Warning ahead. This is a dense article with three videos so far covering everything. Now I see these questions pop up on forums all the time; is my current microphone good enough, I’m on this frequency and is it safe, what brand should I be using, and these are all great questions. So let’s cut through the chatter, debunk some myths, and hopefully, you’ll come out being better informed on what choices you should make.
Now I see these questions pop up so often on the forums; “should I be changing my microphone”, “is my current microphone good enough”, “I’m on this frequency is this safe”, “what brands should I be using”? Let’s clear the air a little bit, let’s debunk some myths that are out there you know get some clear facts straight and hopefully you’ll end up making an informed choice when you decide to purchase a new microphone.
A quick preface on this. While there are a lot of facts presented here, they are still wrapped up in my personal informed opinion and experiences. You should research and draw your own conclusions on it.
So first let’s start talking about microphones and the tiers that they live on. I would dare say that there are basically three tiers that most mobile DJs would ultimately consider.
Tier 1 Microphones
For Tier 1 microphones you’re typically talking around the $100 per-microphone mark for a single microphone and generally in the $350-$500 range for up to quad-channel microphones. Branding wise there are a lot, the more popular being GTD and AKG. Now depending on your use case, these may be ok to use. As an up-and-coming wedding DJ I first invested in a single-channel AKG WMS 40 microphone. It sufficed for a short period of time but as demand for ceremonies grew I moved into a 4-channel GTD 1U Rackmount mic. Given its low price point I was able to snag a bunch of handhelds, a few lav packs, and this massively large over-the-ear microphone. I used it for a full wedding season and about 80% of the time it worked well as long as it was a very clear line of sight, and no potentially frequency conflicts.
But it was that 20% that I ran into that became a real headache. Even with features like antenna diversity, the implementation left a lot to be desired, many times having an audible noise when it switched. Add to that some mediocre distance issues and it made me realize that I wanted to upgrade. Not that these failures were showstoppers, but they were enough for me to not want to deal with them, and potentially harm my brand.
Now if you are a karaoke DJ that is more concerned about the damage that the microphones will take, then these are more than acceptable. While they don’t match the vocal quality or range of higher quality mics, they make up in their ability to take abuse and low cost to replace. But as a wedding DJ, I would not recommend going down this path. I do wish I would have just focused on the higher quality brands earlier on.
Tier 2 Microphones
Tier 2 microphones are a bit more pricey, usually averaging in the $550-650 range for a single channel mic or lav pack. The most known brands in this segment are Sennheiser, Shure, and Audio-Technica. All of these brands are really proven in the field of mobile DJing and even concerts. They aren’t cheap (compared to Tier 1 mics) but they more than makeup for it in excellent quality. I don’t want to be worried about how the mic is going to sound because of a decision in cost, and for my ceremonies, it’s become even more critical now that I record my events and hand off those files over to the videographers to give them the best from-source quality that they can get.
Tier 3 Microphones
So this is where the zero-compromise policy lives. Some mobile DJs go this route and probably one of the most popular mics in this range is the Shure ULXD4Q which is a quad-mic option in a 1U chassis. Very convenient, but at ~$10,000 price tag for the receiver, and mics, and lav packs its a bit on the high side. Now personally, I’d love to do this especially going from a 3U space needed for my 4 mics and an antenna combiner down to 1U, but the price is a bit too much to justify purchasing right now.
If you deal with critical microphone needs, like weddings, I highly suggest the Tier 2 or Tier 3 microphones. Sure, you can get away with Tier 1 mics, most of the time. And there are plenty of DJs that swear by them. It’s not that the Tier 1 mics are bad, there isn’t really bad solution perse, but you do introduce more risk with the lower quality mics. You’ll have decreased range, vocal clarity, and more anomalies to deal with. Once you step up to Tier 2 mics you generally gain frequency scanning to find the clearest channels automatically (and with the Sennheiser G4 mics, if you have multiple units, you can link them up and scan all of them simultaneously.
Bottom line, if you are less concerned about quality, Tier 1 offers you a strong value proposition. Otherwise, stick with Tier 2 and Tier 3 options and recognizable brands.
600MHz. What You Need To Know.
