Digital Wireless and The Future of Wireless Microphones

The last few years have not been kind to the users of wireless microphones. First, the FCC sold off a great deal of our wireless frequencies for a few billion dollars. We had to abandon all of the 700 MHz frequencies.

Then they issued the “Second Memorandum Opinion and Order” regarding the rest of the UHF bandwidth (“White Spaces”). Basically, we have to share those frequencies (with a few exceptions) with a bazillion cell phones in the next year or two.

But they’re not through with us. The next to go will reportedly be either the 500 MHz or the 600 MHz bandwidth, though not for “a few years.” And who knows what’s coming after that?

There are a number of possible strategies for responding to these threats.

1) Buy disposable wireless. Buy competent electronics, but at the bottom end of the price range. The danger, of course, is that it’s easy to not just get “inexpensive” wireless, but to end up with “cheap” wireless, and there’s a world of difference. In the youth room, it’s not so bad; in the main room, it’s a real problem.

2) Buy wireless with a very high number of usable frequencies and very tight control of those frequencies: there has got to be at least one clear frequency when all the dust settles! This has the added advantage of allowing you to actually trust your wireless, which makes it all that much more useful! But these can be fairly costly.

3) Go without wireless. Let’s face it: the back line is sometimes better served by wired mics, but the “money channels” are probably never going to tolerate a wire tethering them into place.

4) Predict what the FCC is going to do next. Currently, they have announced a few clear frequencies, but they’re not the same in every region, so… Good luck with that prediction! Let me know how it works out for you, OK? (Update: Shure seems to be doing this, and in a way that looks very promising!)

5) Develop a technology that will survive whatever the FCC throws at us. Do something that completely steps outside the way we’ve always done wireless mics, and trust that whatever the FCC does won’t affect it too much.

This last option is the thinking behind a new series of microphones from Line6. Yes, I said Line6: the guitar effects and amplifier people. It sounds strange to me too. They’ve introduced a line of wireless microphones that do exactly that: they do wireless differently. Here’s what’s they do:

  • First, they use a frequency that is under the FCC’s radar: 2.4 GHz. I was concerned that they’d pick up interference from cell phones or other high-powered things, but those are on other nearby frequencies. It’s true, WiFi (a very low-powered technology) operates in that range, but they avoid those problems with other tools. And yes, it’s license-free (and that’s growing in importance). A number of companies have tried to use cell-phone bands (I remember some in the 1.9 and 2.1 GHz range), but none of those have succeeded in avoiding interference. This 2.4 bandwidth appears (key word there) to be a safe place for wireless to live, if you can handle WiFi.

  • So, to handle other RF signals (like WiFi), Line6 uses something that is not spread-spectrum technology, but acts kind of like it. I don’t completely understand how they handle the frequencies, but I really appreciate how you can set up a dozen wireless in one room, and not bother with any frequency settings, but all twelve will work really well.

  • They use honest-to-gosh digital wireless technology for their RF section: “Fourth generation digital wireless technology,” they call it. Some of the benefits of digital include amazingly simple setup, excellent audio quality.

  • Because of the very high bandwidth (2.4 GHz is a very small; 700 MHz, by comparison, is much larger wavelength!), the Line6 RF signal doesn’t travel through walls. So I can have twelve frequencies in this room and another twelve in the room right next door. Try that with 700 MHz!

In my opinion, this is a difficult season for those of us with limited budgets, and who rely on wireless microphones. My personal approach is a combination: I’m putting back-line vocalists on wired mics and wired in-ear monitors to reduce the number of wireless systems, but I’m not shying away: I’m using competent wireless, centered around the FCC’s clear channels. I’ve been using wireless with high channel counts, but I’m testing the Line6 product as an alternative, and so far, I’m really impressed.

The Line6 bodypack system uses a good connector (it’s a Switchcraft TA3F), and there are lapel mics and headset mics aplenty for them. The handheld integrates Line6’s renowned modeling experience: the single dynamic element will give you the audio based on (modeled after) six top live-sound mics including a Shure® SM58®, a Shure® Beta 58A®, a Sennheiser® e 835 and more. If that weren’t enough, you can actually put most Shure capsules on the Line6 transmitter. They have an “entry level” system at around $350, but I find myself most impressed with the stronger, more durable XD-V70 systems at under $500.

One story: I used the Line6 handheld in a public festival recently. More accurately, I let the lead singer use it in a tiny little gazebo that was functioning as a stage in the city park where the concert was taking place. I’d set the handheld to work like an SM58, thinking “We need an awfully forgiving mic for an uncertain gig.” It failed: immediate feedback; the vocalist scowled and handed me the mic back. I re-set the mic to emulate an ElectroVoice ND767B® and returned the mic to him, "Try this one." He used it for the whole concert, and raved about it afterwards: “It’s so much better than the first mic you gave me!” I laughed.

You know: Line6 has never been named among pro audio brands. I’m thinking that it’s time it was. There's change in the wind.