Microphones, Oral History, and that “Radio” Sound in the Field: Lavalier or Lapel Microphones

In my earlier post Microphones, Oral History, and that “Radio” Sound in the Field: ENG Microphones I talk about my ongoing quest to achieve broadcast quality recordings out in the field and launch a series of posts that “explores ways to achieve broadcast quality audio with that radio or studio sound.” One of the more common microphones utilized by oral historians is the lavalier microphone. In fact, the microphone I have personally used most throughout my career is the lavalier microphone. There are both advantages and disadvantages to using the lavalier microphone for oral history interviews out in the field.


The lavalier microphone, otherwise known as a “lav” or a “lapel” microphone, is a microphone that is clipped onto a person’s clothing. Developed in the early 1930s, its primary purpose was to allow for freedom of movement for the speaker without degrading the signal as would be the case with a stationary microphone if the speaker turned away from the microphone. In their 1932 article “The Lapel Microphone and its Application to Public Address and Announcing Systems” published in the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, W. C. Jones and D.T. Bell describe the problem they were solving:

Many speakers find it difficult to employ their characteristic mannerisms and to inject their personalities into their messages when their freedom of movement is restricted. It is also necessary for a lecturer often to turn from a stationary microphone in order to explain a lantern slide or to use a blackboard. A microphone known as the lapel microphone has been developed to overcome these limitations.[1]

1932 lapel microphone featured by W. C. Jones and D.T. Bell

Two years later in 1934, Harry F. Olson and Richard W. Carlisle wrote the article “A Lapel Microphone of the Velocity Type” focusing on improvements to the lapel microphone. In the article summary, Olson and Carlisle wrote:

The requirements for satisfactory operation of a lapel microphone are shown to be (1) a wide band frequency characteristic compensated for diffraction of the voice around the head, (2) means for keeping the output constant while the head is turned, (3) satisfactory sensitivity, and (4) light weight.[2]

In particular, Jones and Bell were focusing on lapel microphones when used with a “public address” system for amplification of speech. However, they end this article with a prediction:

It is expected that the lapel microphone will find application in theaters, churches, lecture rooms, convention halls, banquet rooms, and the like, where public address equipment is employed. It also has a field of application in connection with other sound recording and reproducing equipment where the background noise, characteristic of the carbon microphone, is not a limiting factor.[3]

Jones and Bell indicate their lapel microphone would have practical applications for sound recording, and they were correct. Not a day goes by on television news, for example, where you do not see a lavalier microphone, and for good reason. The words”lavelier” or “lapel” are descriptors that indicate the functional design purpose of a particular microphone. Just as Jones and Bell described, this microphone is one you can clip on to your clothing. You can still utilize a range of microphone “types” that are all classified as a “lavalier” microphone. You can utilize a lavalier microphone that is dynamic or condenser with a range of recording patters such as cardioid, or omnidirectional recording patterns You can also subcategorize these microphones into wired or wireless categories. This post is focused more on the broad advantages and disadvantages of the lavalier microphone, not necessarily a particular type of lavalier microphone.


I will outline several advantages and benefits to using the lavalier microphones for oral history interviewing.

  1. Proximity: To get that broadcast quality sound, most microphones need to be very close to the speaker’s mouth in order to optimize the signal to noise ratio. When positioned correctly, lavalier microphones can achieve excellent results with regard to the signal to noise ratio. Tabletop microphones ensure some distance between the microphone capsule and the sound source. As the interviewee sits back in their chair, the lavalier microphone will move with the interviewee’s movements. If using a tabletop microphone, the noise levels will increase in the signal to noise ratio as the distance between the sound source and the microphone capsule increases.
  2. Convenience and Comfort: One can achieve close proximity without the need for microphone boom stands. Microphone boom stands can be quite large to carry around in a recording kit. The lavalier microphone achieves a dynamic closeness that moves with the interviewee, without the need to hold an ENG microphone over the duration of an entire interview (see my earlier post Microphones, Oral History, and that “Radio” Sound in the Field: ENG Microphones). As for convenience, the interviewee and interviewer can sit anywhere and still achieve high quality recording. There is no tabletop needed for a lavalier microphone. You can sit on couches, you can even sit in reclining chairs (not recommended as someone may fall asleep).
  3. Size: The lavalier microphones are small and inconspicuous. One of the benefits I have heard from my earliest days in oral history is that lavalier microphones were good for oral history because the interviewees tended to be less conscious of the presence of the microphone if it were clipped to their clothing rather than sitting on a stand on the table in front of them. Even Jones and Bell noticed in 1932 that, “In fact, it was found that most speakers were less conscious of the lapel microphone than they were of the conventional form of microphone.”[4] After years of using lavalier microphones, I must agree with Jones and Bell. I find the lavalier microphone is less noticeable when compared to a microphone that is place in front of both the interviewee and interview.

For decades lavalier microphones have been popular with filmmakers and videographers. The “lav” microphone enabled a broadcast quality sound in the field that would not be conspicuous on camera. In studio, the Nunn Center has begun using shotgun microphones for video recorded interviews (see my post Using a Shotgun Microphone for Video Interviewing.) However we commonly still use lavalier microphones for video interviews recorded in the field. Here is an example of our interview with actor Steve Zahn. If you follow the link and play the interview, you will hear that the lavalier microphone resulted in broadcast quality audio.