600MHz, it ends July 13, 2020 officially. Unofficially T-Mobile, who won the spectrum in an FCC auction, has been turning up towers in a lot of areas and chances are you are going to be competing for spectrum space soon if it’s not already happening. The good news is that some microphone manufacturers are offering incentives to change over. So take advantage of that while you can. Operating in the most of the 600MHz spectrum will soon be illegal in all areas, and if T-Mobile has lit up in your area it’s illegal to interfere with their signal.
There are a couple small bands that one can function legally inside of the 600 MHz spectrum. But operating in these very narrow bands of spectrum could be very tricky.
500MHz. It’s What’s In.
Now let’s talk about what’s available actually in the 500MHz spectrum and let’s talk specifically on a discussion that both Ben Stowe and I had with this one Facebook user on one of the forums. This person’s argument was that you should only worry about using the A band, and that is all, no matter where you live. This is an inaccurate statement so let’s make sure we clear the air on this one. The “500MHz spectrum” actually goes a little bit beyond that swath of frequencies. The total usable area for us users is 470MHz – 608MHz. In the case of Sennheiser, they have cut up these frequencies into 3 bands, A1 Band (470MHz- 516MHz), A Band (516MHz – 556MHz) and the G Band (566MHz – 608MHz).
Now this user’s argument that “just choose the A band” may work in some areas, and not in others. This is why you go to professionals like Ben Stowe and NLFX to buy your microphones and they will investigate what bands have the most available channels available to use. For instance in LA, the A band would be a poor choice, and G even worse, while A1 appears to have the most options.
Location matters a lot, and other factors like if you are using an IEM will play into the decision-making process to try to not have these devices compete with each other. Think of it as a road. Would you want to jump onto a crowded highway or a road less traveled?
2.4GHz. If You Like Fighting For Space.
There are a few brands, even the likes of Sennheiser and Audio-Technica that offer microphones in the 2.4GHz spectrum. While these are available for use, and some DJs will swear by them, this is one of the most crowded frequencies to be on. Phones, Bluetooth, wireless routers, microwaves, garage door openers, security systems, and others all live on this space. I just can’t personally recommend someone operating microphones in this space. There are too many examples of people having poor performance. The range is decreased over 500MHz equivalents. And frankly, the cost savings going to 2.4GHz is not that great so why introduce more risk?
As a wedding DJ I am still rocking my Sennheiser G3 mics and a G3 IEM. I’ve always been impressed with Sennheiser’s quality in all their products, and these mics have not disappointed. If you go new, just jump right into the G4’s. Models from Shure and Audio-Technica in the same price range are really solid too. Frankly, you can’t go wrong with any of these Tier 2 or Tier 3 options (as long as you pick the right band(s) to be on. If you have money to spare, the Shure ULXD4Q is just beyond impressive.
I had enough comments the past few months that I decided to shoot a “B-Side” video to address some of them. One of the most frequent questions is “why Sennheiser”. The simple reality is why not. It’s a very high-quality brand, respected by many DJs, touring companies, Broadway production houses, and the like. There are certainly great contenders from Shure, AT, EV, and others; but in the end, it was personal preference on why I selected Sennheiser.
Do I use the stock ME-2 mic?
Yes, yes I do. It’s a surprisingly great sounding stock microphone that comes with the lav kit (and now it has a mark-2 update with the G4 kits) and I even got to the point where I rented a Countryman b3 microphone just to compare, and they both had pretty similar sounding profiles, even in some cases I gave the ME-2 an advantage.
No matter how good the system is, wireless is not a perfect medium to work in. Some things are unavoidable while others I have learned to take additional steps to try to eliminate as many outside factors as possible. Twice this year I ran into anomalies but not with my mics but with my IEM. Now we are still in the “500 MHz band” so in this case frequencies are frequencies, the treatment will be the same. in this case with my IEM living on the G band (566 MHz – 608 MHz) while my mics are on the A band (518 MHz – 560 MHz). Let’s talk about the first issue; the “wobble”.
I was working a ceremony where a low flying propeller plane flew over us pretty low and seconds after he passed it created what I can only describe as “a wobble” in the signal to my IEMs. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was the mics or the IEM but the “wobble” persisted after the ceremony and I troubleshot it to the IEM. Now it was not overly noticeable where I went so far to ask a couple of guests how things sounded which they responded it sounded great. But it clearly was there and the best guess to what happened is the plane essentially “ionized” the area or created some other electromagnetic interference (EMI) that affected that frequency.
