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As a filmmaker, you can get a lot of incredible footage out of a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
These cameras are versatile and cheaper alternatives to professional video cameras and it’s pretty easy to get great footage out of the box without any fancy accessories.
But, no matter how good your footage is, it’s only half the picture. You also need good audio.
Capturing good audio is a cheap and effective way to dramatically improve your work.
So, let’s take a look at the different types of microphones out there, the situations you will use them in, and some suggestions for gear to get you started.
If you’re already familiar with microphones and audio systems feel free to jump straight to our recommended products.
Your Camera’s Built-In Microphone
You don’t want poor audio to hamper what could otherwise be a great project.
A lot of people actually have a lower tolerance for bad audio than bad video, and chances are that the built-in microphone on your camera leaves something to be desired.
Fortunately there are tons of ways to improve your sound quality, from camera-mounted microphones that plug directly into your DSLR camera, to dedicated audio recorders for getting professional audio.
For most DSLR cameras the built-in microphones only really work well at a close distance to your subjects and in very quiet settings.
Even in these environments, there is a vast difference in sound quality when compared to audio from a dedicated professional recording device.
That’s not to say you immediately need to shell out hundreds of dollars for a top of the line microphone.
There are many products running the gamut from smartphone-compatible mics to studio-quality microphones. The sheer volume of choices and information on products can be a little daunting.
As a filmmaker you need to consider the demands of your project and the audience and medium you will be sharing it in.
In the next few sections we will look at microphones you can mount directly on your camera, lavalier mics you can discreetly attach to your subjects, and XLR adapters and preamps to set you up for the highest quality audio.
A straightforward way to boost the sound quality of your camera is with a camera mounted shotgun microphone.
Shotgun microphones are directional audio recording devices, and many are available with a 3.5mm jack to connect to most DSLRs.
These microphones are designed with unidirectional microphones which means the audio is concentrated on sources directly in front of the microphone. This is great for minimizing the noise coming from the sides or behind you as you record.
Since you can mount many of these directly on your camera, these types of microphones are perfectly suited for capturing audio as the action plays out in front of you.
Alternatively, these mics can also be mounted on a boom arm or boom pole to help you maneuver the microphone closer to the action.
There are many types of shotgun microphones out there, which can be divided into on-camera microphones and traditional shotgun microphones.
On-camera microphones are a type of shotgun microphone that you mount on top of your camera. They are typically less directional than a traditional shotgun microphone, meaning that they’ll pick up more of the room acoustics.
On-camera microphones are typically equipped with 3.5mm mini-jack plugins, that you can plug into the mic input on your camera. This gives you synced audio and video as both are recorded together on a single device.
Also, if you’re planning to hold your camera in your hand for vlogging an on-camera microphone is a great choice.
These are often not the highest quality microphones and you may want to get the microphone closer to your subject for less noise and room acoustics if you want the best possible audio.
You can read more about on-camera microphones and find some great popular choices in our guide Top 8 Best Budget On-Camera Shotgun Microphones.
Traditional Shotgun Microphones
Traditional shotgun microphones are typical more directional and pick up less of the room than an on-camera microphone.
Tradional shotgun microphones have XLR cables that are less prone to noise. XLR also means you’ll have a more secure connection between the microphone and the recording device.
Shotgun microphones are great when paired with an external audio recorder.
Using a dedicated recording device will allow you more freedom with where to place a microphone, but an external preamp or XLR adapter can also be used to directly mount the mic on your camera.
You can read more about traditional shotgun microphones in our guide A Guide To Shotgun Microphones And Boom Poles For Filmmaking.
And if you’re looking to buy a shotgun microphone, you should check out our article 10 Best Shotgun Microphones For Film, Video & Interviews.
Another way to capture audio is with lavalier microphones or lav mics. These are small microphones that you can discreetly clip on to a shirt collar or lapel. This allows you to record and optimize the audio for your subjects individually.
Often lav mics are used in interview settings or for a seated or semi-stationary conversation. Since your microphone is located directly on your source you can get consistently well-balanced audio while minimizing background noises.
Many lav mics plug into a wireless transmitter with a receiver you can connect directly to your DSLR camera or an audio recorder.
Alternatively, you can set your subject up with a separate recording device and sync the audio and video in post-production.
There are also many lav mics that connect to smartphones. Though this doesn’t allow you the most control, it is a cheap alternative.
Just remember to tuck the microphone cables and wires away to clean up the scene, and be wary of any noise that could be caused by the subject moving.
