When a news reporter records enough audio over the years, certain tools become essential. These devices become trusted friends — ones the reporter can count on time after time to deliver the goods on a consistent and reliable basis.
In this age of multimedia reporting, microphones and audio recorders are important categories of necessary tools. Reporters become attached to favorite mics like beloved pets. When a mic and recorder works well repeatedly, they become trusted on a very personal level.
Of course, today there are hundreds of recording devices designed for news reporting. Microphones range from hand mics to lavaliers. Most are omnidirectional — for good reason. Omni mics resist handling noise and capture a wide sound field in interviews, making them more forgiving. Omnidirectional electret lavaliers offer robust natural sound, high output and a wide range of mounting accessories that can make clothing noise a thing of the past.
Most reporters — whether doing audio-only or double system sound for video — use a portable digital audio recorder. Such recorders have two kinds of microphone connections. Larger models often have XLR connectors with 48-volt phantom power.
This phantom power is used to power the electronic preamp (also called an impedance converter) for professional condenser microphones. It ranges from 11 to 52 volts of DC power that rides on the same wires as the balanced audio signal.
Other recorders, usually smaller in size, use a 3.5mm mic mini-jack. An important feature with 3.5mm jacks is the “plug in power” feature, a consumer-level phantom powering system for low voltage electret condenser microphones. Make sure the recorder you buy has plug in power.
Plug in power delivers 2.71 volts to condenser mics. The voltage can be on a separate conductor from the audio or ride on the same conductor as the audio. The plug-in power could be on the ring, the tip or any combination there of. There is no standard. But the feature is extremely valuable for powering low voltage microphones.
Both kinds of power are usually defeatable inside the recorder. Reporters need to be aware of the types of mics they are using and their power requirements. Once the match is made and it works, mic powering requires no other attention.
Another consideration in interviews is isolating the tracks. When using lavalier microphones, the reporter is recording his or herself and the subject being interviewed. Using a portable recorder, which in most cases is stereo, it helps to send a separate microphone feed to each channel. This makes editing much easier, allowing the voices of the interviewer and interviewee to be separated. Otherwise, both voices are mixed together and it’s much harder to separate during post production.
Some reporters prefer handheld microphones. Dynamic omni mics are the most popular, though some portable recorders don’t have the preamps to support the low level output signals of dynamic mics. Electret condenser handheld mics tend to work better with the cheaper mic preamps of low cost recorders.
Mono handheld mics are most frequently used, though single point mid/side stereo microphones are more popular than ever. Some models can be switched for doing standard interviews to capturing a wide stereo field for ambiance. Many of these stereo mics feature internal powering from an AA battery and the matrix stereo switch that adjusts the pickup angle for either 90 or 120 degrees.
Of course, many of the built-in stereo mics on recorders are also excellent for audio-only interviews. Using the mics in the 120-degree mode allows the reporter and interviewee to be on either side of the mic, offering the needed separation in post.
Finally, regardless of the mic type used, windscreens are important accessories when the mic is being used outdoors. Wind bursts can destroy sound and make it unusable. The foam windscreens included with many mics are not good enough for real wind protection. Dead cat windscreens are best for outdoor use. They can be purchased for lavs, hand mics and the built-in mics on audio recorders. Every reporter needs them if recording outdoors.
The price and brand of microphones is less relevant than making sure the components of the recording package work well together. Excellent lav mics start at about $80 and go to over $400, depending on the quality needed or wanted. Audio recorders begin at under $100 and go to over $500. The difference here is audio quality, input choices and feature sets.
As with any tool for active work, reporters need to choose theirs carefully. Intuitive ease of use, size and weight matter in addition to audio quality. When the right package of gear is combined, it can make life far easier for multimedia reporters who must do everything themselves.
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