On Booms

CC Image courtesy of earsaregood on Flickr

I’m a boom pole convert.

When I started making audiodocs, I thought boom poles (and lavs) were “weenie” solutions for producers who were too shy about getting close to their subjects. Unlike recording sound for film, we don’t usually have to mind the camera’s view. We can get right in there with our hands and microphones. But after enough occasions where I wished for longer arms and faster feet, I began to see the light. But what kind of boom pole (or fishpole*) should I get? There are lots and lots of options, and hardly anyone I worked with actually knew much about them. It took me a while to figure out what to consider. Here’s what I sorted out.

1. Aluminum vs. Carbon. This is mostly a question of weight, and a pretty big cost difference. Aluminum weighs more, costs less, and maybe offers a little bit more handling noise. Carbon tends to cost more and weigh less.

2. Length (extended and collapsed). Cost is also affected by length. Generally, the longer they extend and the shorter they collapse, the more they cost. Think about the situations you’ll be in and if you’ll need to travel with it when considering what to use. Mine is about 2 feet collapsed, which is semi-packable in my gear travel case. It’s close to 7 feet expanded, which has been fine for most situations I’ve encountered. If I were using it regularly for film, I would have gotten something longer.

3. Internal vs. External Cable. Internal cabling makes my life a little simpler in the field. I don’t need to worry about cable management or handling noise as much if I’m changing the length of the pole on the fly. But having an internal, coiled cable adds significant cost. It’s like laptop vs. desktop. Without the internal coil, you’ll get more pole for your money. If it doesn’t have an internal cable, then you might want to coil the cable around the outside and use some kind of wraps to keep it from rustling against the pole when you’re moving around. I’ve done it both ways, and it’s not a make or break sort of thing. My pole has a mono cable, and when I want to use a stereo mic on my boom pole, I still have to run an external stereo cable.

4. End or Side Exit. If your cable is internal, the female XLR jack will either be on the bottom or the side of your pole. Side exits cost more, but it’s really, really nice to be able to rest the hilt of your pole on your hip or anywhere else in many recording situations (even the carbon ones get heavy). And that’s not a great option if the jack is on the end. If you have an end exit, consider using a right-angle XLR to minimize damage and make the end more usable.

5. Additional cables. This is probably obvious, but the length of your external cable needs to account for the length of the pole + the distance between your pole and your recorder/mixer. If you have an internal cable, you’ll still need a cable to run between you and your pole. That distance is pretty short, so I generally use a short, 3’ cable to minimize unnecessary cable clutter/noise.

6. Handling noise, etc. Adding a boom pole adds more opportunities for handling noise. Here are a few more things that can minimize that in your pole.

  • Avoid super-skinny poles. I mention it first because they can be temptingly inexpensive, but potentially problematic. I once used an entry-level Gitzo pole that literally vibrated so much, just from being held, that it created a resonant hum that was audible through the mic, even with a shock mount. It made an impression (not a pleasant one).
  • Cover the pole or your hands. You can get poles with foam around the bottom segment to reduce handling noise. Again, this adds cost but works well. Like hand-holding a mic, the trick is largely about using a light touch. But adding some sort of physical barrier is really helpful. Some folks use cotton gloves, but that’s not my favorite option because I’m usually doing more than just holding the pole. Just a guess, but bicycle handlebar tape is probably a good option.
  •  Get a shock mount. I wouldn’t even consider this an option with a boom. All of your movements are exaggerated by the time they get to your mic, so you’ll want the extra sound isolation. Also, they tend to be a more secure way to hold on to that expensive mic of yours … now dangling … oh-so-far away from you. The mount is also important because it allows you the very useful ability to adjust the angle of the mic coming off of the pole. (Oh, and if you’re like me you’ll be surprised to realize that the screw size on the end of the boom pole and pistol grip is a different, smaller size (3/8”) than what’s on the end of my stage stands/mounts (5/8”). It’s something to pay attention to, but not a big deal. And if you’d like to use your equipment universally, there are lots of simple/small/cheap thread-size adapters out there.)
  • You might as well get a pistol grip. You can just leave this attached to your shock mount for hand use and then attach this directly to your boom when you need to. Most have a threaded hole on the bottom for mounting. It adds a few more inches to the pole and it’s nice if you at all need to go back and forth from handheld to boom. They do add extra weight on the end of your pole. So it’s also nice to have a smaller boom mount in your kit, too.
  • And a windscreen … and extra long cables. Yata yata. There are lots of related things to think about, but you’ll figure them all out.

