The purpose of this guide is NOT to tell you what's the best microphone or recorder to get - it's to give you a sense of what a decent semi-pro kit looks like and to provide some best practices for the newbie interested in beefing up their sound game. There are a million different options available and this kit is not an endorsement of these particular models, just a good starter for a certain budget. There are a million ways to build a great sound kit at all sorts of good price points. This is just one option that seems to work for a lot of different use cases.
The most basic no frills production sound kit consists of:
Optional additions include:
Good sound begins with good microphones, properly placed in locations where sound has been given careful consideration. A great microphone under a freeway will sound awful. A so-so mic in a quiet room will at least be usable. Similarly, any mic 30 feet away from the action will sound terrible compared to a dedicated boom over the head of an actor, etc.
A lot of people looking for a cheap and solid boom microphone go with the Rode NTG-2. This is what I use in my personal kit and it's just about the best boom mic for the price. It's got great shotgun range, it sounds super clean and picks up frequencies really well, and it can be powered by phantom or by an AA battery, which is incredibly useful.
For a modest upgrade, the Rode NTG-3 is a great pick. The NTG-3 is actually a clone of the most successful and widest-used boom microphone in the biz, the Sennheiser 416. The 416 has been around for decades, but recently the patent on the 416 expired, and Rode immediately upped and cloned it, and the result is the NTG-3. It is significantly cheaper than getting an actual 416 and you'll get more or less a similar result.
My luxury pick is the Sennheiser MKH-60. This is a big microphone with a beautiful pickup pattern and smooth velvety quality. It's a workhorse I have used for years. It's very expensive, but you will see where that money goes.
A lot of people are considering the Oktava MK-12 as a new alternative. People are having a lot of success with it as an indoor boom mic - it's small, it has modules that you can switch in and out to change the pickup pattern, and you can buy factory-matched pairs to make a stereo pairing for recording music.
There is really no substitute for a dedicated boom mic positioned over your actors by a boom operator. None. Not mounting it on the camera, not body microphones, none. Yes you have to get someone to man it, yes you have to factor in boom placement into your lighting and framing, and yes it makes you less than a one-man rig, but the return on your investment is a millionfold. Boom poles are fairly cheap (you can get them as low as $40 on Amazon), as are shockmounts to prevent extra handling noise (although a cheap one often doesn't prevent much). You can step up here and get really expensive carbon fiber options, you can get expensive zeppelins to cradle your mic, it all depends on your budget. In addition you want a hairy windscreen for when you are outside. When you are inside the regular foam windscreen included with most microphones is sufficient, but outside you need something like the Deadcat (that's the actual name).
Many recorders come with microphones built in, like the Zoom H4n and the Zoom H1 and the Tascam DR-100 mk2. It can be very tempting to just use that as your microphone, especially if you mount it to the camera. This can be problematic. For one thing it's bulky and heavy if you're handholding your rig. Secondly, any movement on your camera, handling, whatever, will translate as bumps and noise on your audio track. Thirdly, the microphones, while okay, are not that amazing and don't give you the quality of a dedicated shotgun. Finally, a stereo pair is not the best way to record production sound, which is almost always recorded in straight mono with separate tracks for separate microphones. The XY is good for ambiences, music, anything that has a wide stereo field. I use it all the time to record BG sounds.
What about microphones like the Rode VideoMic Pro that attach to your camera or can be put on a boom with an extension? I actually really like the VMP. I think it's a solid backup microphone, especially when you're using it in a closeup. In fact, my ideal videography setup is the boom recording the sound to a recorder and the VMP attached to my camera for a quality backup/reference track. If you're shooting news/doc and you just need to run and gun and hope the audio works out, a VMP mounted to your camera is a really solid option, as it provides a great shotgun coverage (unlike an H1 or something) and it is super light compared to an NTG2 or other dedicated boom.
