Hiding Lavalier Mics Doesn’t Have To Be Scary – Part I

That mic is almost as big as his tie!
Ed McMahon selling Alpo on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

One thing we haven’t seen for 40+ years on tv is a gigantic bolo-style lavalier microphone around anyone’s neck. If you watch reality shows like Big Brother, you might see the same style being used with more modern microphones, just on people with way less clothing. Thanks for wearing a shirt, Ed McMahon.

People without shirts wearing microphones
Big Brother 15, CBS

Think about that positioning and the lavaliere (a pendant hanging centered on a necklace) this type of microphone is named after. While you can clip and attach them nearly anywhere now, centered on your chest is an ideal general-purpose position, especially for sweaty people without shirts.

Over this series, I’m going to talk about microphone polar patterns, lav mic basics, and some simple ways you can approach mounting them on talent. Regardless of what I tell you here, play around with your mics. Test attaching them to yourself and other [consenting adults] people to see what sounds best to you.

Typical Microphone Patterns On Set

Hypercardioid Polar Pattern

If you’ve worked with microphones, you probably know they come in different polar patterns. Cardioid, Hypercardioid, Omnidirectional, and Lobar (or Supercardioid) are the ones you typically see in film and video production. Lobar is for shotgun microphones, so you won’t see it in a lav (though I’m very ready to be wrong), and Hyper-Cardioid is a more focused Cardioid with a smaller lobe of pickup sensitivity 180 degrees from the front of the capsule.

Cardioid Polar Pattern

Handheld microphones are typically Cardioid (rounded heart shape) because they focus more on what is in front and just to the sides of them and reject more of what is directly behind them. In live environments, this is incredibly helpful to avoid feedback. As you could then guess, lav mics with a cardioid polar pattern are typically used in live settings like conferences and broadcast media. One of the higher quality cardioid lavs you’ll see is the DPA 4080. They’re usually chest-mounted, visible, and clipped on if they’re not on a headset. Watch hosts and guests on any live-captured tv show like late-night shows and the news to get an idea of how they’re typically mounted outside of clothing.

Omnidirectional Polar Pattern

In single-camera productions, it’s more typical to use Omnidirectional lavalier mics. They can offer a more natural sound if you’re not fighting noise issues. As the name implies, they usually have a mostly even pickup pattern in a full sphere around the mic capsule. Common models with capsules mounted on the top include the lavs Sennheiser includes with their wireless systems, Countryman B3, & Sanken COS-11D. A slightly different style of Omni lav you’ll see are Tram TR50-style mics like the Lectrosonics M152 they include with their wireless transmitters, Countryman EMW or Sonotrim lavs (if you know a pro mixer). These are less sensitive to physical noise on the flat plastic side opposite of the mic grille and are often mounted with that side facing any physical noise sources like fabric.

Oh Wait, One More “Polar Pattern”

Boundary Microphone “Hemispherical” Polar Pattern

When placed on the chest, Omni-patterned lavs pick up sound in a polar pattern that looks like a hemisphere, much like a boundary microphone you’d see on a conference room table. It’s a half-sphere projecting from the chest. This is why you wouldn’t want to use them in a live setting. It’s feedback hell unless turning your back to the speaker makes it stop. The sound produced from a position near the solar plexus is more natural but can be very chest-resonant and many times benefits from tweaking in post.

You still want your Omni lavs centrally placed for uniform sound when the talent moves and adjusts their body. Placement between the lower end of the breastbone and solar plexus generally gives a more natural sound. This is why you’ll often see a mixer asking female talent to attach a lav on a vampire clip near the bottom “valley” of their bra. For men, attaching a mic to their shirt, taping to their chest or using a “mic bra” is a good way to achieve similar hidden placement. In large film productions, they often dedicate time and money to creating permanent lav mic placements inside of costumes.

Next Time . . .

That should give you a more solid grounding on lavalier mics. Next time I’ll work through some mounting positions and techniques with simple examples you can try at home.