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At The Source

The advantages of earset and headworn microphones in solving myriad church sound issues.

By Curt Taipale September 9, 2016

A Countryman E6 earset microphone, providing high performance and low visibility.
This article is provided by Church

Lapel (also commonly called lavalier) microphones have served churches and other audio applications admirably for decades.

They’ve been a great tool and are often still preferred for a controlled sound environment like a video recording studio or TV newsroom. But for live sound applications, earset (a.k.a., earworn or headworn) mics have quickly found favor with church sound techs and pastors alike.

Think back with me for a moment. How did we start using lapel mics in the first place? And why do we need something better?

It began 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 mic 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 very well for pastors who preferred to move around while delivering their message, so someone got the idea to strap a lanyard to a cabled mic that a pastor could hang around his neck.

It worked O.K., but of course was big and heavy and cumbersome. Manufacturers eventually developed smaller mics that could be clipped to a shirt, lapel or tie, but they were still connected to the sound system by a long cable. Wireless systems came along later, and in fact to this day some pastors prefer to use a cabled mic rather than risk the potential dropouts of going wireless.

All About The Gain
The lapel mic gave us a way to capture the natural sound of a pastor’s voice with a device that’s all but invisible. (Of course, the invisible part is not a technical issue, but often requested anyway.) So what’s wrong with lapel mics?

Nothing, really. They do a reasonable job of achieving the desired goals and continue to be used today by several very high-profile pastors during live services. The downside the potential for problems with gain-before-feedback; that is, the voice can’t be clearly heard due to other noise the mic is picking up. Turn up the gain on the mic, and everything it’s picking up is amplified, not just the voice. And if the loudspeaker system and/or room acoustics are anything less than ideal, things can get even worse.

Further, when you watch a video of the message and compare that with the sound picked up by the lapel mic, you discover that each time the pastor turns his head away from the mic, the sound diminishes, often significantly. In other words, the level is inconsistent. Empirically, 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 and/or move the mic closer to the person’s mouth (the source).

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, yes. The first time I 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 mic creatively placed on his cheek. Think about it. For years the sound techs in such productions would hide lapel mics in the hair, or in a hat or some other article of clothing that would position them closer to the mouths of the actors. Placing the mic on the cheek moved it to within an inch or two of the mouth. That was thinking out of the box.

In With The In Crowd
O.K., perhaps your pastor isn’t so dramatically inclined as to wear a mic taped to his cheek. So what else could solve the problem?

I know, do what Garth Brooks does! Strap a mic right in front of your mouth. Actually, there were a handful of early efforts at this concept, but Brooks – as well as Britney Spears and Janet Jackson – made the Crown CM311 an overnight success. It was big. It wasn’t all that attractive. And it was hugely noticeable (good for Crown, not so good for the performer). But sonically, it worked great.

Garth Brooks outfitted with a Crown CM311, which he’s still using for live shows after more than a decade.

The key reason for the performance benefits of the CM311 is a “differoid” design. That unique approach makes it very effective at canceling other sounds (like rejecting the spill from stage monitors or picking up a clean vocal from a drummer while playing the drums). The result is very high gain-before-feedback. (Several years ago Crown was absorbed into the Harman group, with the remaining Crown mic models now offered through AKG.)

Subsequently, Countryman introduced the E6 “earset” mic, which started a revolution. It’s not a differoid design like the CM311, but it’s very small and very light while delivering very good gain-before-feedback. It allowed us to discretely place a high-quality miniature mic quite close to the sound source. Now, not only could we 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.

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About Curt

Curt Taipale
Curt Taipale

President, Taipale Media Systems
Curt Taipale of Taipale Media Systems heads up Church, a thriving community dedicated to helping technical worship personnel, as well as the Church Sound Boot Camp series of educational classes held throughout the U.S.
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