What is a shotgun mic? There’s a pretty good chance you’ve already seen one and didn’t even know it. If you’ve ever watched a behind-the-scenes reel of a film set you probably noticed a long black pole, like a chimney sweeper, that someone from the crew is hanging over movie stars. That’s a shotgun mic!
Shotgun mics are all over Hollywood productions. While production sound mixers (the person in charge of sound on set) will also use lavalier mics as secondary sources of audio, the sound captured by the shotgun mic is pretty much always their first choice for capturing dialogue. In this article, we’ll cover how this mic works, where to use it, and why, for the very same reasons the industry pros use them to make their films, you might make the shotgun mic your first choice too.
What really makes shotgun mics special is their ability to reject ambient noises and hone in on their subject.
Let’s say you were in Costco making a documentary on those lovely folks who feed us samples. If you were to use a lavalier mic with an omnidirectional pickup pattern, you would capture the hustle and bustle of the shoppers just as much as the soft-spoken voice of the charming old man in a hairnet.
In this scenario, a shotgun microphone with a lobar pickup pattern would be preferable because the mic selectively tunes out noise coming in from the sides. This is one of the key differences between shotguns and lavs.
The grocery store ambience of bulk food laden carts and beeping microwaves is lessened giving you a clear, uncluttered recording of what it’s like to be the true heroes of the wholesale shopping experience.
Compared to a lot of live performance microphones (aka dynamic microphones), shotgun microphones can get a pretty good distance away from their subject without losing too much information.
Dynamic microphones tend to have much lower sensitivities and require the subject to be much closer to the mic. Now you know why Ariana Grande, Keith Urban, and the kid from Stranger Things all look like they’re about to eat their mic.
The high sensitivity of a shotgun mic comes in handy when you need to keep a microphone out of view of the camera.
Without a high sensitivity, the sound mixer would have to turn up the gain on their recorder’s preamps increasing the self-noise and resulting in that cursed audible hiss we’re all trying to avoid.
That said, it’s always best to get the shotgun mic as close as possible to the source for the best sound. Hence the person on set hanging the boom pole over the movie actors just outside the shot.
But if your next scene calls for a wide-angle lens and you need to move 6 or 8 feet away from the actor, the shotgun mic has you covered.
Just like sawed-off shotguns are better for blasting zombies at close quarters as long barreled shotguns are better for hunting demogorgons in the woods, the “spread of fire” of a shotgun mic is also determined by its length.
A longer barreled mic will capture sound at a tighter angle and a shorter barreled mic will capture sound at a wider angle. Any sounds outside the pickup angle will be significantly reduced.
Shotgun mic terms defined
Shotgun, fish pole, dead cat, pistol grip, boom. I don’t know who named all this gear, but if I had to guess I’d put my money on a resourceful redneck who, upon losing their hunting license, grew bored and determined to invent a new microphone system named in honor of their favorite outdoor pastimes.
Here’s some shotgun mic jargon that’s helpful to know:
- Boom pole / fish pole – a long extension designed to get the shotgun microphone close to the talent while keeping the person holding the shotgun mic (the boom operator) out of the shot.
- Pistol grip – a short handheld attachment that reduces handling noise while keeping the mic close to the body.
The next three terms are all about limiting wind noise, one of the best features of shotgun mics. If you’ve ever had an outdoor audio track ruined by a bassy battering of wind noise, you’ll appreciate the solutions that shotgun mic manufacturers have developed to ensure it never happens again.
- Foam windshield – typically a layer of open-cell material that surrounds the mic and does a moderately good job at blocking wind. Foam windshields are light, pretty inexpensive, and give decent protection from an occasional breeze.
However, as you can see in the lobar pickup pattern diagram from earlier, there is some rear sensitivity on shotgun microphones that foam windshields aren’t able to cover.
- Dead cat – a furry protective slip-on covering designed to diffuse heavier winds around the shotgun mic, more effective than foam without muffling incoming sound.
By the way, what sicko came up with such an unimaginably sad name? At first I appreciated the ingenuity of the supposed redneck who christened the shotgun mic, but now we’re getting into Tiger King territory? We all know how that turned out.
- Blimp / zeppelin – (again with the tragedies…) a hard-plastic shell made to completely encapsulate and shock-mount the microphone. The elaborate exterior design mitigates wind noise while still allowing as much sound to reach the microphone housed inside as possible.
Wrap-up: What is a Shotgun Mic?
Shotgun mics are pretty easy to understand when you imagine their namesake. But rather than blasting buckshot in the direction they’re pointed, they capture cinema quality audio with the flexibility of distance captures, outdoor recording, and filtering out peripheral noise. If you’re just setting out on your audio/visual storyteller journey, the shotgun mic is a great place to start.
This video by Shure does a great job demonstrating the differences between different pickup angles and windscreen solutions.
And if you’re interested in buying a top-of-the-line shotgun mic, check out JuicedLink’s shotgun mic buying guide here.