Wireless Microphones - Buying Guide

Wireless microphones: a buying guide

As the name suggests a wireless microphone is a microphone that has no cable or cord connecting it to your mixer, preamp or amplifying equipment. It is also called a cordless microphone or radio microphone. Such microphones can transmit in radio waves using UHF or VHF frequencies, AM or FM. There are cheap models which use infrared light. With infrared microphones you must have a direct line of sight between the microphone and the receiver. With more expensive wireless models there is no need to have a direct line of sight.

Some wireless microphones operate on one fixed frequency, but more advanced models allow you to use various frequencies, thus avoiding interference. With more advanced wireless systems you can use a number of microphones simultaneously. Shure Wireless Microphone

Why choose a cordless microphone? Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of choosing wireless models.

We'll start with the advantages.

Wireless microphones allow you greater freedom. This is very important to artists and speakers. As an artist I can certainly vouch for this. Corded microphones can tend to get in the way and even affect your performance. In a heated performance I have seem performers go through the pain of the microphone coming off the wire and the vocal performance being interrupted.

With wireless mics, you avoid the problems that their corded counterparts are so infamous for, that is cable problems. No need to worry about cables breaking because of constant movement and stress.

With a wireless mic there is no need to be concerned about tripping on the wire.

Let's look at the disadvantages

While a wired balanced XLR microphone can run up to 300 ft or 100 metres, some wireless microphones have a much shorter range. To solve that problem one may need to get a more expensive wireless model.

With wired microphones there is no need to worry about radio interference. Not so with a wireless microphone system. Radio equipment or other radio microphones can cause interference. To avoid such a problem you will need to get a wireless model with many frequency-synthesized switch-selectable channels. That way you can simply switch to another channel. Today, there is a wide variety of these mics available at reasonable prices.

Operation time is a problem. The battery can die out before a performance is through. I have seen this happen over and over again in live situations where the mic starts to cut out because of a drain on the battery and the performer is handed a new microphone.

Sometimes there can be a problem with noise or dead spots (where the mic doesn't work in certain areas).

With corded microphones there is no limit to the number of microphones that can be used. Not so with wireless microphones. Due to a limited number of channels, a limited number of wireless mics can be used at once.

What are the techniques used to improve the sound quality of cordless microphones.

Professional wireless microphone systems transmit in VHF or UHF radio frequency. They have what is known as true diversity reception, two separate receiver modules each with its own antenna. This eliminates the dead spots we spoke about earlier. It also helps to get rid of the effects caused by the reflection of radio waves on walls or other surfaces.

A technology known as companding is another technique used to improve the sound quality or the dynamic range of these microphones.

Some models give you the option of adjusting gain on the microphone itself. This is a great way to accommodate different level sources. One can make adjustments if instruments are too loud, voices are too soft, and so on. It's a great way to avoid clipping.

Another feature that some models come with is adjustable squelch. Instead of producing noise this silences the output when the receiver does not get a good signal.

Who is the original manufacturer of wireless mics. The answer is the Vega Electronics Corporation. Some of the major manufacturers of wireless microphone systems are AKG Acoustics, Audio Ltd, Audio-Technica, Electro-Voice, Lectrosonics, MIPRO, Nady Systems, Inc, Samson Technologies, Sennheiser, Shure, Sony and Zaxcom. Throughout the years major improvements have been made by these companies with regards to wireless technology. Many of the disadvantages listed above have been taken into account and improved upon. The best, most expensive microphones allow you to operate over 100 microphones at the same time.

There are three types of wireless microphone. They are handheld, bodypack and plug-in.

Handheld microphones look like a regular wired microphone except for the fact that they have a bigger body to accommodate the transmitter and body pack.

Bodypack is a small box that houses the battery pack and transmitter. It is separate from the microphone and is normally attached to the performer/speaker's belt. It has a wire connecting to a headset, lavelier microphone or instrument.

Then there's the plug in, plug-on, slot in. These are cube-style transmitters attached to the bottom of a standard microphone, thus making it possible to undertake a wireless operation.

How about receivers?

