For recording videos for YouTube or for your training course, you’re going to want to use a lavaliere microphone to record your voice. Also called a “lav” mic, it’s a small microphone that you can clip to your shirt inconspicuously to record your voice while you’re on camera.
In this article, I’m going to show you what to look for when researching lav mics, as there are a lot of things to consider that depend upon how you plan on recording, and the type of videos you’ll be shooting. We’ll go over the following:
- Wired or wireless? – You probably don’t need to waste your money on a wireless system.
- Recording device & plug-in power – Make sure you know if your mic needs “plug-in power”, and if your recording device provides it or not.
- Connection types – Many of them look similar, but there are huge differences you should be aware of, because you need to get the right mic for the recording device you plan on using.
- Polar pattern – Microphones have different characteristics in how they pick up sound. Choose the right one for the application.
Wired or Wireless?
I highly recommend going with a wired mic over a wireless system for a few reasons. Firstly, you will spend triple the amount of money on a wireless system when compared to a similar quality wired mic. (If you are buying a wireless mic system, you get what you pay for.) You won’t be just buying a mic, you’ll be buying a transmitter, receiver, and cables too. (I started out by purchasing a cheap wireless mic system and it was terrible quality. I’d only recommend this to someone you is using it with a PA system; maybe a live dance instructor where high quality sound isn’t absolutely necessary)
You’ll introduce more complexity into your chain of audio. For example, the mic transmitter will have a gain knob on it, the receiver will likely have a gain knob on it, and then your recording device will have gain too. That’s 3 opportunities to over or under-drive your signal, creating a poor quality recording.
You’ll have batteries that you’ll need to worry about, (although, some wired mics and digital recorders have batteries too…) and you’ll run the risk of introducing interference into the signal through the wireless transmission.
If you’re going to be recording videos while sitting at your computer or standing in one location, a wired mic is a no-brainer. But what if you’re a yoga instructor, or you film in different locations, or need to demonstrate something while moving around? Don’t I need a wireless system so I’m not tripping over wires?
No, you don’t! You can use a small, portable digital recorder (like the Zoom H1 $99), or even your smartphone tucked into your back pocket to record the audio from your wired lav mic. (Make sure you choose the correct mic for the recording device you’re using… See below) You can then sync up your audio later in post production.
The only time you really need a wireless system is for live audio, when the subject is going to be mobile (walking, performing, demonstrating, etc) and you need to transmit the audio signal to a PA system in real time. When you’re recording audio for video use, there’s no need to spend the money on a wireless system, unless you really want the convenience of being able to record audio directly into your camera so you don’t have to sync up audio later. In my opinion, that’s hardly worth it.
Ok, so you’ve decided to go with a wired lav mic? One of the most important things to consider when choosing a lavaliere microphone is what you will be recording into.
- Computer – If you’re going to be recording videos while sitting at your computer, plugging a mic directly into the 3.5mm mic jack would be an easy way for you to record audio. Software such as Audacity or Adobe Audition is capable of recording a mono or dual-mono input. If you are recording a screencast, Camtasia can record the audio for you as well. Some sound cards do not provide “plugin power” (see below), and you might experience some interference from the computer hardware while recording.
- SmartPhone – Most smartphones are capable of recording great quality audio. There are a few mics available today that are designed specifically to be used with a smart phone, since the phone does not provide plugin power, and you’ll need a special plug. Once you’re done recording, you’d sync the audio with the video post production. Great solution if you’re going to be shooting video while being mobile, and already own a smartphone.
- Digital Recorder – A dedicated portable sound recorder is a great solution for recording high quality sound. Most digital recorders provide plugin-power to the mic, and can fit into your pocket so it isn’t seen on camera. Another great solution if you’re going to be shooting video while being mobile, and digital recorders give you more mic options (for podcasting or screencasting) than if you were to record using your smartphone.
- Camera – If your camera has an external mic input, you can plug your mic directly into it (You need to make sure the camera provides plug-in power if your mic needs it.) The advantage is that the audio will always be synced up to the video. If your mic wire is short, however, you may not be able to reasonably have it plugged into the camera without it being in the way. You might be forced to go with a wireless system, which is much more expensive.
Most lav mics are condenser mics, which require a small amount of voltage called “plug-in power” in order for the microphone to work. If a mic is a dynamic mic, it does not require plug-in power.
Plug-in power is one of the most loosely defined standards I’ve ever heard of, and is quite frustrating when trying to determine if your recording device provides it or not. Most electronics manufacturers don’t feel like this is important information for us to know, apparently (sarcasm). Depending upon who you talk to, plug-in power is anywhere between 1v-9v of power provided to the mic. Plug-in power is not the same thing as 48v Phantom Power. If you’re looking at a condenser mic, you have three options for providing plug-in power to your mic.
- Some mics feature a built in battery, which will provide plug-in power to the mic (Audio Technica ATR3350IS). This is great if you’re recording into a device that doesn’t provide plug-in power. But it can sometimes be a pain to source the small batteries typically used in these mics. It’s also common for these mics to have an on/off switch that’s easy to forget about, draining the battery unintentionally, or forgetting to even turn it on before recording, resulting in a botched recording.
- You can purchase external power devices that provide plug-in power for your mic. These are sort of expensive though ($50-100) so that isn’t really the best solution because you can buy an independent digital recorder for just a little bit more money.
