I used to carry two 25-foot
XLR cables to connect mics far away from the camera. Today, I carry
a couple of wireless systems. Theyre not lighter than 50 feet
of XLR cable, theyre just more convenient.
Lets talk about the great example Amy Bowers gave at the Platypus
Workshop in Oklahoma City. Theres a fresco-restorer working close
to the ceiling on a scaffold; you want to get the effects
audio to match the picture of the restoration (tap, tap, brush, brush).
You can put a mic on the scaffold next to the restorer, and run a long
cable down the scaffold (concealing the cable behind the pipes so its
not apparent in the shot). Or, you could send the signal via wireless.
A wireless connection allows the cameraperson to move around the scaffold,
to get a variety of shots, without the possibility of tripping over
or seeing a mic cable. In this instance, a wireless audio feed is quite
Even though wireless systems usually come with dedicated lavaliers,
the beauty of the system is that you can send a radio signal from any
kind of mic. If the scaffold is 12 away from the ceiling, with
the restorer lying on his back, tape the dedicated lavalier onto something
you control (like a Rowi clamp or the gaffer tape roll), and place it
next to the restorer. (Dont put the lav on the restorer because
youll get clothing movement noises which will obscure the sounds
coming from the ceiling.) If your aim is to also pick up the restorers
murmurings or comments, dont worry, the nearby lav will pick up
voice as well. If the scaffold is 24 or more away from the ceiling,
and the restorer is crouching or sitting, a short shotgun mounted to
the Rowi clamp placed close to the restorer, with the tip pointed toward
the ceiling work area, is a better choice than the lavalier. The shotgun
will pick up the restorers words in addition to the audio effects
from the ceiling work quite nicely. And, by using a wireless transmitter,
you can send the either mic signal to the camera without that long cable.
I use wireless systems 70% of the time in situations where there is
a stationary microphone, but where long cable runs are inconvenient
or would pose a hazard to foot traffic. I use them on podiums, in mult-boxes,
out of mixing boards, next to the violin section. But what about non-stationary
mics? The classic use of the lav/wireless transmitter is to acquire
the audio of a person going about their daily life and work. Its
really the only way to get a subjects audio without crowding them
all the time, or having them play to the camera.
Wireless systems are a big investment, so I rented two systems before
I bought any. I was working on a story about a small hotel which had
a Murder Mystery Weekend (where actors are hired to play
murderers/victims and the guests have to figure out whodunnit). I used
one wireless system in the classic way, to mike the actor or guest we
were following at any given moment. I put the other system at the notice
board around which guests gathered to obtain new clues. I just taped
the lav to the top of the board (pointed down), and taped the transmitter
on the back of the board. (I found out later that people didnt
even notice it was there.) What this system did for me was to provide
a constant source of audio (guests gathered around the board), no matter
where the camera was. Cameraman Steve could shoot from the next room,
or outside, and the audio would still be there. Long shots, close ups.
It was great. For me, the best part was evesdropping on conversations
when we werent rolling tape, to get information on which room
everyone was heading to next, so we could get there first.
What I discovered during that weekend experiment, was that the wireless
mics I rented worked great at doing what wireless systems are supposed
to do-- get the audio from a person whos on the move and ignoring
the camera. But the clincher for me was getting the audio from people
gathered around the notice board, because that system picked up audio
I couldnt have gotten any other way. Priceless. Well, $5000 (1982)
of my hard-earned money went to buy two systems. I now own four wireless
systems, but I rarely ever use more than one in the classic way. The
others I use constantly to dot the landscape with mics to collect interesting
sounds which would be difficult to pick up otherwise. Ill gaffer
tape a lav and transmitter to the interior wall of a dressing room when
we follow someone trying on new clothes. Ill gaffer tape a lav
and transmitter to a desk of a first-grader whom the school superintendant
is stopping by to see. (By favoring the childs voice with the
mic, youll obtain a good mix of both voices).
A team at the Platypus Workshop in Oklahoma City shot and edited a story
about a tattoo parlor. The camera was not allowed in the room where
the tattoo was being applied, although the cameraperson could shoot
through an interior window. After viewing the edited piece, the team
asked me how they could have placed a mic in the room for presence.
As I recall, they had a hard-wired lavalier, and a short shotgun mic
on the camera. The first idea I had was to put the lav in the room,
gaffer taped to the far side of the tattoo platform (on the far side
because its out of the shot, and its not in the path of
the tattooer who might lean on it and cover it up). The team had a capsule
lavalier, which is a cylinder with the audio-sensitive portion on top.
