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On-Camera Audio Recording: Shotgun Microphones

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If I had to choose one desert island microphone for video production, it would be a shotgun microphone. Is it the best at everything? No. But compared to a lavaliere, a pencil condenser, or a handheld microphone, it wins in many more situations. In this tutorial, you'll find out why.

What Is a Shotgun Microphone?

Shotgun microphones are easily identifiable because they are long and skinny and have little slits cut into the side. A shotgun microphone is a very directional microphone. It accepts sounds from a very narrow angle from the front of the microphone, and it does a fantastic job at rejecting sounds coming from the side. Some will have a small acceptance angle at the rear of the microphone, but again, this depends on the particular microphone.

A shotgun microphone works because of the slits in the side. Sounds that are arriving from what you'd call off-axis, meaning not coming directly in front of the microphone, come in like this, and because there are slits on both sides, they tend to cancel each other out. So you get most of the sound that gets picked up coming from directly in front of the microphone.

If you look around on the internet, you'll see shotgun microphones in a wide variety of lengths. The thing that makes shotgun microphones work is in fact their length. The longer the microphone is, the more of these side ports you will get and the more directional it will become. 

A Long Shotgun MicrophoneA Long Shotgun MicrophoneA Long Shotgun Microphone
A Long Shotgun Microphone

I use a Sennheiser K6/ME66, which is probably the shortest length that I would consider in the shotgun microphone family. Technically, I think that Sennheiser calls this a super cardioid, and in my experience it acts much more like a shotgun microphone than other super cardioid microphones that I've used.

As these microphones get longer, the acceptance angle in the front where they are most sensitive to sound narrows quite a bit. This one is about 12 inches long and you can find shotgun microphones as long as 21, even 23 inches. You can get some of these longer shotgun microphones four, five, six feet away from their intended target and still get really good pickup. But just like all microphones, you have to pick the right one that will work for you.

The Sennheiser K6/ME66 is a microphone system where the K6 is the power module. This microphone has a really high output compared to a lot of other shotgun microphones. That means that if you had two microphones and one had a higher output and the other had a lower output, given the same sound source at the same distance, this microphone will output more voltage. So you have to turn up the preamp less, and at the time when I bought this microphone I was using an external recorder to record my audio and the preamps were not great, so I wanted a microphone with a much juicier output.

How to Use a Shotgun Microphone

A shotgun microphone is generally used off-camera. So you'd position this right out of frame and point it directly at the subject's mouth if you're recording just one person. It's usually positioned above the subject and pointing down because the things that you want to cancel generally emanate from a horizontal plane and those that you want to capture are coming from underneath, so it makes sense to point it like this.

Because of how these shotgun microphones are used, they need to be positioned up and out of frame, and they often need additional gear to make them work for you. Usually, you'll need some sort of stand. Sometimes you can get away with using a regular microphone boom stand, but more often than not you need a boom pole. Something that has serious reach: maybe six, ten, twelve feet or more. Now that boom pole can be operated by human, a boom pole operator who can stand there and hold that in a field production when things are moving around. Or if you are in a more static situation, you can put that boom pole on a C-stand with a boom pole hanger or some other device to hold it securely.

The reason I call this my desert island microphone is because it works in a lot of different situations really well. A single microphone works great for a single person, but if you have two people you can use this microphone as well. If you have a boom pole operator who can Hollywood the microphone and point it back and forth between the two people speaking, it can work great for that. Or if you're in an interview situation and the people are pretty close together, you can get the shotgun microphone positioned so that it's picking up both people in the interview fairly evenly. This is something that you can't do with a lavaliere microphone.

The other thing that is not as well known is that shotguns make fantastic voiceover microphones. Remember what I said before about the proximity effect? Now that proximity effect won't turn my voice into the voice of a radio announcer. But it does beef up my voice a fair amount, and because it does a great job at noise reduction, any little extra noises that may be happening in my studio are drastically reduced. It isn't the typical voiceover microphone you normally see when you look on the forums, but having tested many, many microphones over the years, I find these work really well for that. There's no other microphone you can say the same thing for, which is why I love the shotgun microphone.

How Much Do Shotgun Microphones Cost?

Now shotgun microphones can get super pricey. But decent shotgun microphones, the XLR variety, are probably going to start around the $200 range and go up from there. This microphone was $460, and I would say that the law of diminishing returns is right around that area. Around $500 to $600, you're not going to find a better microphone.

I think this is one of the better microphones out there for sound quality, build quality, and sound output. But again, if your camera has decent preamps, you can get away with a microphone with a lesser output.

If you're looking at XLR microphones, you want to be looking at companies like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Rode, or Shure. My favourites are probably Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Rode. You're going to have to find the microphone that works for you. But remember, longer is more directional, and you are going to need an XLR input for these types of microphones. 

Small Shotgun Microphones

What about the tiny shotgun microphones? The Rode VideoMic, the Rode VideoMic Pro, and the Sennheiser MKE400. They are more directional than a cardioid or super cardioid, but they don't have the same directionality as a microphone that's a foot long or 16 inches long, or even 27 inches long. It's just impossible.

Can you get good results with them? Yes. Are they as directional as a microphone like this? No, they are not. But if you are using a camera with a 3.5mm input, that may be something you want to explore. A lot of the pictures that you'll see of those types of microphones are on-camera, and on-camera microphones don't work great for mic placement. But with a little boom pole and a little extension cable, those microphones can work really well for getting great sound. 

Conclusion

So now that you understand why the shotgun microphone is so great, look out for the next tutorial in this series, in which you're going to learn about the essential gear that you may need for your shotgun. 

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