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How to Make Microphones Disappear

Sony ECM 50

In television dramas and sitcoms, part of the illusion demands that microphones are always invisible. Hiding microphones and still getting good sound is a major challenge.

How is it done? It may be with an overhead boom mic out of range of the camera’s lens. It may be with a tiny shotgun hidden in a plant or prop. Or it could be a tiny lavalier concealed in an actor’s clothing with a wireless transmitter.

4097 micro shotgun mic

Over the years all microphones have gotten smaller in size. In 1969, the size-performance barrier was broken when Sony introduced its ECM-50, the first truly tiny microphone with high-quality audio. Since then, lavalier microphones have gotten more specialized and almost invisible.

Also, shotgun microphones have been miniaturized. DPA makes the 4097 CORE micro shotgun mic ($550), the ideal plant mic. It has proven to be useful for mounting on the sun visor of cars to pick up the voices of actors.

Lavalier mics can now be installed almost anywhere. Most use an omnidirectional polar pattern for wide sound pick up. Lavs are available for body mount or to be hidden on sets, in plants and other props on a set.

When using a mic that is optimized for body mounting, it is best placed on the body for sound resonance. This is usually on the chest. Some EQ adjustments may need to be made to match these mics to others being used on the set.

Whenever placing a microphone under an actor’s clothing, be aware of the rustling of clothes rubbing against the microphone when the actor moves. Always have the actors move around with the mic as they will in the production. Monitor their sound on headsets. Rubbing points need to be eliminated.

Most commonly, lavs are mounted in the shirt or blouse of talent. There are several ways to hide the mic from camera view. On a dark colored garment, the tip of the mic can be positioned through a button hole or hidden in the cloth flap between two buttons. Many sound operators place a loop of self-adhesive tape on the body of the mic to minimize contact noise with the shirt’s material.

Lavs are also often hidden on a necktie. The mic is hidden by clipping it to the back of the tie. Use tape to protect the mic from contact noise. The audience will view only the backside of the clip and assume it is a standard tie clip.

Another hiding place is in the knot of a necktie. It is placed by loosening the knot and placing the mic through it. A tiny omni lav mic will be invisible, especially if it is color matched.

Rode Invisilav

With other clothing, even those with collars, hide the lav using gaffer’s tape to secure the mic and cable inside the clothing. With an actor wearing a T-shirt, mics are often hidden by directing attaching them directly to the chest. For this use double-sided first aid tape or RODE’s invisiLav lavalier mounting system ($18), which reduces noise and vibration.

Lavs can also hidden in the brims of caps or hats, or hidden in writing pens, which can be placed in the actor’s pocket. Some are even installed inside a walking cane prop. Any place that gets the mic close to the talent’s mouth.

Often in theatre, mics are woven through the actor’s hair, with the element near their hairline on the forehead. This does not work as well for video production, especially when close-ups are involved.

Another option, also normally used in theatres, are boundary mics. These mics can turn a floor, wall or tabletop into a sound pickup surface. Boundary mics have a broad pickup pattern and sound very natural. They can easily be hidden.

The downside of using boundary mics is they require increased gain, which picks up more noise. They also can pick-up different sound levels when several actors are working with them. This unevenness can require extra time in post getting the dialogue at the same levels.

For most of the history of recording dialogue on sets, very directional or shotgun mics on booms have been used. A boom works outside the camera range and requires a skilled operator to follow the moving cast members.

The cost of a boom operator is too high for many low budget video productions.

Sometimes the sound is not usable, no matter how it was recorded. This is when automatic dialogue replacement can save the day. It is now done for almost every feature film and is easy enough to do for video productions. It is common for actors to re-record their lines in post-production. Software now makes this easier than ever before.

On news and documentary production, it is often OK to keep your mic in plain sight of the viewer. Some performers use a hand mic, while others attache lav mics openly on their clothing.

Using and hiding microphones on any set is a real skill — one that is learned over time. Every situation is different and many operators have their own tricks for concealing mics. There is no right or wrong way. It just has to work.

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer, director and producer who works in print, radio, television, film and theatre.

Beacham has served as a staff reporter and editor for United Press International, the Miami Herald, Gannett Newspapers and Post-Newsweek. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Village Voice and The Oxford American.

Beacham’s books, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem & Murder and The Whole World Was Watching; My Life Under the Media
Microscope are currently in publication. Two of his stories are currently being developed for television.

In 1985, Beacham teamed with Orson Welles over a six month period to develop a one-man television special. Orson Welles Solo was canceled after Mr. Welles died on the day principal photography was to begin.

In 1999, Frank Beacham was executive producer of Tim Robbins’ Touchstone feature film, Cradle Will Rock. His play, Maverick, about video with Orson Welles, was staged off-Broadway in New York City in 2019.
Frank Beacham
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