by Curt Taipale
Okay, maybe not technically "dead". After all, the lapel mic has served the industry admirably for decades. It has been a great tool, and is still preferred for a controlled sound environment like a video recording studio or a TV newsroom. But for live sound applications, the earset (aka, ear-worn) microphone is quickly finding favor with church sound techs and pastors alike.
Think back with me for a moment. How did we find ourselves in this predicament anyway? Why did we start using lapel mics in the first place? And why do we need something better?
It started when churches grew to the size that they needed to amplify the pastor’s voice so that all could hear the message. Early on, simply placing a microphone at the podium allowed us to pick up the senior pastor, as well as the song leader and others making announcements. But that didn’t work so well for pastors who preferred to move around while delivering their message. So someone got the idea to strap a lanyard to a cabled microphone, and let the pastor hang it around their neck. They called this apparatus a lavaliere mic.
That worked okay, but of course it was big and heavy and cumbersome. Manufacturers eventually developed a smaller microphone that could be clipped to the coat lapel or to a tie, and appropriately called this new invention a lapel mic.
Like the lavaliere mic, the lapel mic was still connected to the sound system by a long mic cable. Wireless microphone systems came along much later, and in fact to this day some pastors prefer to use a cabled lapel mic rather than risk the potential dropouts of a wireless mic system.
The lapel mic gave us a way to capture the natural sound of the pastor’s voice with a microphone that is all but invisible. (Of course the invisible part is not a technical issue, but often requested anyway.) So what’s so wrong with a lapel mic?
The lapel mic does a reasonable job of achieving those goals and continues to be used today by several very high profile pastors during live services. The downside of using a lapel mic in a live sound reinforcement setting is its potential for problems with gain-before-feedback. If the loudspeaker system and/or the room acoustics are anything less than ideal, things can get even worse.
Then when you watch a video of the message and compare that with the sound picked up by the lapel mic, you soon discover that each time the pastor turns their head away from the mic, the sound diminishes significantly. In other words, the sound level is inconsistent.
You know empirically that if you can’t get a person’s voice loud enough without putting the system into feedback, the cure is simply to either have the person talk louder, or move the mic closer to the talker.
Some pastors simply aren’t going to talk louder, no matter how often we remind them. So how could we move the lapel mic closer to the talker? We could encourage the pastor to position the mic higher on his tie. But place it too high and his chin shadows some of the high frequencies, making his voice sound muffled. He’s probably not going to wear it in his hair, or attached to his eyeglasses. So where? Tape it to his cheek!?!
Actually, the first time I ever saw this concept in use was during a theatrical performance of The Phantom of the Opera in New York City. The person playing the lead role had a miniature microphone creatively placed on his cheek. Think about it. For years the sound techs in such productions would hide small lapel mics in the actor’s hair, or in a hat or some other article of clothing that would allow the mic to be closer to the actor’s mouth. Placing the mic on the actor’s cheek moved it to within two inches of the actor’s mouth. That was thinking out of the box.
Okay, maybe your pastor isn’t so dramatically inclined as to wear a mic taped to his cheek. So what else could we try?
I know, do what Garth Brooks does! Strap a microphone right in front of your mouth. Actually, there were a handful of early efforts at this concept. But Garth Brooks, Britney Spears and Janet Jackson made the Crown CM-311 an overnight success. It was big. It wasn’t attractive. Okay, it was kind of ugly. Hugely noticeable (good for Crown, not so good for the performer). But man, it worked great.
The key reason for the performance benefit of the Crown CM-311 is the fact that it’s a “differoid” mic. That unique design makes it very effective at canceling other sounds (like the spill from stage monitors, or picking up clean vocals from a drummer while playing the drums) and achieving maximum gain-before-feedback. (A few years ago Crown was absorbed into the Harman group, amnd not surprisingly the remaining Crown microphones are now offered through AKG. You can learn more about the differoid technology on the AKG website at http://www.akg.com/pro/p/cm311group.)
Other companies like Countryman came out with competing products, but none of them caught on until we saw the introduction of the Countryman E6 “earset” microphone. It started a revolution. It’s not a differoid mic like the Crown CM-311, but it does allow us to discretely place a good quality miniature microphone close to the sound source.
