In this article, we’ll cover how to use a lavalier mic. Lavalier microphones are the secret agents of the videographer toolkit. Just think about it. They are built to be discreet, versatile, and ready to vanish from sight. They maintain a wide wardrobe of aliases including the lapel, clip, body, collar, neck, or personal mic. And best of all, they’re actually used by intelligence agencies to secretly record audio.
Where shotgun mics tend to be used on film/TV sets, lav mics can be found just about anywhere else anyone is recording audio. Newscasting, public speaking events, talking-head interviews, theatre, and vlogging are a few of the situations in which a lav mic is an essential piece of gear. Generally, anywhere you aren’t able to hang a boom pole over the subject’s head is where you will find a lavalier mic sneakily tucked away.
Feel free to YouTube search: “Every Tom Cruise Run. Ever.”
Wired or wireless?
Like every other gear purchase, you have some choices to make. One of the first decisions is whether or not you need wireless capabilities.
The advantages of going cable-free are obvious. Your talent can move around freely and you’ll spend less time swearing under your breath as you untangle wire knots.
The disadvantages of wireless lav systems are less obvious and aren’t really disadvantages so much as things to watch out for. Local Wi-Fi signals are known to interrupt wireless recordings as an annoying buzz that’s nearly impossible to remove later.
Fortunately, most systems allow you to switch to another frequency, with some automatically finding the best channel for you.
Personally, I use the RodeLink Filmmaker Kit, a wireless system that I have really enjoyed. Rode recently released the Wireless Go system which is a neat miniaturization of that technology that is actually less expensive and might be worth looking into as well.
Some top-rated wired microphones include the Countryman B3, Rode smartLav+, and Sony ECM 77B. Any of these microphones can be paired with a transmitter/receiver to make them wireless; they just aren’t bundled with them like the well-regarded MOVO WMIC50 and Sennheiser ME 2-11 systems are.
After picking the mic for the job, don’t forget to talk to Q over at MI6, who will equip your operative with the latest gadgets like a windscreen, gaffer tape, headphones, and spare batteries.
Using a lavalier mic: placement, environment, and other considerations
During the Cold War, spies working in Russia’s capital were said to have developed an unwritten collection of principles for conducting operations in the field. So before you send your microphone out on its first mission, let’s review our own spy handbook, shall we?
These are the Moscow Rules of Lavs:
Lavalier Mic Usage Rule #1: Stay close to the target without blowing your cover
Any spy worth their Martini will tell you they do their best work when hidden in plain sight. Keeping a lav mic out of the shot while near enough to your source can actually be an enjoyable challenge. It just takes a little creativity.
The general rule of thumb for placing lav mics is at sternum level or above.
But perhaps you’re interviewing Jason Momoa’s Aquaman whose skin tight shirt scales make a slippery surface for clipping onto. Look again, those voluminous brown locks of hair might just be the perfect hideout.
Perhaps you’re interviewing a paleontologist protected from the scorching sun of the South Dakota Badlands by a broad-brimmed fedora. Though the cable might get a little sweaty, no one will ever know it was up there.
Perhaps you’re interviewing Jabba the Hutt whose double chin could hide a womp rat. You get the picture. A hijab, a full Windsor tie knot, or even a well-groomed beard are all opportunities to keep the audience focused on your compelling cast of characters rather than your equipment.
If clipping isn’t available, a little gaffer tape goes a long way and is less likely to leave residue on your subject’s clothes than other adhesives. There’s also a neat little triangle fold that will hide a mic behind a lapel or shirt collar demonstrated in this video by Izzy Hyman.
While it’s fun to get creative, you don’t always have to.
Sometimes projects are more casual and don’t require a perfectly hidden mic.
Just keep in mind that anything that you put between your mic and the subject’s voice is a potential obstruction to clear sound.
Most audiences will notice poor audio way before seeing a tiny black clip on a subject’s shirt. If you have to choose, pick clean sound over perfect visuals. I know that kind of undercuts the James Bond superspy thing your lav had going on, but let’s not forget that desk-job analysts have their place in the agency too.
Lavalier Mic Usage Rule #2: Always monitor your agent’s reports
Cables snag, tape unsticks, winds pick up, voices rise, jackets are thrown off. It is truly the worst to get really excellent footage and get back to the computer only to find out that your audio was compromised the entire time. Little oversights like signal interference, rustling clothing, cable noise, or an inconveniently timed gust of air can ruin an entire shoot.
By monitoring your audio with a pair of headphones or even earbuds you will give yourself a chance to catch these oversights. Slap on a windscreen, and save yourself the heartache (and embarrassment) of rescheduling with talent and reshooting the project.
Granted, anyone whose responsibility it is to run around with a camera and capture sound from a fixed location knows this isn’t always possible.
For example, you may have to plug your audio recorder into the DJ’s soundboard and since you can’t monitor while you glide around the room with the camera, you just have to trust the recording turns out.
If it is just you, arrive early and do a comprehensive audio test. If the CIA’s job is to anticipate a threat actor’s next moves, then so is yours. For the talent, ask questions like how loud they expect to speak so you can avoid clipping. Ask if there will be any sudden movement that might cause the microphone to come loose.
For environments, find out if the backyard sprinklers are going to come on during the middle of the interview. Find out if another train will be passing in the next hour. The omni-directional pickup pattern of lav mics are helpful for flexible placement, but detect everything within your immediate radius. Take a little time to understand your environment, and, as my mysterious Cold War-addled great aunt used to say: assume nothing.
Lavalier Mic Usage Rule #3: Never leave your agent without backup
Sometimes, even the best laid cables come to ruin. Maybe your wireless transmitters can’t establish a connection. Maybe the spring in a battery compartment breaks off. Maybe a herd of parched wedding guests trample the violinist, her violin, and your still attached microphone in a stampede to the open bar.
Before calling a mission abort, send in the shotgun mic. Your cover may be blown thanks to the shotgun’s less than stealthy approach, but any external microphone is better than your camera’s internal mic.
Of course, having that kind of backup on constant standby is an expense not everyone can afford. If that’s the situation, bring a resourceful attitude, carry a little tape and tin foil, and just get your wounded agent through the day. Save the shoot, save the world.
How to Use a Lavalier Mic: Wrap-up
Hopefully by now you feel mission-ready and comfortable working with lavs. Don’t worry if you don’t, the best experience is field experience. Lucky for us, your life and the fate of the nation won’t be on the line. I hope so, anyways.
P.S. Still not convinced it was all worth the spy metaphor? I’ll just wait here while you rearrange the letters in “lavalier”.
“Valerie”… as in Valerie Plame. *cue X-Files theme (or that terrific song by The Decemberists)*
Yeah. That’s what I thought.