Mics—To Wire or Not To Wire, That is the Question

A while back, I was at a conference, sitting in on a session covering technology in the church. The question was raised, "Should we get wireless mics or wired mics?" It's a question that gets raised a lot, especially by smaller churches who are short on dollars, but want to upgrade their music and sound program. My usual answer to a question such as that one is, "It depends." But the more I thought about it, I've decided there are some guidelines that I would follow (and have followed in the past) that seem to work out pretty well.

First let's to a Pros and Cons of wired and wireless mics (and for this discussion, I'm referring to vocal mics—we'll leave the discussion of lapel mics for another time).

Wired: Pros

  • Significantly less expensive per channel
  • Rock solid reliability (provided you buy good cables, and you did buy good cables, right?)
  • No batteries to buy
  • Easy to store, maintain and use
  • No chance of the mic shutting down during a service because you forgot to change the battery
  • Lots of options to choose from, easy to get the "right" sound
  • Smaller package to hold

Wired: Cons

  • Wires, everywhere; they're ugly and tend to clutter up the stage
  • You can't wander that far without getting tangled up
  • You need to lay out and pick up all those wires
  • You need a line back to the board for each mic, which means a bigger snake, or more installed wiring

Wireless: Pros

  • No cord = neater stage, more mobility
  • Easy set up and take down
  • They take up no channels on the snake or installed wiring

Wireless: Cons

  • Batteries—they eat them like growing teenagers eat cereal
  • Batteries can go dead during a service
  • RF interference can be an issue if they are not frequency coordinated properly (and even if they are...)
  • Significantly more expensive per channel
  • You need space to put receivers
  • [added] The compander circuit in most wireless mics can have negative effects on gain before feedback as well as the sound (see Dave's comment for more detailed explanation—thanks, Dave!)
  • Did I mention batteries?

So, at first glance, it might look like wired mics are the way to go, right? Mmmm, yes and no. Here's what I advise smaller churches with limited budgets: buy enough wired mics to suit your needs, and if there is budget left over, buy a high quality wireless mic. Here's the thing—a high quality wireless mic system will set you back a good $600-750. We're talking about at a minimum a Shure ULXP, Sennheiser G2, AKG WMS 400 or AT 4000 series. If you go with anything less than that, you'll be disappointed (with the possible exception of the AT 3000 series, which sound pretty decent for about $450-500, just be very careful with frequencies).

Now I know there are some budget conscious shoppers out there saying, "But Mike, we use XXX wireless system and it only cost us $250 and it sounds great." No, it doesn't. It sounds adequate at best. If you compare it to even the lowly SM58 wired mic, the 58 will sound better. There is a reason the high quality mics cost what they do, and it's all about the quality of the sound and the reliability.

Another problem is that cheaper units will not play nice once you get more than a few of them operating in the same room simultaneously. Our church made the mistake of buying cheap ($300) Shure UT systems by the caseload and we have trouble every time we turn more than 6 of them on at once. That's because they are not designed to do that. And now I'm phasing them out, putting thousands of dollars on the shelf.

I hate it when churches buy stuff that they will throw away in a few years because they can't afford good stuff now. The thinking goes like this: We can't afford to spend $700 each on the 5 wireless mics we want, so we'll buy 5 $300 systems now, and upgrade later. Bad idea. Not only will you end up wasting $1500 on the ones you get rid of, but you'll be unhappy with them while you own them. It's far better to buy five $200 wired mics now, because they will still sound great in 5 years and will still be useful when you can afford to drop $3500 on wireless.

Please don't waste God's money because you want what you can't afford. Buy good stuff. Make sure everything you buy will still serve a purpose 5 -10years from now. Plus, what you do buy will serve you better because it will be of good quality.

Now for larger churches, the wireless option is a good way to go, with some caveats. First, make sure you buy a high quality system that is rated for at least 10-12 channels in your room. Make double dog sure you frequency coordinate for your location (most manufacturers have an online tool for this, or ask your vendor). Buy from one manufacturer, trying to frequency coordinate is tough enough without having to cross frequency groups. Once you get past 4 channels, start looking at antenna combiners. It keeps the installation neater, and gives you better results.

Develop a battery policy that has a high margin of safety (ie. change them before every service). I really like using rechargeables because I hate throwing batteries away (check out my post on rechargeable batteries). Buy mics with good capsules on them. Many people don't know you can order the transmitters with a wide variety of heads. Treat that selection process like you would for wired mics. You may even want to buy a few different types (of capsules, not wireless systems) to suit different singers.

I would also suggest you evaluate why you want to go wireless. Is it to go for a really clean stage look? Consider what else you can do to achieve that goal. Is it for freedom of movement? At Crosswinds, the harmony singers pretty much stay put, so they are all wired. I use a wireless for the worship leader to give them the option of moving, and I bought a really good head (Beta 87C), so it's one of our better sounding mics.

It all boils down to my overall strategy for church equipment purchases: Do it right, do it once. Don't buy junk, and don't buy stuff you won't be able to use in 5 years. Hopefully this will help guide you toward making really wise decisions and give your congregation, vocalists and tech crew the equipment they deserve. Peace.