To place it, youd put a little wad of gaffer tape on one side
of the cylinder, and tape it in location (in this case, a gurney) with
the top of the mic flush or a little higher than the gurneys surface.
Be careful not to put the lav where its going to get covered with
fabric or hit by a flying limb. By locating the mic close to the head
of the tattooee, youll pick up that persons voice, and youll
also get the tattooervoice too, since you figure that the tattooer
will turn his/her head toward the tatooee (and, therefore, the mic)
when they speak.
The other option would be to hang the short shotgun overhead, just above
the wide-shot frame line. Ive always just dangled mics on cables,
without mounts. (I would recommend this only if youre using professional
mic cable and heavy-duty connectors.) Anytime you hang a mic, your cable
is going to form a right angle (going from horizontal along the ceiling
to being vertical as the mic dangles). In this case, make certain that
the right angle in the cable is a U instead of a V. You can guide the
cable into a U with gaffers tape, or you can use the tape to form a
loop at the transition point. For hanging things, I always carry shoe
laces and those metal pinch-to-open shower curtain hangers. You can
run a cable overhead on shower curtain hangers attached to the metal
grid in a drop ceiling, or you can tie cables out of the way with the
If the Platypus team had had a wireless mic system, they might have
placed the lav/transmitter on the tattooer. But then you would get only
the tattooers point-of-view audio, approptiate for an instructional
piece, but not necessarily right for a general story about tattooing.
So, in this instance, I would use a stationary mic which gathers audio
of the whole room, and use the wireless system as a convenient transmission
vehicle. If youre using a lav/transmitter close to the tattoo
procedure, use gaffer tape to secure the transmitter next to the mic.
For the hanging shotgun, you can put the transmitter overhead as well.
Transmitters all come with clips; I loop shoelaces through the clips
and just tie them off somewhere convenient. Speaking of transmittter
clips, I also carry wide pieces of elastic for transmitters to get clipped
on to, when they have to go around someones waist under clothes
(many women who go on camera for the first time wear their best dress,
which means the convenient transmitter location is around the waist
under the dress). I also carry medical tape for anchoring lavalier microphone
cables to skin and clothes--its kinder than gaffers tape, and
unaffected by sweat.
These days, a good wireless system can cost as little as $600, and will
be more versatile than those ancient models. In the old days (up til
about 98), wireless systems operated on only one dedicated frequency.
These days, good wireless systems are manufactured with the ability
to be tuned to multiple frequencies. They are frequency facile
(to use Holly Sweets wonderful description), and these multi-frequency
systems are the only type you should be looking at. As the world goes
increasingly wireless, the ability to tune your transmitter/receiver
to an alternate frequency will become increasingly important. An additional
advantage to users is the ability to tune two receivers to the same
transmitter frequency, which means you are able to mike a subject once
with a lav/transmitter, but send the audio to multiple cameras. (In
the old days of single frequency wireless systems, getting subject audio
to more than one camera was a real pain.)
I tested a couple of frequency facile systems-- heres what I found
out. Sennheisers Evolution Wireless 100 system is quite amazing
for the price ($450). I also tested Sennehrisers Evolution Wireless
500 system, and Lectrosonics UM/UCR 100 system (each around $1000).
When I buy a wireless system, I look at four things: the sound (and
look) of the dedicated lavalier, the distance between a transmitter
and receiver where the audio is still clean (called range),
the size of the transmitter/receiver, and the price.
Sennheiser has two Evolution Wireless systems (100 and 500 series) which
have belt-pack transmitters/receivers. The belt-packs
are each 4.5 x 2.5 x 1 inch, and each 100 and 500 series system comes
with a very good dedicated ME2 lavalier. This lav is an omnidirectional
capsule mic, black, quite small, and sounds just fine. The differences
between the 100 and 500 series are in price, range, and unbalanced vs.
balanced output. The 100 series (actually 112 when its configured
with the belt-pack transmitter, and the ME2 lav) has an unbalanced output.
