What is a wireless microphone? What does it consist of?
A wireless microphone is a microphone that is connected to a sound system with a radio-frequency link, as opposed to a cable. It consists of two parts, a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter is built into the microphone, and it sends out a radio signal with the audio data on it (often, just like an FM radio station). The receiver takes this signal and outputs it out on an audio cable, which can be used just like a wired microphone. In most cases, only one microphone can be used with a single receiver.
In addition to wireless microphones, many manufacturers also make wireless in-ear monitoring systems. These operate on the same principle as wireless microphones, except that the transmitter is typically at a fixed location, and the receiver is usually portable and worn by talent.
What kinds of transmitters are there?
There are a number of different types of transmitters:
- Handheld: These transmitters are typically built into a slightly larger-than-normal handheld microphone. These types of mics are easy to hold and sing or speak into.
- Bodypack: These transmitters are typically small boxes, about the size of a deck of cards (some are a bit smaller) and either clip onto one’s belt or are hidden inside a costume. They are connected to a small microphone which is usually mounted on the face of an actor or on the lapel or tie of a speaker. These types of microphones are very useful for musical theatre in which the actor’s hands need to be free, or in presentation environments where the speaker needs to be able to walk around freely.
- Plug-On: These less-common transmitters have an XLR port on them and either plug directly into a wired vocal microphone, or can be hidden in a podium or other location to make a standard wired microphone wireless. These transmitters usually provide phantom power to the microphone attached to them as well.
- Table-top: Some manufacturers, such as Shure, make wireless boundary and gooseneck microphones for conferencing applications. These mics sit on a table, and are typically designed to pick up meeting attendee audio for video and audio conferencing. They can also be used in panel discussion applications.
- Rackmount: In-Ear Monitoring transmitters are typically rack-mounted equipment, located at the monitoring console or at front of house. Some IEM systems can also be used to establish a fixed point-to-point audio link to a rackmount or portable receiver. This is often useful for delay speaker stacks.
What kinds of receivers are there?
Like transmitters, receivers come in a variety of forms:
- Rackmount: The most common type of wireless microphone receiver is the rackmount receiver. Often half-rack or full-rack, these receivers can be stacked in a rack to achieve high density. When using multiple receivers in a single rack, an antenna distribution system is usually recommended.
- Stand-Alone: Consumer-oriented wireless microphone systems usually have non-rackmount, stand-alone receivers. These devices often have permanently-attached antennas, and are smaller than a traditional half-rack rackmount receiver.
- Portable: Professionals working in ENG (electronic news gathering) or film production need small receivers which can connect directly to a video camera. Some receivers are especially designed to fit into camera slots, and others can clip on to the side of a camera and connect to the audio input. In-Ear Monitoring receivers are very similar, and are typically worn on the belt. Higher-end portable receivers have diversity antenna systems, while lower-end receivers (often IEM receivers) have a single antenna.
What radio frequencies do wireless microphones operate on, and who else uses them?
Wireless microphones operate in the VHF and UHF part of the radio spectrum, typically in the ranges from 174-216 MHz and 470-698 MHz in the United States. Other countries allow microphones to operate as high as 1 GHz. Licensed television stations typically operate in and share this range. Some systems also operate in the 1.8-1.9 GHz and 2.4 GHz ranges using digital modulation techniques.
Do I need a license to use a wireless microphone in the US?
No. The FCC generally considers most wireless microphones to be Part 15 devices, which do not require a license to operate. However, some wireless microphone systems which operate at higher power may require a license to operate. A license also affords protection from harmful interference.
Wireless microphones that operate between 698 MHz and 806 MHz are no longer legal in the United States, and should be discarded.
The full details are available at the FCC’s website:
Additionally, there are eight frequencies, commonly referred to as the “Hydrological Frequencies” that microphones may be legally operated in without a license. These are typically used by much older wireless microphone products. To use a microphone in this band, the transmitter must output no more than 50 mW of RF power. The permitted frequencies are:
I’ve seen ads for 900 MHz or 950 MHz wireless mics. These ads promise interference-free operation because they are not in the TV band. Should I buy these mics?
