Intro from Jay Allison: If “What mic should I get?” is the most common question we get at Transom, “What about a lavalier?” often follows. Lavaliers, of course, are those tiny mics you clip on an interviewee, most often used for film shoots, etc. They remove the holding-the-mic burden/advantage from the recordist. Generally, at Transom, we have eschewed lavaliers, and in this feature Jeff Towne will tell you why, but he will also FINALLY ANSWER the question: “What lavalier mic should I buy?”
We test mics from $20 to about $500, including wired, wireless, smart phone/tablet lavs, and the new breed of stand-alone lav recorders which could have great application in rough-and-tumble recording scenarios, like extreme sports. Sometimes, indeed, a lav is the best choice.
And so, at last, we offer you Jeff Towne’s review of lavalier microphones, along with lots of recording tips. Per usual, Jeff provides images and audio samples so you can determine which lav is best for you.
The Appeal Of Lavaliers
You may have noticed a lack of coverage of lavalier mics here on Transom — they’re absent from our gear guides and tips on techniques. Our default response to “what lavalier should I get?” has long been . . . don’t. We pretty firmly believed that the sonic compromises of lavalier mics were not worth the benefits. But if pushed, we were willing to admit that there might be times when a lavalier could be the right tool.
With the increasing multi-media-ness of everything, a lav might give the best sound if your interviewee is on-camera. And if your interviewee needs to move around, it may be impossible to keep them on mic with a handheld or boom mic. And a lavalier mic can enable a low-profile recording when a more obvious mic would be problematic. Additionally, some new devices have also made lavalier recording more practical, and affordable.
The appeal of lavaliers is obvious: not having to hold a mic is a plus, and nervous interview subjects may be less intimidated by a mic they can’t see.
However, lavalier mics also present a few significant problems:
- The mic needs to be placed in a less-than-ideal position. When using a handheld or boom mic for an interview, you’d never decide to place it flush against the interviewee’s chest, or on their lapel, or behind a tie, or up in their hair. Those positions just do not result in the best vocal sound: it’s often echoey, or hollow, or muffled, or brittle, or some combination of those things.
- Because the mic is stationary, the subject’s head movement can cause the voice volume and timbre to shift.
- Lavaliers with an omnidirectional pick-up pattern result in a more even pick-up, but also record more room ambience and noise.
- The mics themselves need to be tiny. Small mics can sound surprisingly good, but the best-sounding mics for recording voices tend to be larger.
- When they’re clipped to clothes, or hung on a lanyard, the mics are highly susceptible to noise from clothing rubbing against the mic, or the mic cable. There are techniques for mitigating these problems, but they can be laborious and are not always successful.
But — if a lavalier mic does seem like a good solution, the range of price and quality is vast, and there are a few different recording scenarios:
- A traditional wired microphone using either an XLR or mini cable.
- Wireless transmitters and receivers.
- Self-contained lavalier recorders.
- Smartphone or tablet-based microphones, using analog TRRS headphone/mic connections, or digital lightning connections to iOS devices.
Traditional Wired Lavaliers
Often the simple solution is the best. If a lavalier is the answer, the first thing to consider is a basic mic on a cable. This scenario introduces the fewest complications: no battery or interference issues such as those found with wireless mics, and you can monitor the audio levels effectively at your recorder.
There’s a huge range of price and performance in the world of wired lavs. A mic that uses an XLR connector, rather than an 1/8 inch mini connector will be more reliable. XLR mic cables are balanced and shielded, which reduces the chance of picking up buzzes or radio interference, and an XLR cable makes a more reliable connection to the recorder than a mini jack. Mics that terminate in a mini jack can sound fine, but those unbalanced cables can’t be too long or they’ll be in real danger of attracting noise.
Remember — an omnidirectional pickup pattern is usually better for recording purposes. A cardioid lavalier will be a better choice for live events where the mic is being amplified through sound reinforcement — an omni lav will likely feed back if the sound is being sent through speakers in the room. But if there’s no amplification, an omni mic will provide a more even pickup as speakers move their heads, and an omni is less sensitive to noise from cable movement, clothes rustle, and wind.