The equivalent 512 has a balanced output. Youll remember from
a previous discussion that the engineers say that unbalanced/balanced
output becomes an important issue in long cable runs. Since the standard
use of a receiver is with a short cable, an unbalanced output shouldnt
be troubling. The other important unbalanced/balanced issue is a consumer
vs. professional approach toward manufacturing audio products. Videosmiths
engineer, Nick, says he doesnt worry about a company like Sennheiser
or Lectrosonics making unbalanced connections because they have a proven
track record of making good, professional, audio products. The only
non-price difference I noted between the 112 and the 512 was in the
Range is the distance between the transmitter and receiver, where the
audio is clean (free of hissing, buzzing, drop-outs). Range is what
you buy a wireless system for. Range is affected by many factors. Most
manufacturers will tell you you must have line-of-sight
between transmitter and receiver; they tell you to beware of operating
in electromagnetic force fields, and to beware of large metal objects
around the transmitter or receiver. Buyers will ask how far you can
get the transmitter from the receiver (whats the range?).
Manufacturers will often answer that question in football-field yardage
(that line-of-sight idea), to illustrate range. Football field yardage
doesnt make sense to me. I grew up in a section of Pennsylvania
with a large German population, so my high school played soccer instead
of football. I dont speak football-field distance. My definition
of acceptable range is the distance at which the cameraperson can just
barely detect the subjects lips moving. How many first downs is
that? It probably depends on the size of the lens.
At our Videosmith office, I have a standard test of wireless mic range.
It involves a straight line between transmitter and receiver, but with
large metal objects and possibly electromagnetic fields in between.
I try to make wireless systems fail, and Im pleasantly surprised
when they dont. In my test, I put the transmitter and dedicated
lav next to our office boombox, walk past the dolly tracks and the C-stands,
through the retail area, and out the front door into the parking lot,
listening on headsets to the audio at the reciever end, while dodging
moving vehicles. I try to get to the tree in the second row of parked
cars with reasonably clean (only a drop-out or two) audio. If this happens,
the system passes my range test. I dont know how many yards this
is, but its farther than any cameraperson could EVER see the subjects
lips moving. A truly amazing wireless system will have clean audio all
the way back to the I-95 wall, through five more rows of parked cars.
(Cameraman Steve says the distance from the boombox to the I-95 wall
is about 75 yards).
Some systems are truly amazing. Sennheisers EW512 was one of them;
I couldnt get it to fail my test of range. The EW112 system passed
my standard to-the-tree test and then some before the signal started
to break up. The Lectrosonics UM/UCR 100 system also passed my
standard test, but when you factor in the Lectrosonics price at
$1000, the EW112 would seem a better buy. And that may be true. But
in my small part of the audio world, Lectrosonics wireless systems are
the standard by which others are judged. Rugged, reliable, good service,
nice folks. Im not saying that the Sennheiser EW112 system doesnt
compare favorably. Im just saying that it doesnt have a
track record yet.
Lectrosonics UM/UCR 100 system is a wonderful product. If you
have $1000 to spend, its worth every penny. The transmitter/receivers
are slightly smaller than Sennheisers, at 3 x 2.5 x .75 inch.
The dedicated lavalier looks and sounds just fine; its small,
black, omnidirectional. I set up Sennheisers transmitter/lav,
next to Lectrosonics transmitter/lav at our office boombox and
listened to them in a side-by-side test. They each handled the radio
speaker sound all right, as well as the voices of Videosmith employees
passing by as they went about their work. Neither mic handled the annoying
sound of heavy cases being dragged across the floor without distortion.
But why on earth would you choose to mike heavy cases being dragged
across the floor with a av? For that job, choose a short shotgun or
your wonderful 635A. This brings me to a crucial point.
Theres no reason to buy a wireless system if you cant use
mics other than the dedicated lav. Plan to buy an XLR cable wired to
the transmitter input. This allows you to use another mic if something
goes wrong with the dedicated lav, and it also allows you to use an
alternate mic. Sennheiser and Lectrosonics each sell cables for this
purpose for about $25. And plan to buy cables which allow you to take
the receiver output into a XLR input, like the Beachtek DXA or the PD-150s
mic inputs. And, for the Sennheiser system, plan to buy two extra antennas
(at $11.50 each). The Lectrosonics transmitter/receiver have antennas
which are permanently affixed; the Sennheisers antennas screw
in. Trust me--youll lose one. And trust me--your wireless system
wont work without antennas.
In my opinion, Sennheisers EW100 system really packs a punch for
its price. While I can envision a situation where youd need the
extraordinary range an EW 500 system supplies, the 112 has a range which
should meet 98% of your needs. Lectrosonics wireless systems have proved
their rugged reliability in the field over the years. Im hoping
the Sennheiser system proves equally rugged and reliable. Im sure
some of you will be buying Sennheisers EW112, and Ill be
interested in hearing your field reports.