Trends in Lavalier Land: 2.5-mm Microphones Open New Possibilities

By Dan Daley

If we were watching Mutual of Omaha’s
Wild Kingdom, the lavalier microphone would be said to have its own unique migratory path. It started in the high reaches of the broadcast-talent booth, made its way to field talent, then to the referee/umpire/judge level, on the way to the ultimate destination: the player.

This migratory path is reflected in the physical and technical evolution of the lavalier microphone, which continues to become smaller, lighter, and more robust.

“As lavaliers get smaller, it gets easier to get microphones closer to the action,” notes Allen Kool, president of Quantum — whose QTR1000 Remote lets the mixer change frequency and gain, check the battery power, and turn the unit on and off remotely — has found favor with the NBA, NHL, and MLB and their player associations, slowly overcoming athletes’ reluctance to wear a wireless package on the field. Quantum doesn’t make lavalier microphones, but, because it matches its QTR1000 to those of such manufacturers as Countryman, DPA, and Shure, it gives Kool a level of objectivity.

“The issue,” he explains, “has been about maintaining functionality as well as frequency response and dynamic range as the size of the wireless packages shrink.”

That’s happening: voltage requirements for the newest lavalier microphones are in the low single digits. Water resistance has improved significantly. And the new gold standard appears to be a 2.5-mm diaphragm, a point that Countryman has hit and that Audio-Technica will reach with the BP896 lavalier to be introduced at NAB next month.

But these accomplishments haven’t been easy. “The challenges with getting to smaller and smaller lavaliers is that the noise floor starts to come up, and it’s harder to keep maximum SPL where we want it,” explains Mike Edwards, director of product management at A-T. “As the products shrink in size, these issues become larger. They can be dealt with, but it’s still a challenge.”

But getting small is no passing fad. Edwards says the pressure to miniaturize further is coming from several fronts: not only sports but also ENG and reality-TV programming, both of which want their microphones to be virtually invisible. “Not seeing the microphones would make the video folks very happy, too,” he says, “so there’s demand for this from a range of places.”

In a game of millimeters, decimal places count. Joe Ciaudelli, consultant for pro audio for Sennheiser, says that, given the state of the art, his company drew the line at 3 mm for the MKE1 lavalier it introduced last October. “Making microphones smaller isn’t a theoretical challenge; it’s a production challenge,” he says of the precision manufacturing process necessary to make good transducers on a Lilliputian scale. “We didn’t want to contend with possible sound quality, durability, or reliability tradeoffs.”

With nowhere left to go in the nano department, the MKE1 incorporates some clever tricks to underscore its reliability claims, such as the thin membrane that covers the microphone inlet to keep moisture out. Rather than interfere with frequency response, Ciaudelli says, vibrational interaction between the membrane and the microphone element actually helps intelligibility.

New Niche
Getting closer to the action is changing the sports universe in unexpected ways. Though proudly Canadian, Kool readily concedes that curling is not the world’s most exciting sport, but he points out that, when players wore lavaliers during the televised championships last year, hearing the strategy and tactics that the teams evolved second by second added a new dimension to the game. Comcast has discovered the same benefit for its bowling broadcasts.

What this is doing is creating a new audio-content category: up close and personal with the players on the field, something that several league Websites are aggregating as audio clips that visitors can listen to.

Getting smaller comes at a price; nano tech does add cost to the products. But the need to get small will only increase as broadcast moves further into HD. One of these days, you might just mistake a mole for a transducer.