Headsets vs. Lavaliers

by Vince Lepore
in Sound Sanctuary
Countryman’s ISOMAX headset is available in omni, cardioid and hypercardioid patterns in light beige or black colors.
Countryman’s ISOMAX headset is available in omni, cardioid and hypercardioid patterns in light beige or black colors.

It is an age-old question for a house of worship audio engineer or technical director: Headsets or Lavaliers? As with most things in audio, the answer is, “It depends.” It depends of what you’re using the mic for, how discreet it needs to be, the personal preference of the pastor or performer, the gain before feedback and monitoring requirements, your current inventory and other factors.

My own opinion on the subject has changed quite a bit over the years. For the longest time, I hated lavs for most reinforced applications. For worship purposes, that’s still pretty much the case. I always prefer our pastors to wear headsets, and fortunately for me, they have been conditioned to do so over the decade that I’ve worked at my church. I’m not even sure they know what a lavalier is, and I prefer to keep it that way.

‡‡         Application: Speech

In a worship environment, the primary application for headsets or lavaliers is speech. This often consists of pastors, liturgists, lay leaders or anyone else who speaks during services or events. As I mentioned above, my go-to microphone for speech applications is always an omnidirectional headset. Having done extensive testing with omni and cardioid headsets as well as lavs, I always prefer the omni headset, for two reasons.

First, the omni is more discreet and aesthetically pleasing. Cardioid headsets (and directional microphones in general) are more prone to plosives and wind noise. Due to this fact, I always feel compelled to put a windscreen on a directional headset. On the other hand, omni headsets are very forgiving with regards to plosives and wind noise, and I rarely (if ever) use a windscreen, making the omni much more discreet on the speaker’s face.

Second, an omnidirectional headset is more forgiving in terms of its positioning on the face. I position the mic capsule slightly back from the corner of the speaker’s mouth. However, it seems that our pastor’s mics always move! It’s either from them hugging people, them taking robes or jackets on and off, or some other mystical force that moves their headset. Whatever the case may be, the placement of an omni is not nearly as critical and will sound natural even if accidentally pushed back towards the ear.

‡‡         Application: Vocal Performances

There are many types of vocal performances that we deal with as church audio engineers, and each one requires careful consideration as to which microphone type is well suited for the job. For worship vocals, I always favor wireless handhelds, but there are times when a vocalist needs to be hands-free. If the singing is in the context of the worship band on stage, there’s a great case for a cardioid headset due to the rejection of ambient stage noise and improved gain before feedback. Monitoring is always a concern for a vocalist on any type of headset because it will be more prone to feedback than any handheld vocal mic. Careful consideration of a performance’s monitoring needs (wedges vs. IEMs) is crucial for success with vocalists on headsets.

‡‡         Application: Monologues or Theatrical Performances

Over the years, I have conditioned myself to always prefer headsets over lavs, as you may have noticed. Like many live sound engineers with a background in music mixing, I consider lavs to be more prone to feedback and capturing ambient bleed. Several years back, I became more involved in theatrical productions, and I’ve learned some new techniques. In the theater world, lavs are as common (or more common) than headsets, favored for their ability to be placed discreetly on the performer. There are other benefits as well. As noted earlier, headsets don’t always like to stay in position. On the other hand, an omni lav can have its cable routed around an actor’s ear, and the element can be taped to the face right below the cheekbone, roughly halfway between the mouth and the ear. If you aren’t used to this technique it seems odd at first, but this is typical in theater and you’d be surprised at the results. The beauty of this approach is that the mic blends in with the performer’s face and it stays put.

Mics such as the Countryman B6 and DPA 4061 are excellent for this application. Another positioning for lavs is to run the cable through the performer’s hair, securing it along the way with bobby pins, and taping the capsule to the performer’s forehead. This works well for actors with bangs or a wig, is very discreet and captures a surprisingly good sound. One downside that I have experienced with mics taped to the face is sweat outs, where the performer literally sweats right through the capsule of the microphone. In some cases, the mic element can dry out and be fine, and in other cases the mic is permanently damaged and must go back to the manufacturer for repair.

‡‡         The Bottom Line

There are numerous ways to mic speech and other vocal performances. My own preferences are to use an omnidirectional headset for speech during worship. For monologues or theatrical type performances where the speaker is “in character,” a lavalier taped to the side of the face or to the forehead is preferable for discretion. Finally, for high-gain situations where monitor wedges are involved, or a vocalist needs to compete with a lot of instrumentation, a cardioid headset would be the prudent approach. Experiment with your own mics and determine what works best for you, and what is most comfortable for your pastors, actors and vocalists.

Vince Lepore is the technical director at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando and teaches live production at Full Sail University.