Using Lavalier Microphones with Recorders

Share

The built-in microphones on portable digital recorders are great for recording ambient sounds and live music, and their line-level inputs are really handy when you need to connect a mixer. But how about taking advantage of the external microphone input on your recorder? Using tiny lavalier microphones with portable digital recorders opens up a wide range of creative recording possibilities. Check out this article to learn about the interesting things you can do with this gear. 


The wild popularity of portable digital recorders tells us that people really have an active need to create high-quality audio recordings. In order to get the most out of a portable recorder, it's a good idea to learn all of the things you can do with its inputs and outputs. One of the jacks on your portable digital recorder that shouldn't be ignored is its external microphone input.

There are many different kinds of mics that you can plug into a portable digital recorder: handheld mics, shotguns, boundary microphones, but in this article we'll focus on lavalier microphones. Lavaliers are tiny microphones designed to be attached to a person's clothing. The idea behind lavaliers is to supply you with a microphone that's as small and inconspicuous as possible, yet is still capable of capturing great-sounding audio.

When you use a lavalier microphone with a portable digital recorder, it's possible to completely hide both devices from view. This enables you to surreptitiously record high-quality audio to your heart's content. While this is great if you're interested in espionage, it's really exciting if you're into filmmaking.

If you use a portable digital recorder to capture the sound for video and film productions, you can potentially use the recorder and the lavalier microphone as a substitute for a wireless microphone. Now, I don't want to confuse you. A portable digital recorder and a lav mic cannot transmit their signal wirelessly. But, if you're mindful of a few operational guidelines, they make an affordable substitute for a wireless system.

An Edirol R-09HR portable digital recorder tucked inside a Neopax Standard Waist Belt

When you use a portable digital recorder to capture the sound for a video production, the sound files and the video files are recorded completely independently. They're not synced together until they're brought into the video-editing software in post production. When you record the sound separately from the video, it's called "shooting double system." For more information about using a portable digital recorder in a video shoot, check out this B&H Insights article.

Because the portable digital recorder is used independently, away from the camera, it can be hidden in the on-camera talent's clothing. When you use a lavalier microphone with the portable digital recorder, you can attach it to the on-camera subject just as you would attach a wireless beltpack transmitter. Instead of transmitting the microphone signal wirelessly back to the camera, the audio is just being recorded on the portable digital recorder.

One of the main guidelines that you must adhere to when you work this way is to always double-check the settings on the portable digital recorder as you work. The little buttons and switches on the recorder can sometimes accidentally get changed. You also need to always make sure that the recorder is, in fact, recording. It's a good idea to frequently play back and listen to the files that you're recording on the portable digital recorder. You need to make sure that the audio levels sound good and that the lavalier microphone isn't picking up any clothing rustle or wind noise. If you fail to follow these workflow guidelines, you could potentially end up with distorted audio—or no audio at all.

The Zoom H4n digital recorder with a Tram TR50 lavalier microphone

The kind of lavalier microphone that's compatible with your recorder depends on what kind of external microphone input is on your recorder. Many compact portable digital recorders (like the Zoom H1) feature a 3.5mm mini-plug microphone input. Other recorders (like the Marantz  PMD661) feature professional XLR inputs. The Zoom H4n (pictured above) features dual XLR inputs and a 3.5mm mini-plug microphone input.


Mini-Plug Lavalier Microphones

If your recorder has a 3.5mm mini-plug input, one affordable option is the Pearstone OLM-10 Omnidirectional Lavalier Microphone. It comes with a tie clip, a foam windscreen, an 1/8" to 1/4" adapter and an LR44 battery. The battery is required for operation and replacement batteries are readily available at B&H when you need them. And speaking of replacements, we also sell replacement tie clips—in case your talent accidentally loses one.


Another good 3.5mm mini-plug lavalier microphone is the Sony ECM-CS10. The ECM-CS10 is a stereo microphone, which means it can double as a good mic to record live music and environmental ambiance. It doesn't require a battery to operate, but it does require "Plug-In Power" from the microphone input. Plug-In Power is a small electrical charge supplied by the device into which the mic is plugged. Most portable digital recorders supply Plug-In Power through their 3.5mm external microphone input.


Have you ever dreamed of making awesome recordings of live music, without anyone knowing? Musicians tend to play differently when they see microphones and recording devices rolling away. With the portable digital recorder neatly hidden under your coat, all you need is a pair of great-sounding stereo mics to clip to your collar. If you own a portable digital recorder with a mini-plug mic input, the stereo microphone you need to do this is the Microphone Madness BSM-7. With the dual lavaliers of the BSM-7 positioned in a strategic place on your clothing, you'll be able to make high-quality stereo recordings of live music and the world around you.