It was quickly embraced by sound techs because not only could we now pick up the pastor’s voice clearly and consistently with minimum feedback problems, but finally – finally – we could get the big solo during the drama to sound good without the actor having to grab a handheld mic.
You’ve probably done it too. You’re using multiple wireless lapel mics on actors during a drama. You come to “the moment” in the drama, when the music leads up to the big dramatic song of the night, and what do you do? The vocal sung with a lapel mic will sound absolutely horrid. A handheld mic will make it sound great, but that blows the visual of the moment.
To the rescue – the “earset” (a.k.a., “ear worn” or “head worn”) microphone. Of course the earset mic does not sound as good as a high quality handheld mic, but it definitely sounds acceptable and you don’t lose the visual of the moment that you’re looking for. In other words, I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend it for a music pastor leading worship, but it’s great for a pastor delivering a message. And of course it’s great for drama.
The first time I mixed the Dallas Christmas Festival at Prestonwood Baptist, I was delighted at how much control I had over the spoken drama parts and the sung vocal parts. We had Countryman E6’s on all the actors with spoken parts or vocal solos. It would come to a duet with Mary and Joseph singing towards each other, and it was actually usable.
Ordinarily with two actors wearing lapel mics and facing each other, either talking or singing a duet, I would have to alternately turn off the mic that wasn’t being used at the moment, constantly juggling the two parts, just to keep from hearing the interaction (phase cancellations) when both mics were open. Sometimes one makes mistakes. But by instead using earset mics on each of the actors, the amount of juggling – while still needed – isn’t nearly as critical. In other words, putting earset mics on all of the actors doesn’t make the phase cancellations disappear, but since the sound source is so close to the mic, the amount of phase cancellations that you get is significantly reduced.
The popularity of the Crown CM-311 had an unexpected negative impact on pastors when asked about the newer earset mics. An earset mic is so tiny as to seem relatively invisible, especially from beyond about thirty feet from the platform. Yet to this day there are still pastors who will instantly cry out “No! I don’t want to look like Garth Brooks!”
Goodness. Such fury over a seemingly simple request to use a tool that would immediately resolve the ongoing feedback problems!?! Shoot your sound tech in the foot, why don’t you!?! It might hurt them less.
There of course will be some who hold onto their love of the lapel mic. Actually, it’s probably not so much love of the lapel mic as it is disdain for how they’ll look wearing an earset mic. And don’t get me wrong; a very high quality lapel mic, fed to a well-designed, well-funded and properly installed loudspeaker system can be used successfully without the problems with feedback and poor sound quality typically associated with a lapel mic. But finding those three ingredients in a church sound system isn’t all that common.
The good news is that the pastors who I’ve talked with who have embraced the earset mic tell me how wonderful the experience is for them, how they used to have to strain their voice each time they preached, and how the earset mic has spared their vocal cords.
Based on what we’re hearing (pun intended), the popularity of the earset microphone will simply continue to grow. It’s not just the new thing. It genuinely solves a myriad of technical issues that church sound techs have been chasing for years. It gives us a clean pickup of the pastor’s voice, consistent sound character no matter how the talker moves their head, excellent gain-before-feedback, significantly reduced phase cancellation issues, and it’s virtually invisible beyond about thirty feet from the platform. What’s not to like!?!
Today, one can find earworn / headworn microphones from several different manufacturers. The retail price varies from about $100 to $600, and most can be wired to work with any major wireless microphone transmitter. Don't want to use wireless? Most earset mics can also be connected with a standard mic cable.
The following manufacturers offer a variety of options for headworn and earworn microphones. Clicking on the company name will link you to their respective websites.
|DPA Microphones||d:fine 66||OMNI||DUAL||$580|
|Point-Source Audio||CO-8WS **||OMNI||DUAL||$430|
* NOTE: The AKG HC577L uses two omni capsules wired out of polarity to improve isolation.
** The Point-Source Audio CO-8WS has a unique highly bendable boom arm.
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