Can you ditch your wireless lavalier microphone for a clip-on mini voice recorder?

When you are shooting on the go and alone, the easiest way to get good audio of your talent is by having them wear a wireless lavalier (clip-on) microphone.

The basic steps of this are simple: plug a lavalier mic into a mini voice recorder, put the lav on the talent and the recorder in their pocket, record audio separately from video, then combine in post via the software plug-in Pluraleyes.

The full details of this method are described here.

The only problem with this system (aside from not being able to monitor the audio while recording) is that it’s often awkward to put a wire up the shirt of a stranger, especially in spontaneous situations like bars and parties.  I wanted to combine the flash recorder and the lav mic into one tiny unit, and after vigorous searching, realized no such videography-oriented product exists.

So I searched the spy/surveillance websites and found this little gem:

mini voice recorder MemoQ Mr720

It’s a voice recorder about the size of a pack of gum with a secure clip on the back for mounting to the subject.

I ordered two of them from penrecorderpro.com and put them to the test by shooting in a couple different situations:

Dual-cameras at home:

At a medium-volume bar:

The verdict:

PROS

  • Convenient, discrete form factor; secure clip
  • Passable audio fidelity (especially if mixed a bit with the in-camera ambience).
  • Long recording times – Since it records 128kbps mp3′s, the 2GB internal capacity lasts forever.  I have recorded single, continuous takes of up to 5 hours.
  • Plenty of battery life – easily 12 hours of continuous recording on a single charge.
  • Very little clothing/rustling noise – much less than traditional lavaliers.

CONS

  • Audio clipping issues: The mic sensitivity only has three settings: 1m (lowest volume), 4m, and 8m (highest volume).  The 1m setting is perfect for normal voice levels but tends to distort when subjects speak too loudly (such as at a bar).  The recorder does offer Automatic Level Control (ALC), but this made little difference in my tests.
  • Audio fidelity: Though it isn’t glaringly bad, the lackluster high-end will disappoint those looking to replace their high-quality lavalier mics.
  • Silver mic clip is visible in the shot.  This is okay for my documentary purposes, but hiding the recorder completely would require taping it to the backside of the shirt, which reduces the convenience factor a bit.

I am still on the lookout for the ultimate tiny voice recorder.  Perhaps something like this would fit the bill:

mini A31 voice recorder

I don’t want to pony up the $439 for a single unit, though, and it might still have audio clipping issues.  All I need is something like my current units but with full manual audio levels and a bit higher fidelity. Any ideas?

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    Latest Comments
    1. lee mackreath

      Great stuff…was the mic on the lowest settings for both scenes?

      Also in the first scene…was that all shot in manual on the RX100 including focus?, If so what aperture did you use as you cannot obtain ND filters for this camera as of yet?

      I see in the first scene when the girl is talking the background is completely blown out but I assume that was by choice to get the correct exposure on the girl?

      • brandon

        The mic was on setting 1m (lowest) for everything. As far as I can tell, the higher settings just add digital gain to the audio, so there’s no real reason to use them.

        The 1st scene was tracking focus mostly, and I switched to manual at a couple points. But I haven’t quite mastered focusing with these things while shooting dual-cam yet. My tip for using the tracking focus is to set your tracking point to some high-contrast part of the object, like the collar of a black t-shirt. Otherwise it tends to hunt.

        The background of the first shot got blown out because I was exposing for her skin tones. I could’ve mitigated the effect by increasing shutter a bit, but in that case I felt it was more important to keep her face well-exposed.

        • Dave

          Interesting point about the focus on the RX100 as I also find that all of a sudden it’ll switch focus during a shot and the tracking has helped but I should be more contrast aware. Excellent point. Thanks!

          • Brandon Li

            Quick tip: if someone is wearing a patterned shirt (like plaid), set your focus point to a contrasty portion of the shirt. The camera will do a much better job tracking that than their face under dim light.

    2. lee mackreath

      What aperture was your first video shot at seeing as you cannot use ND filters yet on the RX100?

      • brandon

        Sorry Lee, some of your comments got marked as spam by WordPress. But to answer your question: I used aperture priority mode to stay wide open, which means the camera automatically adjusts aperture from f/1.8-4.9 as I zoom. There are actually aftermarket filter threads like this one. But this approach is too much of a hassle when running around with two cameras and filming continuous takes from indoor to outdoors.

        • lee mackreath

          Thanks for your answer..In terms of picture profiles have you found the perfect flat image yet for the rx100 for grading comparable to the sunset profile on the Sony NEX 5N?

          • brandon

            I believe that shooting flat in the 8-bit color space used by most DSLR’s is a waste of bit depth. Basically, you don’t have a lot of shades of gray between black and white to start with, so if you compress your entire image into the middle range of that (shooting “flat”), and then you just expand it out later in post, you’re wasting valuable bits. I have been shooting on Standard with the RX100 and been quite pleased with the results. Very little color banding. The problem with Sunset mode is that auto white balance becomes a no-go, and when I’m shooting run-and-gun style, that’s just one more thing to worry about.

            • lee mackreath

              Does this not contradict your methods on the sony nex 5n where you (from what I believe) shoot flat with everything dialed down to -3?

