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On-Camera Audio Recording: The Handheld Mic

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When you are at a loud event or conference, doing a person-on-the-street interview, or delivering news, a handheld microphone is often the best choice. And in this tutorial, you'll find out why. 

What Are Handheld Microphones?

Handheld microphones are very simple devices, and the vast majority of those that are used for video production are dynamic microphones. There is a small moveable coil that sits in the field of a permanent magnet. That coil is attached to a very small diaphragm, and when that diaphragm vibrates from sound, it moves the coil within the field of the magnet, and that creates a very small electrical current.

It's the same way a loudspeaker works, only in reverse. In fact, you can use a loudspeaker as a microphone, although it won't work very well for this purpose.

Diagram Of The Inner Workings Of A Dynamic MicrophoneDiagram Of The Inner Workings Of A Dynamic MicrophoneDiagram Of The Inner Workings Of A Dynamic Microphone
Diagram of the inner workings of a dynamic microphone

Benefits of Handheld Microphones

Because dynamic microphones are so simple, they're extremely rugged. They are resistant to physical shocks and moisture, and they have incredible off-axis rejection, which is a real benefit when they're being used at a live event.

The other thing that's great about handheld microphones is that you hold them really close to your mouth. You are your own boom operator in this respect. Even if you are doing a street interview and holding it out for another person, you generally get it pretty close to their mouth, so it does a great job at getting a really good signal.

A lot of the handheld microphones that you'll see used at conferences, at live events and on the news are omnidirectional microphones. The big benefit of using an omnidirectional handheld microphone is that you don't have to have the microphone perfectly oriented, and it will still pick up good sound.

The other thing is that an omnidirectional microphone doesn't exhibit any proximity effect, and that can be pretty important if you are doing a person-on-the-street interview and are holding the microphone out for somebody and then bringing it back really close to your mouth.

You'll also notice that the microphones that are used for street, conference, or news interviews are typically quite long. That way, you don't have to have your hand so close to your mouth. There are microphones that are designed specifically for that. You can find microphones from Rode, Audio-Technica, and others that are a bit longer than your average handheld microphones and work really well in those situations. 

handheld Rode microphonehandheld Rode microphonehandheld Rode microphone
Long-handled handheld microphone for interviews

I use a fantastic handheld microphone called the Shure Beta 57A. It's not an omnidirectional microphone—in fact, this is a super cardioid microphone.

Now why would you want a more directional microphone to use in a live environment? The primary reason is that off-axis rejection I mentioned earlier. If you are in a  noisy environment, an omnidirectional microphone is probably not the best choice because it's not going to be doing any off-axis rejection. You'll be getting sound from all directions.

With this microphone, on the other hand, when you point it at your mouth, it will do a lot of off-axis rejection, so you'll get a higher signal-to-noise ratio. So if you are at a loud event or conference and you want more signal-to-noise ratio, using a directional microphone is probably a better bet. 

Cost of Handheld Microphones

The great thing is that all these handheld microphones that are great for video production are really inexpensive. All of the most popular handheld omnis, the reporter-style microphones that are a bit longer are US$100–200, and most of them are at the lower end of that spectrum. My microphone cost about US$140, which in the grand scheme of handheld microphones is really not that much. But if you are looking for more value, you can definitely find great performing microphones for less than US$100.

Extra Equipment

One thing that I want to mention is that a dynamic microphone will not work well with a smaller form-factor camera without either an external microphone preamp or a high-quality wireless system.

You can get a wireless system with a little cube that attaches directly to the XLR connector of a handheld microphone and turns it into a wireless microphone. The reason you need a good wireless system to make this work is that dynamic microphones have very little output—they are not very sensitive at all. This means that you need more preamp gain to be able to turn the output of the microphone up to make it usable.

So you're going to need a wireless system with one of those little cubes that has a pretty good performance if you want to use one of these microphones. Most of the wireless transmitters around the $400–$500 range can do the job just fine.

The other option is to get a self-contained wireless handheld unit. This won't offer the same flexibility as a separate microphone and a small XLR transmitter, but it will be a less expensive option. But be aware that most of these self-contained systems are either cardioid or super-cardioid pickup patterns, and while this isn't necessarily a problem, it is something to be aware of.

You can find some fairly inexpensive XLR microphone preamps with phantom power that work for smaller form-factor cameras, but you really need one with really great preamp performance, and that will cost probably in the $300–$400 range.

So you do have options, and you can make it work with a smaller form-factor camera system and one of these dynamic handled microphones, but it's going to cost a bit of money. If you have a camera with XLR inputs it will probably be fine, but you'll likely have to turn up your preamps much more than you would if you were using a shotgun microphone or even a lavaliere microphone. But most of the cameras I've seen have plenty of gain to be able to use them on these handhelds and sound just fine. 

Conclusion

Now that you know why handheld microphones can be such a lifesaver in a loud or noisy environment, look out for the next tutorial in this series, where you'll learn about cases and accessories.

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