Tools of the Trade, Part 2

Clinton Harn Cinematographer | Zacuto USA

In Part 1, we concluded that familiarizing yourself with my acronym system and the 3 fundamental stages in observation was important in technical decision making.  In this instalment, we will look at microphone types plus when and where you might use them.

Here are the 3 most common microphone types utilized in Film & TV:

1) Dynamic Mics
2) Electret Condensers
3) True Condensers

Dynamic Mics

The term dynamic stems from the word “dynamo” which is a device that generates electrical current. A dynamic mic creates its own electricity through a magnet and a coil that move in tandem. This back and forth movement creates electrons and therefore generating electricity to power the microphone.   This means it doesn’t require outside power or voltage.

Dynamic mics are usually more colored and not as “transparent” (refer to part 1) or sensitive.  However, they are typically more robust and can handle higher SPLs (sound pressure levels), therefore providing more gain (volume) before feedback.  Dynamic mics are also inexpensive and highly resilient to moisture. Additionally, they are great for recording close proximity sounds and rejecting background noise.   This is why you sometimes see ENG crews using handheld dynamics when reporting in natural disaster or war zones.

So with this in mind, in application, dynamic mics are frequently used for recording sound effects.  This includes Foley or sound effects with high SPLs such as explosions, gunshots, motor vehicles or aircraft and jet engines.  Basically, they are good for recording anything “loud.” You are better off recording loud sounds with a dynamic mic because they are better suited to these applications.

As filmmakers, shotgun mics (condensor), or “on-camera” mics (electret) are all we generally have in our “vocabulary” when recording sounds. Think of expanding your audio kit by including dynamics microphones in your arsenal. Here are examples of brands and model types. It’s not a definitive or extensive list but these are the microphones that are most commonly used:

• Shure SM57 & SM58: Considered an industry workhorse for almost every sound application.

Beyer Dynamic M88: A mic that is “punchy.” This model boasts a good reproduction in mid and bass frequencies often used in high SPL situations.

Sennheiser 421: Commonly used on very loud guitar amps and cabs for music production and live sound reinforcement. Think of the potential in sound design and effects gathering for film. Want proof? Check out the video of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” in sound design for Pre & Post production on YouTube below. See if you can spot the Sennheiser 421 @ 3 mins 25 secs.

Audix D1, D2, D3, D4 & D6: A great company that makes dynamic mics suitable and tailored for almost every possible scenario. Tip: Try the D6 on the rev of a Mustang engine.  Its ability to handle SPL and its low frequency response accentuates the rumble and power.  The high frequency boost also adds incredible presence.


Electro Voice RE20: A mic very commonly used in radio broadcast that gives a radio presenter or disc jockey full and rich presence to her or his voice.  Even though the TV program, Frasier, is fictitious, when Dr. Frasier Crane is talking into the mic, that very mic is an RE20.

Electret Condensers

This term comes from the mic’s need for external electrons to power the mic. Therefore, electret condensers require a cell type battery that stores electrons. Electret condensers also have a thinner and more sensitive diaphragm than a dynamic mic. These mics use a “capacitance” circuit that meters or measures the pressure against the diaphragm and uses the battery to dispense electrons.
What this all means is that an electret condenser is simply 3-4 times more sensitive than your dynamic mic.  Where a dynamic mic is most optimal within close proximity to a sound source, an electret condenser can be deployed a few feet away from your actor and still have the ability to record audio information with more detail, richness, transparency and accuracy.

Typically, an electret condenser is an alternative for filmmakers and sound recordists who want a sound similar to a true condenser but are on a budget. They are portable and convenient when phantom power is not available. They are often used as a back up option and are also affordable. However, most electret condensers use a 3.5mm (1/8 inch mini) stereo (wired as mono) connector type instead of the professional XLR connector. Some do use an XLR connection but are also powered by a battery. They are not the serious answer to an audio kit when going for professional results.

Here are examples of types, brands and models that use the electret condenser principle. The following may consist of not only of shotgun style mics, but also instrument or general type mics for Foley or sound effects:

Rode  NTG 2, M3, Video Mic, Video Mic Pro & Stereo Mic: The Rode video mic, video mic pro and stereo mic seem to be all the buzz at the moment, but it’s target is primarily the consumer market. However, other than Rode’s clever marketing campaigns, their Pin Mic deserves a notable mention and is worth checking out. It features a very unique design and discreet profile. The NTG’s have always been popular due to their affordability.

