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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 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.