Built-In Microphone Versus External Microphone: Which is Better for Your Video Project?

Using the built-in microphone on your video camera may not be your best option if you're hoping for good sound quality for your videos. In this tip, we compare the sound quality of a video camera's microphone to that of an external microphone, such as a lavalier or lapel mic. 

You might have noticed when using your video camera that the resulting sound quality is oftentimes poor to average. This is especially apparent if you compare your video's sound to the professional sound you hear on television and in the movies.

Well, if you're relying on your video camera's built-in microphone to capture sound, that's where your problem starts. 

Why Built-in Microphones Don't Always Produce Great Audio

The microphones built into most consumer-grade video cameras yield low-quality sound. That's because they're omnidirectional, which means they're sensitive to sound in all directions not just the particular sound source you're trying to record. 

These built-in microphones pick up and amplify the ambient noise in your filming environment. This is also known as "automatic gain control." For example, when filming outdoors you'll record background sounds -- everything from birds chirping to your neighbor's lawnmower to crowded street noise. 

Your camera can't differentiate between these various sounds as far as which sound is more important than the other. It boosts all of the sound to an equal, strong level. What this means is the audio you really wanted to capture (such as the person you're interviewing) can be drowned out by all the incidental background noise.

Another problem with the built-in microphone is that it also records your camera's internal motor noise and adds that as a layer of sound to your video. On your final video this comes across as a distracting hum or buzz. Sometimes you can also hear a mechanical sound on your video when you use the zoom feature.

Fortunately, some of these issues are less prevalent with the newer cameras that don't have motors since they use solid state storage rather than tapes. 

The best way to circumvent all of these sound problems is to attach an external microphone -- such as a lavalier or lapel mic -- to your video camera to improve sound quality. To demonstrate the improvement in sound quality using an external mic, be sure to check out the video that accompanies this article.

Lavalier Microphone Tips

Lavalier microphones are popular because they're small, easy to attach to your video camera and can be clipped unobtrusively to clothing. As opposed to a hand-held mic, they allow for hands-free audio recording. 

The main reason an external mic works better is that it puts the microphone closer to the sound source. Even if internal camera mics were really high quality (which they aren't), the audio would likely be improved simply by having the external mic that much closer to the speaker or whatever the sound source happens to be. 

The microphone we've been using recently is a wired lavalier Audio Technica ATR35s. These usually run around $30, but we were lucky enough to get a real bargain on EBay for $7.50. More expensive lavalier mics with additional features can run several hundreds of dollars.

Our basic condenser microphone comes with a 20-foot cable, which is a good length to accommodate most interview filming situations. It comes with a battery, lapel-clip and windscreen. The windscreen is a foam cushion which fits on top of the microphone to minimize wind noise when filming outdoors.

I simply attach the microphone to the input on my camera and then I clip the other end to my clothing. This external mic now overrides my camera's built-in mic. The lav mic is designed to record human voice and eliminate background noise. It's perfect when you're doing interviews or stationary filming.

Now here's another tip . . . If you haven't purchased a video camera yet or you're thinking of upgrading, make sure the camera you purchase comes with a microphone input. Not all cameras do. You'll need the microphone input if you want to attach an external mic to your camera.

Also, look at the placement of the microphone input on the camera. If possible, purchase a camera with the mic input on the side opposite the video screen.

Mic inputs on the inside of the video screen require the screen to be open in order to access them. This means you can't close the screen as long as the microphone is attached and the wires can get in the way of your screen. A solution for this is to purchase separately a right angle adapter for your mic to help keep the wire out of the way.

Video camera with right angle adapter attached to input end of lavalier microphone wire. See how the wire goes straight down and doesn't interfere with the video screen? That's the right angle adapter keeping the wire neat and tidy!

So, there you have it, our tip comparing the sound quality of a video camera's built-in microphone versus an external microphone, the lavalier mic. In our opinion, using an external microphone trumps relying on your built-in microphone for most videotaping situations.

If you liked this tip on using your camera's built-in microphone versus an external microphone, then be sure to check out our Audio Tips section and our Camera Tips section for more groovy ideas to better videos!

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