Equipment for Self Recording

Now that we are all living deep in the time of COVID, I imagine many of you are Zoom teaching and now, at the minimum, are at the cusp of your first self producing video for collaborations. You’ve read the guide for video and audio tips, but what about gear? Here are some recommendations if you’re wanting to invest in better sound and picture equipment, while still keeping the budget low. 

Perhaps this sentiment doesn’t go along with the consumerist world we live in, but the truth is that good technique in lighting, composition and mic placement have a much higher impact on the quality of your video than anything else. So I think we can achieve excellent results with modest equipment.

We’re not going to get super-crazy here with expensive options, but are going to recommend some lower cost options that will make it easier to make decent videos. We’ll start with some theory, then jump into specific gear. For video and film, the quality of sound has a high impact on viewer satisfaction. Amazing imagery with terrible sound ruins the effect of the imagery. Some argue that substandard imagery with great sound works, but I think the goal is to have both be great.  

Order of importance in impact on sound: 

  • your sound
  • the acoustic of the space
  • the placement of the microphones
  • the sound quality of the microphones
  • the sound quality of the preamp

Order of importance in impact on picture: 

  • the lighting
  • the placement of the camera/composition
  • the image quality of the camera optics
  • the recording format

Our recommendation therefore, is to film with your smartphone, camcorder, mirrorless or DSLR camera, and use a dedicated recorder to capture the sound. Light your space well, choose a very open, or a very dead sounding room (we can add reverb), place your microphone in a position that sounds the best, and put the camera in the best place for a good composition.

CAMERA

Cell phones have surprisingly good cameras. What they lack in technical ability, they make up for spades in how they use what they have. They are arguably the smartest cameras around, using artificial intelligence to compensate and make things look great. 

SMARTPHONE: If you use your smartphone camera, make sure you are using the back camera. Also, please shoot in the highest quality settings available, and please make sure the video isn’t getting compressed somewhere between shooting and uploading. 

CAMCORDER: Not tons better, but tons easier in a workflow, and have their own feature sets that make them attractive to use. Filming is super easy.

Sony, Canon and Panasonic all have a model in the $200 range with similar specs and abilities. The Sony and Panasonic are a slightly wider angle (27mm and 28mm verses Canon’s 30mm). All three have HDMI outputs, meaning that with the addition of some other hardware (in the $3-500 range) they could serve as a souped up webcam, an angle that may be worth considering if we’re going to be teaching remotely for a long time. The Canon can also accept a lav mic, that could be helpful for quick interview. 

Low Light Performance:

  • Canon- Regular 5 lux; Low Light .4 lux (best)
  • Panasonic – Regular 4 lux; Low Light 1 lux
  • Sony – Regular 6 lux; Low Light 3 lux 

Here are the models: 

Canon Vixia HF R800 ($250). The advancements it has made it the past five years are mostly on the intelligence side. This camera recognizes faces and prioritizes exposure for them.  

Sony HDR-CX440 ($300) Sony has long been a leader in imaging and sound technology on the high end and the low end. Spec-wise, this camera lines up with the Canon and Panasonic. This model has a built in USB cable for quick transfers.

Panasonic HC-V180K ($230) This is the Panasonic camera in this range. Also, very similar to the other two. Closer to the Sony in pixel count and the wide angle is 28mm. Good low light at 4 lux

In future posts we will consider low budget, interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras that shoot both photography and video. 

TRIPOD

Extremely Low Budget: How to make a smartphone tripod out of a paper towel roll and paper plate.

Super Low Budget: For $20 get it delivered today on Amazon, a phone tripod with a remote control.

Very Low Budget: Dinkum Systems ActionPod PRO (10”) $40

(This is a clamp with a camera mount). 

Low Budget: Magnus VT-100 (5’ max height) $50

AUDIO

Technology has come a long way since I last researched this niche of equipment that sits between consumer technology and professional. For a versatile, low cost, high quality sound solution, the Zoom H4N Professional is my choice at only $230. It is a handheld recorder with a stereo mic built in, that won’t distort even with the loudest instruments (140dB). It has an 1/8th inch mini input jack for a lavaliere mic. It has a headphone output. It also has 2 XLR input for studio condensor mics. Finally, and this is the dealmaker for these COVID times, all of the Zoom models can work as a USB audio interface for your computer or smartphone, giving you access to great sound on Facetime, Whatsapp and Zoom! The other Zoom. 

Options: you can get a stripped down version of this without the professional inputs for only $120 with the H1N. Sounds like a virus. 

Headphones. So many to choose from. One of my favorites, the Beyerdynamic DT-770’s are on sale somewhere for only $120. These are comfy and sound great. But here is something that cost a lot less and is more versatile, because they are designed to work well with consumer devices like camcorders and mini recorders, the DT-240’s ($80). I would recommend these as an entry level headphone that can be used on your smartphone, computer, mini recorder and up.

Budget Microphones (under $150)

If your instrument sounds good in your room, then any of these low budget microphone options should do a good job of capturing it, if placed well and set up correctly.

My favorite stereo mic placement is called ORTF. It is counterintuitive, becuase the mics have to point 110° away from each other and it looks wrong because neither mic is pointed towards the action, but with great mics it gives an incredible image both on headphones and on speakers. There should be 17cm between the capsules. Piano is another story. 

Small Diaphragm (great for lots of high frequency energy):

  • PreSonus PM-2 Matched Pair $129
  • sE Electronics sE7 $99/each (*best)
  • Samson C02 Stereo Pair $140
  • Audix f9 $140/each

Medium Diaphragm (sort of perfect all around classical mic size)

  • AKG P120 $89
  • Audio-Technica AT2020 $99
  • sE Electronics X1 $99

Large Diaphragm (Better for Mid to Low frequency details):

  • AKG P220 $135
  • Studio Projects B1 $99
  • Audio-Technica AT2035 $150

Super Budget Pick: Marantz MPM-1000 $60, comes with desktop stand, shockmount, cable, windscreen. Huge improvement from built in mics at a very low cost. Halfway between medium and large with a .7” diaphragm.

You’re on your own for cables, clips and stands. 

LIGHTS/BACKGROUND

Like most everything in production, the prices of lights go up fast because they do specific things. They may be even throughout the color spectrum, or they don’t flicker on camera, or they can be adjusted in intensity. Soft light is the most flattering, so you will often see large soft boxes in TV interviews and the like. I realize most of you won’t be buying lights, but if you need a direction for a cool running, inexpensive kit, Genaray has a 2 light soft and simple Audition Kit ($550) that is a good starter. If you’re wanting to have a clean artistic presentation, you can use a white or black paper background. A modest kit (meaning, pretty much a close up shot) runs $150 from Savage including a 4.5’ wide paper roll.