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 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).