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There was a time when shooting HD video meant big equipment and even bigger budgets. Nowadays, you can shoot amazing HD footage with something that costs under $200 and fits in your pocket. But how about great sound, or even surround sound, to match that awesome video? Like HD video, surround sound used to be bulky, expensive, and reserved for use by the pros. Nowadays, thanks to a company called Holophone (not to be confused with the instrument from Futurama) just about anyone can add 5.1 surround sound to their home movies or independent films without having a duffel bag full of equipment or a Hollywood budget.
The PortaMic 5.1 is an egg-shaped microphone with a standard shoe mount that allows you to capture 5.1 surround sound from a single unit mounted on top of your camera. It has 6 built-in microphones that capture left, center, and right channels in the front, left and right channels in the rear, and a subwoofer channel. The positioning of the mics in the elliptical body emulates human hearing to create a natural surround sound experience. The mic runs on a standard 9V battery with a life of about 3 hours, so no mixers or power supplies are needed. A control knob on the back of the unit makes it easy to adjust the mic’s gain. A -12dB pad is also built in for when you run into unexpectedly loud situations and need to lower the mic’s sensitivity.
An integrated Dolby ProLogic II encoder takes the signals from the mic and sends them out via a stereo 3.5mm connection, the same type of connector found on most camcorders and video-capable DSLR cameras. This means you can hook up the PortaMic to a camera such as the Canon 5D MkII in under a minute, and capture surround sound directly to the camera’s existing stereo mic input. Of course, the PortaMic will also work with standard definition video cameras and stand-alone audio recorders, as long as they have a 3.5mm stereo mic input.
So how about playback? Surely some sort of complex decoder or degree in audio engineering will be required to enjoy these new, enhanced movies once you get them home, right? Not at all. Any computer or home theater system that supports Dolby ProLogic II will automatically decode the audio, sending the audio to the appropriate channels. If you have a 5.1 sound system as part of your home theater that was made in the last few years, odds are it’s likely to already have Dolby PLII capability. If you’re the kind of person who likes to slice and dice your movies and needs to edit and re-encode the audio, the PortaMic comes with software that will allow you to change the audio format to other types of Dolby, DTS, and more.
Being able to capture surround sound in a package that weighs less than half a pound, attaches to any standard camera shoe mount, and comes with a price tag that’s in the hundreds rather than the thousands is a terrific breakthrough in allowing folks to capture natural, immersive surround sound in an easy-to-use package.
For those who need more of a pro-level unit while sticking to a budget, there’s the PortaMic Pro. The Pro is very similar to the standard PortaMic, but adds a balanced stereo TA6 output in addition to the 3.5mm output. The TA6 connector allows you to connect the mic directly to certain models of wireless beltpack transmitters for use in a wireless system. The Pro version also adds an audio zoom feature. The audio zoom works like a camera’s telephoto: when you zoom in, the balance of the microphone elements shifts to put more weight on the front mic channels, reducing the pickup of the rear channels in order to put more emphasis on the sounds in front of you. It should be noted that while this is a cool feature, it isn’t designed to be a substitute for a good shotgun mic when it comes to focusing on a particular sound source.
Whether you’re a soccer mom who wants to capture the complete impact of being in the stadium with a roaring crowd, or a nature photographer who needs to capture the full soundscape of the forest, there’s now a wonderful solution that lets you bring your audio quality in line wth your HD video.