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Documentary Sound, Microphone advice: Shotgun VS Super-Cardioid VS Cardioid


MatL
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Hi, I hope I'm posting in the right forum.

I’m looking for a professional microphone to mount on a Red camera rig for documentary. It will be used on a variety of situations (both indoor and outdoor). 

I’m not into talking heads interviews, but rather observational documentary style. So ambient sound is very important, but there will also be some dialogue (for these I’ll probably use LAV, unless I've no control over the situation happening in front of me). I’ll record sound into a TASCAM DR-40 (which I can easily attach to the rig).

 

I know traditionally people tend to use a Shotgun mic on camera, but I’m thinking if a mic with a different pick up polar pattern and rejection would suit better my set up, in order to avoid picking up the noise from the camera fan (which is positioned on top of the camera) and handheld operating. 

 

Would a Cardioid be a better choice considering the absence of the rear lobe, therefore the ability to reject as much noise as possible from the camera fan and handheld operating? If so, would a Cardioid sound too bad when used outdoor? I don’t mind the ambient sound.

 

I’m looking into one of the following mics options, depending on the polar pattern I'll choose:

Shotgun: DPA 4015C or Sennheiser MKH 8060

Super Cardioid: Schoeps CMC1 MK41 or DPA 4018C

Cardioid: Schoeps CMC1 MK4 or DPA 4011C or DPA 2011C

 

I know on camera mounted mic is not great, and of course it won’t necessarily be my only way to record sound, but I’m trying to figure out how to get the best result in the worst case scenario and unpredicted condition.

I appreciate any advice on this. Thank you!

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3 hours ago, MatL said:

I know traditionally people tend to use a Shotgun mic on camera, but I’m thinking if a mic with a different pick up polar pattern and rejection would suit better my set up, in order to avoid picking up the noise from the camera fan (which is positioned on top of the camera) and handheld operating. 

 

Would a Cardioid be a better choice considering the absence of the rear lobe, therefore the ability to reject as much noise as possible from the camera fan and handheld operating?

(etc)

 

Let's see if I'm first to 'help' here Mat! Just to warn you you're probably going to get a whole host of responses along the lines of, "hire a soundman" and "hire someone who knows how sound works" (the latter especially to help you choose which of the high priced and excellent quality mics listed might get the nicest sounding unusable camera sound).

 

The unhappy answer to your question is that it doesn't matter - every one of the mics listed, whilst guaranteed to provide a quality recording, cannot differentiate between the nice ambient sound you seek and the camera fan and hand noises you hope to reject: no matter what their pick up pattern may be. Quite simply the microphone which selectively hears does not exist (and never will).

 

You do mention that this will not be the only way you'll catch sound (by which I take it you were preempting the "hire a soundman" advice) and you also pick out microphones which would require a decent budget to buy (although the mention of a DR40 rather than something like a high quality preamp or interface is worrying). But if you are indeed ONLY looking for the 10% solution of getting useable sound (when for 90% of the time you will be getting excellent sound from your dedicated sound recordist who will be concerting their efforts on actually getting the desired sound rather than avoiding the noise of crew/equipment) it is necessary first to accept that you are not going to overcome the problem you describe simply by choosing to buy any one of the great mics listed over any of the others. In your 10% case, ask advice (principally from your regular sound recordist/s but also here) on cutting down (or managing) fan noise, finding a solution to handling noise for a camera mounted mic, and which mic might they recommend for the final sound capturing purposes despite these concerns.

 

Hope this helps more than it might at first sound ...

 

Jez

 

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Hi Jez,

thank you for your reply. 

 

I see what you mean. I was planning to use the Tascam DR40 just to get started, only because I’ve already got one. But I was going  to replace it as soon as possible based on the final rig set up. Have you got any suggestion for a light recorder with decent preamps I could add to the rig?

 

I've been working on the camera's fans and replaced them so now they're less noisy, but of course there’s still some background noise going on (it’s an older Red camera). It’s not as quiet as a dslr, but not too terrible. The thing is, I'm not sure if a Super Cardiod rear lobe would pick up the camera noise more than a Cardioid, and knowing that would be helpful in order to inform my choice of a mic.

 

Nothing is comparable to have a professional sound recordist on set. Unfortunately, there are situations where that's not always possible in documentary. But there are out there some examples of decent documentaries shot by a one-man-band (just a couple of famous examples: Fire At Sea, Cartel Land). In those cases I guess that quite a big chunk of the budget would have gone into post, though...

 

Cheers

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In general, I would recommend sticking with the shotgun on camera.  Unfortunately, the pickup pattern will likely make very little difference in the amount of fan noise ... the determining factor here is distance from the subject:   An on-camera mic is inches from a fan, and likely several feet from a potential subject; no amount of side-rejection will compensate for that fundamental flaw in the recording position of the mic.

I think you know this already; I'm just here to tell you that the problem you are trying to solve isn't fixable with "better" gear.

I record a lot of docs, and I'm not going to say the on-camera mic is *never* useful.  I think having more sources of audio in an uncontrolled situation can be useful, but I agree with Jez that it's a bit of a 10% solution.  It can help you capture moments (however imperfectly) that might otherwise be missed, but you'll miss a LOT of sound as well.

Picking a shotgun for on-camera is a default because it potentially gives more "reach" that can separate whatever is in front of the camera from other sources of noise in the room.  It's a bit of a Hail Mary approach that hopes whatever sound you are capturing is also directly in front of the camera (which often isn't the case if you are capturing a conversation where only one subject is on camera).  It also hopes that your lens isn't so wide that the action at the edge of frame falls outside the shotgun's pickup pattern.