Rode Video Mic

Sennheiser MKE 400: Again, another mic that is targeted for “on-camera” use.

Condenser Mics

Condenser mics are also known as capacitor microphones.  This includes shotgun mics, studio mics and lavaliers.  Most budding filmmakers and sound recordists forget that a majority of professional shotgun mics are true or genuine condensers. A true condenser mic simply uses the same capacitance formula. The difference this time is that the mic doesn’t have a battery compartment and needs phantom power (from an external source) in order to power the mic.

A true condenser mic is a high fidelity recording instrument, which produces higher-quality audio by comparison to its electret condenser cousin. It is manufactured in most cases, in an attempt to provide true and accurate frequency responses by comparison to dynamics or electrets. The intent is – what you hear is what it sounds like, hence the term “transparency” in part 1.
So think of it this way, if the electret condenser is more sensitive than the dynamic mic, the condenser is even more sensitive and offers a better frequency response.  It is also more accurate and transparent then the electret condenser.

Here are examples of various common industry condenser “shotgun” and “lav” type mics:

Audio Techinca AT875R, AT4073 & AT4071: Incredible mics. They have been major players in the mic industry.  They make high quality products and should receive more credit and product awareness than they get.

Audio Techinca AT875R

Audix SCX “One”: A boutique company that specializes in instrument mics. I have used their mics for over 10 years now in both live and studio applications. Although they don’t make mics specifically for the broadcast industry, the SCX Ones are their flagship small diaphragm condenser mics. I use these as extra short shotgun mics in the cardioids configuration to capture dialogue indoors and also as “plant” mics. You can hear the audio quality in my introduction video for Zacuto here.

Sennheiser MKH 416 & the EW lavaliere series: The MKH 416 has been the staple of condenser shotgun mics and hailed as a very popular choice amongst professionals. Lavaliers like their ew100 G2 series are also utilized frequently.

Sanken CS-1, CS-3e & COS-11D: Again, industry standard and state of the art mics with a focus on film and broadcast. Expensive but well worth the price tag.

Schoeps CMC 641 & CMIT 5u: Long cherished and revered by location sound recordists, these mics tend to have the least colouration, amazing off axis rejection and are extremely versatile.
That wraps up the Tools of the Trade part 3. Next time, we will discuss polar patterns.


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One Response to “Tools of the Trade, Part 2”

  1. Jan Poulsen on August 5th, 2014 3:00 pm

    The information about electret and “true” condenser mics is wrong. An electret condenser microphone can reproduce sound at least as well as a traditional condenser.

    Electret Condensers can very well be considered professional – all DPA mics are electret, and they are famous for their clarity. And practically all lavaliers are electret too – Sanken COS-11, Countryman B6, DPA 4060 etc.

    The difference between an electret and a traditional condenser is that the capsule is “pre-polarised” in an electret – whereas a traditional condenser capsule needs external voltage – e.g. phantom power. The reason most electrets need power anyway is for driving the internal amplifier.

    Even a majority of the most respecter scientific measurement mics are electret – e.g. Brüel & Kjær measurement mics – they are the defacto standard in audio testing – probably most serious audio companies use B & K gear for testing mics and speakers. Schoeps even have a picture on the website displaying a Brüel & Kjær test chart – so the company “Long cherished and revered by location sound recordists” actually use electret technology in order to test mics. This is testament to the precision of electret microphone technology.

    Electrets have the advantage of using less power, being less complicated, and being more resistant to humidity. Their disadvantage is that it is expensive to produce a “good one” – the production line has to be very clean when producing the polarised material.

    Electrets perhaps get a bad wrap because they are in fact also used in low end gear. The reason being that the circuitry for stepping up the 48 v phantom power to a higher voltage and then applying it to the diaphragm is not needed.

    The differences between bad and good electrets lie in how cleanly the material for the polarised element is made and how the capsule is designed – e.g. if it is the diaphragm or the back element which is carrying the voltage.

About the Author

A cinematographer, filmmaker, producer and audio recording engineer, Clinton’s peers & colleagues regard him as a “Renaissance” man, as his passion for creative technology has seen him delve into almost every facet of creative & artistic media content. After years of being entrenched & producing work for the music industry, 2013 will finally see Clinton shoot his first full length feature film, which is currently in production, with a 2015 scheduled release. His recent endeavors includes working as camera operator and AC to Rodney Charters ASC, known for lensing numerous TV dramas such as 24, Dallas, Shameless, Roswell, and many more.


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