No matter how capable the microphone is on your camcorder, you can’t capture sound effectively beyond five or six feet. You have many microphone alternatives, including boom, shotgun, and lavalier, but for most long form interviews, lavaliers are usually the best option. The only problem is that premium lavalier systems can cost $500 to $600.
Most of my shoots, however, are live events, where I take a feed off the sound board, so spending that kind of coin on a system I would use once in a blue moon doesn’t make sense. With a rare interview approaching that required a dual lav system, I started searching for a cheaper alternative.
Rule number one, of course, is to find a system that connects to your camcorder. Most of my camcorders have XLR input, which simplifies things. Back in the day, when my only high quality camcorder was a Sony HDR-VX2000, all I had was stereo mini-jack input, and few lav systems output in that form factor. If you’re working with stereo input, Beachtek has a wonderful line of adapters that take XLR in and output stereo via a mini-jack connector, but these cost about $180 and up.
Rule number two is to buy from a shop where you can touch and feel the hardware, gauging the robustness of the body packs, which frequently get dropped, and the solidity of the cable fittings and connections. Buying from a store also tends to make sure that you leave with all the required gear, like the XLR cables to connect the system to your camcorder. There aren’t a whole lot of stores in my area that carry sound gear like this, however, and those that do tend to carry premium systems like Shure and Sennheiser.
So, it was off to Amazon. There, my mantra is user reviews. While some are doubtless planted, if you find ten or more favorable reviews, the gear is probably pretty solid. After some surfing around on Amazon, I settled on the Audio2000 6032uf system, which cost $132.
What convinced me? Fourteen user reviews averaging a touch over 4, with no total stinkers, plus the headsets, which I favor over lavs for some scenarios. That was pretty much it.
How did the system compare to the higher end systems on paper? I’m sure the high end system would boast superior sound quality, but the only feature that I coveted on the higher end models was ten selectable UHF channels. The Audio2000 system supported only 2, so if there was interference on either of those channels, I would be out of luck.
Great First Impression
When I took the unit out of the box, my first impression was very positive, as it came in hard plastic case that wasn’t listed on the Amazon product description, and will add untold years to the life of the components.
As you may know, there are three main components to the system, as shown in Figure 1. The microphones, the body pack that wirelessly transmits the signal, and the receiver, which receives the signal and outputs it to the camera, mixer or sound board.
Examining the individual components, the microphones were slightly large as lavs go, and came with a bushy wind screen. The body packs were very hard plastic, with the usual on/off switch, a not-so usual low battery LED, a levels control, and a screw-in connector for the microphone input. The back of the unit has a plastic clip for attaching the body pack to a belt, or you can slip it into your pocket. The microphone cables were about four-feet long, which was sufficient, though another foot or so would have been nice. Overall, the body pack felt solid, though obviously not as solid as those constructed from metal.
The receiver was consumer-electronic grade, with separate receiver lights and volume controls on the front, and squelch controls and outputs on the back. Specifically, there were separate XLR balanced audio outputs for each wireless channel, plus a 1/4-inch unbalanced audio output.
Setup is pretty standard. The receiver is AC-powered, so you plug that in, then connect an XLR cable from the receiver to the camcorder, or two, if you’re using both lavs. The receiver captures mono audio from each microphone, then passes that mono audio feed to your camcorder or mixing board via the separate XLR connectors.
That’s the easy part; getting the camera setup properly to accept the audio is the first challenge, and varies from camera to camera. I tested on my Panasonic AG-HMC150p AVCHD camcorder, and here are the steps it took to get connected and working.
Figure 3 shows the physical connection, which I plugged into Input 2 for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. The key point here is to make the right selection between mic and line, which specifies the expected strength of the incoming signal. Microphone inputs are typically low power, so when you choose mic as shown in Figure 3, the camera boosts the volume of the incoming signal considerably. Line input comes in much louder, so no boosts are necessary.
Which is correct? Typically, when your feed is coming from a microphone system, like this one, mic is correct, even if the receiver is AC-powered. When you’re getting an audio feed from a soundboard, line is typically correct.
You’ll know if you’ve got it wrong. If everything’s connected and powered up, but the volume meters don’t respond to “test, 1, 2, 3,” you’ve probably configured line and need mic. If the volume is off the charts, vice versa.
