On the internet, there are more questions than guides regarding production sound mixers and their usage of wireless lavalier (lav) systems on talent. By far, the biggest concern is how to achieve clean sound from an individual wearing a lav microphone (mic), especially when it’s hidden. Here, I’ll discuss some techniques on doing just that.
1. Connect your equipment; receiver to mixer channel, headphones to mixer.
2. Whenever in a new location, first scan the airwaves for any available frequencies (freqs.) on your particular freq. block. Make sure that all of your transmitters are off so you can get a clean signal to tune to. Also, if you are part of a separate crew at a venue where another production is going on, be sure to get clearance to utilize your wireless equipment and freqs. from the events “Sound Coordinator.” If at all possible, seek preapproval before the day of the gig in the event you need to rent wireless systems on allowable freqs..
3. Tune your transmitters to correspond with the selected freq. on the receivers and turn them on if they were not powered up already. If you have an assistant, perform an area and range test to confirm the reception of a clean signal regardless of the talents movement within a space. If no assistant is available, perform a test by listening to the lavs signal through an interruptible feedback/foldback (IFB) system. If one is not available, simply ask the talent to walk around a bit after they have been completely wired.
4. Get clearance from production regarding the allowable visibility of the lav mic. Evaluate the talents clothing and then choose the appropriate technique regarding placement of the mic. Secure the mic, hide and dress the cable and then connect it to the transmitter.
5. Listen to the talents wireless signal through the headphones in stereo. Have them perform some basic albeit flamboyant arm gestures, shoulder shrugs, dips and twists in order make sure that the lav is not affected by clothing rustle. If they have a particular action in a scene, ask for a demonstration to be certain rustle is extremely minimal to nonexistent.
6. Now get to work!
Accessories & Supplies
Before showing up to set, it pays to have some great accessories and supplies that will assist you in wiring your talent. Although some rental houses will have most of these accessories, there are some items only available at certain locations.
- Duplicates of the packaged lav accessories that came with your lav mic purchase (ie. tapedown, windscreen, gator clip, vampire clip, etc.)
- Elastic transmitter body pack holder w/ leg and waist straps – for transmitter concealment
- Garfield Hush Lavs – foam mic wrap in white and black for Sanken Cos-11 series lav mics
- Garfield Mic Bra in Black, White and Flesh tone
- Scissors – be sure to have a tiny, yet affective pair if kit is carry-on air luggage
- 3M Transpore Medical Tape – quite sticky
- Medical Pink Tape – insanely sticky (only available at medical supply stores)
- Topstick Grooming Tape at 1/2″ and 1″ width – moderate stickiness
- Garland Fashion Tape – very sticky (can be found at Ricky’s costume shop)
- Dr. Scholl’s Mole Skin in black or beige
- 3M HealthCare Foam Tape (beige)
- Joe’s Sticky Stuff – narrow thick tape – industrial strength
- Garfield Hushheels – for loud shoes although they can be quite slippery
- Sound Guys Lav Bullet – for dropping a lav wire through clothes quickly (TA5)
- Pro-Gaff Gaffers tape – for anything unexpected
- De-Starching Spray – to eliminate rustle on crinkly things
- Unlubricated Condoms – for transmitters in moist environments
- Rubber Bands
- Ziplock Bags – for organization and/or moist environments
Note that some of the adhesives can leave residue after a long day of use. If you have any issues with putting tape on someones fine garment, use Joe’s sticky stuff as it’s stickiness is directly linked to it’s tackiness. I’d recommend it for leather, rustling jackets or fine garments.
Lavalier Microphone Placement Strategy & Techniques
Before applying a lav to our talent, we must determine whether or not our lav is allowed to be seen. If it is allowed our strategy is relatively easy, however if not, we must employ a variety of techniques with our available tools to conceal our lavs and transmitters while making them as effective as possible. Using an omnidirectional lav is ideal for allowing a diverse amount of placement options in case the lav is set in an off-axis position.
In live television and public addresses, there are different techniques regarding visible lav placement. In almost all cases, a gator clip is used to fix the lav to the talent. Regardless of visibility, it’s preferred to have the lav positioned on-axis in the middle of the chest cavity on the lower end of the sternum to maintain proper vocal coloration, however it can sometimes be distracting for the viewer, so a superior such as the director or DP may request that it be repositioned for aesthetics.
Quick Tip #1: Hot blow drying an appropriate length of wire shrink tubing over the teeth of a gator clip will protect the fabrics of fine ties and garments from fraying when in use.
Quick Tip #2: When in doubt, use 2 lavs if you have the resources.
While maintaining a similar relative distance to the mouth, some popular lav placements include the edge of a suits lapel, across a tie, in the middle of a button-down, or on the edge of a blouse or dress strap. If our talent is wearing a t-shirt, the clip is placed on the collar with the mic pointing downward in an effort to minimize high freq. loss while avoiding a throaty low end rumble. In the event there is an abundance of low freq. resonance, use your mixer’s on-board filters to balance the signal. You should also aim a lav downward if you anticipate any breath coming in contact with the mic element, which is possible during a sit down interview.