The second was much worse for me. I set up for the ceremony, scanned frequencies, all is great. Pre-ceremony goes off without a hitch, then about halfway through ceremony white noise. And so odd that at times one receiver would experience it, then the other, then once both did. I could not figure out why. Everything was a clear line of sight, the channel appeared to be clear. I walked to each IEM receiver and they were showing full strength. I got through the ceremony without any other issue but I continued to research what could have happened. My best guess is that 44 miles away the WCBS UHF digital broadcast lived on the same channel (Correction for the video, I said WNBC’s UHF station where it was WCBS’s UHF station), broadcasting out between 225-600 kW of power. Now, this isn’t to say that this is what caused it, but it’s the best candidate. From the potential of the station pumping up the power to atmospheric skipping increasing the typical range of a signal.
So how do I combat those two issues above? Unfortunately, l can really only proactively work on one. The oddball “wobble” I experienced maybe could have isolated more by using my directional paddle antenna but it’s also not practical for me to use that in all my cases, definitely not in the case where it happened. But the white noise issue I experienced I hope I can reduce or eliminate with the following steps.
- I will now investigate each city I am working in to see what the spectrum looks like ahead of time. Tools like Sennheiser’s frequency finder offer a good view into this although I have heard from one DJ that in his area it seemed to not account for all of the repack of 600 MHz frequencies. At least in the greater NY area, it appears to be accurate so keep that in mind. I now also maintain a spreadsheet of all the areas I have performed at and what their frequency range looks like. I’ll update this on a regular.
- I will pre-program my mics and IEM to the best available frequencies I research. This will save a little bit of time and in theory, it should provide me the best option when I arrive. If there is a videographer hired and they use wireless I will reach out to them and let them know what best frequency they should be on.
- I purchased an inexpensive frequency scanner from RF Explorer that scans the 240 MHz – 960 MHz spectrum. I will now investigate on-site and see if what I have preset is indeed clear. While the tools like the Sennheiser database is useful there could indeed be a repack that they did not account for, or a local broadcast or simple raised noise floor that forces me to change the channel.
Making this perfectly clear
Now I want it to be clear. I’ve used my Sennheiser mics and IEM for some years now without any issue. I just happened to run into a pair of oddball experiences that are the exception, not the rule. But it just goes to show that no one should ever sleep on the potential of catastrophe that could arise if one does not take every precautionary step while using wireless solutions. While not every issue can be mitigated, with the right care and attention to detail you will probably never experience a serious issue. But if one just constantly plops down any quality of microphone or IEM down and just turns on and wishes for the best, the odds are at some point there will be a failure point.
Groupings set you free
A very common issue I have seen from other DJs is setting up their frequencies in the first place. I can only speak to Sennheiser since I am not familiar enough with other brands and how they handle their frequency selections. But when you do find your clear frequency to operate on, and if you are running multiple mics or IEMs, then your next logical step is to use the same Group and different channels. Sennheiser has built in the proper frequency separation in each group to ensure there aren’t going to be any issues with bleed-over or other wireless anomalies that could affect what you are operating on. So the proper way to do this would be if say you did a scan and it chose Group 1 – Channel 1 as it’s the best choice:
Mic 1: Group 1 – Channel 1
Mic 2: Group 1 – Channel 2 (or 3 or 4)
Mic 3: Group 1 – Channel 3 (or 4 or 5)
Do not operate your mics or IEMs in different groups. Yes, you could technically do it and not have any problems, but the potential is there for it to happen. And be sure to inspect each channel when you select it. There still could be anomalies that are very narrow and could affect your performance. But by all means, use the logic that Sennheiser has already calculated for you to ensure as much trouble-free operation as one can muster.
The original article was published on December 12, 2018. I’ve updated some of the content and added the B-Side video addressing this new content on May 29, 2019. A further update happened on Jul 2, 2019, publishing a video of setting up your Sennheiser G3 microphones, ringing it out (specifically on a Soundcraft Ui16 mixer), and talking further on the perils of microphone use with guests at an event.