Audio is 50% of the film experience, yet many beginning filmmakers don’t place nearly as much focus on audio as they do on the visual side of things. Don’t leave audio as an afterthought. The lavalier is one family of microphones that you may want to consider adding to your filmmaking arsenal. What is a lavalier microphone and how do they work? Let’s get into it.
What are lavalier microphones
Lavalier microphone basics
The lavalier mic is one piece of technology that goes by many names. You may have also heard this type of microphone referred to as a lav mic, a lapel collar mic, a body mic, a clip mic, a neck mic, or a personal mic. Rest assured, those names all mean the same thing. “Lav mic” and “lapel mic” or “lapel collar mic” are the most common names you will hear used for these little microphones.
We'll get into the secrets of how to hide and position lav mics but let's start with a lavalier microphone definition.
Lavalier Mic Definition
What is a lavalier microphone?
A lavalier microphone is a very small microphone that is attached either directly to an actor’s body or their clothing. They come in both wired and wireless varieties, and are designed to be discrete and lightweight. A wired lav may restrict an actor’s movement, but a wireless lav mic requires only a small transmitter pack that is typically clipped onto an actor’s belt or in their pocket.
Wireless lavalier microphones transmit their audio feeds via radio frequencies directly to a receiver that a sound mixer can control and adjust. There are lav microphones of widely varying quality available but the best options will produce audio that rivals a standard boom mic.
Lavalier Microphones Characteristics:
- Small, compact size
- Collects audio focused on a single actor
- Omnidirectional or cardioid pickup pattern
Now that we've got our lavalier microphone definition out of the way, let's see how they work. Learn how to use a lavalier mic from the folks at Rode, one of the most trusted names in audio equipment. The video covers two essential tips when using a lav mic: how you position the lapel mic and how you connect the lapel mic to your camera, laptop or recording unit.
Lav Mic Comparisons
Pros and cons of lav mics
For many projects, a lavalier microphone is essential. There are many situations in which a lav mic will save the day. Let's look at some pros:
The biggest selling point of lapel microphones is their ability to be hidden. This means the ability to record clean audio directly from the actor is possible in just about any circumstance. And just because it's called a lapel mic doesn't mean it can only attach to a jacket with a lapel. As we'll see, there are many ways to hide a lapel mic.
If your actor is planning on standing still, portability might not seem like a bonus. But what about every other scene when they're pacing a room, running down a street or if you have two actors far apart? A single boom operator won't be able to follow or catch everything. This is where blocking and staging your scenes ahead of time will inform the best way to record the audio.
Once the lavalier microphone is attached, turned on and levels are set, it requires very little operation. Especially when using a wireless lavalier microphone, you can have 10 actors mic'd at once and all the sound recordist has to do is monitor and mix from their station.
That being said, lapel mics, especially wireless lavalier microphones, present challenges of their own. Here are some cons:
Clothing rustle can be a challenge. If the lav mic is not positioned properly, you can spend minutes of valuable time on set trying to adjust for clean audio. To help avoid this, you might do tests during Pre-Production with the actors, their wardrobe and the microphones to do the troubleshooting in advance.
Sound quality can sometimes be lower than other microphone types. Where portability and invisibility are clear advantages, there can be a dropoff in quality.
Lavalier microphones are battery-powered so be prepared to change and recharge batteries at particularly inopprtune times. Make sure you have extra batteries fully charged and waiting to minimize the disruption when a battery dies.
Of course, each brand of lavalier microphone has different characteristics and attributes. Let's take a look at how five different and affordable lapel microphones compare.
With so many different lav mics on the market, the quality can vary widely from brand to brand. Be sure to do your research before making a purchase. In this video see how iRig, Boya, XPix, Purple Panda, and Aputure brand lav mics compare.
Lavalier Microphone Definition
How to position a lavalier microphone
The main distinction and advantage of a lav microphone is the smaller, more discreet size over other microphone types. Their compact size allows them to be attached to an actor's clothing or body without being visible in the shot.
The most common place to attach a lavalier lapel microphone is near the neckline either on the collar or the knot of a tie if applicable. If a lapel microphone is attached too far away from the actor’s mouth, then the audio quality will suffer.
For a lav mic to be truly invisible, it must be underneath the actor’s clothes, either attached to their skin, or to the inside of the clothing. When the equipped actor moves, their clothing may produce a rustling sound on the mic, which will harm the integrity of the audio recording. Luckily there are methods to avoid this drawback.
There are a number of ways to prevent and combat clothing rustle. One common solution is to shield the mic with a material that will not produce a rustling sound. Another frequent solution is to package the microphone within a pillow of body tape, preventing the head of the mic from making direct contact with cloth.
When shaped correctly, a tape-pillow can also help to hide the shape of the microphone if the outline is visible through the clothing. This video has some excellent pro-tips on how to hide a lav mic.
Using a lapel mic becomes much more complicated if the actor in question is not wearing clothing. It is far more difficult to hide a lapel microphone upon a shirtless actor, though it is possible to capture high-quality with a lapel mic planted in a subject’s hair.
Get creative with your lavalier mic hiding. There are many options available to you from poking a lavalier through the head of a button on a dress shirt, to sewing a lavalier directly into an actor’s costume.
So now we’ve learned the meaning of lavalier microphone. Continue familiarizing yourself with film terminology by looking through our ultimate glossary of filmmaking terms.
For additional insights into capturing high-quality sound, be sure to read our ultimate guide to audio recording.
lavalier mics in Action
When to use a lavalier mic
Now that we know what a lapel mic is, let’s talk about when to use one. Lavalier mics are intended to gather audio for only the equipped actor, meaning multiple lav mics can be used to isolate different audio tracks for each actor, especially helpful in situations with a great deal of cross-talk or in environments with distracting background chatter.
Remember that lavalier microphones are really only meant to record dialogue. If you happen to record additional diegetic sounds like a door shutting or a car starting, they will mostly likely have to be re-recorded by a Foley artist or added in Post-Production by a Sound Designer.
Use a lavalier mic when a boom mic would be impractical or impossible to keep out of the shot. Wide frames with excess headroom and shots with fast and/or complex movement are instances where a lavalier mic may make shooting go much more smoothly than if other types of microphones are relied on.
Lavalier mics are used frequently in mediums outside of filmmaking. Many theater and musical performances make use of lavalier mics. News programs may use lav mics if the anchors are required to be hands free.
A lav mic can also be preferable for anyone in a one-man crew type situation. Don’t have anyone to hold a boom and don’t want to rely on a camera mounted microphone? A clip-on lavalier mic is your best bet.
This video covers a lot of what we've already seen and discussed (but a little review never hurt anyone). But pay attention to some different pro-tips on different ways to hide a lapel mic in clothing and within props.
So, there you have it! A crash course in the lavalier microphone. No matter the size or budget of your production, don't ignore sound. Everything we've covered here today is affordable and will help elevate the overall production value of your next project.
Ultimate guide to sound recording
Are you about to enter production on a new project? Before you do, be sure to read our ultimate guide to sound recording. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about capturing great audio. And remember, sound is 50% of the experience.