The age of wireless is finally here. No longer just a technological buzzword or an intriguing idea, wireless is finding increasing usage in our everyday lives. From Internet-capable cell phones and wireless computer networking, to handheld GPS and satellite receivers, the emphasis everywhere is on breaking free of the bonds of bulky wires and cords and giving people’s technology as much mobility as possible.
This increasing desire for wireless technology and communication is extremely evident in the professional audio industry, especially in the area of wireless microphones. From unreliable beginnings, wireless microphones have developed into a cutting-edge audio production tool, capable of delivering excellent sonic quality often without any noticeable signal degradation. Wireless microphones have finally come into their own, and can now stand toe-to-toe in competition with traditional wired microphones, which have been prized by audio engineers for years for their pristine transmission quality and rugged, reliable performance.
Until recently, especially in the church audio environment, wireless systems were primarily used for the spoken word of the pastor or teacher. This was primarily due to the limited bandwidth of early VHF wireless systems, which simply could not match the sonic transmission capabilities of traditional wired microphones and cable. These systems (primarily wireless hand-held and lavaliere microphones) were valued because of the freedom of movement they allowed to the speaker, allowing pastors and teachers to move freely without the hassle of hard-wired microphone cable.
However, with the advent of wireless systems that sound just as good as their wired counterparts, wireless audio transmission has begun to be used for applications beyond simply speaking and vocal microphones. Wireless is beginning to move into the arena of instrumental performance as well, enabling musicians to do things that were unheard of a few years ago.
Imagine, your worship leader, guitarist, or bassist having total freedom of movement, able to move anywhere on the stage, or even into the audience, all with out losing the sound of his or her instrument. This is possible with today’s wireless technology. This article will help you implement wireless audio technology in your church’s music program.
From Handheld to Head-worn
Often the first and easiest way to begin to implement a wireless system for a worship leader or a band member that sings (such as a guitar player or bassist that is also a vocalist) is to replace handheld wired or wireless microphones with a head-worn version. These microphones are designed to be worn over the ear or on the head, eliminating the need for the person to hold the microphone while singing or speaking. It also eliminates some of the problems that can occur with performers that tend to hold the microphone far away from their mouth, by keeping the microphone at a consistent and closer distance to the performer’s mouth.
Head-worn (or headset) microphones are almost essential for instrumentalists who also sing (especially worship leaders), because it allows them to concentrate on playing and singing without having to worry about remembering to hold the microphone close to his or her mouth. It also makes the sound engineer happy since the performer’s mic-to-mouth distance tends to remain more constant, making equalization, feedback prevention, and the use of audio effects much easier.
Most major microphone manufacturers produce several types of head-worn microphones with a variety of different frequency responses, from tiny inconspicuous models like the Countryman E-6, to larger more noticeable models. Most come in the same variety of polar patterns as traditional microphones (omnidirectional, cardioid, etc.). Headset microphones are available with cables that terminate with the appropriate connectors for all types of wireless transmitter body packs.
Often the next step in “cutting the cord” is to go wireless with the performer’s instrument. Wireless tends to be most beneficial to performers that play instruments that are designed to be mobile. These instruments often include all types of guitars (electric, acoustic, and bass), as well as instruments like saxophones, flutes, and other brass instruments. Band members playing these instruments tend to desire the freedom to move in order to express themselves fully, and may often feel “tied down” by the traditional guitar cord or microphone on a stand. Giving them freedom of movement will help them to express their music more completely.
For example, a fully wireless worship leader (at least wireless headset mic and wireless instrument) could actually come down off the stage and worship with the congregation members, all while still playing and singing. Lead guitar, bass, and horn players can have to freedom to run out center stage during that amazing instrument solo.
Instruments are usually converted from wired to wireless by purchasing a special cable or adapter that converts from the standard instrument jack (1/4 tip-sleeve) to any number of wireless body pack connectors. These are available from almost all wireless microphone manufacturers. Simply plug one end of the cable into the guitar, and the other end into the transmitter body pack, and the instrument is now wireless.
Horns are often made wireless by using a small microphone clipped to the instrument and the other end of this mic plugged into a wireless body pack. Most microphone manufacturers make microphones especially designed to be small and unobtrusive, and with a frequency response tailored to the pickup of horns and other wind instruments.
There are a number of considerations to take in to account when choosing to implement wireless for musicians. Full wireless capability for a singing musician requires at least two separate channels of wireless transmission, one for the headset vocal mic, and the other for the instrument he or she is playing. This usually translates into two separate body packs that the performer must wear on their person. Some performers may not like having to wear this many separate body packs.
Additionally, a musical instrument demands much more from a wireless audio system than does simple speech or singing. Most musical instruments produce a much “hotter” signal than a person speaking, and many singers sing much louder than a speaker would normally talk.
Most musical instruments also produce a much wider dynamic range than speech. What this means is that the tuning and quality of the wireless system is much more critical when dealing with wireless instruments. In order for the wireless performance to work properly, the sound engineer must make absolutely sure that he is using wireless systems of the utmost quality and reliability. A true diversity system should be used to prevent signal dropouts, and both transmitter and receiver should be frequency agile. Another often overlooked, but absolutely necessary feature that should be included on any wireless system that will be used for and instrumentalist or singer is a gain adjustment on the transmitter. This will allow the audio engineer to compensate for the much larger amount of gain that will be generated by a line level instrument or a loud singing voice. Failure to adjust this gain control properly, or the lack of this gain control, can cause the transmitter or receiver (or both) to clip, causing large amounts of distortion in the wireless audio signal. If you are going to use a wireless system for an instrument or singer, make sure it has a gain control on the transmitter. This control is usually located inside the body pack near the battery compartment, or on more expensive systems, it can be adjusted through the transmitter’s menu system.
A wireless performer also places increased demands on the monitor system. This is primarily due to the fact that the wireless system enables the performer to move literally anywhere on the stage whenever they want to. The sound engineer must make sure to provide and maintain consistent monitor coverage in any of the major areas where the performer may choose to walk. This can become quite an interesting maneuver when using stage wedges as the primary monitoring system. A very easy way to solve this problem is to switch the performer to a wireless in-ear monitoring system. However, this approach requires the performer to wear yet another body pack. A separate monitor mixing console and operator can help to alleviate this burden on the front-of-house operator.
With the current quality and reliability of modern wireless audio systems, musicians and singers can now have true freedom of mobility, and the ability to connect with the audience in a deeper way when facilitating worship.