how I’ve been handling the audio side of things and my two recent loaners for review. One is $35, the other is $399. We all tend to buy gear on extreme ends – either top of the line, or just enough to start with. We never reach the level to shoot with pro gear, but also outgrow our cheap purchases in weeks.

So my question for this post was: what do we really need to get the quality audio setup that can last you a long time?

Back Story

In my past, I’ve always used Zoom H1 with some inexpensive lav mic, like these two I own ($18 Sony ECMCS3 and $38 Sony ECM-CS10). I always recorded audio on camera too with Rode Video Mic Pro. I don’t think I ever really used that audio in any clips mostly because I either kept the talking parts from the lav or put music over the video.

I have to say I never felt like my setup was limiting in any way. I always got the job done. I also own a Blue Yeti, mostly for even better voice-overs. But my limitation is how little I know about audio editing. I can live in Lightroom for days, but Audition is definitely very foreign to me.

Recap of existing options:

  1. Mic into the smartphone
  2. Mic into the Zoom or another external recorder
  3. Mic into the camera (my least favorite option)
  4. Combo of these

There are four main groups of mics that I personally consider (ranked by typical price levels):

  1. Lav mics – new trend is the connection to smartphone only
  2. On-camera mics – Video Pro, etc.
  3. Wireless mics – better know your frequency
  4. Shotgun mics – NTG4 and alike

Just so happens that I already own quite a few items for recording audio. If I was starting from scratch, I’d go with these three:

About a month ago I decided to try the new Aputure a.Lav microphone and also finally get myself one of the wireless kits to try out. I never felt like $400 investment was worth it for me, but for a month I got to use it and feel it out.

$35 Aputure a.Lav Mic (B&H Link)

Pretty much everyone is raving about this lavalier mic. I am not claiming they are comparable, but this mic is twice cheaper than the popular Rode and Shure microphones. With those, you have to pay extra to get the proper connector that you can plug into the camera or Zoom. They are by default working with the smartphones only.

I recently also tried the Shure lav and plugged it directly into my phone. It did amazing, really. I used this $3.99 app. You can record in WAV format and adjust the gain. Be sure to mess with this before you get to recording something you need. I didn’t do that and my recorded audio was at -24 dB, so I should’ve tweaked the gain control.

I like how Aputure always puts a bunch of extras in the box. From gaffer tape to 2 windscreen tops, to all these cables… You can always expect to be ready to go with Aputure. This is one of the things I really like about them.

I got a bit frustrated when trying to sort out the proper cables and what will work where. You’re able to monitor the audio, but this has limitations – the recorder app also needs to support monitoring and not all of them do. So you might be stuck with the usual audio-in only and no headphone listen in.

The body is made really well, I like the pocket clip. The mic itself is bigger than the other ones I own, bigger than Shure too. The clip is pretty universal on the lav. I’ve lost those shirt clips in the past and now always appreciate a more universal clip type.

When it comes to recording quality, I was very happy with what I got. Obviously, you’ll always get a better recording with a pre-amp and post-editing of the clip. But for the simple and inexpensive solution, this a.lav does really well.

I am not a fan of having to charge everything, so I personally would rather go with a mic that uses phantom power. It’s also a pretty bulky package if you can describe a little 2×4″ case that way, compared to the typical super small lav mics that just have a single cord.

If you plan to record straight into the Zoom, you don’t need this bigger setup. But for the price, this lav is a nice combo solution for external recorders and smartphones too.

$399 Rode Wireless Filmmaker Kit (B&H Link)

Most shooters who do video as a stream of income usually go with the Sennheiser kits. This Rode mic and similar Audio Technica one are a $200 cheaper solution that still gives you very high-quality audio recording.

I love the build quality of this mic and all of its pieces. Everything is just super solid and built to last. I couldn’t help myself and shot all these detail photos. The cords are pretty amazing and feel rugged.

The microphone itself is really small, which is convenient. Both transmitter and received units are bigger than Sennheiser ones, but nothing unusual about them. I did like that the Audio Technica has headphone jack right on the receiver, but that kit also has two large antennas sticking out. This is mostly a side note, but for me this headphone port would be a deciding factor.

Most shooters don’t recommend plugging your microphones straight into the camera. Each camera has a pretty weak pre-amp (some have better, some have worse), so you limit yourself right away but plugging microphones into the camera. External recorders add to the size and bulkiness of the setup but are much more versatile for post-production.

In this case, maybe the real value would be in a cheaper lav that you plug into the Zoom? That’s the choice I’m going to make for my own setup.

Speed of editing and how quickly you put something online is probably more critical than super clean clips that you may take months to put together, so you can definitely argue for the convenience over cost.

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So, $35 or $399? And what do you really need? I’ll break it down for a few case scenarios and then you decide. We all face these questions, so I’m sure this article will not be the only source of info you’re reading before your purchases. I also feel that most reviews focus on technical moments and don’t go into use case examples, which is something that I’ve always put front and center. I bundled all the mentioned microphones and recorders into this B&H wish list, if you want to see it all in one place.

Scenario 1: Voice-over + interview and b-roll clips on location

My current setup works really well for this. These are pretty simple videos where you have someone talking, then you show them in the interview format, and mix all this in with various b-roll shots. I’d say you can be just fine with $150 investment. If you add an on-camera mic for another $229, you’re in even better shape. Some shooters go with shotgun mics, like $399 Rode NTG4. I think it’s a personal preference, mostly between shooting in multiple locations or having a single studio setup where no gear moves around much.

Scenario 2: In-studio multi-person instructional video or interview

If you have more than one speaker, things get more complicated. Multiple microphones will need multiple inputs, so Zoom H4N or H6 will be a must. Some shooters go even more advanced with full on sound board. So, with 2 lav mics, Zoom, and maybe an on-camera mic you’ll be in a good shape.

Scenario 3: quick vlog setup

Ideally, for this you want to go with the fastest setup – on-camera mic turned to the speaker. Forget lavs for this and just go with $59 Rode Micro one or Rode Video Pro for $229. I have both, I will obviously use the Pro one more, but if you need to be nimble and unintuitive (filming strangers on the street), Micro one does better because it’s almost like a conversation starter.

Scenario 4: Premium setup – multiple recorders and more ambient sounds

I love hearing the sounds of the raindrops and the ocean waves splashing near the shore. I love when someone works on leather or wood and you hear those sounds as well. Too often these things are neglected, but they for me create the most complete video where you feel like you’re present in the process. I was not able to ever dedicate enough time to do this, so it’s still something I want to explore later on.

Everyone says you simply need to use any Zoom mic and just record ambient sounds separately. To me, this means having a sound person on the set (which I never do) or spend more time myself going over the same thing the second time. I worry that the audio won’t match the action and end up never even recording this. So there is that..

Conclusion

When I was planning the review of the two new mics and this post, I wanted to see if buying new gear will make me a happier shooter. I have trouble with video and thought that new gear will solve everything. It didn’t. I’m happy with both $35 and $399 versions. But most of all, I am now happy with what I already own. Eventually, I will add a nicer Zoom and then a nice wireless kit, but not until I start putting videos out. You quickly realize that all these investments in gear will never pay off if you never shoot and publish anything.

So, go use what you have. Or limit your budget to $200 and see what you can get with that that fits your shooting needs.

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