I Am SO Over Wireless

If you are an audio person or a musician, someone you know will eventually want to do things involving audio (or data representing audio) and radio waves. They will think that such an idea is brilliant. They will think it will be so very nifty to be un-tethered and free, wild like the stallions and mares which once loped across the mighty plains of America’s central expanse, majestic in their equine kingship ov-

Yeah. About that. Don’t believe it. Wireless is a pain in the donkey.

Which is not to say it can’t work. It can. It can even be something of a joy, like when I first discovered Line 6 digital wireless systems. They really are decent (especially the “55” series and higher), with nice features like frequency agility, and remote monitoring of both mute status and battery level.

If you’re going to attempt wireless, accept nothing less than the features I’ve described.

Also, there are situations where wireless is a mission-critical implementation. If the band’s got to move around a lot, and they’ve got to have in-ear monitors, then wireless is probably an inescapable reality.

But wireless is still a pain in the donkey, and I personally intend to not deal with it in the future unless I absolutely have to.

Why?

It’s Expensive

One of my favorite Pro Sound Web – LAB quotes is this:

“It takes a very expensive wireless system to sound as good as a $25 mic cable.”

I’ll even go further than that, because I’m a small-venue guy and kinda cheap. In my mind, it takes a very expensive wireless system to sound as good as a $10 mic cable. (I think $0.40 to $1/ foot is plenty of money to pay for an XLR cable.)

Which is to say that cables, compared to radio transmission, are stupid-proof. Cables don’t interfere with each other in any way that we have to pay real attention to. If you want to run more cable, you don’t have to worry about intermodulation distortion from an interaction with another cable. Cable transmissions don’t drop out or get noisy because another cable is transmitting on the same frequency at a higher intensity. Cables are much easier to definitively troubleshoot. Cables aren’t touchy about antenna placement, or transmitting through someone/ something that just blocked your line of sight.

I could go on and on.

Cables are cheap and robust. Wireless – half-decent wireless, anyway – is expensive and still pretty finicky. Really killer, un-finicky wireless is VERY expensive. Like, “$600/ channel at bare minimum” expensive, with the sky being the limit.

The Spectrum Is Getting Crowded

When wireless mics and in-ears first showed up, the smartphone “thing” hadn’t yet happened. Wi-fi hadn’t really come into being as we consumers would recognize it now. Digital TV was still just a discussion topic. There was quite a bit of “whitespace” to transmit in.

Fast forward to today. More and more is being transmitted in the “TV” bands that wireless gear has historically relied upon, and no, moving up to the 2.4 Ghz range is not a guarantee of a fix. For the past several weeks at my church, I’ve been trying to find a clear space for a 2.4 Ghz digital wireless rig to transmit across. The transmission spectrum we’re in is downright hostile, with a veritable firestorm of network access points all banging away in the same bandwidth that the mic tries to use.

Dropouts? We’ve got ’em. All the time.

The problem with “over the air” transmission is that your transmission medium is automatically shared with everyone else who wants to use it. If their signal beats up on yours (especially if they’re a licensed user and you aren’t, and pro audio usually isn’t a licensed use), that’s tough luck for you. You lose.

We’re Not In Control Of Our Medium

The third major problem with wireless connects up with the previous paragraph. There are lots of interests that want to use radio transmission space, and we can’t control what they do. Further, the radio transmission space is regulated by various bodies (The FCC in the US, for example), and those organizations can alter the legality of what we’re doing.

That is, a regulatory agency can reallocate a block of spectrum such that we can no longer transmit in it legally, and if we have a large investment in gear which uses that space, we’re well and truly screwed. There are people out there who lost a LOT of money on gear that worked within the “700 Mhz” band. The FCC reallocated the spectrum, and that was it. You can no longer legally operate a wireless system in the USA within that band. If you do, and somebody who’s allowed to transmit in that range takes offense, you will be on the losing end of whatever action gets taken against you.

So – I don’t personally want to spend any money or time supporting finicky technology that can stop working correctly for reasons that are hard to pin down. I don’t want to put resources into gear that remains functional, but becomes legally unusable at not much more than a strong whim from outside industries. I’m just not interested in fighting that battle.

If you want to get into doing a bunch of work with wireless, go ahead – but be aware that what you’re getting into isn’t a cakewalk. It may seem to be, especially if you’re lucky, but the day you become unlucky may be very un-fun for you. Buckle up, wear a helmet, and keep your avalanche beacon handy (if you know what I mean).

  • In the 90’s I worked at a theatre as a sound FX designer / sound techie. The actors and actresses were soooo “fascinated” by wireless transmitters, but I was NOT. The early ones caused me so much trouble and pain (and it was ALWAYS “My Fault”!) that I still loathe anything wireless!

  • Jess Wayne

    I’ve had great success with the Line 6 G50 for my guitar. The sound transmission is very good, but it does take getting used to some of the “operator error” induced problems like not paying attention to the battery. But the stage freedom is exhilarating and downright fun. Yes, it can get interference so I always have a cable backup. I always have a cable to back up my cable too! Once had two go out in one night.

  • Wireless instruments and in-ear systems are fine, anything beyond that, and you’re probably wasting money. It depends on your show. I run production for my son’s band and tried for almost 6mo to run my lighting rig wirelessly; basically to remove the long run to the stage from FOH. All this work, time, expense, and failure just to remove a reliable 100ft DMX cable that cost me at best $40.

  • Cara Moore

    I was competing in a Stars in Your Eyes contest with a corded microphone that was picking up cordless microphone signals and sounding terrible. Someone tossed me one these microphones and I turned my corded microphone off and carried on. I do have a cordless microphone now (layaway) but for a lot of situations it causes problems. (in the tradition of those comedy movies where someone is wearing a wire and it picks up other signals). Cordless is seen as pro equipment and it can make you look amateur if you don’t have it.