Fundamentals: Choosing Between Lavalier and Headset Mics

No one seems to know for certain when, in an effort to liberate a podium-bound pastor, some creative sound technician attached a lanyard to a wired microphone to create the first lavalier mic.

But the mobility it provided proved popular and eventually lavalier (or lapel) mics from leading audio manufacturers joined handheld and lectern mics as reliable sound-reinforcement tools for houses of worship.

The Shure Slendyne 535 could be stand-mounted or clipped to the speaker’s clothing.

The initial designs – large and cumbersome in the 1950s – were a far cry from the inconspicuous lav mics that replaced them twenty years later.

After pop singer Janet Jackson pioneered the use of headset (also called headworn, earset and earworn) microphones in the 1980s, they slowly began to appear in US churches over the next two decades.

Some audio experts now consider the headset mic as the best way to mic a speaker. Shure offers both lavs and headset mics, so we decided to take a closer look at them to help you decide which best fits your congregation’s needs.

Lavalier (Lapel) Microphones

For many years, lavalier mics were the go-to solution for churches in the United States. Pastors liked them for the same reason that broadcasters still do – they were practically invisible. Wireless models gave them the freedom to move about and keep their hands free. And lavs do indeed offer a number of advantages:

  • Well-established in the house of worship community; most pastors have experience with them
  • Dynamic and condenser options; condenser is preferred by most
  • Small and inconspicuous, easily hidden
  • Choice of polar patterns – omnidirectional and unidirectional
  • Inexpensive – entry-level pro models (mic only) start at $60
  • Highly durable
  • Can be shared by the entire team

Even with these features, lavalier microphones still aren’t very popular with sound techs due to a number of audio challenges.

Since the controlled environment of a television studio is vastly different than the acoustics of a worship space, lavs raise the potential for feedback and picking up room noise. Another issue is that sound levels can fluctuate with movements of the speaker’s head.

But according to Gino Sigismondi, Shure’s Associate Director of Technical Support and Training, these tips for selecting a lavalier mic with the right polar pattern can mitigate many of these issues.

Omnidirectional mics pick up sounds from all directions and should be mounted 5 to 8 inches (12 to 20 cm) below the pastor’s mouth. They are natural sounding and less susceptible to wind and cable noise. They also offer some protection against plosives(the “b” and “p” popping sounds associated with some microphones).

Unidirectional mics with a cardioid or supercardioid polar pattern offer a greater degree of protection from feedback problems, but are more susceptible to plosives, wind noise and proximity effect. Securing the cable to the wearer’s clothing can reduce cable noise.

Regardless of polar pattern, remember to turn unused mics off when the pastor approaches the altar or lectern. Comb filtering may result otherwise (Comb filters are produced when a signal is time-delayed and added back to itself. Some frequencies cancel and others are reinforced, which dramatically changes the tonal quality of the amplified sound.)

Headset (Headworn) Microphones

Headsets used to be a vanity issue until mics providing much smaller profiles appeared on the market. Initially, they were fragile and if too many people wore the same mic, the microphones were often bent out of shape. The first models also only supported on one side of the head or ear. Until the dual headband solution arrived, that was a major complaint. They are significantly more expensive than other mics, with pro models starting around $200.

The headworn mic is preferred over lavaliers in most church applications these days, though some pastors don’t like to wear anything on their heads or consider them a little too “show biz” for their purposes.

But sound techs like them because they take care of just about all the problems experienced with lavalier microphones and offer some significant advantages:

  • Gain before feedback is much better – the mic is right next to the speaker’s mouth. Since the mic moves with the speaker’s head, the sound level and sound quality are consistent.
  • They are available in unidirectional and omnidirectional polar patterns.
  • Barely noticeable, available in over one ear or wire frame models that allow the mics to be positioned about an inch away on either side of the wearer’s face.
  • Most pro-quality headset mics offer four color options so skin tone can be better matched.
  • More consistent sound quality, fewer feedback problems and better gain before feedback.
  • Available in omnidirectional and unidirectional models.

There is no doubt that headset mics deliver a much more robust signal and markedly less feedback. (Pro tip: Reserve a headset for the pastor and don’t let anyone else use it.)

Consider This

Be realistic about the quality of your sound system. The microphones you use are just one link in the audio chain and won’t solve all of your technical or acoustical issues.

“If your sound system is lacking or has very poor gain before feedback because somebody installed the speakers in the wrong place, choosing a different microphone type is not going to make any difference,” says Chris Lyons, Senior Manager, Integrated Systems Marketing at Shure. “It’s like trying to fix a broken leg with a band-aid.”

Another consideration is the person using the sound system, in this case, your pastor. If he or she stands still – like behind a pulpit – during a service, there may be no need for a lav or a headset when a podium or gooseneck mic will get the job done just fine. And for some worship leaders, nothing can compare with the amount of control they experience with a handheld microphone.

 Chris Huff from Church Production magazine puts it this way: “The right microphone in the hands of the presenter means the congregation hears clearly and understands their message without distraction.”

And that is what should ultimately be driving your miking decisions for worship services.

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Linda Hansen

Linda abandoned a Michigan Avenue advertising career to start her own tiny communications firm over a decade ago. She has written and edited hundreds of articles for Shure over the years on subjects ranging from bluegrass at the Mother Church to Leslie Tone Cabinet miking techniques. Her only other musical claim to fame is having attended the last live concert of the Sex Pistols at Winterland.

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