XLR Lavalier Microphones

XLR microphone inputs offer a richer sound quality than 3.5mm mini-plug inputs. There are also higher-quality lavalier microphones available for portable digital recorders with XLR inputs. A good sounding lavalier that's relatively inexpensive is the Audio Technica AT899. The microphone itself is very compact, and it comes with a number of different clips that give you many options for how to attach the microphone to different kinds of garments. The AT899 can be powered by a AA battery or by phantom power.


The Tram TR50 is a lavalier microphone that's relatively easy to hide, yet still provides broadcast-quality audio. It's easier to hide because the microphone itself is flat and square. A good assortment of clips is included to give you options for attaching it to your subject. It can run on phantom power, or from a compact LR44 battery. Even though the battery it uses is compact, the barrel that connects the microphone to the recorder is still substantial in size. Being able to hide the portable recorder and the barrel connector of the lavalier mic is something you should take into consideration when connecting any XLR lavalier to a portable digital recorder. The TR50 is also available in white, tan and gray.


If you're looking for the best sound quality possible, a good choice is the Sanken COS11. The COS11 can run on a AA battery (which is included) or phantom power to operate. Some people find its longer, cylindrical microphone head a little more challenging to hide under a subject's clothing. The COS11 is one of the most commonly used lavalier microphones in broadcast and film production. It's also available in beige, gray and white.



You really need to protect the microphone from wind noise the moment you step outdoors with a lavalier. It doesn't matter if you're using an XLR or a mini-plug microphone—even a gentle breeze can distort your audio. The foam windscreens that come with these microphones don't provide enough protection for outdoor use. You need to step things up with a furry windscreen.

One good option is to pick up a Pearstone Fuzzy Windjammer. This is essentially a tiny ball of fluff that covers your lavalier microphone. The idea is that you put the foam windscreen that came with your lavalier microphone on, and then you pull the Pearstone Fuzzy Windjammer over the foam. The fuzz on the Windjammer diffuses the wind noise, allowing you to use the lavalier in normal to heavy winds.

Another option is to use Rycote Overcovers. Think of these as a disposable version of the Pearstone Fuzzy Windjammer. The Overcovers come with 30 double-sided sticky pads. What you do is attach one side of the pad to your subject's clothing. On the other side you stick the microphone. Then you cover the rest of the exposed area around the mic with a small ball of fluff (the Overcovers come with several black, white and grey fluff balls). The advantage of the Overcovers is that if you accidentally lose one of the fluff balls (which are susceptible to blowing away in the wind), you just grab another one.

The Overcovers do a great job of cutting down wind noise, but they do an even better job of cutting down clothing rustle. Even if you're working indoors away from the weather, Overcovers still come in very handy when you need to hide a lavalier microphone under the clothing of your subject. Hiding the lavalier so that you don't pick up clothing rustle is very tricky. When you mount the microphone under someone's clothes with a double-sided sticky pad and a fluff ball, your odds of success are much higher.

I hope you learned a thing or two from this article! If you have any more questions about lavalier microphones, portable digital recorders, or little balls of fluff, we encourage you to post them in the Comments section.

Add new comment

I think some information on which recorders with good mic pre-amps would be useful I have been very dissapointed with the zoom h2 noise.

Is there any mic that will pick up sounds of nature, such as distant bird sounds?  Thank you. 

samp79 wrote:

I think some information on which recorders with good mic pre-amps would be useful I have been very dissapointed with the zoom h2 noise.

The best preamps you're going to find on a portable digital recorder are going to be on the Sound Devices 700 series recorders. The Fostex FR-2 LE and the Tascam HD-P2 are also known to have better than average microphone preamplifiers.

Andy wrote:

Is there any mic that will pick up sounds of nature, such as distant bird sounds?  Thank you. 

Hi Andy! Thanks for posting your question.

Recording distant sounds is one of the age old challenges of location audio. The trouble is, if the birds are really far away, they're usually going to sound that way in a recording. You can try using a shotgun microphone. If you're using a recorder with a 3.5mm mini-plug external microphone input, you can use any of the shotguns discussed in this B&H Insights article. Of those choices, I would use a Rode VideoMic with a Dead Cat windscreen and a Pearstone pistol grip. If your portable digital recorder has XLR inputs, you can use any of the shotgun microphones discussed in this B&H Insights article. There are many good choices with professional shotgun microphones, but if I was trying to record the sounds of distant birds I would use a Sennheiser MKH-70 with a Rycote blimp.

If you can get close to the birds, the stereo microphones built into the portable digital recorder can usually pick up really good sounding audio. But any time that you use microphones outdoors, you have to be sure to use wind protection, even with the built-in microphones on a recorder. You can do a lot better than the foam windscreens that come included with the recorders. I would advise using the appropriate custom portable digital recorder windscreen accessory to help diffuse wind noise.