There are several types of receivers. True Diversity receivers come with two radio modules and two antennas. Diversity receivers have two antennas as well, but only one radio module. Non-diversity receivers come with only one antenna.

A VHF non-diversity system is great for a setting like a church, where there are no no obstructions between the transmitter and receiver and frequency coordination is relatively simple.

If you're not experienced with setting up a wireless system be sure to check your manual. It's really not a matter of plugging in and turning it up. A few more steps are involved. With practice it will certainly become easier.

UHF vs VHF - Which is best?

UHF versus UHF wireless mic systems

Wireless microphone recommendations.

Are you looking to buy a wireless system? Here are the ones I recommend.

Handheld microphone with a built in transmitter

If you are a lead vocalist what you need is a handheld microphone with a built in transmitter. This microphone is also great for stage situations where the microphone has to be passed from one person to another. The Shure ULX2/SM58 is one of the best and most popular ones for such use.

Headworn microphone with bodypack transmitter

Are you a singer dancer, singing drummer, dance or fitness instructor? Are you active onstage? What you need is a headworn microphone with bodypack transmitter. I recommend the Sennheiser EW 152 headworn mic. Mics like this one have a cardioid or supercardioid pickup pattern. Such a feature is important for rejecting bleed from onstage instruments.

Lavelier microphone with bodypack transmitter

Are you a public speaker, presenter, worship leader or stage actor? What you need is a lavelier microphone with bodypack transmitter. These microphones have omnidirectional pickup patterns and also come in cardioid versions. Try out the Sennheiser EW112.

Instrument cable with bodypack transmitter

Then there's the instrument cable with bodypack transmitter. These are great for guitar and bass players who need to go wireless on stage. I'd like to recommend the Audio-Technica ATW-3110 system.

Clip-on mic with bodypack transmitter

Are you a brass or woodwind player? Are you a percussionist? Tired of that mic-stand? When you're ready to go wireless, a clip-on mic with bodypack transmitter is the one for you. There's the Samson Airline 77 Wind Instrument System with an integrated transmitter. With this one there's no need for a bodypack.

What characteristics should your microphone have?

Naturally, when choosing a good wireless microphone sound is an important factor. This goes without saying. But there are other factors that are just as important. For instance you need to ensure that the microphone you choose is rugged and reliable. Your mic needs to be able to handle the stress of frequent live performances and travel. If you're going to be holding the microphone during your performance, you should choose one that is comfortable and easy to hold. Your microphone must have good resistance to feedback. Another thing of great importance is your microphone's ability to handle high Sound Pressure Levels.

On the question of feedback, the microphone's polar pattern is something you should look into when choosing the best microphone for you. The polar pattern determines the listening area of a microphone. A cardioid or super-cardioid pattern is more directional and will pick up sounds in front of the mic and reject those in front of it. This is great for live stage performances; you don't want your microphone to be picking up sound from the other instruments on stage. Cardioid or super-cardioid patterns are preferred for stage-use. When it comes to avoiding feedback and having good sound, the Shure Beta 58 is one of the best.

The Shure SM58 and Sennheiser MD835 have been the mics of choice for the stage for a long time because of their rugged nature and the fact that they can handle high SPLs. Their diaphragm is more rigid than that of condenser microphones. However, they have a little less response to transients and this leads to a less detailed sound than that of studio condenser vocal mics. A number of microphone manufacturers have attempted to combine the great features of studio microphones and handheld stage microphones with a new generation of condenser mics that are fit for the road. Some of these handheld wireless microphones include:

  • The Samson Stage 5 VHS System, Shure PGX2 PG58 Dynamic and Samson Concert 77 UHF System for under $200

  • The Shure SLX2 Beta 87A Condenser and Audio-Technica ATW-3141 for between $200 and $500.

  • The Audio-Technica AEW-4240 and Sennheiser ew 365 G3 for between $500 and $1000.

    Good luck in choosing a wireless microphone that meets your needs.

    Further Reading:

  • Wireless Systems buying guide - UHF versus VHF
  • All about Cordless Microphone Systems

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