Don't Blame the Wireless

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Well, at least not right away. Granted, wireless microphones are complicated machines with more components and parts to malfunction than a simple, wired microphone cable. Regardless of the product’s inherent complexity, when things do go wrong, the cause isn’t always the wireless radio itself. However, due to the frequent lack experience and education on the part of the user, the wireless has become an easy scapegoat figure, a piece of equipment that is commonly and unnecessarily vilified.

Two recent incidents prove this point exactly. The first incident recently occurred in my office when a Pro Audio Sales Manager stormed in, hands in the air and panicked, screaming that there was a problem with the wireless used for a presentation being given to a group of sound contractors in our Telex Academy: “The wireless worked last night and today none of them are working! You have to come down and fix it!” I hurried down, started with the basics and found that while they had installed a fresh battery for the day, they had done so backwards. I flipped the battery over and turned on the transmitter, voila, problem solved! And these guys call themselves “audio professionals”. It just goes to show how little most people actually understand about the set-up, trouble-shooting, and maintenance of wireless systems.

Incident number two: Just last week I attended a concert that we co-sponsored with another music manufacturer. We had just provided the young band of musicians with new wireless guitar systems and they were visibly excited to use them that night. During the first song there was a small feedback problem. Visibly irritated, the lead singer told the audience that this was the first night his band had used the wireless and he was disappointed with the system’s performance. I wanted to stand up and yell through the din that feedback is a function of audio gains, not wireless guitar systems! Yet, since the wireless was the new thing in the loop, it conveniently took the blame. The feedback continued through several more songs until the guitarist got fed up and switched to wired connections. You guessed it, the feedback continued. Now obvious to the performer, the engineers, and the crowd that the problem was not due to the introduction of the wireless to the guitarist’s signal chain, the front of house engineer got busy on the console, lowered some gains and corrected the problem.

So what is the moral of this story? First look for the obvious, more mundane causes of wireless microphone problems. If everything under your control checks out, then look at the radio connection. Here is the checklist that I use when troubleshooting a wireless system that appears to have no audio:

Power and batteries
At least half the time someone tells me a wireless microphone doesn’t work, the cause is battery-related. Always check the freshness and orientation of the battery first. Secondly, always make sure that the receiver is plugged in and the power strip is on.
(Tip) Segregate and recycle all old batteries. People tend to assume any battery not in a transmitter is good; to eliminate confusion, ensure used batteries are nowhere near fresh batteries.

RF Signal
Even basic systems provide an indicator light to tell you there is a radio link; higher end systems also include an RF signal level indicator. With power on, ensure there is a radio link. The absence of a radio link may indicate mismatched receivers and transmitters; thus, ensure the units are on the same frequency.

Even wireless microphones have cables and connections; make sure everything is plugged in completely and to the correct place. Lapel microphone cords often “take a beating”; check for shorts.

Mutes and Gains
Check the mute and gain on the transmitter first, then gains on the receiver, then the mixing console. Receivers with audio level indicators make this step easy since they reveal if audio is coming through the wireless link and the problem exists post-receiver in the signal chain.
If there is still no audio, start at step one again and repeat. If there is still a problem after several iterations, there may be a problem with one of the components- in this case, contact the manufacturer.

As you can see, there is really nothing too sophisticated or complex about trouble-shooting wireless performance. Utilizing a few pragmatic steps can eliminate a lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress. Besides making live sound troubleshooting more rational and systematic, these steps refuse to let uninformed and amateur practitioners of sound reduce a very necessary and functional technology to the status of just another convenient scapegoat. In a world that is steadily becoming more wireless, it is necessary that we understand how to maximize the performance of this technology. Simply exercise a few steps, and you’ll be amazed at how easy the world of wireless can become.

Good Luck and Good Audio!