Rather than having sweet dreams all about the differences between the shotgun mic vs lavalier mic, you’re up again, hard at work. Time of death: 2:00 AM. You’re calling this one. The project is dead. The video you pulled from your camera’s SD card is breathtaking, like a bride on her wedding day! Which is appropriate considering the lengths you’ve just gone to make your cousin’s holy matrimony look good.
But the audio… oh, that wretched noise. The sound of the best man’s speech is practically unbearable, never mind the painfully unprepared comedy routine. An incessant hissing noise pierces every second of the brother’s last chance at a career in stand-up.
Last updated: 9/13/2023
You thought you could fix it. Nothing a little Googling can’t solve, right? But here you are, erratically alternating between shouting and whispering curses at your computer.
You put your faith in yet another YouTube video promising a digital exorcism of the demonic hiss haunting your audio track.
And yet, after 3 hours of tweaking settings and applying band-aid effects, you realize it’s over. Everything you’ve done to make the original recording sound better has actually made it worse. You sink into your swivel chair of despair.
If only you had known. If only you could go back. If only you had an external microphone.
Melodrama aside, there are a couple of options when it comes to microphones. And if it hasn’t been made clear by now, your camera’s internal microphone is not one of them. Talk to any videographer about what really upped their game and they’ll probably tell you about either their lavalier mic or their shotgun mic. Today we’re gonna talk about both, how they will boost your production value, and finally break the curse of the internal microphone.
Shotgun Mic vs Lavalier: Operational differences
Besides college movie classics like Animal House and Pitch Perfect, filmmakers and sorority sisters share one very important tradition – lavaliering.
Once upon a college campus, hopelessly romantic members of Greek Life would buy a pendant as a gift to their special someone. Once lavaliered, the jewelry was worn around the neck and accepted as a sort of pre-pre-engagement tradition.
The lavalier microphone, on the other hand, is slightly less romantic and decidedly less shiny. In fact, the goal of many lavs is to not be seen. Think The Sopranos, where Paulie is forced to wear a wire by the Feds. Lavalier microphones are like the less glamorous, tech-savvy cousins of those shiny sorority pendants. They’re not meant to dazzle; they’re meant to capture sound without stealing the spotlight.
Most lav mics are about the size of a pencil eraser and can either be clipped onto the subject’s lapel or hidden by running the wire behind the shirt. Imagine a bubble emanating from the head of the microphone and you can see a pretty good representation of the lav mics’ omnidirectional pickup pattern. A good height to place to the microphone is the same length as the aforementioned Kappa Sigma necklace. No, the chain does not hang low. Picture this: you clip one onto your subject’s lapel, or if you’re feeling sneaky, you can hide it by running the wire behind their shirt. It’s like a secret agent mission, but with microphones.
Has the use of a shotgun ever been subtle? Again, I direct your attention to The Sopranos and any one of the countless scenes in which Tony literally blows away the competition.
Unlike the lav, the shotgun mic (also known as the boom mic) is appropriately obvious. Ranging in size from a hot dog to a barrel of , you guessed it, a 12-gauge, they are typically placed outside the camera’s shot. Unlike those sneaky lav mics, shotguns are out there, proudly proclaiming their presence just outside the camera’s view. They’ve got one job: laser-focus on the sound source.
Focusing their fire, shotgun mics only pick up noise in the direction you point them. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. These mics are like a fashion show for audio accessories. That’s because they’re often exposed to the elements – shotgun mics were made to accessorize. There is the fuzzy windshield affectionately referred to as the deadcat. A no-fuzz alternative is a plastic windshield known as a blimp. Like I said, shotguns don’t do subtle.
Shotgun Mic vs Lavalier: Functional differences
When you’re just getting started, each shoot can be a wildly unique experience. Passing trains, backyard sprinklers, air-conditioned offices, and an all-night middle school rager (don’t ask) are just a few of the audioscapes you may find yourself in. Choosing wisely between a shotgun mic vs lavalier mic can make all the difference when you’re in the editing room.
