10 Wireless Microphone Problems
We've all felt it ? that ugly, sinking feeling you get when a simple AV job mutates into an unpredictable nightmare.
WE'VE ALL FELT IT — THAT UGLY, sinking feeling you get when a simple AV job mutates into an unpredictable nightmare. For many systems integrators and technicians, the addition of wireless microphones to the list of AV gear causes just such a reaction.
A glimpse backstage, behind the monitor console, atthe show "Love In ? A Musical Celebration," at theBirch North Park Theater in San Diego. The wirelesssystem shown is a 12-channel receiver setup, fedfrom a pair of directional antennas.
Getting wireless mics to work reliably sometimes seems to require equal parts rocket science and black magic. One day you can pull off a trouble-free show or presentation with dozens of wireless mics; on another, you can't even get one bodypack to behave for a two-hour sales meeting. That's why knowing how these devices work is so critical to make them work.
Let's take a closer look at 10 of the most common problems that seem to pop up in most wireless mic applications — and what you can do to avoid them.
Wireless Woe 1: INCOMPATIBILITY
PROBLEM: When using multiple wireless microphones, interference between the systems themselves always seems to crop up. Even if each system is on its own frequency and spaced several megahertz apart, the mics can still interfere with each other through a phenomenon called intermodulation distortion (IMD), which occurs because radio transmitters interact with each other to create intermodulation signals.
The receiver’s tuning “window” determines how close frequencies can be spaced.
The minimum separation between frequencies depends on the design of the system's receiver. An entry-level receiver may require a 1 MHz interval between the nearest adjacent system or intermodulation frequency. A more expensive receiver typically has a narrower tuning “window,” allowing for closer spacing between each system or intermodulation frequency.
SOLUTION: To avoid intermodulation distortion, select only frequencies that have been calculated to be compatible with each other. Because it requires knowledge of the design characteristics of the transmitter and receiver, the wireless system manufacturers provide these calculations.
For example, when just eight wireless microphones are used together, thousands of calculations must be performed to ensure compatibility. As a result, most manufacturers publish lists of compatible frequencies for their systems. In addition, software is available that can help identify compatible frequencies in some cases.
Wireless Woe 2: COMPATIBLE, BUT NOT QUITE ENOUGH
Intermodulation signals get stronger when transmitters are close together.
One important assumption that is made by most frequency compatibility software is that all receivers will be turned on and unmuted all the time (even though some transmitters will occasionally be turned off), making it important that none of the receivers is picking up an intermodulation signal that might be heard as noise.
Therefore, the software needs to leave ample space between the intermodulation signals and the wireless mics themselves.
If you assume that the sound system operator will take a more active role, however, you may find that more systems are actually compatible. In this scenario, it's assumed that the operator will mute any receiver that's not actually in use at the moment — and that all transmitters will be left on at all times during the show. The distance between each transmitter and the receiving antennas is also assumed to be similar. These assumptions would make sense in a Broadway theater installation, however, the same performance might not reasonably be expected in a school auditorium operated by volunteers with little or no training.
Interference symptoms are much worse when the transmitters are located very close to the receiving antennas or to each other — or when high-powered transmitters are being used. This is why it's much more difficult to get 40 wireless systems to work in a theater (many transmitters very close together at various distances from the receiver) than it is to get them to work in a school with one system in each classroom (transmitters far apart from each other but fairly close to its own receiver).
SOLUTION: To get a balance of high performance with the maximum number of systems, make sure that the level of compatibility between frequencies is appropriate to the expected use of the systems. Keep transmitters at least 10 feet from the receiver antennas. If the transmitter's RF output power is adjustable, use the lowest transmitter power that is necessary to cover the expected distance between the transmitter and receiver.
Wireless Woe 3: TV STATIONS
Occupied UHF TV spectrum in Seattle before Feb. 17, 2009.
SOLUTION: When indoors, avoid TV channels active within 40 to 50 miles. Outdoors, a 50- to 60-mile radius should be used. Because active channels vary from city to city, the appropriate frequencies for wireless microphone operation depend on location. Manufacturers usually offer guidance as to which frequencies to use in different cities.
UHF TV spectrum in Seattle after Feb. 17, 2009.
Wireless Woe 4: OTHER DIGITAL DEVICES
PROBLEM: Other wireless audio devices that operate in the TV band — in-ear monitors, intercom systems, etc. — as well as non-wireless devices can also cause interference problems. Digital devices (CD players, computers, and digital audio processors) often emit strong RF noise and can cause interference if they are located within a few feet of the wireless microphone receiver. For transmitters, the most common sources of interference are GSM mobile phones and PDAs worn by presenters (See “Attack of the BlackBerrys,” page 57).
SOLUTION: Be aware of other wireless audio equipment when selecting wireless microphones frequencies. Keep digital equipment at least a few feet away from wireless microphone receivers. Use an AM radio as a cheap RF noise detector; you might be surprised at what the gear in your rack is emitting.
Wireless Woe 5: NONDIVERSE RECEIVER ANTENNAS
Receiver antennas should be angled 90 degrees apart and spaced 1/2-wavelength apart for good diversity performance.
SOLUTION: To ensure good diversity performance, space antennas apart by at least one-half of a wavelength (about 9 inches at 700 MHz). The receiver antennas should be angled apart in a wide “V” configuration, which provides better pickup when the transmitter is moving around and being held at different angles.
Covering, coiling, or looping (left) the transmitter antenna reduces the signal output and therefore the range.
The amount of loss depends on the exact length and type of cable used, so follow the manufacturer's recommendations. Total net loss should be limited to no more than 5 dB.
Wireless Woe 6: UNINTENTIONAL SIGNAL BLOCKAGE
PROBLEM: The human body can also interfere with wireless signals. Largely composed of water, our bodies absorb RF energy. In addition, if a user cups his or her hands around the external antenna on a handheld transmitter, its effective output can be reduced by 50 percent or more. Similarly, if the flexible antenna on a bodypack transmitter is coiled or folded, the signal suffers.
SOLUTION: Keep the transmitter antenna fully extended and unobstructed to achieve maximum range and performance.