Even with an omni mic, you need to take care to avoid anything rubbing against or banging into the microphone. You might be able to get away with simply clipping the mic to a shirt or coat lapel, but you may also need to secure the cable, and other clothing or jewelry that could create noise.
Sound engineers often make a loop in the cable at the mic end, to provide some strain relief, and reduce noise from the cable getting inadvertently tugged. Some lavalier clips have a channel built-in to secure that loop, but even without that, a small loop of cable, anchored by the teeth of the clamp, can help avoid certain problems. Some engineers like to clip lavaliers pointing down, which can help reduce an overly-bright sound, and mitigate breath sounds hitting the mic element. In theory, omnidirectional mics should sound the same regardless of orientation, but in the real world, they all have some directionality, especially in high frequencies, so you may need to experiment a little to find the ideal placement and orientation of any given mic, and any given subject.
There’s a great tutorial about hiding lavaliers (when neccessary) and reducing clothing noise, from the DPA microphone company, here:
Many major microphone manufacturers sell a few different models of wired lavalier microphones with XLR cables, and many of them will do a fine job. Many of those mics are alternately available — wired to connect to wireless transmitters from a few different makers, and often at a lower price. However, an XLR connector is still often the simplest, most reliable way to connect to your recorder.
Among that crowded playing field, a couple of our favorites are the Tram TR50, and the Sanken COS-11.
The Sanken COS-11D is expensive for a lavalier at $470 USD (although some high-end lavaliers can sell for more than double that price) but it has an open, airy sound that can reduce many of the sonic compromises that most lavaliers suffer from, making the expense justified when the budget allows.
The Tram TR50 is a mid-priced ($310) workhorse lavalier. It’s small, versatile, and sounds great.
There are many other lavaliers available in the $100-200 range, but we haven’t found any that we love . . . we’re keeping our ears open.
With Budget In Mind
On the budget end, there are lavs with minijack connectors that sell for significantly less than the pro-level XLR-based mics, many for well under $100. Sony makes a couple of stereo lavaliers that sound okay, and Audio Technica makes the very budget-friendly ATR3350iS, which can be used with a conventional recorder, or with a smartphone by using an included adapter. Oddly, our sample of this mic made a steady whooshing sound when connected to a conventional recorder, but was dead quiet when plugged into a smartphone.
We’re most impressed by the Movo LV-1, which sells for the astonishing price of $20 — and sounds shockingly good.
Any of these mics with mini plugs interface best with recorders that have mini inputs, but they can be adapted to XLR with a device such as the Rode VXLR. Many of these mics require “Plug-In Power” which is a small current, commonly provided by many recorders and video camcorders. It is NOT the same as phantom power, although it serves a similar function. Some of these mics have their own batteries, often a small button-type battery that provides the plug-in power. If you need to use this type of mic with a recorder that only has XLR inputs, Rode has an adapter called the VXLR Plus that not only converts from mini to XLR, but also converts phantom power to plug-in power.
The lure of the wireless lavalier is great: no wires to constrain the subject’s movement, while the recordist can monitor and control record levels at a distance. But there are a few downsides too. The first is expense: a high-end wireless system can cost thousands of dollars, and even a solid mid-level system from Sennheiser, Shure or Sony can cost well over $500.
Sennheiser G3 and G4 systems offer a good balance of performance and quality (~$600 and up.)
Some newer systems are offering lower prices, while retaining quality, such as the Rodelink Filmmaker kits from Rode ($399).
Regardless of expense, a wireless system adds more layers of complexity and potential for problems. There are batteries in both the wireless transistor and receiver, which you have to make sure remain charged, in addition to the batteries in your recorder. Wireless signals are susceptible to radio interference, and even without conflicting signals, wireless systems can suffer from background noise. And instead of plugging the mic directly into your recorder, you plug the mic into the transmitter, then connect another cable from the receiver to your recorder, adding one more wire that could go bad.
Radio transmitters and receivers will add some noise too, compared to a simple wired microphone. In many cases, a small amount of added hiss is an acceptable trade-off for the freedom allowed by a wireless connection, and in certain environments, that noise might not even be audible. But there’s usually a little noise, and you’ll have to decide if it’s too much.
