The poor man’s wireless microphone: How to use a digital voice recorder as a walkaround microphone


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Well, okay, maybe the title’s “poor man” reference is a bit of a misnomer.  I mean, to the extent that an iPhone can be considered a “poor man’s” tool is debatable, right?

But, when you consider replacing everywhere I say or use the word iPhone in the video above with the words digital voice recorder, then maybe it makes a bit more sense.  When you start comparing the cost of a digital voice recorder (about $50 to $200 for one with decent sound quality) with a wireless microphone system setup (which can range from a few hundred shells to several thousands), the case for a poor man’s wireless microphone starts sounding a little better.

But, even if you were to shell out for a wireless lavalier microphone system, it would still cost at least a few hundred bucks for just one such system.  Add another talking-head or two into your video and you can see where expenses start racking up.  Those can be tough expenses to justify, especially if all you want to do is record passably good quality audio / video for purposes of video-blogging and the occasional client interview.

4 Video-blogging Anti-Best Practices

The issue I’m addressing in this post relates to a discussion we had a couple of weeks ago during one of our SMMOC meetings (Social Media Mastermind, Orange County roundtable).  At that meeting the topic of blogging, video-blogging and web video came up.  Of course, I perked right up.

One of the points we bantered about were some of the best practices in video-blogging.  I mentioned some of my personal anti-favorites:

  • Recording with a computer-mounted webcam — especially when you get too close to the mounted camera (you’re bustin’ my personal space, man!)
  • Recording a video blog with a webcam while in your bedroom — and especially with your bed gracing the space in the background (hmm…too creepy)
  • Poor / dim / yellowish lighting (put me to sleep already)
  • Poor audio — especially having room echo, white noise, and so on (ugh, are you kidding me?)

During the audio portion of our SMMOC discussion, I made the suggestion — which I’ll make to you, as well — of using a microphone whenever you can.  Even if it’s a corded microphone, get one with a long cord so that you can benefit from allowing yourself some “walking around space” and a bit of distance from the camera.  This naturally segued to discussing tips about getting good audio quality even when you’re all the way on the other side of the room from the camera.  Or, even more so — say when you’re all the way across an open field or a river stream from your camera.  How do you get good sound to record with your video when you’re far away from your camera?

Well, of course, a wireless or lavalier type microphone, transmitter and receiver system is a good way to go.  And, while I show just such a device in the first part of the video above, the fact is that I spent a few hundred bucks for mine.  That might be a bit much for some folks.  Especially if you’re still just dangling your feet and touching your toes in the waters of this whole video-blogging pool thingy.

A Digital Voice Recorder Can Help You Inexpensively Get Some “Walking Around” Space While Recording Your Video

So, for a few hundred dollars less than a wireless audio system setup, I made the point about using a digital voice recorder.  I happen to use the Voice Memos app that comes standard with my iPhone 3GS.  Although, you can pretty much use whatever you want.  The only requirements I would say are:

  • Listen to the quality of the audio recorded.  Make sure it’s, uh, sound. (Pun intended.)  It sorta defeats the purpose otherwise
  • The audio should be easily transferrable to your computer
  • The audio file format should be easily transferred into your video editing software. (Of course this implies you have video editing software.)

The Biggest Challenge About Recording Audio On a Digital Recording Device That’s Separate From Your Camera Is…

…Syncing.  That is, you have to go through a few steps to sync up the audio file from your digital voice recorder with the talking-head’s lips in the video.  (Remember those b-level martial movies where the samurai guy is seen talking, but the sound doesn’t go with what his lips appear to be saying?  That’s the effect we don’t want to have.)

Solution:  To get the audio and video sync’d up, take a step somewhere in the beginning of your recording session and clap.  Yes, clap!

After you turn on the camera and are recording both video and audio, make sure your digital voice recorder is in your pocket somewhere close to your mouth.  (Like in a pocket of your shirt or blouse.)  Or, better yet, use a corded microphone clipped to your shirt and which is connected to your digital recorder.

Then, with both these devices turned on, clap loudly three times.  This will give you three hard audio “spikes” (see below) that will appear in both your camera’s audio track and the digital recorder’s audio that you can use to sync up after you import them both into your video editor.

Caveats For Your Video Editor

  • Make sure it supports the ability to view audio files as “wave forms” (similar to what’s shown in the picture above)
  • It helps to have the ability to have multi-tracks.  This means that you can place different audio (or video) clips “on top” of one another.  For example, in the picture above, notice how there are three rows (called tracks in video-speak) for the audio files.

Video Editing Software That Will Work For This

  • For the PC:
    • Windows Movie Maker (usually bundled free with your PC) actually has one additional audio track you can use in addition to the audio that comes with the video.  They usually use it for music, but you can place your digital audio file there, too.  Then just match up the spikes in the same way I show you in the video.
  • For the Mac:
    • Sadly, I don’t think iMovie (usually comes with your Mac) displays audio waveforms.  (Someone help me out here?)  Consequently, I’d say it might be worth investing a bit in another Mac-based video editor like Final Cut Express (about $99 last I checked… ‘might even actually come bundled free with some Mac purchases.)

Your Turn

What other tips and tricks do you have about getting good quality audio and video on a shoestring budget?

Share it.

Comments (11)

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  4. Mel, thanks for the great tip! I suffer from poor audio, at times, and not savvy in edit audio tracks. However, I will try your recommendations.

    • Mel

      Glad to help, Ric. Good luck! 🙂

  5. Mel,

    Great tutorial for syncing video. The camcorder microphone is usually the worst sound source. Using external microphones make all the difference.

    I had done a tutorial using a similar technique for screencasting here:

    On the Mac side, you’re right that iMovie ’09 doesn’t make syncing the audio very easy. I used ScreenFlow in my example and because it uses a traditional stacked timeline editor view, it’s easy to sync a different audio source to one or two video tracks.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Mel

      Thanks Scott. It’s always great to find a kindred spirit in the video / screencasting world.

      Thanks, too, for the confirmation on iMovie. Also, I agree, Screenflow rocks. Although, I’ve sorta standardized on Camtasia (Mac) for some of my recent projects. I’m comfortable recommending them both.

      Thanks for reading my post. Stop by again.

  6. Thanks Mel! I have made some videos recently on my i4 and the audio is attrocious. If you are more than 5 feet away or there is a hint if wind you are screwed.

    Quick question for you. Have you experimented with the wide angle lens adaptor for the iPhone? I am interested in giving it a spin and am hoping it helps pictures and video.

    • Mel

      Hi Holly. I agree. Wind and ambient noise are big downers when shooting. That’s where a microphone comes in real handy.

      On the wide angle lens adapter for the iPhone: No, I haven’t tested it out. I’d be interested in having you share your thoughts on it (via either a link to a post on your blog? Or, as a guest post here?) if you get around to testing it out.

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  8. How about irig and zoom mic products? Suprised wasnt mentioned

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