Wireless Systems 101

November 5, 2012
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IN A WORLD WHERE REMOTE CONTROLS, PHONES, Internet connections, computer keyboards, mice, and head- phones are wireless, it’s surprising to learn that wireless technology is barely 70 years old. Several companies were involved in pioneering wireless technology in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the ’70s that rock stars such as the Rolling Stones and Todd Rundgren began using wireless mics. Instrumental wire- less technology came shortly thereafter, freeing fiery bassists like Verdine White from being earthbound, and the technology has improved by leaps and bounds since the days when air-traffic control tower chatter or radio transmissions from passing taxicabs could interrupt bass solos.

Most modern wireless systems consist of a transmitter, which sends out the signals output by your bass, and a receiver, which picks up the radio signal broadcast by the transmitter and changes it back into an audio signal. (Your bass is the “input device.”) Transmitters usually come in the form of a bodypack that clips onto your belt or bass strap, and receivers, many of them half-rack size, can be installed into or on top of your amp. Receivers have gotten smaller over time; unlike older single-antenna receivers, most systems today use “true diversity” setups, which combine two independent receiver sections, each with its own antenna to pick up the transmission from a transmitter.

THE SPIRIT OF RADIO
Wireless systems operate in VHF (Very High Frequency, 25MHz– 216MHz), UHF (Ultra High Frequency, 450MHz–955MHz), and 2.4GHz frequency bands. The highest VHF frequencies, 169MHz–216MHz, are the most popular (and most crowded); systems in this frequency band are affordable and reliable. Back in the day, wireless systems built to use the UHF band were more expensive—there was very little interference, and many systems could operate simultaneously without interfering with each other. Now that there are UHF systems in almost every price bracket, however, things are a little more congested, which is why the Federal Communications Commission approved the 2.4GHz band for wireless use. Line 6 is one company whose wireless systems use this band to avoid interference from high- powered systems such as digital TV or analog wireless systems.

Using a wireless unit is all about finding clear channels on the right frequency, so if you’re in the market, you will encounter features such as automatic frequency selection, which locates a clear channel instantly; frequency carrier range, which tells you which frequencies the unit operates on; frequency response, which dictates the high and low frequencies the unit can handle; and interface lock, which locks the settings on your bodypack so you can’t change them on purpose or by accident. Most units offer a number of pre-programmed frequencies per group, too.

Besides these technical considerations, most bass players look for wireless units that are roadworthy, not too battery- hungry, and not too expensive. The most common concern, however, is bad tone. One widespread technology used in analog wireless systems is compansion (or “companding”), which allows signals with a large dynamic range to be trans- mitted over radio waves, which have a smaller dynamic range capability. (The word is a portmanteau of “compression” and “expansion.”) Companding also reduces the noise and crosstalk levels at the receiver, but some players complain that it sounds brittle and choppy, especially on acoustic instruments. Fortunately, compansion on modern instruments can be gentle, and because it’s a requirement of analog systems, digital wireless units like Line 6’s Relay series don’t use it all.

Another frequently asked question is whether units built for guitar—unfortunately, most of them—work well for bass. If you’re a 5-string player, look for receivers that can handle frequencies down to 32Hz, the open B of a 5-string.

7 WIRELESS SYSTEMS UNDER $300
If you’re in the market, the sky’s the limit, but for those of us on a budget, here’s our list of wireless units under $300. Visit forums, ask friends and live sound engineers, and when you can, try before you buy. Happy flying!

AKG WMS 450 GUITAR SET
Street $299
Companding Yes
Frequency response 35Hz–20kHz
Frequency bands 650MHz–865MHz
Pre-programmed frequencies per group 12
Range N/A
Batteries One AA

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
ONBOARD RESEARCH INTELLITOUCH FREEDOM ONE #WT1
Street $149
Companding No
Frequency response 10Hz–20kHz
Frequency carrier range 2.4GHz
Pre-programmed frequencies per group 18 auto-selected
Range 30 feet
Batteries One AAA
Other The Freedom One’s ten-hour battery life, 24-bit clarity, and automatic channel selection make it easy to get into wireless. The receiver is a pedal tuner, so it is easy to fit on your pedalboard.

 

 
 
AUDIO-TECHNICA ATW2110 UNIPAK
Street $299
Companding Yes
Frequency response 100Hz–15kHz
Frequency bands Either 840MHz–865MHz (F Band) or 795MHz–820MHz (E Band)
Pre-programmed frequencies per group 10
Range 300 feet
Batteries Two AA
Other Also check out the $99 ATW-251G (80Hz–3kHz, with 200-ft. range) and the $249 ATW-701 (100Hz–12kHz, with 200-ft. range).
 
 

SAMSON AIRLINE 77 GUITAR SYSTEM
Street $249
Types Compact, pedal size; AF1 made for Fender-style top-body inputs and AG1 for end- mount inputs and others
Companding Yes
Frequency response 50Hz–15kHz
Frequency bands 801MHz–805MHz
Pre-programmed frequencies per group 6
Range 328 feet
Batteries One 9-volt

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
NADY U-33B
Street $179
Companding Yes
Frequency response 30Hz–8kHz (–3dB)
Operating range 250 feet (up to twice as much with optimum line of sight)
Frequency bands 470MHz–510MHz
Pre-programmed frequencies per group N/A
Range 100 feet
Batteries Three AAA
Other Check out Nady’s older DKW3GT ($49.95), DKW1GT ($59.99), and Encore II ($90) systems
 
 
 
 
 

LINE 6 RELAY G30
Street $299
Companding No
Frequency response 10Hz–20kHz
Frequency carrier range 2.4GHz
Pre-programmed frequencies per group 6
Range 100 feet
Batteries Two AA
Other The G30’s Cable Tone Simulator matches the frequency response of your cable, making it easier to switch between wireless and cable without changing amp settings.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
SHURE PG14 PERFORMANCE GEAR WIRE- LESS GUITAR SYSTEM
Street $299
Companding Yes
Frequency response 45Hz–15kHz
Frequency carrier range 2.4GHz
Pre-programmed frequencies per group 10
Range 30 feet
Batteries One 9-volt

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