We placed two mics, and connected two wireless systems, and recorded each to its own track on a recorder.
Here’s a sample of a Sennhesier G3 series wireless system, the EW-100, with a Tram TR50 microphone.
Here’s that same Tram TR-50 microphone wired directly into a recorder.
Here’s a sample of Rode Link Filmmaker lavalier kit:
Here’s that same Rode lavalier mic, connected directly to an audio recorder:
There’s certainly added noise with both wireless systems, the Rode more than the Sennheiser, but either might be acceptable, especially when recording in an environment with some background ambience.
Just to make things really confusing, governments occasionally change the rules on what frequencies are available for wireless devices like this. As a result, older systems can become obsolete, which means they’re likely to pick up interference, and in many cases become illegal to operate because they may interfere with government emergency radio frequencies.
Despite these potential problems, a wireless system can be an excellent solution for times when a subject needs to move around freely, or needs to be a significant distance from the recorder. Keep in mind that very inexpensive systems can suffer from range problems and fail to maintain a clean signal when the transmitter and receiver are far from one another.
Sadly, several incompatible mic input connectors are used on the different manufacturers’ transmitters, making it hard to swap mics between systems. The Sennheiser locking-mini connector seems to be emerging as something of a standard, used on some new Rode, Tascam and Zoom equipment, as well as most Sennheiser wireless gear,
Stand-alone Lavalier Recorders
A relatively new type of lavalier system involves a microphone connected directly to a small recorder, which can be placed in a pocket or clipped to a belt, much like a wireless transmitter. This removes many of the problems of wireless systems: no wireless connection problems, half the number of devices and batteries, and reduced cost.
Lectrosonics debuted an expensive version of this concept a few years ago, and many filmmakers and audio producers on a budget have been assembling budget versions using a small recorder, such as a Zoom H1, with a minijack-based lavalier. Recently, both Zoom and Tascam have released purpose-built systems, complete with a lavalier and a tiny recorder, at quite affordable prices. The Tascam DR-10L sells for $200, and captures surprisingly good quality audio, given the limited controls on the device. The Zoom F1 sells for about the same price and has a few more options, and it too records very good-sounding audio.
The major problem with these kinds of devices is that they violate one of the golden rules of audio engineering: that you must always monitor your recordings. These tiny recorders have headphone jacks that can be used when setting up and testing levels, but during the actual recording, you have to go on faith that the levels have been set properly, and that there are no major problems with noises on the mic.
The levels issue is less of a problem than you’d imagine. Even though the Tascam DR-10L has a limited number of gain levels — Low, Mid-Low, Medium, High and High+ — those settings are surprisingly useful. Combined with the built-in limiter, and the option of dual recording (which records a second track at a reduced level), it’s not hard to get a useable level. And the mic that’s provided with the recorder sounds pretty good, although its cardioid pick-up pattern is less than ideal. The screen is TINY, and provides only the bare essentials for setting up the recorder. But it does offer enough feedback to make useable recordings.
The Zoom F1 has a similar stepped input gain, and it too has a limiter (but no dual-record mode) so setting levels is similar to the Tascam. The Zoom has a larger screen, which is easier to read, and displays more information at once than the Tascam, but the device itself is also larger and heavier, making it a bit more cumbersome.
The lavalier mic provided with the Zoom F1 is a good-sounding omni, and this recorder has an additional trick: it can also accept all the standard Zoom microphone accessories, the ones that can be used with the H5 and H6, making this a very versatile tiny recorder.
Ultimately, both the Tascam DR-10L and the Zoom F1 are fairly easy to set up and run, given the limited controls provided. And both use a locking mini connector for the mic, meaning that you could use other mics with these recorders. Both recorders have similar battery life, 8 hours or more, depending on the kind of batteries. The Zoom uses 2 AAA batteries, while the Tascam uses only 1 AAA. The Zoom F1 has a Hold button, which prevents any accidental button pushing from interrupting the recording. The Tascam’s record function automatically engages a hold function, locking out all the keys until the recording is finished.