Finally, when the element is placed, make sure that the lav wire is in a U-shape, half-looped on the interior of the gator clip or affixed to the the secondary wire clamp if your accessory is equipped with that feature. Also, if there is any anticipated cable noise, tape a full single or double loop hidden on the interior of the talents outfit, between an undergarment and the outfit, or directly to the skin, while providing some slack for natural interactions and movements. The closer the loop to the mic element, the less chance there is for cable noise.
Where sound has it’s under-appreciated share of challenges, in my experience, none is greater than applying a hidden lav mic and body pack to talent. The list of goodies above should assist in preparing for the infinite variety of people and their garment materials that will attempt to flummox you during your next gig. At every corner, you will have to figure out the best way to secure a lav while avoiding rustle and maintaining audio coloration.
Materials – Each has it’s own unique set of qualities and challenges.
This is the most common garment material. It passes audio very well, provides the standard regarding rustle amount, however is difficult to tape securely to without being noticed in dramatic light.
These materials can range from stiff and crinkly to stretchy. Their rustle is dependent on which side of the synthetic spectrum you are on. Also, stretchy garments can be difficult to secure adhesive to as they deform and change shape.
Wool is difficult to secure adhesive to and varies tremendously regarding thickness, pattern and fit. Where it does pass audio very well, it still is kind of a nightmare that forces you to position the lav element high up if possible due to the huge potential for rustle.
Leather passes audio poorly and squeaks and creaks always. When applying an adhesive, use Joe’s Sticky Stuff instead of standard tape as tape can create a bond that is incredibly hard to remove without damaging the garment or leaving unsightly, difficult-to-clean residues.
Silk rustles a lot and is akin to an X-ray revealing all of the hard work a sound mixer does. Everything can be seen through silk including the lav element, whatever mount you used, any adhesive applied, the cable, everything. Silk sucks, but if you have to, make the talent wear an undershirt and try to work with that if they agree. That’s what you have to do.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Before we go into hidden lav placement, keep in mind that a lavs mic head can still be directly exposed to the outside world while remaining concealed from camera. When a mic is set in this way, the potential for clothing rustle or mic obstruction goes down exponentially. On your days off, experiment in front of the mirror and get familiar with the garment standards.
Button Down Shirt
Dependent on the material or starch levels of the fabric, you have a few choices when choosing a lav location.
- The 1st method involves securing the mic element between the 2 vertical strips of fabric where the buttons connect both halves of the shirt. Because no fabric obstructs the mic head, you get solid coloration while minimizing rustle.
- The 2nd method involves opening the top 1 or 2 buttons of the shirt. The lav can be placed in a variety of locations around the upper chest and neck. There will be a fair bit of excess low end signal so filter accordingly.
- The 3rd method involves placing the lav under the collar pointing outward. Issues with rustle from a large or stubbly neck can arise. Also, this method only really works if the cable is obscured from behind by a garment covering the button-down.
- The 3rd and a half method operates along the same vein, however is used more in narrative works. Instead of placing the mic under the collar, cut a small hole in the back of the collar by the rear of the neck and physically slip the lav between its 2 sewn pieces of fabric, resting the lav in the petite acute terminus of the collar.
- The 4th method requires you treat the button-down like a standard shirt and lav it through the clothes at a well zoned location of your choosing. This applies to all clothes as long as it works.
- If the shirt has a design on the chest, position the lav in a way that it will be hidden. Sometimes the sternum can still rustle a bit depending on the person and the fit of the shirt so experiment with placing the element higher up on the chest while trying different lav directional orientations such as upside down or sideways.
- If there is no design on the shirt, secure the lav sideways along the underside of the collar, using the rim to conceal the cable. Explore your HPF to EQ any low end throatiness.
- In the event the talent is wearing a v-neck, placing the lav at the base of the “V” can be a solid location, balancing concealment, colorization and rustle reduction.
- In the event that nothing is working, another more advanced technique is to utilize the fabric of an undershirt to create a cradle for the lav. Secure the lav where you wish to on the outside of the talents undershirt and pull the surrounding fabric around the lav without obscuring the head. The shape that the fabric creates should resemble a flat funnel and should also appear to be invisible from the outside depending on the fit of the outermost garment.
Suit and Tie - Fear knot
- When wiring up a suit with a tie, start with the tie knot. First, loosen the foremost horizontal flap of the knot and create a crease in the hanging length nearest the knot for the lav to sit in. From behind, thread the lav through the flap; over, then down so that the tip points downward without being seen. Be creative with your adhesives and then tighten the tie and hide the cable down the inside of the shirt through the buttons, or route it through the collar leading the cable down the obscured shirt back. Experiment with using a rubber mount on a full windsor if you wish to avoid having a large crease in your tie.
- Just as when wiring a button-down, secure the lav in place between both long portions of tie fabric so that they don’t move independently of each other. This works well, however limits the natural physics of a tie so use this method in a situation where little physical action will be taking place.
- Another method involves creating a wire spacer to be positioned underneath the area right below the back of the tie. Straighten a paperclip and form it into an angular “U” with each length being about 2cm. Take the 2 legs and bend them both forward about halfway at 1cm so the guard can be taped down. The lav should be placed within that guard. If there is still rustle, tape the guard to the shirt below. Although the mic element is exposed to the environment, coloration might be affected by the thick tie materials and the sonic umbrella it creates.