8. Start with your price range. There are so many possible configurations out there, I think it’s best to start with what you think you can afford and see what’s available in those ranges. It’s all about tradeoffs. If you can’t find what you want, then look upward. Starting with your ideal configuration will send you pretty high pretty quickly. You’re probably looking at entry level around $150, and from there your possible options and prices head steadily towards $1,000.

9. Window shopping. There are lots of sites out there to search for great prices on different booms. Wherever you choose to buy your boom, B&H Photo Video has the best online tool I’ve found for searching through poles by features as well as price.

10. Where I landed (… or “do as I say, not as I do”). I bought the K-Tek Newspole (K-81CCR). I found my ideal pole first and paid a spendy price for it. It’s a carbon fiber, internal coiled cable, side-exit XLR jack (mono), five-section pole that contracts to just over 2 feet and extends to almost 7 feet (7+ with the pistol grip and shock mount). I could’ve probably found something great for less, but I fell in love. It’s been a great tool and I still appreciate the self-contained design. I’ve only had one real issue with it in five years — loosened jack wires, probably from traveling without proper padding. Otherwise, I have dearly loved it.

11. Get a little closer. The boom extends my reach and range. But what I wasn’t expecting was how much I would use it when I am actually physically close to my subject. I probably use it in close to half of my recording situations now. While I still think it’s a terrible purchase for anyone who is just shy about getting closer to the action, the boom pole is a fantastic addition to my audio arsenal because it adds so many new recording angles for getting great sound in a wide variety of settings.

12. Getting a grip. I’ve found I use some variation of these holds in most situations.

  • Underhanded. I usually end up holding the pole pointed straight out (like a lacrosse stick) or 30 degrees down from my side or armpit (like a shovel) — with the mic pointed upward. While that’s often bad for avoiding a camera frame, it’s comfortable, less visually obtrusive in a public setting, and allows me to position the mic like I would with my hand, on-axis with the talking mouths of people I’m recording.
  • On my hip. Resting the hilt on my hip with the pole pointed way up (45 degrees) and the mic pointed downward.
  • Overhead. Holding it over my head with two arms up and the mic pointed down is probably the most common hold for film/video. But I probably use this the least, because it’s the most tiring and people don’t usually speak with their heads tilted up. But it is often necessary in crowds or classrooms.

If you have any additional tips, tricks, suggestions, recommendations, assessments, opinions, advice, etc. related to boom poles, please post them in the comments. I know you do, so don’t be shy. And if you’re currently shopping for one, good luck. Let us know what you get and how you like it.

* Just so you’re nerdily in the know. We’re actually talking about “fishpoles” throughout this entire article. But “boom pole” has become the de facto term for both fishpoles and boom poles. Fishpoles are long, multi-segment/extendable poles. Boom poles have two parts, and one is a boom arm. Even the companies that make them generally call all of them boom poles. And more importantly, any Googling on the subject will bear better fruit if using the incorrect albeit accepted term “boom pole”.

Shea Shackelford

About
Shea Shackelford

Shea Shackelford is a founder of Big Shed Media, a public media shop specializing in audio and multimedia production. When he isn’t producing his own documentaries, Shea can be found helping others--stations, organizations, and other producers--to imagine, design and create their projects. He is the proud creator of the Place + Memory Project and is still blushing from winning an award at the Third Coast International Audio Festival a few years ago. Shea usually spends his summers as a producer-in-residence for the Summer Audio Institutes at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the rest of his year based in Montreal. Oh ... and he claims to have invented the term "Whiskype" (that's right whiskey + Skype).

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  • toddmelby

    2.19.13

    Reply

    You can tell Shea has been using the boom pole for a long time because his awesome mustache does not appear in the photo. On more serious note, do you own a lav? And in what situations do you prefer the law over the boom pole? Or the boom pole over the lav?

  • Jeff Towne

    2.19.13

    Reply

    I believe you CAN see Shea’s mustache in that photo: he’s just using it as a high-wind cover for the microphone.

    One tip I might add: For handheld recording, I usually do not recommend using the low-cut filter (also called a high-pass filter) on microphones unless absolutely necessary (it can noticeably thin the sound.) But when using a shotgun on the end of a boom, it’s often a good idea to engage that filter. Rolling off low frequencies can reduce the effect of transmitted vibrations that make it past your shock mount. Sometimes those frequencies are so low-frequency that you won’t even hear them, but they’ll send your audio meters into spasms, and create weird crackling and distortion on your recording, and can trigger your limiter into pushing the audio levels down, if you have your recorder’s limiter or AGC turned-on. Almost all shotgun mics have a low-cut filter: it’s a little switch with a straight line on one side, and a line that dips on the left on the other. The dipped line indicates that you’re rolling-off low frequencies. If that’s not enough, most audio recorders have a low-cut filter too. Again, I’d recommend first trying your rig without those low-cut filters, but if you detect low rumbles, or mysterious crackling, or see your meters bouncing dramatically but don’t hear much of anything, then try engaging the low-cut filter.

