Gear & Now: Wireless Still Making Waves
Posted Nov 1, 2008

Of all the challenges that wedding and event videographers face—from mastering new digital formats to keeping on top of the latest camera technology to the rising cost of gas—the fact that they may be engaging in illegal activity must take the cake!

In the ongoing "white space" saga (first described in this column in April 2007), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has now voted unanimously to prohibit the manufacture, sale, import, or shipment of wireless microphones and other devices that operate in the 700mHz band. Technically speaking, the affected bandwidth actually encompasses the 614.000mHz–806.000mHz spectrum.

Come Feb. 17, 2009, that’s it for wireless mics operating in those frequencies. They’re known as "white spaces," and they are the new mineral promising a high-tech gold rush. First, how many of you use wireless mics in your video business? Industry estimates say more than a million such devices exist in the marketplace. My studio has a set of eight Electrosonic wireless mics for remote location or in-house video production use.

To complicate matters, the FCC has launched a proposal to authorize current unauthorized users in the 700 band—many wireless mic users are not licensed, a violation of FCC rules—by allowing them to operate on channels below 52–69. The FCC will also look into complaints about the marketing of these microphones—complaints received from those who say potentially illegal products are still entering the market.

As videographers, broadcasters, and event managers know, the concern is that microphones operating in that range may suffer from or cause interference with transmissions in the new digital TV world.

It’s unlikely that industry trade groups or associations will be able to stop a $16 billion initiative (the value of analog to digital transition and related spectrum auctions), but liaisons between such groups, their mic-using members, and the manufacturing sector could be educational for all concerned.

In any event, new wireless audio products are being released and are now shipping worldwide. The manufacturers of these products insist that their offerings do not conflict with current or proposed legislation, so new features and functions are being introduced into a number of products.

Shure The new Shure UR1M Micro-Bodypack (Figure 1) is an ultracompact package—about half the size of most standard bodypacks. It weighs barely 3 ounces, even with two AAA batteries, making it easy to wear and conceal for many wedding participants or ceremony celebrants.

Shure says its UHF-R wireless microphone technology, its latest Wireless Workbench software, and its patented Audio Reference Companding technology deliver really clean sounding audio across a 60mHz–75mHz tuning range, twice that of any other bodypack on the market. The UHF-R user’s guide specifies the products carrier range as 518mHz–865mHz, depending on the region, both overlapping and outreaching the controversial spectrum.

The UR1M also features selectable 10mW or 50mW RF power, with up to 9 hours of battery life. It has a backlit LCD display for audio monitoring and power metering.

The UR1M has a suggested retail price of $3,198.

Shure is also shipping new Countryman offerings, including head-worn and lavaliere microphones that can be used with the wireless UR1M transmitter. Sold with different pickup or coverage patterns, available in different skin-tone colors, and featuring two types of connectors, the WCB6 Micro-Lavaliere mic and the WCE6 Earset boom mic are incredibly small, but the sound is quite big, with solid pick-up and good rejection of surrounding noise.

The Earset mics are priced around $480. The WCB6 Micro-Lavaliere lists at about $580.

Trantec
Trantec, a microphone brand owned by Japanese company TOA, is offering two new pro wireless packages in the U.S. and Canada. The S5.5 UHF diversity wireless microphone system comes with 24 channels and a full 72mHz of operating range in a frequency range of 863mHz–865mHz.

Available in both a hand-held and a lavaliere configuration and operating for up to 10 hours on a single AA cell, the transmitter pack is about 4 ounces, measuring around 2" x 3". The receiver operates with a 300mA @ 12 V DC nominal power supply, according to the manufacturer. Outputs include Balanced XLR, unbalanced 1/4", and a USB data port. Squelch and frequency setup can be controlled remotely via the USB port from a PC, while the LCD display on the receiver clearly displays such parameters as well.

Trantec also offers a remote-powered antenna for those long-throw and difficult line-of-sight setups. It’s a fixed-mount dipole antenna for permanent installation, but remote ad-hoc operation is supported. The unit provides a full 8dB gain on signals from Trantec receivers across a maximum connection distance, depending on cable type, of up to 165'. The mic package is priced at $1,030.

Tascam
Top-notch wireless mic systems may be a nonstarter for some videographers—either the costs or a potential legal hassle make them so. If that’s the case, a nice, new $70 stereo wired mic from Tascam should be of interest.

I know a lot of you do sit-down, he-said-she-said-type interviews with the bride and groom or other family members. In my videos, I often have occasion to interview two, three, or more visual artists or museum curators in a group setting. Working with three or four wireless mics is now beyond our capabilities, as mentioned, but in some settings, it’s just as effective to mic a small group as it is a number of individuals.

Using the new TM-ST1 stereo electret condenser mic from Tascam (Figure 2) lets you switch stereo pickup patterns between 90 and 120 degrees to more closely capture wanted sounds, while reducing unwanted background noise. It comes with a microphone clip, tabletop stand, and windscreen. The microphone is battery-powered and has a stereo jack on the output. Tascam’s TM-ST1 is now shipping with a $99 MSRP, but street prices can be $20–$30 less.

Holophone
You won’t get great surround sound at a price point below $100 like the Tascam’s, but the designers at mic-maker Holophone are almost there.

Holophone’s newest product, the PortaMic 5.1 (Figure 3), delivers in-studio or in-field surround sound recording capability in a small, camera-mountable form. Six separate pickup elements are housed in a 2.5" x 1.5" mic head, each corresponding to the speakers in a typical surround sound playback environment. Using Holophone’s patented encoder, the six channels are digitized down to two channels, easily recorded on any camcorder or outboard audio device. The company’s multichannel decoder then unwraps the audio in a postproduction or NLE setting.

Recordings made by the PortaMic 5.1 can be output to a stereo miniplug. The mic also features unity gain control and a 12dB pad. Additional accessories for the PortaMic 5.1 include boom handles and pistol grips. The mic and encoder are powered by one 9V battery.

The PortaMic, which was first introduced in Europe, should sell in the U.S. for less than $600.

Sennheiser
Also being introduced in Europe are the first digital microphones from Sennheiser. The new MZD 8000 is actually a screw-on digital module, turning the company’s 8020, 8040, and 8050 models into digital microphones that transmit audio signals according to the AES 42 standard.

This new standard defines the transmission of output signals, the supply of power, and the remote control of microphones with digital outputs—and it’s supposed to give us much cleaner audio as well.

Because A/D conversion takes place directly behind the mic head, Sennheiser says sound is "translated" with all original characteristics intact. They say cable losses, disturbance from stray pickup, and deterioration in sound quality caused by A/D conversion are a thing of the past.

In addition to the A/D converter (24-bit sampling rate, up to 192kHz), the digital module contains a DSP unit that allows microphone settings such as the low-cut filter, attenuation, and limiter to be controlled remotely. The digital module for the MKD 8000 range will be available later this year.

Correction
FUBAR is one of those acronyms that doesn’t really need translation—I don’t think the FCC (or whoever controls trade magazine transmissions) would let us spell it out, even if we needed to. But it describes a recent situation with Gear & Now, in which high-end audio technologies were discussed.

As one careful reader noted, milliwatts, megawatts, MWs and mWs were mixed up, if not misused. Battery power in the milliwatts is fairly normal; triple A’s that provide megawatts are unheard of! Likewise, mic outputs in the millions of watts (capital M) are very strong—milliwatts, mWs, or about a thousandth of a watt, are more like it. Sorry for any confusion this may have caused.

Lee Rickwood (lrickwood at goodmedia.com) is a media consultant and freelance writer.