Tricks of the Trade, April 2000

USING LAVALIER MICROPHONES
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I was born in England, and my mum was always asking me if I needed
to use the "lav," so when I was asked to write some thoughts about
"using lavs," I couldn't help but laugh. But using lav microphones can
be a scary business. The idea of strapping a transmitter onto a
performer and listening to the person sing through a tiny electret
microphone pinned to their chest area can be exciting and
terrifying.

A LITTLE LAV HISTORY
Sony's ECM-50 provided my first experiences using lavalier microphones.
The ECM-50 was placed on the chest, tie, lapel, bra and sometimes
collar of the actor's coat. This mic position never suffered from sweat
or hat reflection problems, it only suffered from sounding...bad. But
truthfully, given the rudimentary sound systems in use at that time,
nearly everything sounded bad. And about the only time we ever heard
high frequencies come through the performer's input channel was when
the mic connector or cable broke on a mic buried under a performer's
chest-clinging garments.

Later, I was the mixing engineer working on Evita in London, where
we had really stepped up to the plate, using six (!) body microphones
with six transmitters. This was pushing the limits of technology. Sound
designer Abe Jacob used the sixth transmitter for only one scene, where
Evita dresses herself onstage and, therefore, covered her existing
ECM-50. We had the sixth unit preset inside the newly worn jacket.
Pretty cool, eh? one evening, Kate Bush's management approached me
after a performance, asking how we were able to amplify the voices
without using cable microphones and whether it would work for Kate.

After spending years of experimenting with Sony ECM-50s, 150s, 77s,
Tram microphones and anything else that might possibly capture a sound
resembling a human voice, Sennheiser debuted its MKE-2. Now we had a
much smaller microphone with thinner cable and a connector that no one
this side of nerd-dom could fix. But it had (and still has) a frequency
response that gave a boost in the high end, which provided the audience
the pleasure of hearing precisely how well-starched the costumes
were.

Starlight Express, the musical, well...the show on roller skates,
presented a chance to place lavalier microphones in front of the
performer's face, as most of the costume designs had headgear and could
share the real estate with the sound department. Sound designer Martin
Levan seized the opportunity, and the show sounded great. With the
microphones placed directly in front of the performers' mouths, it
wasn't so far removed from conventional studio techniques but with
movement.

Along with the popular Sennheiser MKE-2 came the commonly
referred-to "head microphone" or "ear microphone." This began the trend
of sound designers placing microphones in performers' hairlines. As
opposed to the chest position, the hair position offered dramatically
improved reproduction, to the point where the industry needed better
loudspeakers that were actually designed for the requirements of live
theater.

one should note that an actor whose head is motionless and has a
large resonant chest has a good chance of sounding better with the
microphone attached to the chest. Trial and error should be considered,
but as soon as the head starts moving-thus changing the mouth-to-mic
distance with every motivated gesture-the mixing engineer has to treat
the input fader like a yo-yo.

THIS YEAR'S MODELS
Today, we work with mics that are about the size of a matchstick head,
placed on an actor's head. But now, instead of having the problem of a
mic covered with garments, we have mics that are typically covered with
sweat and/or hats. It's little wonder that critics say, "It doesn't
sound very natural."

Fortunately, with a number of new mic models coming to market during
the past couple years, users have a wider choice of small mics,
including the DPA 4060 series, Sennheiser MKE-2 series, Sanken,
Countryman, AKG, Beyer, Sony and Shure. The most popular in the U.S.
and UK theater markets are DPA, Sennheiser and Countryman. DPA first
came to the rescue with a usable small, omnidirectional, sweat-tolerant
capsule a few years ago, after the Sennheiser MKE-2 had been the
dominant choice for more than 15 years, with its sweat-intolerant
capsule. Last year, Sennheiser's Gold MKE-2 became available with
advertised sweat tolerance. Countryman's B3 mic is popular, but more
interesting is the new B6, which is the tiniest microphone I have ever
seen.

PLACING THE LAVS
The first day the actors arrive at the theater for rehearsal, the
microphones should be placed on them. Some actors have done it before
and know the routine-others have done it before and are still clueless.
Some actors get headaches from the 3mm elastic headbands (these bands
are pre-made before the actors arrive), some have expensive hair
implants and some wear a street toupee, while others are bald. Each
performer is unique, of course, and needs some personal attention.

A visit to the rehearsal hall can save a lot of time. Watch the
performers and make a list of possible requirements. Try to get
approval of the director to be in the rehearsal hall for the last seven
to ten days and set up the wireless system in the rehearsal hall with a
small console feeding a single near-field loudspeaker. This arrangement
lets the mixing engineer get ahead of the learning game and allows you
to anticipate and troubleshoot 80% of your problems on the front
end.

