AUDIO-TECHNICA 99 SERIES HOT-SHOE DSLR MICROPHONES
Audio-Technica makes the case for owning flexible options over a one-trick pony with its triple-threat of 99 Series video mics.
Review: Preshan John
Given the deluge of hot-shoe footed mics, there must be something very desirable about sitting a microphone atop a DSLR.
In professional filmmaking, the audio-recording and video-recording duties are typically quite separate. A sound recordist or boom operator has a unique role to a cameraman or grip — so the mics point at what they need to hear, and the cameras point at what they need to see — which aren’t always the same thing.
The concept of a forward-facing, camera-top mic assumes the camera points at both what you want to see and hear. Like shining a floodlight into the eyes of a reporter, it doesn’t always deliver the most flattering results. As the category has matured, so has its variety — because often you’ll want to hear different things, or hear things differently.
AUDIO-TECHNICA 99 SERIES
The Audio-Technica 99 Series contains a trio of hot-shoe mountable mics made for use with DSLRs. The lineup consists of two stereo mics; an X/Y and M/S model, and a mono shotgun mic.
These mics aren’t exactly for the filmmaker with Hollywood ambitions, and Audio-Technica doesn’t intend them to be. Rather, they’re made to be utilitarian and foolproof — which means they’re great set-and-forget options for the next family birthday party, graduation, or piano recital.
What you shouldn’t do is follow the example on the packaging. The photo shows a man in a field wielding a mic-laden DSLR with a long telephoto lens attached. He’s holding his eye to the optical viewfinder, so he’s probably not shooting video. And with a lens like that, it’s a long shot hoping the mic is hearing whatever’s in his viewfinder.
The construction of the 99 Series microphones is unique and well thought out. They’re surprisingly small in your hand, and very lightweight. Between the mic and the base is a springy, latticed piece of rubber that acts as a shockmount to isolate the capsule from handling noise. There’s no rotational adjustment, so the mics face dead straight when you slide them onto the hot-shoe, and a screw-down nut secures each in place. I like that the output cable is appropriately short — nothing worse than a large loop of wire dangling around your hands while shooting.
All three mics feature a switchable high-pass filter and come with a fluffy windshield for outdoor use.
What I love about the 99 Series mics is that they’re powered from your camera’s input via the 3.5mm mini jack. The lack of batteries means there’s one less thing to worry about when shooting, and in my experience, the mics don’t have much of an impact on the camera’s battery life. Check for compatibility before grabbing one though. While most major brand DSLRs from the last few years can supply the +5V needed to power the mics, not every DSLR can.
There is a downside, however. Without control over the internal gain, it means the quality of the microphone’s capture is more dependent than usual on the quality of your camera’s mic preamp. If you’re maxing it out to pick up a poorly amplified speech, or record some ambience, chances are you’re also amplifying a heap of your DSLRs inherent system noise.
I compared the sensitivity of the three mics side by side on the same source. As you’d expect, the most directional of the lot — the mono shotgun AT9947 mic — required the least gain from my camera and was the quietest of the trio. The X/Y AT9945 had the lowest sensitivity and needed more gain from the camera, resulting in the most noise. Sitting in the middle for sensitivity and noise was the AT9946 M/S mic.
AT9946: MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
The mid-side configuration is favoured by many for its natural stereo spread and mono compatibility. The AT9946 features an M/S pickup pattern with a hypercardioid central microphone and two separate capsules for the sides. It has been designed to hone in on the centre image — anything middle frame is louder and more present than off to the sides. Having said that, the stereo image is still portrayed very naturally with no obvious nulls between the mid and side areas. The side capsules pick up a tasteful amount of room tone or ambience making the AT9946 perfect for scenarios where you’d use a shotgun or centre-heavy mic, but still want to maintain a natural sound with some surrounding audio mixed in. And remember, collapsing M/S recordings to mono results in complete cancellation of the side channels, so weird phasing stuff is ruled out entirely.
AT9947: SHOOT STRAIGHT
The directivity of the AT9947 mono shotgun mic makes it great for interview-style shots, or any application where a person is speaking to the camera. Its low-noise also means it’ll work for more softly-spoken subjects. It’s not exactly high-fidelity, with a stated frequency response of 70Hz-12kHz, but still plenty good enough to capture intelligible speech and music reproduction. The AT9947 provides a respectable amount of side-rejection for its size; it’s much handier than a foot-long shotgun that’ll make your rig front-heavy. If portability and weight are important to you, this mic is an ideal trade-off over something better but bulkier.
AT9945: SEE WIDE, HEAR WIDE
The AT9945 X/Y microphone is best friends with a wide angle lens — matching the focal length to the stereo image. It’s perfect for high-SPL applications like filming performances — stick it on a centrally placed camera that’s set up for a locked-off wide shot of the stage for a nice representation of what the crowd hears. Though the AT9945 will do a pretty good job capturing a show log on its own (provided it’s a decent venue and soundie), you could potentially use the audio track to add some ‘air’ if you’re going the whole nine yards with a live recording. Noise can be a problem if you’re recording ambience with the AT9945, but it works a treat recording noisy environments that require less gain.