Chances are, few of us think much about the audio quality of a camcorder before making the purchase. We are, after all, concerned with capturing video and most camcorder manufacturers devote very little time to detailing the audio features inside their models. But audio recording is important! Poor sound in your video can ruin your footage just as surely as poor video quality.
If you're in the market for a camcorder, here are a few things you need to know about camcorder audio, plus some tips on what to look for to ensure a quality audio experience.
Camcorders collect their audio through a built-in microphone, but not all microphones are created equally. There are three basic types: mono, stereo and multi-channel or "surround sound."
Mono microphones: The most basic microphone, a mono mic is usually found on low-end camcorders and especially pocket camcorders. They collect just a single channel of sound and while passable, some people complain that the sound is "flat" on these types of mics.
Stereo microphone: A stereo microphone records two channels of sound, not one. Anyone who's plugged earphones onto their head knows the "stereo effect" with sound bouncing between the ear or played in both. Stereo microphones are the most common types of mics used in high definition camcorders (they are also available on pocket models, but are not as prevalent) and will play back well on a TV or computer.
Multi-channel microphone: Some high-end camcorders have been offering multi-channel audio recording on their models. The best way to think about a multi-channel or surround sound recording is to picture a basic home theater set-up. You have three speakers up front, by your TV, and a pair of speakers in the back. In the best action movies, sound can be heard zipping around your head. With a multi-channel microphone, you're able to duplicate that experience (to a degree) on your camcorder: the camera will pick up and play back sound across 5 different channels - not the two available on a stereo mic or the one available from a mono mic.
If you don't own, and don't really want to own, a home theater system in your house, recording your home movies in surround sound doesn't make a lot of sense. All things being equal, you'd be better off finding a camcorder with a stereo microphone.
While camcorder vendors pour time and attention into the bells and whistles into the visual-side of camcorder development, there is less attention paid to audio. That doesn't mean, however, that the audio side is completely bereft of features. Here's a few to consider:
Zoom microphone: Normal microphones don't discriminate when it comes to the direction the sound is coming from - that's why, if you're the one doing the recording, your voice booms into the movie if you want to put in your two cents. A zoom microphone, however, can focus audio collection directionally while you zoom the lens. In other words, if someone is in front of you talking and you zoom the camcorder in on them, a zoom mic will likewise focus sound collection from the front and not from the sides or rear. Zoom microphones are generally available on higher-end camcorders.
Wind screen: One of the biggest issues people encounter when recording outside is the wind rushing past the microphone. The wind can produce a deafening sound or just an annoying distraction and so it's pretty common to find camcorders promising to deflect the wind with an internal "wind shield." These are pretty modest and don't afford all that much protection so you may wish to purchase an accessory wind shield that can be placed over your camcorder's microphone whenever you find yourself in the wind.
On more expensive camcorders, there is usually a wind-screen mode that you can activate in the menu. These modes use software and digital signal processors to digitally counteract the negative effects of wind. Again, the effectiveness of these technologies varies. Depending on the wind level, some degree of wind noise is usually unavoidable, but a camcorder with a wind-shield mic and wind noise reducing mode will at least minimize the damage.
Microphone input: Most higher-end camcorders are modest enough to know that they don't quite measure up in the audio department. That's why you'll find microphone inputs on them. These inputs allow you to attach accessory microphones for higher quality audio. If you know you want to add an extra microphone to the mix, you should also find a camcorder with a hot-shoe, since many accessory mics can be mounted more easily on the hot-shoe atop the camcorder.
Stereo playback: Ever since camcorders began adding built-in projectors, there's been more attention paid to the quality of the speakers for audio playback. High-end projector camcorders tend to have much higher built-in speakers for audio playback than non-projector models.