However, notice in the picture that you see no lavalier microphone in the frame. This is because the videographer was able to place the small microphone just below the frame. During a brief moment in the interview, Zahn became animated and sat up in his chair, revealing to the camera the lavelier microphone.

I particularly like the size and portability of the lavalier microphone. For the past eight years we have outfitted the Nunn Center’s standard recording kits with two lavalier microphones. There are many high quality lavalier microphones out there. We currently use the Audio-Technica Pro 70 (currently $129). This microphone is small, results in a high-quality recording, at a mid-range price point.


I have touted the benefits of the lavalier microphone and admitted that I have personally used them for nearly 20 years of oral history interviewing. That said, I have grown somewhat jaded. There are challenges posed by the lavalier microphone. The following are disadvantages I have noticed over the years:

  1. Size: Remember when I said that the lavalier can become so inconspicuous that the interviewee forgets they are being recorded? This can have a downside. People who are animated speakers can easily forget the microphone is there and bump the microphone.
  2. Risk of Rubbing: Being clipped to the clothing, the lavalier microphone is placed a very short distance from the clothing.
  3. Clothing Variables: What if there is no lapel, collar, or button hole to which to clip the microphone? Also, many times an interviewee will arrive wearing delicate fabrics. The lavalier microphones tend to have clips with tiny teeth that can easily damage delicate fabrics.

In 2016 and 2017 I recorded two interviews with the same individual. In example 1 below, I utilized two lavalier microphones. During the interview, the interviewee was extremely animated with his hands, and he bumped the microphone throughout the interview. I watched it happen, and I knew exactly the sonic implications.

Example 1:

Interview with Michael Johnathon, November 16, 2016 (lavalier microphones)

At the 00:00:18 point in the clip you will hear the first time Johnathon bumps the microphone with his hand. Below you can see the waveform for this clip. The spikes you see are the “bumps” on the microphone.

Waveform of interview with Michael Johnathon

After listening to this interview I grew frustrated with the lavalier microphone and switched to short shotgun microphones mounted on boom stands (see the next post).

Example 2

My second example is a tough one for me. It was human error. Human technical errors happen to every oral historian at some point in their careers. During our Horse in Kentucky Oral History Project we had the opportunity to interview Penny Chenery, the legendary owner of Triple Crown winner Secretariat. As the interviewer recalled, early in the interview Chenery needed to pause the interview and removed the microphone. The interviewer told me that when she returned, Chenery sat back down on the couch and put her own lavalier microphone back on.

Interview with Penny Chenery, April 30, 2007 (lavalier microphone rubbing)

Unknown to the interviewer at the time, Chenery had clipped the lavalier microphone back on herself in such a way that the microphone capsule was rubbing against her clothing. The result can be catastrophic, as was the case in the Chenery interview. The content is audible, but the interview can be quite uncomfortable to listen to at times. In fact, during the anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown win, Alan Lytle, my radio collaborator for our show/podcast Saving Stories completely rejected my Chenery clips, saying that he couldn’t air them on radio because they were so bad.


The lavalier microphones can achieve incredible “broadcast” or studio quality recording results.  However, lavalier microphones are not without risk. I was frustrated by the Chenery interview; I was frustrated by the Johnathon interview; however, what pushed me over the edge was the clothing challenges of using the lavalier microphones. According to the 1934 article by Olson and Carlisle, “With the lapel microphone it is sufficient merely to hook the microphone into the buttonhole of the speaker’s coat lapel in order to permit him to proceed with his speech.”[5]  Their assumption in 1934 was that the lavalier or lapel microphone would be used by a man wearing a coat.  In some ways the microphone design continues to make this assumption.  You must have something to clip the microphone to, such as a coat lapel, a collar, or even a buttonhole.  That said, the clips on these microphones have little teeth.  I am often uncomfortable clipping the microphone onto shirts that have no collars or buttonholes, especially when the shirt is made from a delicate fabric, as the teeth can create little holes in the fabric.

The lavalier microphone can achieve incredible broadcast quality results recording audio and video oral history interviews in the field.  The advantages of proximity, size, convenience, and portability are why the lavalier microphone continues to be so popular.  I have conducted many very successful broadcast quality interview recordings with lavalier microphones.  That said, I seem to find the lavalier microphones more and more stressful with the potential for risks ultimately outweighing the benefits.  I will continue to use lavalier microphones when appropriate and when needed, but in the field I am personally trending toward the short shotgun microphones on stands. Yes, we continue to circulate Nunn Center recording kits with two lavalier microphones (along with specific training given on microphone placement and use); however, we have begun to phase in the short shotgun microphones into these recording kits as well.  


[1] Jones, W. C., and D. T. Bell. “The Lapel Microphone and Its Application to Public Address and Announcing Systems.” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 19, no. 3 (September 1932): 219–27. 

[2]Olson, H. F., and R. W. Carlisle. “A Lapel Microphone of the Velocity Type.” Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers22, no. 12 (December 1934): 1354–61

[3]Jones, W. C., and D. T. Bell. 


[5]Olson, H. F., and R. W. Carlisle.

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