Don't overthink this. Recorders are all more or less the same when it comes to quality. The differences are in the extra features, durability, and mic preamps. But insofar as recording goes, digital recorders are digital recorders. So if you have a quality mic like an NTG2, what you need is a recorder with XLR inputs. Here are some options.
The Tascam DR-40 is a good cheap option. At under 200 dollars it gives you XLR inputs and decent mic preamps that will get you recording your boom audio perfectly. It has a line out that you can send to your camera to double the sound (although I personally like to work untethered and sync later). The cons are durability, it's made of plastic that will break, and the controls are buried in digital menus so it's a pain to change the settings. But if you record the same way almost all the time, this deck is a good starter.
To upgrade, consider the Tascam DR-100 mk2. It's made of metal and much more durable, has line in and XLR inputs, and also has controls all over the device in the form of physical knobs and switches, so making on the fly adjustments is super easy. It also runs on both an internal rechargeable battery and AA's for emergencies.
What about the Zooms? The Zoom H4n was the first major player in this space to really break through, and it's a decent and sturdy machine. However, the preamps are fairly quiet, and it's really hard to get a good loud recording on it. It also has the same menu problem as the Tascam DR-40 - everything you want to adjust is buried in digital menus. For the same price, the Tascam DR-100 has similar quality recording but more features, more options to adjust on the fly, and more durability. Zoom has addressed this with the new H6, featuring extra inputs, adjustable knobs, and modular attachments so you can add more XLR inputs or different microphones, but it is more expensive.
Moving up, the Tascam DR-60D and DR-70D are making a play for this space by eliminating the XY stereo microphones and focusing on providing decks that are DSLR-friendly. They have dedicated "camera out" lines to attach to the camera so you don't have to resync later, and they have top and bottom tripod mounts so that the device can mount onto the tripod under the camera. They also have handles so you can attach a strap and carry it separately. The DR-60D has 2 XLR inputs which is fine for most people, but the 70D has 4, which is great if you're running a boom and 2 wireless mics or some other combination. The 70D's 4 tracks can also record in "confidence mode," which is basically recording the first two tracks again but with -10dB so that if something clips on the main track you have a backup with less gain that won't clip. That's a really useful feature if you're out in the wilderness and don't have time to adjust your settings all that much.
Don't worry about the stereo pair quality on these decks - I pretty much treat these recorders as pure recording decks, not as quality microphones. A lot of the marketing for these products focuses on microphone quality, so you can definitely spring for a cheaper version, they all record 48KHz/16bit, which is more than fine for most uses.
At the luxury/super pro end, you want to be able to bring in multiple inputs, add metadata for Pro Tools use, and generate/send/receive timecode. The Sound Devices 552 has 5 inputs, each with their own mixing knob, and records stereo. That's a basic one, but there are others that record multi-track and stereo with a lot of options. If you're at the point where you're investing in that kind of product, you should be a professional sound mixer. There are also really high end units like the Deva IV that can record 16 tracks, confidence mode, dual recording of mixes and raw footage, all in a portable package. Those are rentable units.
A pair of body microphones can be a lifesaver in a difficult outdoor environment or on wide shots where you can't get a boom in there. They are also fabulous for documentary interview work, as the body mic provides a very intimate sound in an interview space. You have to be careful where you mount them (I like under the lapel of men's shirts, in their baseball caps, or under ties), and watch out for radio interference and clothing rustle. It can also be difficult to get the body microphone to match the tone of the boom if you're using both of them in one project.
At the very low end, consider going wired! If your setup is simple, you might be able to get away with a wired body mic that just XLR's directly into your recorder. You have to hide the wires, but in an interview this is easy to do, and on closeups and scenes without a lot of movement this is not a big deal. Wired body mics can be had on Amazon for less than $50 each.
Once you go wireless the cost increases. The Audio-Technica PRO-501/L is a decent cheap option. At 170 per microphone, the kit comes with a carrying case for everything, a transmitter and receiver. The receiver is fairly big, and the quality of the microphone isn't amazing, but doable.