There are two types of 900 MHz wireless microphone systems, ones that operate in the license-free ISM band from 902-928 MHz and ones that operate between 944-952 MHz.
If you are in the United States, absolutely do not buy 950 MHz units. These microphones operate in that is commonly called the Aural STL band. This is the band where radio stations send the signal from their studio to the broadcasting tower to be broadcast. Even though wireless mics are low power, the STL receiver is on a tall mountain and using a very sensitive antenna – so the potential for interference is high. If you are caught using a mic here, the chance of being fined is very high. It would also be very poor engineering practice to operate here.
As far as ISM band mics go, they may work for you, but they are generally not considered to be professional grade units.
What about 2.4 GHz wireless mics?
A couple companies are now making wireless microphones that operate at 2.4 GHz. While these mics may actually perform fairly well, the RF environment at 2.4 GHz is unpredictable at best, and hence wireless mics may be subject to random interference issues. Be sure to keep the receiver away from an Wi-Fi or Bluetooth equipment, and do a scan every time you use it.
How well do DECT-band wireless mics work?
Wireless microphone systems are now available in the DECT (1.8/1.9 GHz bands). These mics are often targeted at conferencing applications. These mics can work very well in many situations, but it might be hard to get them to work well in very dense RF environments (such as midtown Manhattan) or in places with many wireless phone systems (e.g., call centers). These systems typically work a bit differently than traditional systems, in that all components can transmit and receive at the same time. Some microphones even have an audio output for translated audio or an IFB channel. Because digital transmission is employed, audio latency is usually higher than analog or VHF/UHF digital wireless mic systems.
I have VHF Wireless Microphones. Will I have problems with them in the future?
Yes and No. While this band has not been removed from the TV service, the television allocations have been changed significantly with the transition to digital TV. This may have an impact on your operations of a new transmitter has come online on what was a clear channel. The good news is that broadcasters tend to be moving to UHF, so VHF may end up proving to be a good bet. Some manufacturers, such as Shure, are even offering new frequency-agile VHF wireless systems.
RabbitEars can show you where your local TV stations operate now and where they will move to.
Why are wireless microphones so expensive? Will El-Cheapo brand work for me instead of this expensive unit?
Two things make wireless microphone systems expensive: reliability and performance. Good wireless microphone systems have parts that are made of metal to resist the damage and abuse that they will suffer in their years of use. Good systems also use very good designs and components to ensure high-quality operation. Generally speaking, more expensive units are less prone to interference from TV stations and other microphones, have better sound quality (both in terms of frequency response and dynamic range), and sound more natural compared to less expensive systems.
Unless you’re using only one wireless microphone in the middle of Siberia (please check to ensure you are operating legally in Russia), it is highly recommended that you use a wireless microphone system by a well-known manufacturer that costs over $500/channel (that is, for a transmitter and receiver pair – excluding the microphone element). This will ensure that you have quality equipment that will perform well.
“White Space” (TV Band) Devices and Interference
I’ve heard that the FCC is going to allow consumer broadband devices in the TV band? What’s the deal with that?
The FCC voted on November 4, 2008 to allow unlicensed devices to operate in the UHF television bands in the US. These devices are required to ensure that they are operating on a clear frequency by checking a database every day. The good news is that very few of the devices are on the market, and generally speaking, the primary source of interference to wireless microphone operations remains over-the-air television stations.
How will these devices affect my microphones?
These devices will serve to raise the noise floor for wireless microphone systems. They may cause other interference as well, but this has not been shown yet.
How can I avoid these problems?
The best way to avoid interference is to purchase quality wireless microphone systems that have a receiver with tight filtering. This means that the receiver very carefully picks out the signal it is trying to receive and discards other signals, some of which may be very close in frequency to the microphone’s operating frequency. Not only will this decrease the chance of interference, but it may also help improve range and overall performance. Also, use directional antennas pointed away from potential interference along with short coax cable runs, and avoid the use of inline preamplifiers in your wireless mic system as they can cause undesired intermodulation products to form.
