Guide to Camcorder Audio Recording

What you need to know about audio recording on your camcorder

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If you're in the market for a camcorder, here are a few things you need to know about camcorder audio, plus some tips on what to look for to ensure a quality audio experience.

Microphones

Camcorders collect their audio through a built-in microphone, but not all microphones are created equally. There are three basic types: mono, stereo, and multi-channel or "surround sound."

Mono Microphones

The most basic microphone, a mono mic is usually found on low-end camcorders and especially pocket camcorders. They collect just a single channel of sound and while passable, some people complain that the sound is flat on these types of mics.

Stereo Microphone

A stereo microphone records two channels of sound, not one. Anyone who's plugged earphones onto their head knows the "stereo effect" with sound bouncing between the ear or played in both. Stereo microphones are the most common types of mics used in high-definition camcorders (they are also available on pocket models, but are not as prevalent) and will play back well on a TV or computer.

Multi-Channel Microphone

Some high-end camcorders offer multi-channel audio recording. The best way to think about a multi-channel or surround sound recording is to picture a basic home theater set-up. You have three speakers up front, by your TV, and a pair of speakers in the back. In the best action movies, you'll hear sound zipping around your head. With a multi-channel microphone, you're able to duplicate that experience (to a degree) on your camcorder: the camera will pick up and play back sound across five different channels — not the two available on a stereo mic or the one available from a mono mic.

If you don't own, and don't really want to own, a home theater system in your house, recording your home movies in surround sound doesn't make a lot of sense. All things being equal, you'd be better off finding a camcorder with a stereo microphone.

Audio Features

While all camcorder vendors pour time and attention into the bells and whistles of the optical side of camcorder design, some pay less attention to audio.

Zoom Microphone

Normal microphones don't discriminate when it comes to the direction the sound is coming from — that's why, if you're the one doing the recording, your voice booms into the movie if you want to put in your two cents. A zoom microphone, however, can focus audio collection directionally while you zoom the lens. In other words, if someone is in front of you talking and you zoom the camcorder on him, a zoom mic will likewise focus sound collection from the front and not from the sides or rear. Zoom microphones are generally available on higher-end camcorders.

Wind Screen

One of the biggest problems people encounter when recording outside is the wind rushing past the microphone. The wind can produce a deafening sound or just an annoying distraction and so it's pretty common to find camcorders promising to deflect the wind with an internal "wind shield." These devices are modest and don't afford all that much protection, so you may wish to purchase an accessory wind shield you can insert over your camcorder's microphone whenever you find yourself in the wind.

On more expensive camcorders, wind-screen mode uses software and digital signal processors to digitally counteract the negative effects of wind. Again, the effectiveness of these technologies varies. Depending on the wind level, some degree of wind noise is usually unavoidable, but a camcorder with a wind-shield mic and noise-reducing mode will at least minimize the distraction.

Microphone Input

Most higher-end camcorders are modest enough to know that they don't quite measure up in the audio department. That's why you'll find microphone inputs on them. These inputs allow you to attach accessory microphones for higher quality audio. If you know you want to add an extra microphone to the mix, you should also find a camcorder with a hot-shoe, since many accessory mics can be mounted more easily on the hot-shoe atop the camcorder.

Stereo Playback

Ever since camcorders began adding built-in projectors, equipment designers focused more attention to the quality of the speakers for on-board audio playback. High-end projector camcorders tend to have much better built-in speakers for audio playback than non-projector models.