Currently, the most popular ear rigging uses a Telex ear clip. A mic
is attached to this clip, usually over the ear. When the microphone can
be, or needs to be, extended, floral wire can be run alongside the
microphone cable to enable a more rigid-but flexible-way to position
the microphone down the side of the actor's face. Unfortunately, this
positioning can mean that sweat will creep or gush down the side of the
performer's face and along the cable until it reaches the microphone's
head, and here it will have a saltwater orgy on top of and inside the
microphone capsule. This trouble can be reduced by the manner of which
the floral wire is attached to the microphone cable; use heat shrink,
or preferably, rubber sleeves and your Hellerman tool. (The Hellerman
tool is a three-pronged device that enables you to stretch the width of
a 1-inch rubber sleeve enabling the floral and microphone cable to be
placed within the sleeve. There seems to be some mystery about
purchasing the Hellerman tool in the U.S., so if you can't find one
locally, try calling one of the Broadway theater audio rental companies
in the New York area.)

If the floral wire is attached properly, sweat will usually reach
the uneven rubber-sleeved trail and fall off the cable before it
arrives at the microphone head. If not, then the o-ring comes into
play. Place a small plumber's o-ring over the cable firmly but close to
the tip of the mic head without impeding the microphone's
specification. The fact that the microphone is already impeded by the
pulsating cheek of the actor is "neither here nor there." once the clip
is in place, the cable can be stunningly and tastefully draped around
the back of our performer's head, where it is taped, medically, to the
back of the neck and then wound down to the invisibly placed
transmitter. A thin piece of tape usually is placed behind the ear to
hold the clip and microphone cable as close to the skin as possible,
thereby losing the android effect that can come with behind-the-ear
placement.

If you wish to place a mic in the center of the head, just down from
hairline, it is best to use an elastic headband. The microphone cable
is simply wrapped around the elastic and then threaded through a loop
that is made in the elastic by making a finger twist in the center of
the forehead. This is the quickest and most secure way to place a mic
on an actor for rehearsals and, in some cases, for actual
performances.

WIGS!
Toupee clips are another form of attachment. The toupee clip has a
small hole on each side where you can thread a stretched piece of 3mm
elastic across the clip. This makes a loop so the mic cable can be
threaded through to make an attachment to the clip. Two clips are then
placed so that they can be secured to the performer's hair toward the
front and halfway down the back of the head.

Placing microphones in wigs is a really good technique, because the
wig cap can hold the mic cable in place, then the wig is placed on the
performer. A buttonhole should be placed in the wig (by the wig/hair
designer) in the center and about 2 inches away from the front
hairline. The microphone head is threaded through the wig's buttonhole
and laid on top of the false hair and placed at the hairline or
(hopefully) below. Don't place a microphone under the gauze of a wig,
because then the microphone will be squashed against the forehead and
will sound weird and be sitting in a river of sweat.

HATS!
Having sorted out the issues surrounding amplifying a voice through a
tiny little, sweat-tolerant mic that's hidden in the hairline, now
let's add a hat. When a hat is worn in a scene, it can make the
performer sound like he or she is vocalizing through a toilet roll.
Most hat brims have a tendency to reflect the performer's voice, much
like cupping your hands around your own mouth. Your goal is to do
anything you can to stop the reflection without irritating the costume
designer.

What makes this complicated is the fact that practically no one
hears your mic placement problems during rehearsals. It's not until the
show is costumed, lit and in previews that any concern is given to the
beautifully dressed, stunning-looking actor who sounds like Daffy Duck
in the Lincoln Tunnel. Solving this problem is, of course, less a
matter of technique and more one of diplomacy.

LAST-MINUTE DETAILS
When checking lavalier microphones before a performance, I strongly
suggest that the person who mixes the performance is the person who
checks out the mics and system. This should be done at the
front-of-house console, and I suggest each microphone is listened to on
headphones for creaks, cracks, gain and dullness. Then turn up the P.A.
to confirm that routing is correct to the speakers. The person who
mixes should be responsible for the final checkout before the
performance. If something goes wrong during the performance, it is
crucial for the mixing engineer to have known how every microphone
sounded, until the time when the curtain rises.

THE LAVS TOOL BAG
O-rings
Floral wire
Heat-shrink
Rubber sleeves with a Hellerman tool
Telex ear clips
Clear silicon compound
Artist's colored acrylic pens
3mm rounded elastic
Toupee clips (small and medium sized)
3M Tegaderm medical tape
3M Microspore medical tape
Any other kind of tape that might stick to a performer without the aid
of a staple gun.