If you’re recording a subject who requires the freedom to move around, and if you don’t have a pal to hold the boom mic, a lavalier is ideal. For example, an unpredictable wedding officiant who has decided to go off script, or an audience member on stage like it’s a John Mayer concert. Now is a bad time to take out the groom’s grandfather when you suddenly swing the boom pole around to catch the action.
On the other hand, if the movements are relatively scripted, a shotgun mic might be a better option. Let’s say this is the officiant’s first ceremony. He nervously chuckles and delivers his opener: “Are you ready to live, laugh, and love?” This guy is going nowhere, except maybe the floor if he doesn’t unlock those knees.
But this is great because pointing the shotgun at the bride and groom standing in front of Pastor Sweaty Brow will pick up the audio of their personalized vows equally
You may have seen shotgun mics mounted to the top of a camera. The primary consideration here is weight. By the time you add the microphone, a recorder, and accompanying cables, you may have gained a couple pounds. Just ask any pregnant woman if carrying around a couple of pounds when you’re on your feet all day makes a difference. OK, maybe don’t ask that.
Another factor when attaching an overhead mic is shooting in the wind, the arch nemesis of audio. The last thing you want is deadcat hair hanging into your shot. But if you look, there are plenty of cleverly customizable rigs that filmmakers have come up with to get around this.
Advantages and disadvantages of wireless miking
There comes a point in every videographer’s life that I like to call “Cable Fatigue.” It’s that point at which you’re just too tired to untangle an actual bird’s nest of wires. Murphy’s Law of Cords states that “if a cable can get caught on a doorknob it will get caught on a doorknob.” It’s that point at which you think, yeah, a wireless system is worth the price bump.
But before you put all of those eggs in the same wastebasket, consider the associated costs. Going wireless means you’ve just gone from zero batteries to at least four AA’s, which also aren’t cheap, by the way. Additionally, there is the very real possibility of signal interference from the myriad of everyday devices. I’ve had multiple tracks ruined by wayward WiFi interference that sounds like The Bee Movie.
And now we’re just back at square one, pulling out our hair and hissing profanities at the computer. Some wireless systems account for signal interference by automatically switching frequencies, but it is also worth it to monitor your recording with a pair of earbuds – that’s your backup plan for when WiFi tries to crash the party.
Don’t get me wrong, I love shooting wireless. The time I save not having to manage cables or worry about the talent tripping over them is worth it. Despite what they say, rechargeable batteries are better than ever. Once you get a few spares and build the habit of putting them back on the charger you will have put the eternal dilemma of “are these new batteries or old batteries?” to rest.
I put my hope in the day that every device is connected wirelessly. (I’m looking at you, computer). But until then, there are still trade offs to consider before going freewire. So, whether you’re Team Wireless or Team Wired, just remember that the right choice depends on your specific needs and the unique quirks of every shoot. It’s all about finding that delicate balance in the cable vs. freedom equation.
Shotgun Mic vs Lavalier: Wrap-up
But it’s all theory and politics until you can actually afford a new microphone isn’t it? For now you’re stuck with a demon-possessed wedding toast.
Fortunately, you doubt anyone will ever hear that hiss. Oh, it’s still there. But you figure no one really wants to relive that speech. Your wedding recap video still consists of editing infinite audioless b-roll over Jason Mraz’s “Love Someone.”
And what’s this? They love it! It’s getting like a gillion heart-eyes on Facebook, and they all want to know who made it! Maybe next time you’ll specify a social media shoutout in your contract, but we can talk more about that later.
Now your cousin‘s cousin is going to fly you out to Idaho to film her wedding! You have a second chance! You feel about a million miles away from The Curse of the Hiss. And at this rate, your career will be a million miles from filming weddings. You’re talented, but more importantly you’ve got the nerve to learn from failure.
You’ll be onto bigger and better projects before you know it. I mean, unless filming extended family weddings is your ultimate calling or something. Either way, don’t forget to pack a lavalier or shotgun mic. Maybe after this paycheck, you can buy both.