What is a lavalier?
lav·a·liere [lav-uh-leer, lah-vuh-] – noun
- An ornamental pendant, usually jeweled, worn on a chain around the neck
- Lavalier microphone
Also, lav·a·lier, la·val·lière [Origin: 1915-20; after the Duchesse de La Vallière (1644-1710), one of the mistresses of Louis XIV] — Random House Unabridged Dictionary
“A lavalier microphone or lavalier (or lav or lapel mike) is a small electret or dynamic microphone used for television, theatre and public speaking applications, to allow hands-free operation. They are most commonly provided with small clips for attaching to collars, ties or other clothing. The cord may be hidden by clothes and either run to a radio frequency transmitter in a pocket or clipped to a belt (for mobile work), or directly to the mixer (for stationary applications).” —Wikipedia
Many models of lavalier have a use case they’re expressly designed for. Some of the features that differentiate lavaliers include physical size, whether the mic is designed for use under wardrobe, whether the mic is available in different colors to match wardrobe/skin tone, the microphone’s water/sweat resistance, and what type of mounting schemes and accessories are available for the mic.
A Few Classic Choices
Space precludes us from a comprehensive breakdown of every lavalier mic on the market, so I’ll mention a few representative “industry-standard” models here that are noticeably different or do something that competing mics don’t do as well. There are many, many other popular and quality lavaliers on the market besides these models; you’ll need to do some investigation into which models sound and work best for your unique needs.
The Sanken COS-11D is probably the most popular lavalier for sound for picture. The Tram TR50 is an industry-standard mic that sounds great and has a huge number of accessories available, plus it retails for considerably less than the Sanken. The Countryman B6 is the smallest lavalier mic on the market, making it exceedingly easy to hide on talent, and it functions well as a hair mic. The Tram and Sanken are generally too large to work well as a hair mic and are more challenging to camouflage on talent.
Sanken COS-11D — plus24.net
Omnidirectional, pre-polarized condenser
$414 MSRP (48v, BP); $314 (PT)
Relative Size: medium-to-small diameter, long-length microphone
Dimensions: 0.15 x 0.63 inches (4.0mm x 16.1mm)
Extras: WS-11 windscreen, RM-11 rubber mount and HC-11 holder clip
Cosmetics: Available in black, beige, gray and white.
Nice baked enamel finish.
Fit And Finish: New “D” variant has enhanced stress relief. Great feel. Longer cable to power supply than most.
To increase the scope of applications, four colors are now available in the COS-11D series. Soft and pliable cabling and clamp design assure long-term durability when the microphone is attached to costumes and is pulled through clothing or hair.
Tram TR50 — tram-usa.com
Electret condenser lavalier microphone
Relative Size: Medium rectangular size
Dimensions: 0.18 x 0.300 x 0.55 inches (4.5mm x 7.6mm x 13.97mm)
Extras: Cable holder with vampire pins (*CH), clip on holder with vampire pins (*COH), tie bar with alligator clip (*TB), Tie Tac (*TT), windscreen (*WS), tape down (*TD), carrying case (*CC), cable reel (*CR)
Cosmetics: Distinctive black matte rectangular shape
Fit And Finish: Smooth black metallic finish with beveled edges
Countryman B6 — countryman.com
Relative Size: smallest lavalier on the market
Weight: 0.6g (0.002 oz.)
Dimensions: 0.1 x 0.15 inches (2.5mm x 3.8mm)
Extras: Protective carrying case, tie clip, belt clip, windscreen and set of three protective caps
Cosmetics: So tiny, it must be seen to be believed
Fit And Finish: Very nice look, microscopic size. Cable is microscopic as well.
Only one-tenth of an inch (2.5mm) in diameter, the B6 outperforms microphones of many times its size. The B6 features replaceable protective caps that can change its color and frequency response to match your application. Designed to survive, it’s highly resistant to moisture, makeup and other hazards found in a production environment. Built to withstand perspiration and makeup, the B6 will even survive an overnight soak in your favorite cola. The outer screen in the B6’s replaceable caps stops makeup and sweat before they enter the mic element. If it clogs, you can simply remove the cap for cleaning or replacement.
Placing A Lavalier Microphone On Talent Successfully
It would take too much space here for us to cover every possible way to mount a lavalier on talent, so let’s review three top methods that most sound mixers use successfully. The two main challenges usually revolve around rigging the microphone so it’s not visible to the camera and doesn’t rub or pick up cable sounds against wardrobe, hair or the talent’s body. Before we go into the specifics, let’s cover some constants that need to be addressed no matter which method you use to rig your lavalier.
