The 8 Best Lavalier Microphones
Why Use A Lavaliere Microphone?
It only picks her voice up if she speaks directly into it, and she spends the scene swaying her head back and forth, creating an unlistenable rush of poorly delivered lines.
Think about those cheap overdub jobs that production houses in the 1970s applied to so many martial arts films.
There’s a wonderfully funny scene in the classic film Singin’ in the Rain, that pokes fun at the early days of talkies — that is, movies with sound. In it, a film director tries desperately to get his actress to speak in the direction of an enormous microphone that’s hidden away in a bush on set. It only picks her voice up if she speaks directly into it, and she spends the scene swaying her head back and forth, creating an unlistenable rush of poorly delivered lines.
It’s a funny scene, to be sure, but it also highlights a significant problem in film production that the advent of talkies initiated back in 1927. Simply put: bad sound is unforgivable. A wealth of picture issues, on the other hand (including lackluster special effects), often fail to register as significant faults with viewers. This most likely has to do with our willing suspension of disbelief. For some reason, though, we don’t extend filmmakers and documentarians the same length of rope when it comes to sound.
Bad sound in a beautifully shot film will pull you out of the experience. Think about those cheap overdub jobs that production houses in the 1970s applied to so many martial arts films. The image of those human mouths moving completely out of sync with the words on the soundtrack is so ubiquitous in the genre that it has since become an indelible comedy touchstone.
Most productions rely heavily on boom microphones to capture their audio. A shotgun microphone attached to the far end of a long boom pole allows sound mixers access to the spaces just outside of an image’s frame. From there, they can usually pick up enough high-quality audio to give the scene a professional sound level. The problem with these microphones is that they are susceptible to high winds, and they can pick up too much ambient noise if they’re positioned too far from a talking subject.
If that wind is too high, or if the framing of the shot necessitates that the boom operator bring his microphone too far from the actors to capture problem-free audio, the lavaliere microphone will save the day. It can also be tremendously useful if you only have enough in your budget to work with a smaller crew, as a set of well-placed lavs may negate the need for a boom operator entirely, freeing your actors or interviewees to move about the space as they see fit.
Only The Sounds You Desire
Of course, with motion comes the one big drawback from lavaliere microphones: clothing rustle. By necessity, these little mics have to be very sensitive. They’re designed to capture high-quality audio, often from beneath one of more layers of clothing. If your subject is relatively motionless, that audio should record very cleanly. Small amounts of motion, however, will often create audio tracks in which the sound of clothing rubbing against the microphone far outshines the dialogue you hope to capture. Even if the dialogue rises above the level of the rustle, the mere presence of the rustle will likely render your audio useless.
For starters, there are some products out there that are specifically designed for this purpose.
In documentary cases, the easiest solution is to mount the lav mic somewhere above the clothing, often clipped to a tie or the edge of a jacket. Documentary is unique in this case, as there’s little attempt on the part of a director to obscure the line between fact and fiction; the presence of a visible microphone may actually cause viewers to believe your story more deeply, even if you use other, more dramatized methods to put it all together.
A visible microphone won’t go over as well with film audiences who expect you to whisk them away to another place. Websites like IMDb and others often trade in “gotcha” moments where you can see evidence of a production, such as the visible microphone pack on Walter White’s back in the Breaking Bad pilot episode, or the hanging figure in the Wizard of Oz that may or may not be a munchkin suicide.
To save yourself a lot of such trouble, you’ll want to hide your actors’ mics somewhere on their bodies. This might create a lot of clothing noise, but there are a few tricks you can use to get around it. For starters, there are some products out there that are specifically designed for this purpose. The same companies that produce the microphones make many of them, and these will often provide you with the best fit. You may also want to look into some DIY methods, however, as these can mimic a lot of what the on-brand solutions do to cut down on rustle, but at a fraction of the cost.
Also, keeping these mics in place is vital to reducing unwanted noises, and you can’t simply clip them to clothing if you want them to remain hidden. Invest in a little medical tape — the kind you would use to secure gauze to skin — as this will hold your lavs in place against any bare flesh that might prove a convenient staging ground.
Which Lav Will You Love?
Your selection of a lavaliere microphone system will hinge on your intended uses for the device. As evidenced above, necessities of size and placement will have a lot to do with your decision, and a documentarian will have different needs than a fiction filmmaker.
Your selection of a lavaliere microphone system will hinge on your intended uses for the device.
If you’re a documentarian, or you work in any other field where a visible microphone won’t detract from your production, you can afford to focus less on how small a given model is, or on how easy it otherwise may be to conceal, and more on its overall fidelity or wireless range.
For fiction filmmakers, the ability to conceal whatever option you choose is paramount. In addition to the mic itself, however, you also need to concern yourself with the transmitter pack that runs to a wireless receiver. If you can’t stand the idea of a pack showing up on a character that needs to move around a lot in a frame, take a good look at some of the smartphone-compatible models out there. These plug directly into any cell phone with a 3.5mm jack, and allow your actors to merely appear as though they have their phone in a pocket, providing a naturalistic solution to your audio problem.