A dear friend of mine asked me over coffee one day about renting some wireless headsets for an outdoor Christmas event. When I asked her if she needed just the headworn element, or if she needed the entire wireless system, the color drained from her face and I was met with a blank stare. After attempting to educate her about the different components of a wireless mic system, I came to the conclusion that I needed to blog about wireless microphones! In particular, what they are, how they work, and how to go about renting if you need one, or even a dozen!
Wireless microphones convert audio signals into radio signals, which are sent by a microphone transmitter (handheld or bodypack with choice of element) through the air to a receiver. The receiver converts the radio signals back into audio signals which are then sent through the sound system. They eliminate the need for cables, so you’re no longer tethered to a sound system or tripping over mic cables.
The wireless receiver (usually a box with 1 or 2 antennas) plugs into your existing sound system just like any standard microphone via the same type of cable. This cable is either a 3-pin (also called XLR) mic cable or a ¼” plug. It can plug into your audio snake on stage, but usually it sits back by our sound board and plugs directly into the mic channel on the board – just like a regular wired microphone would.
There are basically 5 different wireless transmitter options – you can think of “transmitter” as “microphone” or whatever you’re using to pick up the signal you want to amplify through your sound system. They are:
- Handheld – looks like a regular microphone, can be held or clipped to a mic stand. This is the best choice for music or concert applications, so the vocalist can control the volume level by moving the mic closer to or further away from the mouth as necessary.
- Lavalier – also called a “clip on” or “tie tack” element – it plugs into the bodypack and then can clip anywhere, but the best location is front and center @ 6 inches below the chin. Be sure the mic element is pointing toward, and not away from the mouth. This option is fine for most speaking applications where the subject is facing in one direction most of the time. For use in theatre applications, it can be taped anywhere on the face or pinned right at the hairline to keep it a constant distance from the mouth.
- Headworn – plugs into the bodypack, some models are worn around the back of the head, others via a wire bent around the ear. The primary benefit of a headworn mic is that it always stays a constant distance away from the mouth, so that the vocal input level stays the same regardless of which way the head turns. Another benefit is that headworn mics can be swapped easily among users, because they are not attached to the skin or hair.
- Clip-On Instrument Mic – plugs into the body pack, this is an often overlooked solution for high volume wind, brass and percussion players. A gooseneck and clamp ensure a secure fit and proper positioning.
- Guitar/Bass Cable – ever wonder how guitarists go wireless? This is how! This cable can connect any guitar to a bodypack for wireless performance.
Now that you know how a wireless microphone works and what the options are, here is what to tell the rental house when you call them:
- When you will pick up and return: Rentals generally are calculated by daily and weekly rates. Typically, any rental of 3 days or more will be calculated as a weekly rate, and a weekend rental (pick up Friday, return Monday) is only charged at a day rate. This makes renting for most applications much more cost effective than purchasing.
- What the mics will be used for and what element you think you need – unless you are an expert, it is advisable to give all this information to the rental house, and then rely on their expertise to help you achieve the best possible performance.
- Will there be other wireless mics being used – each wireless microphone operates on its own frequency/channel, and only 1 microphone can operate on a particular frequency/channel at one time. A reputable rental house will help you coordinate all frequencies being used so that there is no interference.
- What cable you need – do you need XLR or ¼” to plug the receiver into your sound system?
- Do you need any mic stands? This could be important if you are renting wireless handheld systems. Mic stands are not included in wireless mic rentals, but are fairly inexpensive.
Last, but not least, here are two important, yet often overlooked questions you should ask:
- Are batteries included? If not, what kind are needed? How long do they last?
- Never be afraid to ask for a demonstration – but it’s a good idea to ask this when you reserve your equipment, so the rental house can be prepared to spend the extra time with you when you pick up your equipment.
We at ALSS hope this information helps to step up the quality of your next event! And as always, we wish you a great sounding, well lit day!