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Traditionally, wireless microphone systems are used in live sound applications where cables and cords would otherwise restrict the movement of the performer or presenter – and I’m not just talking rock star performances here either. If you take theater productions for example – where free movement and ample voice amplification are both a must – a wireless microphone system is an absolute necessity. But that doesn’t mean that someone like you and me simply looking into doing away with a few cords in that jungle of cables can’t take advantage as well!
A wireless system essentially lets you to bring audio signals from your stage to the sound system without using cables. The two components you will always find in a wireless system are the transmitters, which stay onstage close to the musicians or performers; and the receiver, which pick up sound from the transmitters and generally stay close to the sound mixing position. A properly designed wireless system offers the same if not better audio quality as a wired system, just without the mess and limitations of cables. And who wouldn’t want to get rid of cables if sound quality is untouched?
Some of you out there who are not as technically savvy as the rest of us might be thinking that although they wouldn’t mind a wireless system in their setup, getting it to work properly might be a whole other set of headaches. Not true, actually, as most wireless systems can be setup pretty much almost as easily as your standard wired variety. True, it might not be a straight forward as plug and play but it’s most definitely not rocket science. While you should always check for specific tips on setting up a wireless system using a product’s owner’s manual, the following steps should apply to the vast majority of systems out there.
- Turn on your receiver while the transmitter is still powered off. Most wireless receivers have an "Automatic Frequency Selection" function - press that button and your receiver will assign itself a frequency.
- Most wireless transmitters have a button that will make it synchronize with the receiver that you just turned on (once the receiver has chosen a frequency). Press this button, and the transmitter will shake hands with the receiver that you just set up, and you're ready for wireless audio.
- Check the signal levels at the transmitter and at the receiver to make sure that you're getting a good signal without any distortion. If things sound too quiet with a lot of noise, chances are the volume control on the transmitter is set too low. If you get a very loud signal that sounds distorted, chances are the volume on the transmitter is too high.
Be sure to remember that the transmitter-to-receiver distance has a major effect on the signal-to-noise ratio of a wireless system. As the transmitter moves farther away from the receiver, the overall signal-to-noise ratio grows worse as the transmitter signal gets weaker. When the system gets near the limit of its operating range, dropouts will become more common and a buildup of steady background noise – heard as a hiss – will eventually become audible.
Knowing the Differences
No matter what you do onstage, there's a wireless solution for you. Here's a rundown of the different types of wireless microphone systems available:
Handheld Microphone w/ Built-in Transmitter: This is the ideal mic for most lead vocalists. It's also great for stage situations in which a mic will be passed from person to person. The wireless transmitter is built into the body of the handheld microphone, so you only have two components in this type of system - the handheld transmitter/mic, and the wireless receiver. Most manufacturers offer wireless versions of their most popular wired mics so that singers don't have to change their sound when switching to a wireless system.
Headworn Mic w/ Bodypack Transmitter: Ideal for singing dancers, singing drummers, dance and fitness instructors, and anyone who is active onstage. This system uses a headworn microphone which is connected to a bodypack transmitter that you wear, and a wireless receiver.
Lavalier Mic w/ Bodypack Transmitter: A standard for public speakers and presenters, worship leaders, and stage actors. You clip the lavalier mic to your clothing, connect it to a bodypack transmitter, and it transmits to the wireless receiver. For public speaking in quiet venues such as lecture halls, omnidirectional mics can work fine. In noisier environments such as a school's gym, it's best to choose a directional version.
Clip-on Instrument Mic w/ Bodypack Transmitter: Ideal for brass, woodwind, and percussionists. Just remember that the mic is connected to the bodypack transmitter - if you hook the mic to a set of congas, and the percussionist is wearing the beltpack, be sure he doesn't walk away without detaching one of the two! The main difference between this type of system, and the lavalier mic system described above, is that this system uses a microphone that's optimized for the sound of an instrument as opposed to the sound of a voice.
Instrument Cable w/ Bodypack Transmitter: Guitar and bass players were among the first to go wireless onstage. These systems only have two components - a beltpack transmitter that the musician plugs their instrument into directly, and the wireless receiver.
In the real world, your production may require a few or all of these types of systems. Picture a typical small band setup - guitars and bass can use instrument wireless systems, the lead singer may prefer a handheld transmitter system, and the drummer might want a headset system. The important thing to know is that the basic setup and operating principles of these systems are all the same.
Analog vs. Digital
Ah, fewer things are as polarizing in music as the battle between analog in digital – but luckily for wireless mic systems, it’s not nearly as critical as it is with amplifiers of effects pedals. And although it's not critical that you understand the most technical aspects of how digital and analog wireless signals are processed and transmitted, it's important to know that there is a difference! You can look at an analog wireless system as basically sending your audio through the airwaves, with the wireless system doing its best to separate any noisy, interfering audio from your original signal. While pro-quality systems do this very well, there is at least the potential for signal quality loss. Digital wireless systems convert your audio to a digital signal right at the transmitter, and basically send a digital signal of ones and zeros to your receiver, which then decodes it into an analog audio signal. Because your receiver only deals with the digital data, it doesn't even worry about noise or interference. It simply ignores anything that's not a stream of ones and zeroes. High-quality analog wireless systems can rival digital wireless systems in audio quality and ease of use, but as always you should factor in all of your needs when choosing a system.
One Last Thing…
Remember: When choosing a wireless mic for live performance gigging, there are a number of factors to consider. Naturally, good sound quality goes without saying, along with ample resistance to feedback but there are other equally important factors as well. Considering how much wear and tear your gear tends to accumulate through the pressures of playing on stage, think about getting a rugged system that can hold up to a good beating. Not only that, it should be comfortable and easy to use while performing – the last thing you want is added pressure to a performance. Also don’t forget to make sure it can handle high SPL (Sound Pressure Levels).