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Wireless Microphone Buying Guide

How to Choose a Wireless Mic System

Most commonly used in live sound applications, a wireless microphone system allows performers and presenters to move freely about the stage, without the restriction of a microphone cable. A wireless system can sometimes be a necessity, for example, in theater productions that may require each performer to have their own mic hidden on their body. Try that with a wired mic! There are many considerations you need to make to ensure that you’re buying the right wireless system for your application, and this guide is here to help. And as always, Sweetwater’s mic experts can help you choose. Call (800) 222-4700!

Wireless Setup Basics
Wireless System Application Types
Analog vs. Digital
What to look for in a Wireless Microphone
Where Do You Go from Here?

A wireless system essentially allows you to bring audio signals from your stage to the sound system without using cables. The two components you will always find in a wireless system are the transmitter(s), which stay onstage close to the musicians or performers; and the receiver(s), which pick up sound from the transmitters and generally stay close to the sound mixing position. A properly designed wireless system offers the same if not better audio quality as a wired system, just without the mess and limitations of cables.

Wireless Setup Basics

Setting up a wireless mic may not seem as simple as plugging in a wired microphone. Just remember that by the time you have finished reading this buying guide, you could have already set up a multi-channel wireless system. The following is a generic startup guide that applies to the vast majority of wireless microphone systems available. We always suggest that you follow the tips found in your owner’s manual to get the most out of your specific system.

  1. Turn on your receiver while the transmitter is still powered off. Most wireless receivers have an “Automatic Frequency Selection” function – press that button and your receiver will assign itself a frequency.
  2. Most wireless transmitters have a button that will make it synchronize with the receiver that you just turned on (once the receiver has chosen a frequency). Press this button, and the transmitter will shake hands with the receiver that you just set up, and you’re ready for wireless audio.
  3. Check the signal levels at the transmitter and at the receiver to make sure that you’re getting a good signal without any distortion. If things sound too quiet with a lot of noise, chances are the volume control on the transmitter is set too low. If you get a very loud signal that sounds distorted, chances are the volume on the transmitter is too high.

The transmitter-to-receiver distance has a major effect on the signal-to-noise ratio of a wireless system. As the transmitter moves farther away from the receiver, the overall signal-to-noise ratio grows worse as the transmitter signal gets weaker. When the system gets near the limit of its operating range, dropouts will become more frequent and a buildup of steady background noise (hiss) may be audible.

Wireless System Application Types

No matter what you do onstage, there’s a wireless solution for you. Here’s a rundown of the different types of wireless microphone systems available:

wireless-handheldHandheld Microphone w/ Built-in Transmitter
This is the ideal mic for most lead vocalists. It’s also great for stage situations in which a mic will be passed from person to person. The wireless transmitter is built into the body of the handheld microphone, so you only have two components in this type of system – the handheld transmitter/mic, and the wireless receiver. Most manufacturers offer wireless versions of their most popular wired mics so that singers don’t have to change their sound when switching to a wireless system.

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wireless-headsetHeadset Mic w/ Bodypack Transmitter
Ideal for singing dancers, singing drummers, dance and fitness instructors, and anyone who is active onstage. This system uses a headworn microphone which is connected to a bodypack transmitter that you wear, and a wireless receiver.

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Lavalier Mic w/ Bodypack Transmitter
wireless-lavalierA standard for public speakers and presenters, worship leaders, and stage actors. You clip the lavalier mic to your clothing, connect it to a bodypack transmitter, and it transmits to the wireless receiver. For public speaking in quiet venues such as lecture halls, omnidirectional mics can work fine. In noisier environments such as a school’s gym, it’s best to choose a directional lavalier mic.

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wireless-instrumentInstrument Mics and Guitar Systems
Ideal for brass, woodwind, and percussionists. Just remember that the mic is connected to the bodypack transmitter – if you hook the mic to a set of congas, and the percussionist is wearing the beltpack, be sure he doesn’t walk away without detaching one of the two! The main difference between this type of system, and the lavalier mic system described above, is that this system uses a microphone that’s optimized for the sound of an instrument as opposed to the sound of a voice. Guitar and bass systems only have two components – a beltpack transmitter that the musician plugs their instrument into directly, and the wireless receiver.

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In the real world, your production may require a few or all of these types of systems. Picture a typical small band setup – guitars and bass can use instrument wireless systems, the lead singer may prefer a handheld transmitter system, and the drummer might want a headset system. The important thing to know is that the basic setup and operating principles of these systems are all the same.

Analog (UHF) vs. Digital Wireless

Although it’s not critical that you understand the most technical aspects of how digital and analog wireless signals are processed and transmitted, it’s important to know that there is a difference. You can look at an analog wireless system as basically sending your audio through the airwaves, with the wireless system doing its best to separate any noisy, interfering audio from your original signal. While pro-quality systems do this very well, there is at least the potential for signal quality loss. Digital wireless systems convert your audio to a digital signal right at the transmitter, and basically send a digital signal of ones and zeros to your receiver, which then decodes it into an analog audio signal. Because your receiver only deals with the digital data, it doesn’t even worry about analog noise or interference. It simply ignores anything that’s not a stream of ones and zeroes.

High-quality analog wireless systems can rival digital wireless systems in audio quality and ease of use, but as always you should factor in all of your needs when choosing a system.

What to Look For…

When choosing a wireless mic for live performance, there are a number of factors to consider. Naturally, good sound quality goes without saying, but there are other equally important factors as well:

  • The mic should be rugged and reliable to hold up to the rigors of live performance and travel.
  • It should be comfortable and easy to hold while performing.
  • It should have good resistance to feedback.
  • It should be able to handle high SPL (Sound Pressure Levels).

Where Do You Go from Here?

Naturally, the discussion of wireless systems doesn’t end here. At least now you should have an idea of what kinds of wireless sytems are available, as well as what situation each is best suited for. Remember that it will pay to consider all of your needs, including what type of application it will be used for and who the intended user is. The next step is to call your Sweetwater Sales Engineer at (800) 222-4700 to discuss the finer points of choosing the best wireless mic system for your needs.

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