600 MHz, 700 MHz, and Digital TV
I have heard that the 600 MHz part of the spectrum is going away. Is this true and how does it affect my microphones?
Television broadcasters in the United States are transitioning away from the 600 MHz spectrum (614-698 MHz). This transition will take place slowly, starting in 2018 and ending in July, 2020. This map from T-Mobile shows where operations in the 600 MHz band have begun.
If you have equipment that operates above 614 MHz, you should consider replacing it with equipment that operates between 470 MHz and 608 MHz, or converting it to operate in that band if the equipment is capable of this. While some wireless microphones will be allowed to operate in the guard bands, those systems may be less reliable and susceptible to interference from new cell phones.
I have heard that the 700 MHz part of the spectrum is going away. Is this true and how does it affect my microphones?
Effective June 12, 2010, it is illegal to operate microphones in the 700 MHz (698-806 MHz) band in the United States. See the FCC’s Consumer Advisory for more information on this. If you have systems in the US that operate above 698 MHz, you should dispose of them as they are illegal to operate.
Are all television stations going digital, and when will this happen?
Most television stations are now required to transmit in digital. There are a few exceptions to this rule, however – translators and low power TV stations will remain analog for a few more years, as will Mexican and Canadian stations that serve viewers in the United States.
Planning Your System
Is it necessary to plan out what frequencies my microphones operate on?
Yes, it is. Due to the nature of of multiple radio frequency carriers traveling through electronic circuits, these carriers will mix with each other when going through any kind of amplified stage and create “phantom” signals. This phenomenon is called intermodulation, and the phantom signals are called intermodulation products. This phenomenon can take place in the transmitters, receivers, and antenna distribution and amplifications devices–or all of these at once!
My system only lets me pick a group and a channel. What should I do?
If your system only offers groups and channels, the best thing to do is operate all systems within the same group, on adjacent channels. The channels are pre-programmed to minimize intermodulation.
The scan function can be very useful on these systems. Starting with all of the transmitters off, scan the first receiver and program the microphone for the channel it finds. Turn that mic on, place it about ten feet away, and scan the next receiver within the same group. Sync that mic, turn it on and place it a foot or two from the first mic (don’t put them right next to each other!), and continue the process through all of the systems.
I just set my frequencies to be separated by x MHz. Will that work OK?
Maybe, maybe not. While channel spacing is important, it is possible for these signals to mix with each other. Since they are all offset by the same distance, it is quite possible that all of the signal could receive interference. It is highly recommended that you use a computer program to plan out your frequencies (see below). Remember that pre-programmed channels can be used next to each other as long as they are in the same group. Different groups are usually not compatible.
What is intermodulation?
Simply put, intermodulation is the mixing of signals in (nonlinear) circuits such as receivers and amplifiers to create additional, undesired signals. Imagine two microphones, operating on frequencies A and B. Intermodulation products will occur on any frequency that meets this requirement: (±m*A) + (±n*B), where m and n are integers greater than zero. So, for example, an intermodulation product will occur on 2A-B. Because of this, it is necessary to ensure that no other microphones operate on that resulting frequency. The most common and strong products are those of the form 2*A-B and 2*B-A.
Additionally, in systems with more than two systems, products occur on any combination of frequencies: (±(x_1)*(F_1)) + (±(x_2)*(F_2) + … + (±(x_n)*(F_n)), where x_n is an integer greater than, and F_n is a frequency used by a wireless microphone. As you might imagine, this formula (and indeed the first one as well) predicts an infinite number of combinations. The good news is that the higher-order products (where x_n is larger than 5 or so) tend to be much, much lower in amplitude than the lower ones and therefore can be ignored.
I’m lost. How can I plan out my frequencies without taking calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and quantum mechanics?
