Wireless solutions with Chris Lewis, from Sweetwater

I meet Chris almost 8 years ago.  Chris works at Sweetwater.  He is not only my “sales guy”, I consider him a friend.  Someone that I trust will give me the best advice on gear, even if I can’t purchase it from him.  I reached out to Chris to see if he could give us some of his wisdom when it comes to wireless microphone solutions.  Every one of us uses a wireless microphone and every one of us has had issues with them.  Chris was willing to give me answers to some common wireless microphone questions.

Chris, can you tell the readers a little about yourself?
I received my audio engineering degree from the University of North Alabama— located right down the road from legendary Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound studios.  After many years of performing live and engineering albums, I landed in Fort Wayne, IN, and I’ve been working with Sweetwater Sound as a Sales Engineer since 2005.  For those needing help with or advice on audio equipment purchases, I can be reached at 800-222-4700 ext. 1264 or Chris_Lewis@Sweetwater.com.

1. Chris you are helping solve people tech issues everyday!  One of the questions I am sure you hear a lot is about wireless microphones. A lot of church pastors use a lapel mic or headset when they preach. What are some things to keep in mind when choose a mic for your pastor? 

Yes, I do get this question quite a bit.  First, I always try to recommend headworn mics over lapel mics because the overall sound quality is much better.  Lapel mics typically have two major issues: lower intelligibility and reduced gain before feedback.  Chest resonance is a typical problem that requires EQ, particularly in the midrange, to regain intelligibility, but you also have to contend with feedback because the gain must be increased due to the fact that the mic is typically positioned further away from the mouth.

If you go the direction of a headworn mic, then I always recommend buying one with a detachable cable.  They have very thin and fragile wires and are very likely to short out.  Replacement cables are cheaper than having to pay for an out-of-warranty repair—not to mention that you are usually without a headworn mic for several weeks, while it is being repaired.

With that being said, budget and comfort typically come into play, as well.  Headworn mics are typically two to three times the price of a lapel mic, and some folks find them uncomfortable to wear.  If this is your situation, then there really is only one major decision when it comes to lapel mics—omni or cardioid?  The quick answer is that omni mics typically sound better, while cardioid mics have better gain before feedback.  However, the interesting thing to note is that when you clip a cardioid lapel mic up against clothing, then the mic’s polar pattern changes slightly.  It becomes more omnidirectional, and the two don’t end up being that much different from each other.

2.  Can you give us some insight on unlocking the wireless frequency FCC code?  What are the bands that are illegal now and what can we do to remain within the law? 

This question could be an entire article on its own, but I can give you the abridged version.  Back in 2010, the 700 MHz band was zoned off for the transition to digital television and public safety systems.  Since then, you are no longer able to use the band from 698 to 806 MHz.

Now, the FCC is in the process of auctioning off the 600 MHz band, which could extend down into the upper 500 MHz band, as well.  They are restructuring the TV bands in this range, and opening up bands for future broadband use.  This auction will likely be finalized early next year.  Once the auction is finalized and the official announcement is made, those with systems in affected bands will have 39 months to transition to systems in a different band.  So, if you do have wireless systems in the 600 MHz band, then it is best to start planning on replacing those systems with something in the 400 or 500 MHz bands.

You don’t need to do anything right this second, but when the official announcement is made, manufacturers will likely offer some sort of rebate or discount for swapping out your existing 600 MHz wireless systems.  And if you are shopping for a new wireless system, then I would avoid anything in the 600 MHz band.  Look for a system in the 400 MHz, 500 MHz, 900 MHz, or 2.4 GHz bands.

3. As a sound engineer and a congregation member I can’t stand the fuzzing and interface that creeps ups every so often. What can be done to help fix this problem? 

There are three simple steps that you can always try first.  If your wireless system can tune to different frequencies (frequency agile), then try rescanning to a different frequency.  And if your receivers are far away from the stage or in a closet, then try moving them closer to the stage and outside of any cabinets or closets.  And lastly, if your wireless system has an adjustable squelch, then make sure it is not set too low.

If you are using four or more wireless systems, then it can also be helpful to invest in a wireless antenna combiner.  When you have two or more wireless systems, each with their own pairs of antennas, operating in close proximity to one another, then you can end up with intermodulation interference.  Having an antenna combiner that will reduce all of your systems down to a single pair of antennas will alleviate this problem.

4. What is you favorite wireless capsule for a male vocal and a female vocal and why? 

I tend to prefer the staples, which are the Shure SM58 and Beta58a capsules.  They are familiar to me and easy to work with.  The SM58 can sound a little muddy compared with other mics, but it is great at minimizing sibilance.  For situations where you need a bit more presence, the Beta58a is a perfect solution.  And for my absolute favorite, the DPA d:facto mics sound superb on any vocalist.  It is a very accurate—whatever you put into it is what you get—mic.

5. What is the best piece of advise you have been given as a church sound engineer? 

If you want to get better at sound engineering, then it is like anything else—study and practice.  Only a very select group of folks are typically gifted at a particular trade.  The rest of us have to work hard at it.  So, read up on topics related to sound engineering and put into practice what you learn.  It’s the only way you’ll progress and get better.

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