When it comes to protecting microphones from the wind and elements, there are many options, but choose carefully.
Like most everything else these days, microphone wind protection has become a complex subject. There are many variations of wind protection equipment now on the market and some of it costs more than the microphones themselves. Guidance may be necessary for television news reporters who work on their own in the field and need protection against strong wind, but don’t want to handle unwieldy gear.
A news reporter doing a stand-up near a sea wall in Cedar Key, Florida
Wind gear now comes with a range of odd-sounding names like zeppelins, blimps, softies, dead cats, Bubblebee Space and my favorite, baby ball gag. All of this may sound confusing, but the real question is which one best solves the key problem: cutting or reducing wind noise in audio recorded outdoors.
Transom, a organization dedicated to helping public radio news reporters, did a sweeping examination and tested many models of windscreens available to news reporters who work outdoors with microphones.
Though the organization said there are many approaches to mitigating wind noise, some of them are cumbersome or expensive, while others are customized to the needs of specific disciplines. Nature recordists, sound-effects collectors and film sound crews might have different priorities, but Transom said it focused on recording voices and general ambience, with commonly-used reporters’ microphones.
Most wind protection works by creating a zone of still air around the microphone, while maintaining audio transparency. At the most basic level, this can be achieved by placing a foam cover over the end of the mic. The foam creates a permeable barrier that slows or blocks wind around the mic.
However, a small amount of foam won’t stop strong wind, and too much foam will muffle the sound. For a more effective solution, a combination of foam, air and fake fur can tame light-to-moderate winds from reaching the microphone diaphragm and causing low-frequency rumble and other audio distortions.
A simple furry cover that slides over a foam windscreen can tame moderate winds. Thick layers of coarse open-cell foam, often paired with fake fur, can create a still air zone around the mic without muffling high frequencies too severely. These are small and compact enough to be used easily by reporters in the field, whether for interviews or stand-ups. Every reporter should have these for mics being used outdoors. This protection is far more convenient than using much larger zeppelins or blimps, but they are not as effective in strong winds.
In dealing with wind problems, it important to remember that the reporter’s microphone makes a difference. Directional microphones are always more sensitive to wind noise than omnidirectional mics. Reporters using short shotgun microphones for their focus on specific sound sources can also have big trouble in strong wind.
Reporter in Hurricane Sandy. No doubt he had extreme wind noise.
For reporters who expect to be out in blustery weather, or subject to wind on a moving boat or vehicle, using an omnidirectional mic is the starting point. The Electro-Voice RE50 ($179) is a very popular reporter’s mic for this reason. Even off-the-shelf, it’s pretty good in bad weather. Most times you see TV weather reporters being buffeted by wind, rain or snow, they’re probably holding RE50s. The omni directional pattern is part of it, but Electro-Voice also built-in good shock absorption in the handle and some additional wind and “P-Pop” resistance into the head basket.
On very windy days, an omnidirectional mic can be affected by wind. The shape of the RE50 (and many hand-held reporter’s microphones, as well as some stereo mics, Sennheiser Ambeo mics and others with a bulbous head) doesn’t allow them to slide into a softie-style windscreen. Smaller “wind shield” devices like the Rycote Super Softie ($129) — while especially effective — won’t work with this type of mic.
However, the Rycote company, an industry leader in wind protection, has reporters covered with a small zeppelin-like device called the Baby Ball Gag ($120), which has proven especially effective against wind. The device works like a small zeppelin, fitting tightly around the head of the microphone. Despite the strange name, the Baby Ball Gag is a very useful tool for reporters. Though not nearly as large, it functions in the same way as a zeppelin, creating a zone of still air around the microphone’s capsule, but in a much smaller form.
For seriously windy conditions, much like its larger relatives, it can be covered with a furry windjammer ($65). That combination of an omni mic, the airspace created by the Baby Ball Gag and the wind-taming of the furry windjammer, makes for a mic that’s almost impervious to wind. It’s a bit larger, and with the windjammer, weirder-looking, than a bare mic, but it offers excellent wind protection and sonic transparency.
The Baby Ball Gag works by making a tight grip around the shaft of the microphone, so it’s important to select the proper size for the mic model. The RE50 has a relatively thick handle (25mm) but pencil-style mics usually require a smaller hole. No matter the diameter, it’s a tight fit. They’re designed not to slide on and off quickly, so plan ahead if you need to get one of these fitted on a mic for a storm.
Some negative effects of wind can be mitigated by reducing the sensitivity of the microphone to bass frequencies. Most shotgun mics, and some other mics, have a bass-rolloff switch, also known as a high-pass filter. Engaging that filter can eliminate, or at least reduce, the rumble caused by wind. It will thin out the sound being recorded. Sometimes it can be more effective than trying to EQ the sound later.
Most field recorders also have a low-cut filter, sometimes offering several settings. Using those filters can be useful, especially if it helps to hear a recording in real time. It certainly beats hearing a lot of rumbling on headphones and hoping it can be fixed later.
Of course, as a last resort, there is always post production. If the operator can hear low-frequency rumbles, and those sounds are not causing distortion on the recording or triggering the recorder’s limiters, the equalization capabilities of an audio editing program can have more finesse than the simple low-cut on the mic or recorder. EQ will never make the wind noise go away completely, but rolling-off low frequencies can make it less intrusive and distracting.
IZotope’s Audio Rx software ($199.50) has a “De-Wind” module that promises to help reduce wind noise, though in many cases editors say they are unable to get any significant reduction of wind rumbles without creating even worse processing artifacts.
Transom advises reporters to always avoid the wind noise in the first place, rather than assuming it can be fixed in post. When headed into a windy area, think about the mic being used and how it can be protected in advance. There are specific zeppelins, foam covers and windjammers made for almost any microphone. Do the research on the manufacturers’ web sites to check out the mic’s susceptibility to wind noise. It could save the audio in the entire production.
Ultimately, no one can completely silence the wind. Use it as part of your story when it’s there and don’t try to hide it. The goal should be to make sure that the wind does not ruin your recording and render it useless.