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Using Portable Sound Mixers
The Importance of Sound for Video Part 1 of 2
by Bob Hudson

Click to see one of the Best Portable Sound Mixers

We want to discuss things like microphones and portable sound mixers, also known as
audio mixers - the basic components of making good audio for video - but in order to understand the importance of mics and mixers, we need talk about the picture, not just the sound.

Click here to see bigger pictures of what field production sound mixers look like

When you produce a video what's most important, the picture or the sound?

Before you rush to answer that, do this: turn on the TV and mute the sound. Then, turn on the radio, which of course has only audio and no picture. Next, turn up the TV sound, but look away from it, so you cannot see the picture.

Which of these three scenarios conveyed the least amount of information? Chances are it was the TV with picture but no sound. The TV sound without picture probably conveyed enough information to just about give you a 100% understanding of the program.

In video making we seem to spend most of our time worrying about the picture, but a video with a poor picture and great sound is usually going to be more informative - and better received by the audience than one with a mix of lousy sound and a beautiful picture.

Remember The Blair Witch Project of a few years back? It was a very successful film that was shot, in part, on Hi 8 camcorders that most "professionals" would consider unsuitable for anything other than filming children's birthday parties and family vacations. The film's producers could get away with shaky, unfocused images, but it was a must that the audience be able to understand the audio, that the sound track be completely intelligible.

The secret to making a hit film with a cheap camcorder is to use audio gear - microphones and a portable audio mixer - that costs a lot more than the camcorder (well, the real secret is to have a great script, great director, a distribution agreement, etc., but without the great sound nothing else matters).

The first rule of making great audio for video is to forget about your camcorder's built-in microphone. It might work okay for picking up the voice of someone who is within a few feet of the camera lens, but even then it might not produce good results if there's a lot of background noise.

What you need is an external microphone, and generally some way to control the level. Most camcorder's do not allow you to adjust microphone levels, even some of those that do, have awkward menu-based controls that can be difficult, if not impossible, to adjust during actual shooting. And that's where portable sound mixers come into the mix, so to speak.

A field portable sound mixer is also called a portable audio mixer and ENG mixer - "ENG" stands for "Electronic news gathering" and is a term that dates from earliest days of camcorders, when the only people who had them were TV news crews who until then had used 16mm film cameras.

The television news crews have pretty much always carried battery-powered portable sound mixers, even when they only used one microphone and didn't really need to mix several mics down to one or two audio channels. But, they often do use more than one microphone, especially when the reporter is interviewing someone.

You might wonder, "Why use a field audio mixer for one microphone?" Go to Using Portable Sound Mixers Part 2

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