  • Connor Walsh

    2.20.13

    Reply

    I did my first audio interview with a boom pole just a week ago, with both of us sitting in an office. It went fine, but I quickly realised a… challenge. Getting my own questions on tape was seriously awkward. I couldn’t figure out where to point the shotgun mic and hold the pole so I could swung it back to me and be on-mic. What’s the trick?

  • Mike Stauss

    2.20.13

    Reply

    I have a good boom pole, but never considered using it for field interviews… the handle on my short-shotgun mount is usually enough, even to aim over crowds if needed. Is the primary advantage of the boom being able position the mic into a wider variety of positions on the fly? It intrigues me, so maybe I’ll have to give it a shot! Although I am usually trying to shed gear rather than carry more as I travel by bike a lot. In fact I have been trying to work out a good way to record narration while I ride (for a bike-themed podcast) and agree with the first poster that I’d love to see a good lavalier review from Jeff Towne, particularly how to use them effectively with a smartphone. Not that that would ever replace a dedicated recorder for me, but as something you can carry in your pocket and which you already have anyway, it’s more tempting than rigging several hundred dollars worth of equipment to my bike.

  • Henry Howard

    2.27.13

    Reply

    The Nite Ize Grip N Clip Flashlight Accessory for D-Cell lights is great around the end section of the boom.
    It provides a little cushion as well as a strap and clip for the boom.

    If you use an external cable, the pony tail things with two balls and elastic ties between make great
    cable clamps.

    While more important on a film set, I have bright tape around the very end of the boom to help others from
    walking into the boom on poorly lit sets.

  • Flawn Williams

    2.27.13

    Reply

    Thanks, Shea, for this primer.

    Connor, good point. Booms are less useful if you’re trying to mike your questions. Can you use a lav on yourself and the boom mic on a separate track for the other voice(s)? Less back-and-forth, less handling noise in the boom mike channel.

    One advantage of booms has to do with interviewees’ sense of social distance and personal space. I’ve found that people will typically tolerate a mike closer to them if it’s on a boom than if it’s directly supported by my arm reaching into their personal space.

    And if you get a boom whose largest outer diameter is about the same a standard bike handlebars, you can find slip-on foam rubber padding tubes at bike stores that can provide great cushioning for your hands on the bottom section of the boom pole. Boom noise can take many forms: bumping, abrasion, or basic resonance. But you’ll get less handling noise if your hand can gently compress a foam cushion than if you’re directly gripping bare metal or carbon fiber.

    Carbon fiber is desirable for its lighter weight, which is a bigger deal for longer film set boom poles than for audio interview accessories. CF is also less resonant for carrying vibrations. But carbon fiber can transmit higher frequency handling noise worse than aluminum tubing.

    For booming long stationary interviews: think fulcrum. Resting part of the boom on one leg or arm, or on the arm of a chair, lets you press down on the other end to maintain the mike position instead of lifting up. Much easier to support for long periods of time.

  • Jon

    4.28.13

    Reply

    Thanks for the article, Shea! I have to say, something that wasn’t really explained but which is important (to my mind) to note is one of the key reasons why you’d want a boom pole in the first place — and that’s to do with getting the best angle for your shotgun microphone.

    While it can be useful to get the mic in closer to the subject or to scoop in from below using a boom, the pickup pattern of shotgun microphones means that in almost all situations (particularly outdoor), you’ll get better sound from holding the mic above the subject and angling it downward toward their mouth. This avoids placing background noise directly behind the mic (which, in a supercardioid shotgun pattern, is included in the mic’s polar pattern) and also captures more natural, sibilant speech (vs angling upward past the person’s resonant chest). The background noise and pickup pattern issue is, in my opinion, the main reason why even radio producers benefit from boom poles!

    There’s some really good information about boom techniques and setups in Ric Viers’ book, ‘The Location Sound Bible’. It’s aimed very much at recordists and boomers working in film and TV, but of course the same stuff applies here to radio. (And yeah, it’s pretty awkward getting interviewer questions whilst holding a boom; the lav option suggested by Flawn seems like a good one!)

    And Mike – this new Rode smartLav thing looks like a pretty good cheap/portable option for avoiding carrying around a lot of kit… http://www.smartlav.com/

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