You can read more about lavalier microphones in our guide Best 7 Budget Lavalier Microphones With Great Sound Quality.
XLR Microphones, External Preamps, and External Audio Recorders
For the highest quality audio, you will most likely be looking at XLR compatible microphones.
Since DSLR cameras do not have an XLR port these setups are a bit more involved. To give you the most control over your sound quality you can use a microphone with a direct XLR connection to a dedicated recording device.
With an external audio recorder, you have control over sound levels and can monitor sound quality during the shoot. You can also manage several audio inputs at once which is always a good practice in case one of your microphones fails.
This setup is great if you have someone dedicated to capturing audio, but can be a bit much if you are filming individually.
Also using a separate recording device introduces the added difficulty of syncing audio and video in post production. Clear file labeling and software that can synchronize your audio and video for you is a big help.
External XLR Preamp Modules
Another option is to use an external XLR module, like the XLR1 for Panasonic cameras, that you attach to your camera hot-shoe.
The module gives you a lot more control over your audio that what is possible in-camera, and it is also equipped with much better preamps for a cleaner sound.
The nice thing about using a module such as this, is that it will feed the audio to your camera, so you don’t have to sync the audio and sound in post-production like you have to do with an external recording device.
The downside to this module is, that it needs to stay on top of your camera. So you might need some long XLR cables if you plan to place a shotgun microphone on microphone stand next to your subject.
If possible, always be gathering two sources of audio, e.g. a from a lavalier and a shotgun microphone. That way you’ll have more control over the sound when editing your footage.
Plus you’ll have a back-up sound source if on microphone suddenly starts working, or if your actor or interviewee suddenly scratch themselves near the lavalier.
XLR Microphones and XLR adapters
If you’re a crew of one or looking to simplify things, an alternative is to use an XLR adapter so you can still connect a high-end microphone directly to your camera.
For this, you’ll need a female XLR to 3.5mm adapters like this inexpensive one from Saramonic (pictured above) that lets you connect a professional XLR microphone to your DSLR or even smartphone.
This setup allows you to get high-quality audio (though still shy of professional-grade) that is already synced with your video. An added advantage of using an XLR adapter is eliminating your camera’s automatic gain control (AGC).
Similar to autofocus, automatic gain control adjusts your audio level to the situation. For quieter environments, the audio level will increase, and it decreases in louder situations.
This means you have an unbalanced audio track which can be difficult to touch up in post-production.
Mini-jack to XLR adapters
If you on the other hand own an on-camera microphone or lavalier mic with a 3.5mm minijack and a preamp module or external recorder with XLR-inputs, you can get a 3.5mm mini-jack-to-XLR adapter to let you use your microphone with your external recorder or XLR module.
The result won’t be as good as a XLR microphone that goes directly into a XLR input, but it’s a neat way to use the better preamps of the external recorder or XLR module instead of the in-built preamps of your camera.
Using XLR adapters gives you the utmost control over your sound outside of having a separate audio recorder.
Top Recommended Microphones + External Recorder
1) Rode Lavalier Go
Weight: 1.12 oz / 6 g
Cable Length: 3.9 ft / 1.18 m
Pick-Up Pattern: Omnidirectional
Compatibility: 3.5mm TRS mini-jack output
Pros: This microphone is a robust product with good sound quality. The 3.5mm jack means it is highly compatible with wireless transmitters, dedicated recording devices, or even plugged directly into your camera.
Cons: This is not the cheapest option for a lav microphone on the market. If you are not as concerned about sound quality you might consider a cheaper option. The bulky clip makes this microphone a bit less discreet.
Description: The Rode Lavalier Go is a very useful lavalier microphone.
The Rode Lavalier Go is intended to be used with the Rode Wireless Go, but the 3.5mm output means it is compatible with any transmitter or recording device (including phones), and can even plug directly into your camera.
The foam shield on the microphone helps reduce percussive sounds and wind noise. If you are looking for a dependable lav mic for high-quality audio this is a great option.
Check the current price on Adorama
2) Sennheiser Pro Audio ME 2-II Lavalier Microphone
Weight: 0.64 oz / 18 g
Cable Length: 5.5 ft / 1.6 meters
Pick-Up Pattern: Omnidirectional
Compatibility: 3.5mm TRS mini-jack output with binding collar
Pros: The Sennheiser Pro Me 2-II is a durable and discreet lav mic with good sound quality and a 3.5mm output. It features good sound balance and minimizes pickup of ambient noises.