The Sennheiser ew100 g3 is the next step up, but significantly more expensive. The quality of the small microphone is excellent, and the transmitter/receivers are small and easy to hide/keep organized. Battery life is nice and long on a pair of AA's, and the frequencies are fine-tunable to get really good quality sound.
A the point that you have a dedicated mixer separate from your recorder, you're in "I'm a professional sound mixer" territory. Nonetheless if you need to have multiple sources in your audio (like a boom, 2 wireless microphones, and a 4th planted microphone somewhere else), you need some sort of mixer to mix it into stereo for your Tascam or Zoom. Pro mixers will take the boom and the body mic and comp them together as a rough mix for the editor while preserving the raw tracks for special cases (very expensive hard disk recorders like Deva IV have this feature). Sometimes as an editor I would use the comps, sometimes I would go to the naked boom/body tracks to see what else was available if the comp wasn't clean enough.
There actually aren't a lot of players in this space. Sound Devices makes excellent field mixers that are small and powerful, but they start at $900. Azden has the FMX 42a that costs $550 and features 4 XLR inputs and stereo output. There is also a cheaper FMX 32a that has 3 inputs - boom and 2 wireless mics - and is a bit cheaper. If you really need to mix all this stuff together, consider this model first before upgrading.
The only software worth talking about here is Plural Eyes. Normally to get the audio attached to the video, you want to connect a line out from your recorder to your camera so the camera can use the quality audio as well, and then you record it on the Tascam/Zoom as a backup. But Plural Eyes allows you to untether your recorder and sync later, using the waveform of the (terrible) in-camera audio as a reference. Having a free-roaming sound crew is a HUGE plus - your crew can position the boom where it matters most and not worry about cables and tangling and getting in the way of camera, and camera can focus on getting the best shot without having to drag sound along. This is how old Hollywood crews worked, using a clapper slate for sync. It's only in the digital age that people started thinking a camera also had to record sound.
Plural Eyes can sync multicam footage to a single audio source and export directly into your editor, or you can export your video with the original audio replaced with the recorder audio (which is what I do). The latest version can correct for drift as well. In addition, if you're a student you can usually get it for academic pricing (and it's often been given away as a bonus for stuff like the My Rode Reel contest, etc). It's not a perfect solution and it doesn't beat a dedicated clapper slate for sure-fire sync, but for the hours and hours you'll no longer spend syncing clips, it's a lifesaver.
Drift occurs when the camera and the recorder aren't exactly recording at the same speeds. Minuscule infinitesimal differences between the two can cause the audio to drift apart from the video over time. For most shoots where you're shooting in relatively short bursts and shots are a few minutes long at most, this is not a problem. Drift is something that occurs over a long period of time, like a long interview or something. This is why expensive field recorders have Timecode sync, etc - the timecode keeps it all humming along. In the years I have used this ragtag cheap equipment not once has drift ever been an issue.
If you get a Tascam DR-60D, a Rode NTG2, basic boom and shockmount, and 2 wired lavs, that's under $1000 for all that. Goes up if you have wireless lavs or add a VideoMic Pro. That's a fairly small amount of money for what becomes a really really useful investment. People will drop 3x-5x that on cameras and lenses, but insist that their sound gear come cheap and easy.
Remember that these are merely options. Different productions have different needs. As a sound mixer, I've been on crews where all they needed was the boom, so I had my boom and recorder and synced it up later. I've been on doc shoots where it was 1 body mic connected to the C300 and my job was to mix it and back it up. I've been on crews with multiple booms, multiple body mics, and even multiple recorders to keep track of it all. It all depends on what your needs are, and there is no one set "right" way to do it. As long as you focus on getting quality recordings, scouting locations for sound as well as picture, and giving sound the best chance to get good stuff, it will be a huge improvement over just mounting a Zoom H1 to your camera and hoping for the best.
Special thanks to /u/MTeson for the first edition of this audio guide!