Lavaliers: Mic the Message

Do you know when the Lavalier microphone was invented? How about when the first one was used?

Well, back in 1932, any small microphone that could be hooked in the button hole of a lapel of a coat would qualify as a lav mic. Various models included condenser, ribbon, moving coil and carbon button mics.

The term Lavalier originally referred to a piece of jewelry in the form of a pendant worn around the neck. Its use as a name for a type of microphone originated from when various practical solutions for microphone use involved hanging the mic from the neck. For example; a Dictaphone microphone could be suspended on a belt around the neck to retain some degree of freedom of movement while recording one’s voice onto a wax cylinder. That started in 1941 and continued to evolve into mid ’50s.

Telephone operators and air traffic controllers used microphones resting on the chest and secured by a strap around the neck. In the 1950s, some microphones where designed to be hung on a string around the neck. In 1953 Electro-Voice introduced the model 647A, a small omnidirectional dynamic microphone fitted with a cord to go around the neck. In 1954, the Shure Brothers offered the larger 530 Slendyne which could be handheld, mounted on a microphone stand or worn around the neck on a “lavalier cord”.

Now that you have some lavalier history and trivia let’s fast forward three decades to my first experience with a “lav”. It was back in the ‘80s during my college days when, one morning, my chemistry professor addressed his (and my) class amplified for the first time. The lecture was the regular fair except that every word was amplified through a small lav mic clipped to his shirt pocket. I spoke with him after the class and told him that his newly amplified voice really improved my learning experience. He showed me the wired lav mic that he was using and the box mixer he was plugged into. The mixer had been placed right at the base of his podium and tied into the existing speakers. It was a very simple set-up but a very effective teaching tool.

Getting into the present day, Shure and EV are still in the game along with a number of innovative companies. I generally think of lav mics as being wireless but there are as many wired lav mics as wireless. I am sure that wired lav microphones are still used in colleges, other teaching setting and churches. For that matter, anywhere the user does not need the freedom that a wireless mic offers.

As far as pick-up patterns; I would say that omni-directional sounds best for a lavalier microphone. Cardioid lavs are really only used in high noise environments or when feedback from monitors in a live situation becomes an issue.

What makes the omni-directional lav sound so good is its overall consistency. The user can turn their head while speaking and there is no loss in volume because there is no area in the pick-up pattern where the microphone is trying to cancel out. Also omni-directional mics are physically smaller than cardioid lavs.

Since my field of expertise is house of worship audio, I will speak to that field first. When I put a lav on a pastor I try to get it up on a shirt collar or lapel and close to the larynx. In this area I tend to get a little more bass out of a voice and that is almost always a good thing. Certainly sound emits from the mouth but there is a lot of resonance in that throat area and a lav mic is not placed in front of the mouth.

Besides the placement of the microphone, I make certain that the pastor, preacher, priest or rabbi does not put the transmitter in their pocket. Actually I specifically won’t let them put the transmitter in their pants pockets. A belt clip is best but a shirt pocket can also work. Anything that obscures the antenna is not good. You can take the best wireless lav rig in the world, stuff the transmitter deep in your pocket and it will either not work or sound very bad. I know this seems painfully obvious but I encounter this issue regularly.

Lavalier mics have also found a home in a lot of live stage plays and T.V. My home church has put on a variety of live stage shows over the years and all of them have used lav microphones to amplify the vocals. My more sophisticated shows use head-set mics for the actors and singers. The headset brings the microphones element close to the mouth. That said, most good head-set mics use the same small onmi-directional element as a good lav mic. Many manufacturers use the same microphone with either a lapel clip or ear piece depending on the purpose.

There are a lot of accessories that work universally with any lavalier microphone. Here is a list of my favorites;

Microcats: These are little fuzz balls that fit snuggly over a Lavalier microphone in order to cut down on wind noise. These are great if you plan on using your lav mic outside.

Stickies: These are adhesive pads that allow you to mount your lav on clothing or skin. These pads leave no residue and won’t remove skin when you remove the stickie.

Undercovers: These allow you to mount your lav mic under clothing (without a clip) and prevents rustling and contact noise. This is an excellent solution to get a microphone closer to the speakers larynx. These are really good if you are amplifying a small, less than powerful voice.

Overcovers: These easily allow you to mount a lavalier microphone to clothing or skin (via adhesive) and also protect the microphone from wind noise.

I think that is about everything I’ve got on lavalier microphones for now. The fact of the matter is that I use them regularly and I think they will have a place in the worship sound world and in the secular sound world for many years to come.