Audio has been called the "poor stepchild" of video, because it's so often neglected. But it shouldn't be that way; good audio is an essential part, maybe even the most essential part, of a good video. Don't believe me? Take a movie you really like, pop it into the player, and turn down the audio all the way. I'll bet you lose interest within five minutes. Now try it the other way: turn up the audio, but just close your eyes and listen. I'll bet the audio pulls you into the story all by itself, and almost forces you to open your eyes and watch.
So, let's pay some attention to audio issues, shall we? Perhaps the biggest single key to getting good audio is to get the microphone up close to the sound source. This is why on-camera mics, even good-quality shotguns, aren't a particularly good solution-the best position for capturing the picture is almost always farther away from the subject than the best position for capturing the audio. We need to get the mic off the camera, and get it closer to the action.
But this introduces a complication: how to get the audio signal from the mic element to the camcorder? The purist would tell you that a balanced audio cable is the best way to do it, and from a technical standpoint, he'd be right. Cables are simple and inexpensive, and a balanced cable can carry a mic-level audio signal a long way without any noticeable degradation.
But for the wedding and event videographer, running microphone cables all over the place is often difficult. Moving a camera that's tethered to cables is even harder. And it's a good bet that the bride and officiant would object to a boom operator hovering next to the altar, dangling a mic on a long fishpole.
The real-world solution for most event videographers is a wireless solution. The most common wireless solution is the wireless microphone. This is a mic element, connected to a small radio transmitter. The transmitter sends a signal to a receiver mounted on the camcorder, and the signal is converted back to mic-level audio and sent to the camcorder's mic input. Transmitters are available as belt packs with tiny lavaliere mic elements (good for attaching to a groom's tux), or as a plug-on module for a handheld microphone (good for field interviews).
Receivers may have a "true diversity" feature. This type of receiver has two antennas, and two separate radio frequency sections. A circuit continually compares the signal strength of each receiver, and picks the strongest one. This reduces or eliminates the problem of signal dropouts caused by "multipath distortion," a phenomenon where two radio waves take slightly different paths from the transmitter to the receiver antenna and arrive out of phase, canceling each other out.
The better systems use the UHF band, and give the user the option to select from 32 or more channels. Multiple channels allow you to use two or more wireless mics without interference, and let you change channels to avoid interference with the house sound system or with other nearby radio users. Most good quality receivers use an XLR connection, so if your camcorder doesn't have XLR connectors, you'll also need an XLR adapter box. Good wireless systems for wedding and event work cost around $500 and up. Popular makes include Samson, Azden, Sennheiser, Sony, and Audio-Technica. Lectrosonics is the "industry standard" for corporate and broadcast video work, and Lectros are great for weddings too, if your budget can accommodate them.
For those on a tighter budget, there are perfectly acceptable alternatives to wireless mics. Small, pocket-sized MiniDisc recorders are one solution. They are about the same size as a wireless mic beltpack transmitter, and about half the cost. The audio quality of an MD recorder is even better than most camcorders! Be sure to buy one that has a microphone input jack, though; many models don't have this feature.
Recently, an even simpler alternative has come on the market: the solid state MP3 recorders from iRiver. These have no moving parts, they're even smaller than a wireless or a MiniDisc, and they're priced well under $200. The audio quality is quite acceptable for wedding and event work, although it might not satisfy an audio purist for music recording purposes.
Both the MiniDisc and the iRiver have a couple of drawbacks: you can't monitor the audio in your headphones during the shoot, so if anything goes wrong, you won't know about it until afterwards. Also, the recorded audio has to be dumped to your computer and synced up to the video, an extra step in the editing process. For these reasons, I like to use them as backups to my wireless mics, rather than as the primary audio sources. But there are videographers out there who are successfully using them as their only source of audio. At those kind of prices, there's no reason you can't buy a pocketful of little recorders, and put them at all the places you need to capture audio from: the groom's lapel, the reader's podium, the choir loft, the preacher's pulpit, and inside a flower arrangement at the altar.
Once you've got capturing clean monaural audio at all your events down to a fine art, it'll be time to tackle the next challenge: recording the audio in stereo and 5.1 surround sound!