Audio / Tips and Solutions

Wired and Wireless Mics: When to Use Them for Electronic News Gathering

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Say you’re covering news or conducting interviews in the field for your V-blog, YouTube channel, Facebook Live, or a documentary. The locations vary widely—indoor/outdoor, press conferences and on-the-fly interviews, and perhaps even political conventions—and all represent widely varying sound-recording environments. As a news gatherer, you know that your audio quality can make or break your video piece. What system should you use to get the best sound possible, no matter the location or situation? Should you go wired, or wireless?

Any audio professional will tell you: Go wired whenever you can, and use wireless only when you must. This is because there is always a chance, even with better wireless systems, of brief losses of sound (dropouts) or short bursts of static (RF interferences), possibly compromising your audio signal at the most inopportune time.

Let’s look at the pros and cons for each type of system and how they apply to ENG scenarios.

Wired Mics

Everybody understands wired mics. They’re reliable, fast to set up, and easy to operate. All you need is a cable that plugs into your camera, and no other equipment is required.

Wired Pros

  • Reliability: Free from wireless dropouts or RF interference worries
  • Better sound quality: Clean, direct signal path. Audio signal doesn’t have to go through additional wireless circuitry
  • Fewer equipment components that might fail
  • No need for battery
  • Easy to operate
  • Faster setup time
  • Generally, less expensive

Wired Cons

  • Tethered to the camera—limited range/mobility
  • Cable may be heavier and cumbersome to store and transport
  • Cable increases tripping hazard
  • May require an XLR audio adapter if using long cable, since most small camcorders and smart devices are equipped with mini-jacks and accept unbalanced cables only

The most common scenario for going wired is when you’re out by yourself in the field with your mic mounted on your camera. For that, RØDE offers the immensely popular VideoMic Pro, which records great sound and is small enough to integrate with an iPhone rig. For a fuller sound and longer reach, check out the Sennheiser MKE 600 shotgun.

RØDE VideoMic Pro with Rycote Lyre Shockmount

For “run-and-gun” shoots, the best audio quality will come from working with a sound technician operating a wired shotgun mic on a boom. This gives you optimal mic position with hassle-free wired connection directly to your camera or field recorder.

Another scenario that typically uses a wired microphone is the sit-down interview, since mobility is not an issue. Most professionals will use a wired, small-diaphragm hypercardioid mic on a boom, placed directly over the interviewee. This solution has the advantage of being invisible to the camera and offers superior sound over that of a lavalier mic. The RØDE NT5 and Audio-Technica AT4053b microphones are a good choice for this type of setup.

Audio-Technica AT4053b Hypercardioid Condenser Microphone

If using a boom is not an option, then a wired lavalier mic is the second-best solution. For working in the field, the Tram TR50 and the Sony ECM-44B are rugged and durable; if you prefer to record straight to your smart device, consider the RØDE smartLav+

RØDE smartLav+ Lavalier Condenser Microphone for Smartphones

Tip: Keep in mind that long-running unbalanced mic cables (those with 1/8" jack connectors) instead of balanced cables (with 3-pin XLR connectors) are prone to RF interferences caused by fluorescent lights, household appliances, and other common electrical devices found in public venues. So, if your cable is longer than 10' and your camera doesn’t have XLR audio inputs (as on DSLRs, iPhone, or camcorders), opt for a balanced XLR cable coupled with a camera-mounted XLR adapter. The Kopul CMX-2 adapter is a good choice for dynamic mics, or consider the Beachtek DXA-SLR ULTRA if you need to provide power to your condenser mic. 

Kopul CMX-2 Two-Channel Passive Camcorder XLR Adapter

Wireless Mics

Wireless microphones come as part of a system, comprising the mic, transmitter, and receiver. Without going into depth on all technical facets of wireless systems, what’s most important is that you choose a frequency-agile system over a system with only one frequency. Frequency agility means that you can choose from multiple frequencies to avoid local TV channels, wireless users near you, or other interference sources. This feature will make the difference between a successful recording and not being able to capture your audio due to dropouts.

You will then have to choose between VHF and UHF analog systems, and digital systems. VHF systems are generally less expensive but also not ideal, because they don’t offer frequency agility. On the other hand, UHF systems come with multiple frequencies, and are found in the audio bags of every sound professional.

Digital systems offer frequency-hopping functionality, whereby the system automatically toggles between clean channels seamlessly, ensuring that the signal arrives at your camera without interference.

Wireless Pros

  • Freedom of movement: Mic can be worn/held while moving around, untethered from camera
  • No cables to trip over
  • Avoidance of cable or input shorting out due to constantly moving

Wireless Cons

  • Possible wireless interference or dropouts ruining audio
  • Dealing with batteries on longer shoot days
  • Sound quality on entry-level systems may be degraded, depending on which technology is used to transmit the signal wirelessly
  • Generally, more expensive

If you’re working with a cameraman while you move about freely, holding your microphone, as in a “man-on-the-street” segment or convention-floor interviews, the tool of choice is a wireless handheld mic. It comes in two configurations: with the transmitter inside the mic body or with a plug-in transmitter attached to the bottom of a standard mic, converting it to wireless operation.

The plug-in option is often preferred because it allows for selecting the “right” type of handheld microphone for your specific application. I recommend the Shure FP3 and RØDE RØDELink Newsshooter plug-in systems. For handheld transmitters, consider the Sony UWP-D12 and the Sennheiser AVX, or the budget-priced Audio-Technica System 10.

Audio-Technica System 10 Camera-Mount Digital Wireless Microphone System with Handheld Mic

If your project is the type where the camera needs to follow the on-air personality around, and a boompole is too obtrusive, you will need to use a wireless lavalier microphone with bodypack transmitter. The Polsen ULW-16 and is an excellent entry-level system, while the Sony UWP-D11, Sennheiser ew 122-p G3, and Sennheiser AVX systems will give you additional reliability and professional sound quality.

Polsen ULW-16; 16-Channel Camera-Mountable UHF Wireless System with PL-4 Lavalier Microphone

To capture the best audio possible, the safest way to work is to have both wired and wireless mics on hand. This gives you the flexibility to adapt to any situation, and if one system goes down, you've got another to fall back on.

The good news is that wireless technology is better than ever, and many of the cons are not as much of a problem as they used to be. But it’s important that you do not skimp on your wireless system. You don't want to break your budget, but you will get what you pay for.

One additional word of advice: Regardless of wired or wireless mic use, always monitor your audio. Interferences and low batteries in wireless, or connectors and cable in wired, can and do create problems. So be sure to put your headphones on and listen!

What are your favorite wired or wireless mics? Tell us in the Comments section, below.

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