            • brandon

              The real problem I’ve found with the NEX-5n is that its compression is pretty lossy in challenging environments, and it is prone to color banding even in sunset mode. So shooting flat is nice in theory, but that camera doesn’t quite cut it for heavy grading. The RX100 is a little better with color banding for some reason, but I still would rather try to get close to the final image in-camera. Once the Blackmagic Cinema Camera gets released, the prosumer market will finally get a chance to do some real grading.

            • Alisson

              Bought this thinking it was going to last logenr, being it metal casing and was only going to use a external lavalier microphone, it has omni mics, it can’t generate proximity effect bass boost. Of course, it can’t capture a stereo (solid) image either, its recordings are two channel mono. Well twice sent it for repair, for the sd slot stop working and now no logenr works.Just got a Zoom and much better in audio quality, just don’t like the plastic casing, but not going to be abuse.

    3. Taewoong Lee

      The device looks lovely. But how did you handle syncing? Such a headache!

      • brandon

        Syncing is exactly the same as with any other second-system audio device (like a Zoom H4n). You’re just matching up an mp3 file with the audio from your camera’s built-in mic. For short projects, I rarely have headaches syncing audio this way.

    4. Priih

      Great review, I’m on the fence tuoghh right now as I really like the size/look and the quick bootup of the PCM-M10 but don’t know if I should just go for the Zoom H4n I’m about to purchase a Nikon D7000 so I will be shooting video at some point tuoghh probably not a ton of it. Anybody have any tuoghhts? Can you use the the sony line-out as a direct mic for a dslr line-in? Anybody have any tuoghhts, i’m trying to make the purchase of one of them today Two great products it seems!

      • Brandon Li

        If you’re looking for an external mic to use as a shotgun for your D7000, I believe you could use the PCM-M10 but I don’t think the audio quality will be noticeably superior to the cheaper Zoom H1 or the Sony ICD SX712u. If you’re looking to plug in external mics, the Zoom H4n is the only one that has XLR inputs. The PCM-M10 reportedly has very clean pre-amps, but it also has the problem of a volume knob that cannot be locked. So if you bump the recorder, even if you have the “hold” switch enabled, you risk adjusting the volume levels involuntarily.

    5. Dave

      So I tried out the mini-clip on mic but using the same setting you are in a quiet environment I found the playback had my voice much quieter then the camera even though the mic was closer.

      Are you boosting the sound in post or I’m I missing something?

      • Brandon Li

        Where are you clipping the mic? I find that halfway down a button-down shirt is the best placement for normal speaking volume. If someone is especially soft-spoken it can sound good if the mic is placed at the top of their shirt, but if they speak up you risk clipping the audio.

        I do sometimes boost the audio in post if the speaker is quiet. It’s not necessarily louder audio overall that you’re seeking here in the recording – it’s clearer audio of the speaker’s voice because the mic is closer.

        • Dave

          It was clipped on a t-shirt facing the shoulder. I’ll figure it out, it shouldn’t have been that quiet since the camera was further away but your right about finding the balance with clipping as that definitely occurs above the 1m setting at that placement.

          I’ll play around with different placements and see what I can do.

          Thanks!

    6. Rob

      Great article. I got the mics, too and think they work great for recordings on the fly. They are also an easy way to record occasions where speeches are given, as they can be easily attached with a rubber band to a hand microphone.
      If the recorder is clipped to a shirt etc. the silver clip is quite visible. However, getting some heat shrink tubes from the electronics store (pick black or white) and fitting it around the clip makes it not only hold onto fabric a lot better but also the colour blends in much more nicely. And it only costs a few cents… :)

    7. Rob

      Hi Brandon,

      I wanted to ask how you get 12hr recording from your devices? I’ve tested them and I only seem to get about 4hr of continuous recording with them, then the battery runs out… I’m only using the clip on recorder, without the external battery extension that comes with it. The quality is set on XHQ (best setting). There is also a setting that leaves the LCD on or switches it off during recording, and I tested both but I found the setting makes no difference in regards to recording time.

      • Brandon Li

        My 12-hour estimate was based on having cumulatively recorded 12 hours of audio without recharging. I’ve never left the recorder running for 12 hours straight – not sure if it makes a difference. It’s also possible that battery life varies from unit to unit. These are low-grade consumer electronics and I can’t imagine they have the most stringent quality control.

        • Josh

          The owner’s manual says it should go for about 7 hours of recording in XQ or LP mode (specifications on last page). Mine went for 5.5 hours in XHQ mode.

    8. Kit Laughlin

      Brandon,

      I bought two USB Drive Voice Recorders, the “CD quality” ones (198Kb/s) and used them all this weekend to shoot an exercise convention. This model is non-adjustable; the only option you have is recorder placement.

      Let me share a tip that works for me. I run a 3″ length of one of the Elastoplast sticky tapes right along the recorder, with a half-inch of tape overlapping each end. I then attach the recorders to the *inside* of the performers’ shirts, at what I think will be an optimal diastase away from their mouths, based on what I feel will be the loudness of their projected voices. The recorder is not visible inside a T-shirt, and the tape stops any material noise—all of it. Much better than a clip, IMHO, and the tape allows you to place the recorder anywhere on the inside of the front of the clothes.

      Finally, I use Audacity to convert the WAV recordings to AIFF, and this allows simple topping and tailing too, for use in FCPX. hth, KL

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