The importance of professional headphones

More than once I have been filming on location – invariably at an event – and noticed other videographers in action. Naturally I’m always interested in what equipment they are using, and to some extent how they are using it. One particular thing I find curious is those operators who are not using professional grade monitoring headphones. They may have a professional camera (often something like a DLSR), a proper tripod, a shotgun microphone and even a wireless microphone setup. Yet they are listening to the recorded sound on iPod headphones. This feels like a dangerous practice. Why spend all that money on gear and then eschew the final £200 or so? Events can be noisy places. Undertaking an interview amidst all this means that a videographer needs a reliable indication of what is actually being fed into the camera. Cheap or iPod headphones just aren’t up to the task. Closed-cup headphones are a must, to cut out all the background noise reaching your ears and purely listen to the sound you WANT to hear – that which is coming from the microphones. In the past I’ve been filming in such situations and the client – who is often next to me and posing the interviewee questions – asks me whether I can hear OK. Yes I can. Everyone else is hearing all sounds equally, so it seems like the important voice is being lost in the background. I’m listening to JUST what the radio microphone – which is 6 inches from the subject’s mouth – is picking up. The loudest sound by far that it can detect is the subject’s voice. It had better be – or I’m not doing my job! The whole reason I’m using a radio mic is to focus on the subject. Using the camera’s built-in mic would be pointless. As would using open headphones – it muddies the waters. What if it’s a quiet environment? About 20% of our work is recording presentations. In this instance the camera is usually receiving sound from the venue sound desk. Yes, the audience will be quiet and the camera microphone will pick up the presenter easily – but perhaps distant and echoey. I’m interested in the sound coming from the lectern mic. Is there a buzz or a hum on the line? Are loud sounds clipping or peaking at source? I know I would not be confident in detecting these with substandard headphones. In non-live situations – like filming interviews for corporate videos – good sound and the avoidance of errors is important. Filming on client office premises often means there is potential background noise – traffic, phones, air conditioning systems, doors closing, voices. But it’s not just these ‘obvious’ things that anyone in the room may hear. It can be a split-second of interference on the microphone. The gentle rub of hair or clothing. Professional headphones allow decisions to be made – am I hearing ONLY what I want to hear? I won’t hear some things that others in the room consider intrusive, because the mic won’t pick them up to a level which is detrimental to the video. But I will hear some things that they won’t – things which do jeopardise that ‘take’. A client tends to ask for example – how was the noise of that person walking past? I’ll say it was fine – but the subject accidentally rustling the radio mic with their hair was not fine. The bottom line for me is that I don’t want to have to fix problems in the edit – and I very rarely have to. I don’t want the client to think a Take was fine when it wasn’t, and them be disappointed later. Equally I don’t want to have to redo something on the shoot when the issue was only perceived and not real. It all costs the client time and money. Compared to price of the all other video equipment, professional headphones are not expensive. Failure to invest in one of the key parts of production process means that a videographer is not caring sufficiently about the details or his craft. As video becomes more democratised and the volume of people offering it as a service grows, it doesn’t mean that the bear minimum really cuts it. More than once, when I’m trying to pack the gear as efficiently as possible, I wish I didn’t have to lug around bulky headphones. But I could never countenance not using them, as I’m duty bound to deliver the best I can for my customers.