This mic is compatible with many transmitters or recording devices but be aware of the binding collar.
Cons: This microphone is on the more expensive end for entry level lav microphones. The binding collar on Sennheiser’s 3.5mm output jack means if you are connecting this device to other brands of audio recorders or transmitters you will need an adapter.
Description: The Sennheiser Pro ME 2-II is a high quality durable lavalier microphone. The binding collar on the 3.5mm output of this microphone might require an extra adapter to fully plug into your recording gear.
This Sennheiser lavalier microphone is another great option and you can expect to get great audio in a wide range of settings.
Check the current price on Adorama
3) Rode VideoMic Shotgun Microphone
Weight: 6 oz / 171g
Pick-Up Pattern: Super-Cardioid
Compatibility: 3.5mm TRS mini-jack output, shoe mount with 3/8″ thread
Pros: The Rode VideoMic is a high-quality professional-grade shotgun microphone designed for use with digital cameras.
The polar super-cardioid pickup pattern means this is a highly directional microphone so you can expect great audio in the direction you point your microphone while minimizing noise from other directions.
The included foam windshield can help reduce percussively and wind noise. The 3.5mm mini-jack and shoe mount mean you can attach the Rode VideoMic directly to your camera.
Cons: This is not the cheapest microphone out there so it could be out of your price range if you are on a budget. The plastic shoe mount needs to be handled carefully so as to prevent stripping the threads if over tightened.
Description: The Rode VideoMic is a high-quality microphone designed to be used with a digital camera. This is a highly compatible product for most DSLR setups with shoe mount and mini-jack output.
Clear audio and highly directional microphones are well suited to capturing the sounds you want and minimizing the other noises.
Check the current price on Adorama
4) Audio-Technica AT897 Shotgun Microphone
Weight: 5.1 oz / 145g
Pick-Up Pattern: Line + Gradient
Compatibility: 3-pin XLR output
Pros: The Audio-Technica AT897 is a high end XLR compatible shotgun microphone. Durable construction and a polar line and gradient pick up pattern means you can capture high quality clean audio with a very directional pickup pattern.
Cons: This high end microphone is going to cost you more than other types of shotgun mics. The XLR compatibility means you will also have to invest in an XLR adapter or external audio recording device.
Description: The Audio-Technica AT897 is a microphone that will give you clear professional sounding audio.
The XLR compatibility means this is best suited to use with a dedicated recording device, however, an XLR adapter can also be used to plug directly into your camera. If you are looking to take that next step to high-quality audio this is a good place to start.
Check current price on Adorama
5) Zoom H5 Digital Multitrack Recorder
Weight: 1.8 lbs / .82 kg
Number of Track: 4 track simultaneous
Number of Inputs: 2 to 4
Compatibility: XLR and 3.5mm
Pros: This product is a highly portable dedicated audio recorder. Two detachable microphones give you the ability to directly record in stereo sound.
Also, the two inputs with interchangeable XLR and TRS connectors mean you can record up to four tracks simultaneously, choosing the best microphone for the situation.
Cons: As a high quality audio recorder, this is not a cheap product. The headphone amp isn’t great and the usb interface very user friendly. This recorder is limited to two inputs in addition to the two attachable microphones.
Description: The Zoom H5 is an external audio recorder that can accommodate XLR or 3.5mm TRS inputs.
If you want high quality and a greater level of control over your audio this is a good product for recording independent audio. This recorder is portable and runs on AA batteries so you can keep it going in the field.
Check the current price on Adorama
As a filmmaker, you have to make sure you record audio as good as your video. Luckily, it’s possible to drastically improve the sound quality for your DSLR camera without much difficulty.
There are a lot of ways to upgrade your audio beyond built-in microphones depending on the setting you are filming in.
Personally, I have a variety of equipment and will switch between lavs, audio recorders, and shotgun microphones depending on the project.
Mini-jack compatible microphones are convenient and versatile options, while high-quality XLR microphones can take you to the next level.
As a filmmaker, it’s up to you to try things out and find what works best for your vision. Is there a product you rely on for great audio? Let us know in the comment section below!
Cade Taylor is a filmmaker and writer based out of Los Angeles. Originally from Seattle, he continues to work as the Outreach Coordinator for the Bigfoot Script Challenge, where he helps connect up-and-coming writers with industry professionals. When he’s not working on his own projects, helping out with Bigfoot, or covering desks, Cade loves to share what he knows with other filmmakers and promote great content.