There are computer programs available which can very quickly compute a set of frequencies you can use for your systems. The most popular is a free tool from Shure called Wireless Workbench, which allows you to coordinate frequencies for any wireless audio system. You can download Wireless Workbench here.
Shure has published a series of YouTube videos on using Wireless Workbench. You can find those here.
Antennas, Multicouplers, and Coax Cable
What kind of antenna do I need for my system?
That depends. There are a number of types of antennas available for wireless microphone systems:
- Omnidirectional Antennas: These are best for situations where there is not much noise near the frequencies being used by the microphone systems. Noise is often reduced by buildings, distance from television transmitters, and antenna location (lower is better). It is worth noting that while these antennas pick up signals equally well from all directions, they typically respond better to signals polarized the same direction as the antenna (for example, if the antenna is mounted vertically, the bodypack antenna should also be vertical).
- Directional Paddles (Yagi’s and Log Periodic Dipole Arrays): These antennas are better suited for noisy environments. By their nature, they are directional and receive well toward their front, reducing or nulling noise toward their rear. Some LPDA’s designed for wireless microphone use include preamplifiers as well. One downside to these antennas is that they inherently receive signals polarized one way better than signals polarized perpendicularly to the antenna. Directional antennas will also give increased range as they have forward gain.
- Helical Antennas: Helical antennas are directional antennas, but unlike LPDA’s and Yagis they are designed to receive signals of all polarizations equally well. Helical antennas tend to have a very high gain, and are usually more directional than a Yagi.
How many antennas do I need?
Almost all wireless microphone systems use two antennas for reception. This is called Diversity reception, and it helps to improve performance by reducing or eliminating dropouts.
How does diversity reception work?
There are many ways of implementing diversity reception, but they all work on the same principle. There is a chip inside the receiver which compares the two signals received by each antenna, and selects the one with the better signal. Some receivers do this directly at the antennas, while others do it after the audio has been recovered (meaning there are two demodulators in the receiver). Finally, some high end systems actually use two bodypacks and two receivers, operating on separate frequencies.
What kind of coax do I need to use?
Many people will tell you that you need very expensive 50-Ohm coaxial cable for your wireless microphones. However, this is not necessarily true. It has been shown by Jim Brown  that 75-Ohm CATV coaxial cable can perform just as well as 50-Ohm coaxial cable of a similar quality. Additionally, 75-Ohm cable is much more affordable. While it is always preferable to use the highest quality coax cable you can afford to, it is worth considering the use of 75-Ohm cable (preferably RG6 Quad Shield with a solid center conductor) if your budget is tight. Any double shielded, braid over foil, construction is the preference.
What is a Multicoupler, or Antenna Distribution System?
An antenna distribution system serves a number of functions. First, it amplifies the signal received by the antennas. It then splits it four ways (typically) to allow multiple receivers to share the same antennas. Finally, it often includes a power supply to reduce the number of power supplies in the wireless rack.
Do I need a multicoupler?
Multicouplers are generally a good idea for wireless microphone systems consisting of four or more units operating within the same frequency range. If you have two or more bandsplits (frequency ranges) in your system, you should have a separate multicoupler and pair of antennas for each, unless the multicoupler is designed for wideband operation.
- Wireless-Microphone Application Techniques (Gary J. Stanfill)
- Wireless Mics and the Audio Professional (Jim Brown K9YC)
- Wireless Mics and Digital Television (Jim Brown K9YC)
- Which Coax for Wireless Microphone Antennas? (Jim Brown K9YC)
- Thanks to Henry Cohen for his invaluable comments on and revisions of this article.
Please note that I am not a lawyer, and that in no way should the advice given in this article be considered “legal” advice. Additionally, the contents of this article reflect my own personal opinion, and do not reflect the views of my employers, past and present.
About the author:
Mike Benonis is an Applications Engineer for a large audio company in the Chicago, IL area. Previously, Mike worked for a number of years as a radio Broadcast Engineer in the Washington, DC. Mike is a graduate of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Virginia.