Both machines make pretty good-sounding recordings, but the Zoom sounds a little better, feels more solid, has a real display and optional additional mic attachments, making it a more complete, if tiny, recorder. The Zoom F1 also comes with a 16 gig Micro SD card, while the Tascam ships with an 8 gig card. On the other hand, the Tascam is much smaller and lighter, and therefore is easier to tuck in a pocket or clip to a belt, unobtrusively.
The big problem with this kind of recorder is that lavaliers are inherently susceptible to sounds from rustling clothes, the subject touching the mic or cable, or wind and breath noises, and because it’s not possible to monitor the recording in real-time, you won’t know if those noises have interfered with your recording until after it’s done.
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There is a lot of interest in recording directly to smartphones and tablets, so it’s not surprising that there are lavaliers specifically designed for that. There are a few downsides to this style of mic: mics with TRRS connectors can connect to many smartphone headphone/mic jacks, but newer iPhones no longer have this jack. They’ll work fine with older iPhones and iPads that still have conventional headphone jacks, and with most Android smartphones, but not the latest iPhone versions. For devices with the TRRS headphone jack, the Rode SmartLav, or the Shure MVL, are decent options. (Note: we tested the original Rode SmartLav, which is no longer available. The SmartLav+ claims to offer a louder output and less noise.)
For newer iOS devices, there are some lavaliers — such as the Sennheiser Clip Mic Digital — that connect directly to the lightning input of an iPhone or iPad.
Even when you find a mic with the right kind of connector for your phone or tablet, there are still a few downsides. For the mics that connect to the headphone jack, plugging in the mic makes it impossible to connect headphones and monitor the recording, which is always the preferable method. For mics with a lightning connector, you will be able to monitor through the headphone jack, if there is one — but there’s a slight delay in the headphone feed, making it sound weird, especially if you’re recording yourself. The Audio Technica ATR3350iS provides an adapter that splits the smartphone headphone jack into a conventional headphone jack and a mic input, but it too suffers from the delay in the monitoring chain. That’s due to a phenomenon called “latency” that results from the audio being delayed as it goes through whatever processing is involved in the recording software, and is then sent back to the headphones.
The convenience of smartphone recording is hard to deny, especially if you need to send your recording to another location quickly. But it’s still worth remembering that a dedicated audio recorder has many advantages:
- Smartphone apps are more likely to crash than a dedicated recorder.
- Phone batteries are notorious for running out prematurely.
- It’s easy to fill up a phone or tablet’s internal memory without realizing it.
A dedicated recorder makes it easier to swap-in new batteries, or a big memory card, and to monitor what you’re recording.
So, Should You?
A lavalier can be a handy tool in some circumstances, so it’s not a bad idea to have one in your kit. Whether to go for something inexpensive to use occasionally, or to invest in a more elaborate or expensive system, might depend on the kinds of projects you’re doing. Another concern is how much risk you want to take by not monitoring your recording in real time. If you can assume that risk, the new stand-alone recorders, like the Zoom H1 or the Tascam DR-10L are surprisingly useable. We prefer the Zoom, but both devices can get the job done.
If you can afford them, more expensive lavs like the Tram TR50 or Sanken COSD-11D can make lavalier recordings sound ALMOST as good as a handheld or boom mic, when connected to a good recorder.
If you’re on a budget, check out the MOVO LV-1, for shockingly decent quality at a bargain-basement price.
If you need or want to record into a smartphone or tablet, the Sennheiser Clip Mic Digital has excellent sound quality, if you’re using an iOS device with a lightning connector. The Rode Smartlav is more universally compatible, and sounds decent, if your device has a TRRS headphone jack.
But in the end, ask yourself whether you really need to use a lavalier. If it’s not absolutely necessary — don’t! You’re much more likely to get good sound with a more conventional mic, placed in front of your subject’s mouth, rather than a lavalier clipped to their clothes. If you do need one, it’s nice to know that there are some good options that don’t break the bank.
And new mics and recorders are coming out all the time. We’ll keep listening, and if we hear something we like, we’ll let you know!