Tutorial: Using a Lav Mic

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As you progress through your film making skill set, one thing will become paramount; the audio component is not something to be taken lightly. Indeed, you may grow to think audio is not just as important as the visuals, but more important.

An oft used example is this: if you don’t think audio is important, turn on the ABC TV news at 7 o’clock, mute the sound and then try and explain what the hell is going on in the world!

Or you may have discovered this already; your audience will forgive a slightly blurred image, or a missed frame or two, but if the audio is out of sync or unintelligible… they will turn off in droves!

It goes to say then, you want the best audio you can get – particularly speech – so the best microphone for the job is an absolute must (and we covered the different mic types and their uses in the last edition, with the help of the experts at Sennheiser, and is reprinted here if you missed it).

But as well as having the best mic for the job, it is necessary to know how to get the best from it. For live dialogue, you have a couple of choices – a mic such as the Sennheiser  MKE 600 shotgun mic on a boom, or the Sennhesier EW 112P G4 wireless mic that uses a special form of mic called a Lavaliere (Lav for short and nothing to do with the UK abbreviation  for a toilet I assure you!)

Lavs are also known as lapel or clip mics by the way, and are the short black (or white) ones you see clipped to the lapel of newsreaders on TV, with a cable leading to a transmitter attached out of sight to a belt. That is placement in its most basic form, as it doesn’t matter to the viewer they can see it. But on a film shoot, you don’t want the audience seeing cables and the like.

So, here we will be discussing the techniques and tricks for using a Lav mic, and leave the boom mounted mic for another time. Here are our top 10 tips:

  1. Placement is the most important thing as although the mic has to be discreet, it must be able to pick up the talent speaking of course. The most common places are on a lapel, a tie or a collar, but it is important to be aware that there are very real possibilities of noise from clothing rustle, the cable rubbing or even hair touching the mic capsule.
  2. To isolate a Lav mic from being rubbed, you can make a pseudo shock mount  out of gaffer tape (but avoid getting tape attached the pickup point of the mic). Sandwich the mic between two folded pieces of tape and attach to clothing. Make a loop out of the cable to take any tension off the cable where the mic is sitting, and also attach that to the clothing with gaffer tape.
  3. If you are sticking a mic to clothing, as suggested, use gaffer tape, but if it is to a person’s skin directly, use first aid tape (due to potential allergies).
  4. A person’s tie is a good location for a Lav mic as it can be clipped to the tie, hidden in the folds, even in the knot. A Lav mic can be upside down by the way.
  5. Another good location is inside a collar with the cable running under the collar and down the back of the shirt, so it is out of sight. Again, use a gaffer tape shock mount to isolate the mic from the clothing. A tee shirt’s collar can also be used, taping the mic underneath the collar and running the cable around the back.
  6. Inside a shirt next to the buttons also works, but yet again, use a gaffer tape shock mount.
  7. You might be tempted to increase the high-end audio in a program such as SOUND FORGE as these frequencies can be muffled by clothing covering the mic. Remember though that due to their nature, engineers such as those at Sennheiser who design these mics have thought of that and are way ahead of you, and so Lav mics tend to be more responsive in these areas so it is quite possible – even probable – this may not be necessary.
  8. Some companies make commercial versions of our gaffer tape shock mounts so have a look around if the gaffer tape solution is not to your liking.
  9. Some clothing poses particular problems for mounting Lav mics. Skin tight apparel especially present challenges – think a Superman suit, a sheer nightgown or similar. There is a very good video online that answers these challenges for 17 different items of clothing and presented by Stephen Harrod, a Hollywood sound professional specialising in this area.
  10. Finally, when placing Lav mics on talent, it is of special importance, and should go without saying, that discretion is the top of the list. Many people flinch at the thought of others poking around in somewhat intimate places, so make sure you ask your talent if it is OK to do so, and if not, let them do it themselves with your guidance.
  11. Yes, we go up to 11 here. Finally, double and triple check the audio from a Lav mic before shooting. The whole idea is to get the best audio you can; it all goes for nought if after all that, something comes unstuck, or noise creeps in and you have to reshoot all over again
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