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Wireless Mics in language documentation

Today on the ELAR Blog, ELDP Grantee Bill Parker tells us about the usefulness of wireless mics in language documentation.  

By Bill Parker

The use of wireless mics is an industry standard in film and television, however in language documentation we largely rely on wired mics. For most of us, this is likely due to cost concerns and fear of unexpected technical problems. In this article, I will give some examples of ways you can work with wireless mics that I have learned through fieldwork experience – I’ll also give my review of the Røde RØDELink Film maker kit , an affordable wireless mic kit .

The main advantage that wireless mics offer is freedom of movement for your consultants. In discourse contexts that involve movement, such as procedurals, nature walks or ritual speech, this can be crucial – both to allow your consultants to act naturally and to avoid knocking over or accidentally unplugging mics.

When consultants are moving around, you can use various setups to avoid inhibiting their movement, such as recording speakers with a stereo or shotgun mic from a distance where it won’t interfere. Another option is to use a lavalier or headset mic plugged into a recorder like the Zoom H4n and have the consultant wear the recorder in a bag or somewhere on their person where it won’t be moved. I prefer using wireless lavalier mics in this kind of situation; this way you can get a clear audio recording, directly to your camera. In contrast, using a shotgun or stereo mic will not give as clear an audio signal, and recording to a separate recorder will result in the extra step in your workflow of syncing separate audio and video files.

I used the Røde RØDELink Film maker kit, which consists of a wireless transmitter unit, a receiver that plugs into your camera to record audio and video simultaneously, and one lavalier mic that attaches to the transmitter. I used this together with the canon XA35 camera, which has an attachable XLR terminal that allows for up to two inputs.

When working with one consultant, recording a story or personal narrative, it was very easy to record with the wireless lavalier. The receiver is secured to the camera’s hot shoe and the 3.5 jack attaches the receiver to the camera’s inbuilt ‘MIC’ input. This process will be the same for most video cameras, as a hotshoe and 3.5mm mic input are standard features. One disadvantage of wireless mic systems is that you need a receiver unit for each mic, as a receiver can only pick up one signal at a time. You could use two separate systems but at $300 per set, it may be difficult to justify for a language documentation project. If , as in my case, you can only get one set, then there are workarounds for recording two speakers.

Consultant (Daniel Canares Rodriguez ; left) narrates a personal experience to researcher (William Parker; right) . Consultant wears a wireless lavalier with transmitter resting on table.

To record a second speaker, I plugged  a wired lavalier to the XLR terminal that attaches to the camera, and recorded the wireless mic as usual via the 3.5mm input on the camera. In the camera’s settings, I selected the XLR input to record to one channel and the input mic to record to another. In this way each record in mono but are combined together in stereo, so that one speaker is heard on your left and the other on the right.

Consultant A (Wenceslau de la Cruz Torres ; left) and Consultant B (Hilaria de la Cruz Sánchez; right) . Consultant A wears wired lavalier, Consultant B wears Wireless lavalier.

Although the method I used here had some of the previously mentioned disadvantages with using wired mics, it was the most efficient way for me to record both mics and video together to one output file. If you have a similar situation, another option could be to record the wired mic to a portable recorder like the Zoom H4n. This will afford the person with the wired mic a bit more freedom of movement. As previously mentioned, you will need to sync and join the audio file with the video in editing software after recording. I used a set up like this when recording nature walks and found it quite manageable.

Nature walk : Researcher (William Parker; left ) and Consultant (Antonio Lince Aguilar; right). Researcher wears a lavalier plugged into a Zoom H4n in a backpack. Consultant wears a wireless lavalier with the transmitter in his shirt pocket.

What could you do when recording a public speech, sermon or song, where you are principally recording one speaker, but with an ear to the reactions of a larger group? I would suggest recording that speaker with a wireless lavalier, simultaneously recording with a shotgun mic. As with the setup I used for two speakers, the two microphones can comfortably record to the same camera. You will capture the speaker’s words clearly and be able to hear details from the wider context.

The RØDELink Film maker kit is a great option for anyone inexperienced in the use of wireless microphones. Setting up the connection is as simple as turning on both units and pressing a button. It has an advertised range of up to 100 metres although I never had a reason to record from such a distance. In any case, in 6 months of fieldwork I had no problems with losing connection, which was initially a cause for concern for me. In nature walks, for example, where the recorder and the speaker are constantly moving, there were no problems. Some reviews online state problems with the lavalier that comes with this kit, though this was not an issue for me and the lavalier recorded good quality audio. If the lavalier is not to your liking, it is always possible to switch to another model that you prefer. To charge these units you will need AA batteries or you can use a powerbank to charge with USB. Each unit should last 30 hours with a pair of Duracell batteries.

A possible disadvantage is the size of these units; they are quite compact but there are smaller models available such as Røde’s newer wireless Go kit if you need to travel extra light. In general, it is hard to think of disadvantages as this was a good product that is very easy to learn and is versatile for adapting to different recording situations.

Though the set is straightforward to use, making sure batteries are charged and setting up the connection does add to your workload. Especially for projects with a single investigator, adding another element that needs to be monitored can be onerous.  In spite of difficulties,  wireless mics are a real advantage for situations where there is a lot of movement, or you need  to change setups spontaneously. They are a good tool to add to the language documenter’s arsenal.