Does the  Sony ECM-CS10 work the Zoom H1 Recorder? 

Anonymous wrote:

Does the  Sony ECM-CS10 work the Zoom H1 Recorder? 

Yes. The ECM-CS10 requires Plug-In Power to operate, and the Zoom H1 supplies it:

The Zoom H1 Manual wrote:

Mic/line input jack: Connect and record another device or microphone here. Mics that require plug-in power can be used with this jack.

Do you know of a good solution for a speaking situation where we want to use a wireless mic for amplification but also want to record digitally? Can you both patch into a portable digital voice recorder AND send a wireless signal for amplification?

Thanks

Karen wrote:

Do you know of a good solution for a speaking situation where we want to use a wireless mic for amplification but also want to record digitally? Can you both patch into a portable digital voice recorder AND send a wireless signal for amplification?

Thanks

The easy way to do this is to use a separate lav microphone (like the ones mentioned in this article) and plug it directly into the portable digital recorder, and hide the portable digital recorder on the talent. Let the wireless system that's going to be plugged into the house amplification system act on its own. In other words, there will be two lav microphones on the talent (one for the house system and one going directly into the recorder). It gets a lot more complicated when you want to integrate the portable digital recorder and the wireless system. Here's why...

The best way to go if you're only putting one lavalier mic on the talent is to use two separate wireless receivers. Let me start at the beginning, so you understand the basics.

A wireless microphone system consists of three components:

1) The microphone

2) The wireless transmitter

3) The wireless receiver

When you just need to plug the signal from the microphone into one location (such as the amplification or PA system), you would connect the wireless receiver to a microphone input on the PA system.

When you want to plug the signal from the microphone into two locations (such as the PA system and a portable digital recorder), a good way to do this would be to buy an additional (and identical) wireless receiver. Therefore you are plugging one wireless receiver into the PA system, and a second wireless receiver into the mic input on the portable digital recorder.

If you go this route, it's really important to be certain that you're buying the correct wireless receiver. For example, if you have a Sennheiser EW G3 wireless lav system that operates on Frequency B, you want make sure that you're buying an a la carte Sennheiser 3G receiver that also operates on Frequency B.

It's also important to point out that with wireless systems it's perfectly fine to have one transmitter and several receivers. However, on the flip side of that, it's not okay to have several transmitters and one receiver. That won't work.

Another solution for you, Karen, is to see if there is an AUX output on the PA system. If there is, you may not need to buy a second wireless receiver. It may be possible to route the feed from the wireless receiver that's plugged into the PA system to an auxiliary output on the PA system. You may be able to connect an input on the portable digital recorder to this AUX output. However, there are many variables. You need to know if the PA has an AUX output. You need to know what kind of connector the output is. You need the appropriate cable and/or adapter to connect the AUX output to the input on the portable digital recorder. You also need to know if the level of the AUX output is compatible with the kind of input on the recorder. Is the AUX output line-level? Is it mic-level? Is the AUX output level adjustable? Is the input on the recorder adjustable?

One thing I would not advise doing is using splitter cables. When you use a splitter cable, you are changing the impedance of the signal. An improper impedance mismatch can ruin the audio quality, and you may be creating a problem as opposed to solving one.

Would the AT831B Cardoid Mic work with a Portable Tascam to record concerts in stealth?

MF wrote:

Would the AT831B Cardoid Mic work with a Portable Tascam to record concerts in stealth?

The AT831B wouldn't work with all portable Tascam recorders. You need to use one with an XLR mic input, like the Tascam DR-100.

Is there a "reasonable" way to have a "universal" wireless receiver.  What I have in mind is being able to receive the audio (for recording with video) at many venues.  (This, of course, providing they use wireless microphones.)  Considering there are many transmission frequencies, one may or may not know which the microphones are using.

If there is such a thing as a "universal" receiver, one then merely "tunes" to the correct frequency.

Is there a chance...?

Thank you.

Knorske wrote:

Is there a "reasonable" way to have a "universal" wireless receiver.  What I have in mind is being able to receive the audio (for recording with video) at many venues.  (This, of course, providing they use wireless microphones.)  Considering there are many transmission frequencies, one may or may not know which the microphones are using.

If there is such a thing as a "universal" receiver, one then merely "tunes" to the correct frequency.

Is there a chance...?

Thank you.

Sorry, Knorske, but the answer is no. There is no universal wireless receiver available (that I know of, anyhow).

 I'd like to use my Rode Lavalier with Zoom H1. So I purchased a micon-2 adapter, which theoretically should allow me to plug straight into the Zoom's mic input, right? Only, it doesn't work. Any ideas what I'm doing wrong? The manual says that plugin power is automatically supplied, but the mic doesn't seem to be getting power. Perhaps I've got the wrong micon adapter?