Mics—To Wire or Not To Wire, That is the Question

13 07 2007

A while back, I was at a conference, sitting in on a session covering technology in the church. The question was raised, “Should we get wireless mics or wired mics?” It’s a question that gets raised a lot, especially by smaller churches who are short on dollars, but want to upgrade their music and sound program. My usual answer to a question such as that one is, “It depends.” But the more I thought about it, I’ve decided there are some guidelines that I would follow (and have followed in the past) that seem to work out pretty well.

First let’s to a Pros and Cons of wired and wireless mics (and for this discussion, I’m referring to vocal mics—we’ll leave the discussion of lapel mics for another time).

Wired: Pros

  • Significantly less expensive per channel
  • Rock solid reliability (provided you buy good cables, and you did buy good cables, right?)
  • No batteries to buy
  • Easy to store, maintain and use
  • No chance of the mic shutting down during a service because you forgot to change the battery
  • Lots of options to choose from, easy to get the “right” sound
  • Smaller package to hold

Wired: Cons

  • Wires, everywhere; they’re ugly and tend to clutter up the stage
  • You can’t wander that far without getting tangled up
  • You need to lay out and pick up all those wires
  • You need a line back to the board for each mic, which means a bigger snake, or more installed wiring

Wireless: Pros

  • No cord = neater stage, more mobility
  • Easy set up and take down
  • They take up no channels on the snake or installed wiring

Wireless: Cons

  • Batteries—they eat them like growing teenagers eat cereal
  • Batteries can go dead during a service
  • RF interference can be an issue if they are not frequency coordinated properly (and even if they are…)
  • Significantly more expensive per channel
  • You need space to put receivers
  • [added] The compander circuit in most wireless mics can have negative effects on gain before feedback as well as the sound (see Dave’s comment for more detailed explanation—thanks, Dave!)
  • Did I mention batteries?

So, at first glance, it might look like wired mics are the way to go, right? Mmmm, yes and no. Here’s what I advise smaller churches with limited budgets: buy enough wired mics to suit your needs, and if there is budget left over, buy a high quality wireless mic. Here’s the thing—a high quality wireless mic system will set you back a good $600-750. We’re talking about at a minimum a Shure ULXP, Sennheiser G2, AKG WMS 400 or AT 4000 series. If you go with anything less than that, you’ll be disappointed (with the possible exception of the AT 3000 series, which sound pretty decent for about $450-500, just be very careful with frequencies).

Now I know there are some budget conscious shoppers out there saying, “But Mike, we use XXX wireless system and it only cost us $250 and it sounds great.” No, it doesn’t. It sounds adequate at best. If you compare it to even the lowly SM58 wired mic, the 58 will sound better. There is a reason the high quality mics cost what they do, and it’s all about the quality of the sound and the reliability.

Another problem is that cheaper units will not play nice once you get more than a few of them operating in the same room simultaneously. Our church made the mistake of buying cheap ($300) Shure UT systems by the caseload and we have trouble every time we turn more than 6 of them on at once. That’s because they are not designed to do that. And now I’m phasing them out, putting thousands of dollars on the shelf.

I hate it when churches buy stuff that they will throw away in a few years because they can’t afford good stuff now. The thinking goes like this: We can’t afford to spend $700 each on the 5 wireless mics we want, so we’ll buy 5 $300 systems now, and upgrade later. Bad idea. Not only will you end up wasting $1500 on the ones you get rid of, but you’ll be unhappy with them while you own them. It’s far better to buy five $200 wired mics now, because they will still sound great in 5 years and will still be useful when you can afford to drop $3500 on wireless.

Please don’t waste God’s money because you want what you can’t afford. Buy good stuff. Make sure everything you buy will still serve a purpose 5 -10years from now. Plus, what you do buy will serve you better because it will be of good quality.

Now for larger churches, the wireless option is a good way to go, with some caveats. First, make sure you buy a high quality system that is rated for at least 10-12 channels in your room. Make double dog sure you frequency coordinate for your location (most manufacturers have an online tool for this, or ask your vendor). Buy from one manufacturer, trying to frequency coordinate is tough enough without having to cross frequency groups. Once you get past 4 channels, start looking at antenna combiners. It keeps the installation neater, and gives you better results.

Develop a battery policy that has a high margin of safety (ie. change them before every service). I really like using rechargeables because I hate throwing batteries away (check out my post on rechargeable batteries). Buy mics with good capsules on them. Many people don’t know you can order the transmitters with a wide variety of heads. Treat that selection process like you would for wired mics. You may even want to buy a few different types (of capsules, not wireless systems) to suit different singers.

I would also suggest you evaluate why you want to go wireless. Is it to go for a really clean stage look? Consider what else you can do to achieve that goal. Is it for freedom of movement? At Crosswinds, the harmony singers pretty much stay put, so they are all wired. I use a wireless for the worship leader to give them the option of moving, and I bought a really good head (Beta 87C), so it’s one of our better sounding mics.

It all boils down to my overall strategy for church equipment purchases: Do it right, do it once. Don’t buy junk, and don’t buy stuff you won’t be able to use in 5 years. Hopefully this will help guide you toward making really wise decisions and give your congregation, vocalists and tech crew the equipment they deserve. Peace.

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4 responses

15 07 2007
Dave Stagl

Great strategy for purchasing, Mike. If more churches had that approach, the church would be in much better shape IMHO.

I have another con for you in regards to using wireless. Using wireless mics can actually reduce your gain before feedback. This is all going to depend on the quality of the compander so once again this is an area where making an investment in quality wireless is going to help.

If you’re unfamiliar with what the compander is and what it’s doing, it’s basically a compressor on your transmitter end and an expander on the receiving end. The compressor is used to reduce the dynamic range of the audio before it is transmitted because as distance increases with RF, noise will also start to increase, and the compressed signal reduces the introduction of the noise by keeping its level lower relative to your audio signal. On the receiver end an expander theoretically expands the dynamic range of the audio back to it’s original dynamic range. In theory…

In reality, you’re never going to quite get the same dynamics back, although your higher end wireless will be acceptable for most uses. However, as a result of that initial compression, your noise floor will be raised and consequently, your gain before feedback will be less.

If you’re in one of those churches that loves to put a ton of vocalists on stage at a time–each with their own mic–and you’re struggling with feedback, try using wired mics on as many vocalists as you can.

15 07 2007
Mike Sessler

Thanks, Dave. You’re right on about the compander circuitry—it was getting late and I forgot to mention that. That is probably the most notable effect of an inexpensive wireless mic, and one of the big reasons we’re getting rid of our UT series. I hadn’t considered the gain before feedback issue, however. It makes a ton of sense and it’s another good reason to go wired or spend the big bucks on good wireless stuff if you want to use a lot of them.

Another option I didn’t mention is the Sabine wireless system. They are totally digital and don’t use a compander circuit. I’ve not heard them personally, but they may be worth checking out. Not inexpensive, but they have some good features.

16 07 2007
mb

nice job on this post in particular – it is an enormous encouragement to know you are looking out for everyone in advance – planning how to help them be the best, give the most, everyone in a perfect symbiotic mix of “team.” your gift oozes as much artistry as any musician or actor… well done. (although you may be reluctant to include this comment – please do. i’m speaking on behalf of the artists who put their offering in YOUR hands, and find that it was indeed a wise investment. On behalf of “on stage people” everywhere – thank you. Our necks are on the line. and what you do decides whether or not we, or our gift, is successful. we want to communicate well – wireless or not… thanks for making it possible.)

4 05 2008
Bushyetdah

Thanks for the infos. I never think that far about the pros and cons among wired or wireless mics.

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