The days when mics needed to be connected by trailing wires are thankfully behind us, and a new breed of clever wireless audio systems has opened up a whole new range of possibilities. Words: Rick Bronks.
WE’VE NOW REACHED the third part of this series on how to achieve outstanding audio, and by now you’re hopefully in a pretty good position to be taking your sound seriously. As you get more involved in this whole area it’s almost inevitable that you’ll soon be thinking about making moves into wireless mics, and will be weighing up the pros and cons of each system.
Working with wireless is something that some filmmakers get slightly edgy about. It has to be said that there’s something comforting about having a mic physically wired to a recorder, mixer or into your camera. As long as the cable is decent, there’s not much to consider: you simply plug it in, set your levels and off you go. However straightforward a cable connection appears to be, however, things aren’t always so clear-cut. Before we delve into more detail about specific systems, let’s take a closer look at a few reasons why, as a professional operator, you’d might be better off to go for wireless over wired.
Being tethered isn’t ideal, and sometimes trailing wires across the floor can be a trip hazard and altogether impractical. It’s even less desirable if you happen to be a single shooter, running around with a camera trying to do a thousand things. The last thing you need would be a cable hanging around. There’s also the point that, if you’re shooting with a boom mic on a pole, an unfastened cable can cause rattles, while any movement runs the risk of loosening connections.
In the past, it was widely considered that wireless audio wasn’t as good as wired. While that might once have been partially true, nowadays it’s really not an issue at all. Modern wireless systems are every bit as good as a wired mic. You also have the option to turn a wired mic into one that’s wireless as well, so you’re opening up a whole new world of possibilities if you carefully consider which kit to use.
If you happen to be working in a fixed studio environment, such as a newsroom, then it’s true that you could consider using a wired mic. It could work if the host won’t be moving around much and the guest could be mic’d up once they were sitting down. However, I don’t believe this is the most practical way to work. Wireless is inevitably always going to be the better way to go.
WORKING WITH WIRELESS
Wireless mics will generally have a transmitter (TX) and receiver (RX). The TX will be where the mic is plugged into, while the RX is what’s hooked into whatever is recording the audio. The ways by which these two units might talk to each other can differ, but in very basic terms this is how it works. For every mic you’re using you’ll generally need 1x TX and 1xRX, so if you’re thinking about recording multiple people on a wireless lavaliere system, your kit bag will start to get that little bit bigger.
Freedom of movement is a major plus point with a wireless system, so let’s take a look at how these can be more practical. When I’m attaching mics to talent, I tend to wire them up with the lav and then sometimes leave it at that, without any of the wireless packs attached, up until the time they’re on camera. This way I’m able to pre-hide their mics, and then just let them go wandering off if they want, with the cable wrapped up in a pocket.
This is an especially efficient way to work if you don’t happen to have wireless packs for each mic. It means you can just unplug one when that part of the shoot is done, and then hook it up to the new talent whenever it’s needed. This way you can also invest in more lav mics than transmitters, which is a smart way to go if you want to save yourself some money.
Often at conferences or events there might be more than one speaker that needs to be hooked into your audio recorder. Ideally, each one would be on a separate transmitter, connected wirelessly to a corresponding receiver in your sound bag, and from there into a mixer. To work this way, you’ll need a mixer with at least as many inputs as microphones, so it’s a whole extra level of kit and organisation that you might not have considered.
If you were to attempt this kind of setup with wired mics, you would have to have as many cables as you have mics, all of them running to your recorder. The principle is exactly the same but it could end up getting very tangled and messy. Unfortunately it’s not possible to put them onto a multiplug, like we might do for mains powered devices.
WIRED TO WIRELESS
Overall, in my opinion wired lav mics aren’t the greatest way to go, unless you’re on a really tight budget and are sure the talent won’t need to move too much.
Moving on to shotgun mics, if you happen to be the proud owner of a high performing product such as the Sennheiser MKE 600 (CVP price £259), you’ll almost certainly going to be using it with an XLR cable into the camera or recorder, or mounted in the hot shoe and plugged straight into the camera body with a mini jack. However, have you considered how much more flexible and efficient your workflow could be if the shotgun mic was wireless? No more cable rattle, no more restrictive movements. If you wanted to remotely set the mic up somewhere, such as pointing at a stage, you could set your recorder or camera away from it and not have to worry about anyone tripping over a cable that’s trailing across the floor.
With modern wireless systems there’s a plethora of options that will enable you to cut the cord. As ever, they will fall into different price brackets and will be suitable for different scenarios.