Choosing a wider pickup pattern (say, a cardioid) will pick up audio more "evenly" in front of camera, but at the expense of distance.  In an active environment, the subject may need to be as close as 2-3 feet to be heard over the background, which is usually too close for camera, hence the default choice of a shotgun.

But the default choice is rarely a good choice for all circumstances ... it's just a sensible choice that gives the best chance of getting something "usable" in a likely worst-case scenario (shooting in an uncontrolled, active environment), while assuming it will be "good enough" for non-worst cases.

Is that "good enough"?  I guess it's better than no audio whatsoever ... by necessity, docs use plenty of audio that would be considered unusable in other types of production, but it's never going to sound great.

So ... I would say don't sweat it, and don't invest in it ... it's pointless spending gobs of money on expensive mics or pre-amps.  The quality you can get by investing in good quality equipment will be compromised 99% of the time by the fact that it's the wrong equipment for the situation in the wrong position.  It's like buying a RED cam for a hidden camera show so your ugly (but hidden) "security cam" angle can capture the absolute best technical quality of a terrible shot that makes the cut because it's the only way to capture the action.

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17 hours ago, MatL said:

(...)

I've been working on the camera's fans and replaced them so now they're less noisy, but of course there’s still some background noise going on (it’s an older Red camera). It’s not as quiet as a dslr, but not too terrible.

(...)

 

 

Hi Mat, This is absolutely where to start and the best thing you could have done.

 

17 hours ago, MatL said:

(...)The thing is, I'm not sure if a Super Cardiod rear lobe would pick up the camera noise more than a Cardioid, and knowing that would be helpful in order to inform my choice of a mic.

 

 

... but this shows the point I was trying to make wasn't understood properly. Maybe Documentary Sound Guy explained it better in his post above (certainly he elaborates on what I meant and I agree with it all). Basically, whilst it was a perfectly decent thought (and question) about polar patterns and lobes etc granting you better sound against the 'problem sounds' of the camera in practice it is already an irrelevance - because the sound you don't want is (in this case far) closer to the microphone capsule than the sound you do want. What you do want to think about when choosing your camera mic is what kind of sound you want or need from this source: will you require the general focus to suit the image that a standard short shotgun or hyper might provide or did you want a wider ambient catch or a cardioid (like Patrick's M-S rig)?

 

Unlike Patrick and DSG above I'm not qualified to talk about RED (or many other) cameras as I am not at all familiar with them: doing what you could with the fan noise was as I said the right thing to do. I'm sure there have been more specific discussions here on JWS about camera fans: have a search through old posts, particularly in the 'Cameras' section. Is it possible to turn off a fan during takes then turn it back on immediately afterwards ?? (I presume not but you've already gone in and replaced the hardware in your unit so thought it worth asking the question ... I'm obviously aware of why the fan's there in the first place and the dangers in halting or restricting its use!)

 

The two 'obvious' starting points for avoiding capturing handling noise are,

i. some kind of suspension or dampening (anything from the rubber gasket on sony camcorders through lyres and perhaps beyond) : have a look through Patrick's previous posts on his rig (often found under discussions of Sonosax) as he has been brave enough to mount a schoeps M-S combo on his camera!!

ii. judicious EQ ...

 

Again, I don't know your camera but I would try to get the sound on the image track (on videotape in old-speak!) rather than a (non-synchronised) double system. That way it's there, and in sync. When recording 'proper' double system (with a recordist - onto their recorder) make sure it's synched and timecoded (by whatever ordinary modern method you choose).

 

Oh and I have no issues with putting mics on cameras - posh or cheap! And I was being diplomatic with my 90/10 ratio ... since you've had none of the unfavourable cries I anticipated I'm happy to let that drop to, say, 75/25 ??

 

Best, Jez

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A lot of good advice here. I will add that I’ve worked with red cameras a lot and can say that in my own experience, I don’t think it’s the correct camera for the job in the first place. Yes people use them. But I don’t think they’re good for anything but music videos. They are noisy, they overheat, they have bad preamps, they have nothing inside, you have to “build” the camera and put all the guts on the outside in a tangled mess. What you need is a robust, quiet camera that won’t need to have everything that should come inside the camera hanging on the outside, and if you intend to get useable audio, the camera itself needs to not generate noise. This is your number one obstacle. After that, a camera mounted mic is inherently in the wrong place to get much useful audio other than POV audio, which can sometimes be useful in a doc scenario, but of course, as we all know, does not replace a professional sound mixer. But I honestly believe that if docs are your ambition, you should start with the right tools, and not try to make the wrong tool fit into your goals just because you already have it. 

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On 6/17/2022 at 9:23 AM, MatL said:

Have you got any suggestion for a light recorder with decent preamps I could add to the rig?

Easiest of recommendations:

Get a Sound Devices MixPre 3

 

As it is ultra lightweight and compact! Truly teeny tiny. 

 

Yet it is high quality and packs a tonne of features into that small body. Ultra affordable too. 

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Following up on what I said earlier, I think a good mic to use for a doc would be a stereo shotgun. Sennheiser and Sanken both have decent mics for this sort of job. 

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A lot of good advice here. For this situation that you mention “Unfortunately, there are situations where that's not always possible in documentary” 

That is, not possible to have a dedicated sound person, ditch the camera and bring just the mics. Remember, pictures without sound worked way back when there was no choice. The sound is what tells the story. The pictures merely support it. There’s a reason why radio and podcasts work!

Ditch the big camera, grab a stills camera and sound equipment and carry on!

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