Figure 4 shows some other audio configuration options. On the right are the switches to supply phantom power to the microphone. Typically, if the microphone is plugged in, or has a battery, these should be off. If there is no other power source, and the microphone requires Phantom power, they should be on.
On the left are the switches that tell the camera which inputs to use. With my Panasonic, they’re obviously on the camera body, though they’re often presented as software options in the camcorder’s menu function. Channel 1 maps to the left channel in the captured stereo audio file, while channel 2 maps to the right. Int (L) and Int (R) mean the left and right internal microphones, and is the default setting that you’ll use when you don’t have an external microphone connected.
When you’re recording two speakers, one on each lav, you’d send one speaker to Input 1, the other two input 2. If you’re inputting from only one microphone, as I was in my tests, you have two choices. To record into a single channel on the HMC-150, you’d connect the cable to Input 1, and select input 1 for Channel 1, which would record the audio, and set Channel 2 to Input 2, which would record silence because there was no input.
Or, you could insert the cable into Input 2, as I did, and set both channels to capture Input 2, which captures the same signal to both channels. Some producers favor this approach because when you’re only capturing one channel, you only hear audio from one side of the headphones. Of course, if you want to stream the resulting video with mono audio, you’d could mix down to one channel during output.
Whatever you decide, unless you own the exact same camcorder, the controls will almost certainly be presented differently. That’s OK, most prosumer camcorders should enable the same features, you just have to find them. When using a powered external lav system, just remember to disable Phantom power, set inputs to Mic power, enable the external microphone, and point the incoming feeds to the desired channels.
OK, that’s the physical connection, now you need to adjust audio levels. As you can see in Figure 5, the microphone system itself has two volume controls (called levels), one on the body pack, one on the receiver.
Then there are the volume controls on the camcorder itself, as shown in Figure 6. What’s the best strategy for capturing the best sound while retaining optimal quality?
Remember one key fact; any time you boost sound significantly, you create noise. In this regard, you’re better off with all levels set in the midrange, than two set too low and one set very high. So start there, and adjust all controls as evenly as necessary to get the necessary levels. You want the combination of settings the delivers the necessary volume with the least background noise.
It should go without saying that volume meters on your camcorder are absolutely essential, but I’ll say it anyway, as seen on the bottom left of Figure 7. You should also have headphones to monitor the audio, and if possible, you should capture a bit of audio to your computer before going live so you can input it into your sound editor and truly gauge the results. Volume meters are nice, but a waveform really tells the story (as you’ll see in a moment).
Before I return to the regularly scheduled product review, let me remind you that it’s better to be a bit too low on volume than too high. You can always boost volume if necessary, but if the audio is too “hot” you’ll introduce distortion that you can never fix. You don’t want to be way too low, of course, since boosting volume always introduces noise, but err on the side of too low, not too hot.
If all this sounds complicated, well, it is, especially as compared to working with the audio from the camcorder’s internal microphone. Audio is at least as hard to setup as your video, and the first few times you use any external microphone, you should budget lots of time to get it right.
How I Tested
I ran several tests with the Audio2000, some outdoors and some indoors, some with the lav, some with the headset. In all my tests, the lavalier microphones felt omni-directional and captured significant ambient noise. For example, when I was testing outside, a crow cawed loudly in a tree about 40 yards away. You can see from the waveform in Figure 8 that the microphone picked up those caws quite loudly, surprisingly so, given the distance.
Otherwise, the audio started to break up if I got much further away than 100 feet or so, and on the windy day that I tested, the windscreen did not prove effective. If I was shooting an outdoor wedding, the lav microphones would not be my first choice.
Inside, the results were much better, as you can see in Figure 9, where the levels were quite good, with little residual noise in the waveform. You definitely need quiet on the set, but if you get that, you’ll be happy with the results.
The headset microphones seemed more uni-directional, and less susceptible to ambient noise, making them more suitable for concerts and seminars, and other generally noisy environments. However, they were very sensitive to plosive Ps, so you’ll have to position the microphone carefully to avoid these problems.
Overall, the system proved functional, particularly given the price point and the fact that you get two microphones with different pickup patterns. There are coverage gaps, and I’d be concerned trying to use the lav microphone in a noisy environment, but if you can work to the system’s strengths, you’ll be happy with the result.