by Andy Stewart.
The use of wireless microphones in a studio setting seems downright pointless to many of us – never even occurs to others. It’s the realm of live performance, theatre, movies, documentary making, and outdoor sports, is it not?
Why would you use a wireless mic in the studio when an artist is typically static, often seated, and commonly 12 feet from the recorder? The simple answer is, because this is not always the case.
Moreover, though a musician might be placed statically in a room, and irrespective of whether they are close to, or far away from, the recorder, they don’t always want to be nailed to one spot in front of a large diaphragm condenser!
Have you ever asked them? Some musos, particularly singers, find the conventional arrangement of being stuck in front of a big mic quite stifling and intimidating.
Vocalists, more than most, are often quite animated on stage – especially when they’re used to wireless mics – and part of their delivery is bound up in this very freedom of movement. For them, the need to stand still in the studio in front of a mic, can seriously cramp their style. Wired headphone systems add a similar level of constriction to their physical performance, and yet most engineers never consider offering vocalists either of these wireless options, or can’t.
But even if a muso is sitting slumped over one knee, playing a classical nylon stringed acoustic, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the mics – particularly room mics – can’t be distant, or placed in strange positions.
And although there aren’t too many places in a studio where a wireless mic becomes vitally important because a wired mic simply can’t be positioned there, it’s interesting how liberated you can feel, as an engineer, to roam around a recording space with a wireless mic on a stand, wireless headphones on your head, listening to the placement.
This setup allows you to think three-dimensionally, and travel into corners (or even down the hallway) where a wired mic quickly becomes a pain in the butt.
For most engineers, the level of disincentive to place a mic at a far-flung distance, or high on a rafter, grows with every step. Their instinctive sub-conscious tells them that it will be too hard because either: the leads won’t reach, the doors won’t shut, or the mic stands won’t telescope that high.
“Maybe it would just be easier to put a mic here on that last remaining boom stand,” they muse to themselves, as their experimental side is pulled into line by their practical voice. At that moment, the option to discover an über-cool ambient mic placement is lost, replaced instead by a conventional setup.
The desire of an engineer to experiment is hindered by many things: time, bias and preference, a lack of equipment, a fear of the unknown, a fear of looking stupid, laziness etc, but this natural tendency should be fought at every turn.
Wireless technology helps fight this battle, encouraging experimentation in some small way, even
in a fast paced studio setting. It also forces engineers to think slightly differently, and for the good ones, leads to new, unexplored territory.
Wireless Mic, Wireless Recorder
There are a couple of other wireless options that can work wonders in a studio setting: standalone recorders (like the Zoom H6 etc) and Bluetooth headphone systems (like Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50xBT etc).
The first of these – standalone recorders (digital, or even analogue) – have an unexpectedly liberating effect on the recording process, insofar as they can not only be placed in crazy positions when, as is the case with the digital Zoom H6, the whole box and dice is small and light enough to balance on a 2×4 up on an exposed rafter, they also record autonomously.
This means that, not only don’t they require leads, preamps, or in many cases a stand, they don’t even consume recording channels or computational power in your DAW. The downside of this autonomy is that they’re essentially freewheeling during the recording session; in much the same way as remote temperature sensors are in the Pacific Ocean.
But once the session is over, you can climb up and retrieve them, download the data into your DAW and manually align the files with the various takes, as needed. This is slightly tedious, but well worth the effort.
The only problem with this idea, especially now that half the world’s recordings are done in someone’s bedroom, is that ambient mics and autonomous recorders are often shite sounding in small domestic environments – but not always.
Good ambience can be found in the unlikeliest places: the hallway, the stairwell, the bathroom, the garage… you just have to go searching. More people are branching out into larger spaces again now too, like halls, churches and factory spaces, and in these settings, freewheeling recorders can produce some awesome, outrageously over-the-top results.
Headphones Without Frontiers
For me, this goes to a pet-hate I’ve endured for decades. Headphone leads… I simply hate them, always have.
I trip on them daily, knock drinks off tables with them, tangle them in amongst the knobs on my console, strangle myself with them at the drum kit. They also rattle against the bodies of acoustic guitars during a recording when you least expect them, tear off your head as you walk away from a mic, forgetting they’re on, and worst of all, get caught under the wheels of your chair 20 times a day.
If ever there was a need for something wireless in the confines of a studio, it’s headphones. Curiously, there’s still a level of mistrust out there about the benefits, sound quality and/or reliability of wireless headphone technology, but I think the time for this is fading fast.
For example, headphones, like the ubiquitous Audio-Technica ATH M50x – a high-quality studio headphone – have their equivalent Bluetooth version, the M50xBT (imaginatively named).
This wireless model sounds very similar to its hard-wired siblings. I have both sets in the studio – the wireless versions for only a short while – but already I’m hooked (or is that not hooked?). One thing’s for sure, I’m not getting tangled up nearly as often in things I need to steer clear of in the messy confines of my workplace.
Wireless headphones are fantastically liberating. The only problem with them is that now I can barely bring myself to wear anything with a lead attached, except when I’m doing more critical listening, like mixing, rendering nearly all my headphones redundant!
Wire Less, Trip Over Less
Though sonically it’s by no means the most compelling argument, certainly when it comes to the recording studio, there are probably more trip hazards per square foot than in any other audio workplace environment. Between all the mic and headphone cables, instrument, IEC and extension leads, there are probably a hundred trip hazards created in the first hour of your typical recording session setup.
Q.E.D the use of wireless technology in a studio setting is bound to increase in popularity as both time and audio quality progress. Who knows, one day we may find ourselves living in an almost entirely wireless studio environment, where the floor is for stepping on rather than stepping over…
Andy Stewart owns and operates The Mill on Victoria’s Bass Coast. He’s a highly credentialed producer/engineer who’s seen it all in studios for over three decades. He’s happy to respond to any pleas for recording or mixing help… Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
CX Magazine – May 2019 Entertainment technology news and issues for Australia and New Zealand – in print and free online www.cxnetwork.com.au
© CX Media
Further reading from CX Magazine’s Wireless Feature – May 2019:
Shure Reveal Twinplex. Mission: Take on DPA – by Julius Grafton
Wireless Voodoo – Not a Dark Art – by Fraser Walker
In-Ear Monitoring – by Sennheiser’s Adam Karolewski
Clear-Com FreeSpeak II – by The P.A. People’s Chris Dodds
Signal Out of the Noise – by Simon Byrne
Is that a wireless intercom in your pocket? – by Jand’s Jeff MacKenzie
Antennas for Wireless Microphones – by Jand’s Jeff MacKenzie
The Politics of Wireless – by Simon Byrne
From the archive – Wireless Mics were a feature in Connections Magazine, March 1999:
Radio Microphones (Sub-titled “How Did I Get Stuck With This Job!”) by John Matheson (includes a wireless systems Buyers Guide and Radio Spectrum Guide for Australia.)