Mic Isolation. On most lavalier mics, the actual mic element is either at the tip of a cylinder, like on the Sanken COS-11D and the Countryman B6, or the front plate of the microphone, as it is on the Tram TR50. It’s important that the actual microphone element is isolated from clothing, skin and hair rubbing on it or touching it, as this will end up as clothing noise, rendering your audio unusable.
Cables And Strain Relief. Technology has not yet figured out a way for a lavalier to be truly wireless, with a miniature mic head that sends a signal to a tiny, camera-mounted receiver. Every wireless lavalier still has a small cable that transmits the mic’s sound to either a wireless receiver or a power supply, which is hard-wired to the camera. This cable is susceptible to sounds from handling and rubbing against wardrobe, skin or hair. These noises are picked up by the lavalier and transmitted to the recorder and or wireless receiver, rendering your audio unusable.
Dressing The Microphone. This term means making sure the microphone element, cable, power supply and/or wireless transmitter that talent is wearing are neat, comfortable and non-binding, and none of them shows to the camera. The idea is to hide all three elements as much as you can while not impeding the quality of the recording.
The Vampire Clip Method
This is the simplest and quickest method of using mics to capture talent for a sit-down interview or a non-physical dialogue scene, with the least amount of hassle. Coil a few inches of the microphone cable about a foot from the microphone head and tape the loops together, or use a Velcro® cable tie or a length of thread to fasten the loops to each other. This cable loop is called a strain relief and isolates the cable from the microphone element. This cable loop can be taped to the inside of the talent’s shirt or blouse or to their skin, in some cases using wig tape.
Rigging a lavalier this way involves mounting the mic element to a “vampire clip”; one side holds the microphone; the other side is equipped with two pins that allow you to fasten it to the talent’s wardrobe. Once rigged with a vampire clip, the power supply or connection end of the mic cable is slipped down the talent’s collar and allowed to exit at the bottom of their shirt or blouse. Pull the power supply or end of the lavalier cable out the bottom of their shirt or blouse until the microphone element ends up somewhere in their collar region. Pin the microphone to the inside of their collar, if they’re wearing a collared shirt or blouse. If talent is wearing a collarless T-shirt or a blouse without a collar, this becomes more challenging to hide the mic element. You can try pulling the collar or blouse away from their chest or neck a bit and pin the mic inside. Depending on how the shirt or blouse fits the talent’s body, this may or may not work; you must listen to your recording device with headphones and make sure there’s no extraneous noise. If there is, you must readjust the microphone position, making sure it’s not rubbing on clothing, skin or hair. This method works best with talent who are sitting down or otherwise not physically moving much.
The Tape Triangle Or Silicon Rubber Mic Holder Method
If your talent will be walking and talking or otherwise getting more physical, the vampire clip method may not work no matter how well you rig it. If you think your talent will be moving, I recommend you go straight for these methods, one which is classic and has been around for decades (tape triangles) and one which is new (the mic is mounted in a silicon microphone holder that isolates and “shelters” the mic element from outside factors while leaving it open to record clear, clean sound).
To make tape triangles, you take a short length of gaffer tape and fold it up into corners, sticky side of the tape facing outward. Once you have two tape triangles, carefully sandwich the microphone element in between the two tape triangles, kind of like a piece of ham in a sandwich. The idea is to isolate the microphone element itself while sheltering it in between the two pieces of tape. Once you have the mic nestled in between the two tape triangles, you can place this underneath the wardrobe, and it will stick to the inside of the wardrobe, although gaffer tape will lose its stickiness, so some mixers reinforce the mount with cloth tape, transport tape or wig tape that attaches to the skin. The rubber mic holder is the same idea, but instead of making your own triangles from gaffer tape, you just mount your mic in the silicon mount with just the mic element barely exposed. You then tape the silicon rubber mount to the talent’s skin or inside of their wardrobe.
The Overcover/Undercover Method
Overcovers and Undercovers are names for a product that sound accessory company Rycote makes. Neither of the previous two lavalier rigging methods account for shooting talent outdoors in stiff wind. The Rycote products eliminate most or all wind sound. To use an Overcover or Undercover, you merely take the first piece of adhesive material, remove the paper that covers the sticky backing, stick your lavalier to the backing, then finish by peeling off an Overcover or Undercover and placing it over the microphone. This sandwich effect includes a fur-like Overcover or Undercover, which sharply reduces wind noise and buffeting. You then peel the adhesive off of the back of the first piece and affix it to the talent’s skin or wardrobe. The mounts are hypoallergenic and don’t bother most people. There are some competing products on the market that use similar ideas, but Rycote’s option seems most popular at the moment.
We’ve covered the care, feeding and use of lavalier microphones. While there’s still a lot more to learn about them, you at least have the basics down now and can confidently capture high-quality lavalier audio in almost any situation. Go forth and record!
Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.