- Your recording device might provide plug-in power to the mic. The problem is, how do you know if your device provides plugin power? Some cameras do, most digital voice recorders do, (Like the Zoom H1 or Zoom H4n), and some computer sound cards do. Unfortunately, I have found it extremely difficult to determine which sound cards provide plugin power.
Make sure you pay attention to the type of connector that is on the mic. Again, you need to make sure your recording device and software are compatible with the connection type.
The most common size connector for Lav mics is the 3.5mm jack. The 3.5mm jack comes in numerous configurations, including TS (Tip, sleeve), TRS (Tip, ring, sleeve), and TRRS (tip, ring, ring, sleeve). So, just because you can fit the plug into the jack, doesn’t mean it’s actually compatible. These configurations indicate the number of wires and connections available on the jack.
- TS – This connector only has two wires, and can only produce a single mono signal. The Olympus ME-15 Microphone is an example of a mono mic with a 3.5mm TS connector. Since this type of connector only produces one mono signal, it will most likely only record to the LEFT channel in your recording device. (You won’t hear anything in playback in your right earphone.) You’d then be forced to duplicate the left channel on the right side in your software in post production, unless your recording device or software is capable of accepting a single, mono input and recording it to both channels.
- TRS – This connector has three wires, and will record in “dual-mono” mode. This is a little confusing, because technically that means it’s recording in stereo, but since both signals going to the left and right channels are identical, it’s pretty much as if it were mono. (This is the same connector used on most headphones.) Most PC soundcards with mic input accept TRS connectors. The Giant Squid Audio Lab microphones have a TRS connectors with dual-mono wiring as default.
- TRRS – This is the type of connector used in smartphones. Because it has four wires, it’s capable of interfacing headsets. It has wires for the left and right earbud, as well as a mic. The Audio Technica ATR3350IS includes a 3.5 TRRS adapter that lets you plug the mic directly into a smartphone for recording. The Rode SmartLav+ is a mic designed specifically for smartphones, and has a dedicated TRRS plug. Both of these mics have built-in batteries in order to provide the mic with plug-in power, since smartphones do not provide it.
The other type of connector that is common is the XLR connector. XLR connectors are very common on traditional handheld microphones. If you’re recording to your computer, you’ll need something like the Blue Icicle, a mixer, or other USB interface to connect the microphone to it.
- XLR – The biggest advantage of the XLR connection is that it is a balanced cable. A balanced cable essentially uses noise cancellation technology to eliminate any interference picked up through the length of the cable from electrical, magnetic, or radio sources nearby. XLR connectors are used most commonly in professional studios and are built to be more durable and reliable. The 3.5mm cables and connectors explained above are not balanced, so they don’t protect against any interference. However, do to the relatively short length of the cables used on lav mics (~6ft), You’ll likely not notice any interference anyways.
I wouldn’t choose a lav mic with an XLR connector just to have a balanced cable. I would only consider it if I already had an XLR mixer or USB interface.
- Other connection types – When you get into the realm of wireless mics, you introduce a whole new variety of proprietary mic connectors. But, if you’re purchasing a wireless mic system, the microphone is typically included as a package so you don’t have to worry about compatibility.
Omni or Cardioid polar pattern
Microphones record sound differently depending upon which direction the sound source is coming from. This characteristic is called a microphone’s polar pattern. Lav mics are generally designed to have one of two polar patterns:
- Omnidirectional – An omnidirectional microphone picks up sound coming from all directions with no noticable difference in volume. This is preferred for general lav mic recording.
- Cardioid – A cardioid microphone will only pick up sound coming from in front of the microphone. This is preferred when recording in noisy environments or when recording outside. However, your sound levels might be a little inconsistent if you turn your head while talking though.
For lav microphones, it’s usually best to use an omnidirectional mic. They tend to sound a bit more natural since they will pick up a bit of the environment sound, and your recorded voice won’t drop off dramatically if you turn your head while speaking.
Your choice of lav mic is largely dependent upon the recording device you’ll be recording into, so I recommend taking a broader look at all of your potential recording needs before purchasing a mic.
Zoom H4n ($199) and Giant Squid Audio Lav Mic ($49) This is the setup I use, personally. The Zoom H4n also has the ability to connect XLR, which is great for connecting my studio microphone for podcasting or screencasting. If you see yourself needing to record from different microphones, I highly recommend the Zoom H4n.
The Giant Squid Audio Lab mic is a high quality lav mic, made by a small company in the USA. The construction of the mic is very durable, and the sound quality is comparable to mics over twice the cost.
Rode SmartLav+ ($78) This is a great quality omnidirectional lav microphone designed specifically to be used with your smartphone. Once you’ve recorded your audio, you’d export the file to your computer and sync the audio with your video.
Audio Technica ATR3350IS ($22) The Audio Technica ATR3350IS is an inexpensive solution for recording audio from a lav mic. You can plug it into your smartphone, or your mic input in your computer (if you have one), so you have some flexibility with how you record. The clip is a little fragile, it requires a battery to work, and the sound quality isn’t as good as the Giant Squid Audio mic, but if you’re on a tight budget, this will work for you.
Whatever mic you choose, your first decision should be “what will I be recording into?” Once you figure that out, your selection of lav mics narrows down quite a bit, making it easier to choose. If you have any questions, leave a comment below and let me know!