Microphones, Oral History, and that “Radio” Sound in the Field: Shotgun Microphones

This is the third post in the series Microphones, Oral History, and that “Radio” Sound in the Field about the microphone options for trying to achieve “broadcast quality” recording when not in a studio. The first post in the series focused on handheld electronic news gathering (ENG) microphones; the second post focused on lavaliere microphones. As I state in the first post in the series,

the best way to achieve this sound outside of the studio is to use a microphone that rejects off-axis ambient noise and to place that microphone very close to the speaker’s mouth.

MICROPHONES, ORAL HISTORY, AND THAT “RADIO SOUND” IN THE FIELD: ENG MICROPHONES

In the second post in the Microphones, Oral History, and that “Radio” Sound in the Field series, I grapple with my struggles using lavaliere microphones. Even though the Nunn Center still has many recording kits using lavaliere microphones, I have fallen out of love with using lavaliere microphones for oral history interviewing. Personally, I have found that the best way to get that “studio” sound in the field is by using shotgun microphones.

Shotgun microphones are uni-directional microphones that are designed with a very focused recording pattern, and they are specifically designed to reject or cancel off-axis noise. In other words, the shotgun microphone excels at recording sound that is generated directly in line with where the microphone is pointed. Conversely, shotgun microphones tend to reject or ignore (within reason) ambient sound that is generated from the back and sides of the microphone. This is why you commonly see shotgun microphones being utilized for video interviews or for dialogue on a television or movie set. In 1959 Electro-Voice filed a patent for a directional microphone, stating:

There are many occasions, particularly in sound re­cording for motion pictures, sound pickup of television programs, and large stage productions for radio broad­casts, when it is desirable to keep the microphone out of the field of action, and it is therefore necessary on such occasions to place the microphone at a considerable dis­tance from the point at which sound originates. Direc­tional microphones are particularly advantageous for such uses in order to reduce background noises and avoid picking up reflected sounds.

United States Patent Office, Patent #3,095,484, Submitted October 22, 1959.
United States Patent Office, Patent #3,095,484, Submitted October 22, 1959.

The Electro-Voice 642 Cardiline shotgun-style microphone proved so revolutionary for the film and television industries that in 1963 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Electro-Voice an Oscar for this microphone.

The Herald Press, St. Joseph, MI, April 20, 1963

I originally started using shotgun microphones for video interviews. I became frustrated with seeing the lavaliere microphone on camera, which compounded my general frustration with having to clip the microphone on to the narrator’s/interviewee’s clothing. Someone once interviewed me using a shotgun microphone that was positioned just out of the camera frame and the sound was incredible, despite the fact that the shotgun microphone was positioned about 18-24 inches from my lips. A few years ago I wrote a post called Using a Shotgun Microphone for Video Interviewing that featured a video I produced with my daughters that utilized the Rode NTG-3 shotgun microphone on a boom stand above my daughters. Here is the resulting video (with music):

You can go to the original post to hear the recordings without music. Since this post, I now utilize shotgun microphones for my audio interviews as well as my video interviews, and I only use lavaliere microphones when I have no other option.

To be more specific, I have been using “short shotgun” microphones for my audio interviews. Since I tend to prefer “table-top” interviewing (which means that I place two microphones on a table, mounted on small microphone stands), conventional shotgun microphones tend to feel somewhat big, intrusive, and distracting when placed on the table. I was drawn to the short shotgun microphones for their combination of quality and compact size. My two current favorites are the Audio Technica AT875r and the Sennheiser ME64 (utilizing the K6 power module).

Audio Technica AT875r + windscreen

Audio Technica AT875r ($149)

Sennheiser ME64 (K6 Power Module) ($419)

In both examples, the microphone is positioned on a table-top stand about 10 inches from my mouth. While this positioning does give the oral history interview more of a formal or studio feeling, the result is more of a studio sound.

While many of the ENG microphones are dynamic microphones, shotgun microphones tend to be condenser microphones. In general, condenser microphones are more sensitive and produce a louder output, but they can be more fragile and sometimes too sensitive. For this reason I tend to mount shotgun microphones on stand with a shock mount in order to minimize noise from subtle vibrations. Shock mounts attach to the microphone stand and suspend the microphone in such a way as to absorb vibrations. Some people use shotgun microphones as handheld microphones in the ENG style of interviewing. Because of the sensitivity of condenser microphones, I do not tend to recommend holding a shotgun microphone. Even the most subtle movement can result in overwhelming handling noise in your recordings. If you do want to hold the shotgun microphone during the interview, I recommend utilizing a “pistol grip” combined with a shock mount. I utilize very small table-top microphone stands with short shotgun microphones. To admit the extent of my nerdiness, I tend to carry two boom-style microphone stands in my car trunk at all times, just in case an interview has to take place somewhere other than at a table.

Because I position the microphones close to the narrator/interviewee, I also tend to use the foam windscreen that comes with the microphones. This will minimize most plosives that occur when the speaker speaks the letter “P” into a shotgun microphone positioned close to the speaker’s mouth.

The shotgun microphone is a versatile solution that was originally designed for obtaining that studio or broadcast quality sound out in the field. The shotgun microphone does not have to be attached to the person, and it can be arranged in a variety of positions depending on the interview context. The shotgun microphone can be positioned very close to the speaker or a comfortable distance away and still obtain incredible recording quality. That said, I recommend positioning the shotgun microphone close to the speaker, especially for audio interviews, in order to really get that studio, broadcast quality or that “radio” sound in the field.

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