Just as with camera gear, you would always be looking to select the audio kit which is the most suitable for the shoot you happen to be doing, along with, perhaps, some kind of back-up. It’s a mantra I’ve been preaching throughout this series, but just as you’ll have different lenses for particular jobs, as you become more audio aware it’s likely that you’ll have different mics you work with as well. It’s your expertise that will define what kit you take along with you.
A system I keep in my camera bag ALL the time is the very affordable Sennheiser XSWD wireless system (CVP price £279 for the lavaliere set). There are a lot of different flavours of this, including one for plugging into an electric guitar. The units are all USB rechargeable, and work wirelessly.
Sennheiser also makes a plugon unit that you can attach to your shotgun mic and BOOM – pun intended – you have a wireless shotgun mic. It’s a fantastic way to add wireless operation, and the XSWD kits are extremely good value. I have a lot of different kit, but these little TX and RX units are always with me. I particularly appreciate how the receiver can be mounted onto the camera’s hot shoe, and it’s just a very simple and easy way to achieve wireless audio.
If you aren’t planning on wandering too far from the camera, then the XSWD kit will be a perfect introduction to wireless. If you use it with Wi-Fi then you don’t need to do any tinkering: it pairs easily, and there’s no faffing around with smartphones and apps, although it could limit you if you happen to be in an area where there’s a lot of competing wireless traffic. I’ve found the system to be pretty solid when you’re perhaps three to five metres away from the camera. If you’re looking to move further away, or you need something that’s more robust in terms of a signal, then you’ll need to start moving up the range.
EXTENDING THE RANGE
My personal go-to range of wireless audio is the Sennheiser AVX system (CVP price £659 for the lavaliere system). This too works wirelessly, and uses the same frequencies as your phones at home (if you still have a DECT phone!). These units also pairseamlessly, but the signal penetration is a lot better, and it’s also much more robust as a kit. The receiver is super compact, and I love how it very efficiently just plugs right in – the receiver and plug are all one unit.
The mic transmitter pack is also very solidly built, so should hold up when it’s inevitably dropped on the floor during a shoot because it’s fallen off the talent. These units are also rechargeable, meaning there’s no faffing around with buying batteries, and instead you can charge them up easily from your USB power banks.
There are a number of different kits that are available, and there’s even a handheld mic in the range that you can likewise pair with the receiver, so you can make a good start on building your ecosystem. Same rules as ever though – each mic (transmitter) will need a separate receiver.
The AVX system is perfect for when you’re hooking up to a portable recorder: basically there’s even less wires to worry about! Plug the receiver straight into the side and away you go, simple as that. If you have phantom power switched on it will also power up the receiver: it doesn’t actually need phantom power by the way, but I just love that feature!
If I’m on a shoot that’s all singing all dancing then I’ll pull out the Sennheiser G4 wireless system (CVP price £569). It’s not digital, but works on UHF, and the signals can go REALLY far. If you’re frequently in situations where the talent happens to be a long way from the camera, then this is the system to consider. Once again, there are a lot of different packages available, or you can hand pick the individual parts.
The Sennheiser RX and TX units are powered with AA batteries, which can be purchased anywhere, and they last a decent amount of time as well. The TX units, for example, will be able to run for most of a day on a single set of batteries.
Using Sennheiser’s G4 ecosystem you can get units that plug onto your shotgun mics to make them wireless operated – and they run off phantom power, so you can run high-end professional shotgun mics such as the Sennheiser MKH-416 (CVP price £879), and hook them into your camera/recorder.
It’s important to note that you will need a licence for the G4 units. It’s not expensive, but the frequency they work in is highly contested, and the various powers that be like to know who’s operating on what frequency. Another thing to consider is that you might need to check with the location/ venue that you’re working at what wireless frequencies they use, so that you don’t experience any clashes or noise coming off their systems. The Sennheiser units feature a handy scanner, so you can check for empty frequencies and tune things quickly.
If you intend on travelling with the wireless mics, you might also need to check where you’re going and the frequencies they’re using, since it could be that the country you’re visiting has different regulations. It’s a major reason why the AVX and XSWD systems are so popular, since they’re licence-free, worldwide.
For myself, I’m fortunate enough to have a nice selection of wireless and wired mics I can select from. Effectively there’s no ‘right or wrong’ way to go with this. Just because some of the kit I’ve mentioned here might be less expensive it doesn’t mean it’s less effective than the top-of-the-range options. Rather, it’s all about you having the right kit for the job, and a lot of that will come down to individual choice.
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