Wireless: What You Need & How to Stay Legal
Sourcing legally compliant RF gear for a band on the run and on a budget.
It’s hard out there for a touring band that wants to sound and perform their best with wireless microphones and IEM systems. You need to find a way to buy wireless systems that will suit your needs, continuously stay running, and also stay legal.
Wireless gear is expensive. Ok let me clarify, GOOD wireless gear is expensive. You can find all sorts of crappy plastic gear that will never work reliably or sound good on the cheap, but anything worthy of handling a real show is going to cost you. In my experience bands often scoff at the price of wireless microphone and IEM systems and part of the problem is one of perception. Some musicians don’t view RF gear as “sexy” or as vital to their show and therefore want to go as cheap as possible. I’ve had bands whose guitar players are running $4000 Les Paul customs into $5000 Marshall stacks try to buy $400 wireless microphones. And the problems start right away, interference, dropouts, and poor sound quality. Paying anywhere from $1000 to $2000 per channel is par for the course if you want an entry-level pro system. And if you are touring you want to go pro, that $10k guitar rig doesn’t matter if no one can hear it because your body pack transmitters keep dropping out and making squealing noises!
As always your best bet is to purchase quality gear from an authorized retailer. An authorized retailer will have guaranteed authentic gear and they will be selling gear that is legal to use in your country. But maybe your band is on a shoestring budget? What is the savvy touring band to do? The secondary market is always an option!
For reference, at retail one channel (one microphone, and one receiver) of Shure’s ULX-D system, an entry-level pro system, will run you $1400 give or take. If you need enough channels to outfit an entire band for a tour then you are looking at some serious dough! However by turning to something such as Ebay you can get that price down to around $700 or even less if you are ok with cosmetic wear and tear. The big pros are always updating their systems to stay on the cutting edge and as such will routinely sell off their old gear. Old gear that may have been top-of-the-line just a few years ago.
However if you want to stay legal and also be as future-proofed as possible, you need to know what you are doing, because unlike an authorized dealer, it’s the wild wild west on the secondary market, where anything so goes.
Whether you go new or used let’s start with the very basics, skip this section if you have any experience at all with wireless gear:
This may seems obvious, but every channel needs each own transmitter and receiver. So you can’t buy two handheld microphone transmitters and only one receiver and expect to be able to use both microphones at the same time. However at the same time, transmitters fail at a considerably higher rate than receivers, so having a BACKUP transmitter or two is always a great idea, just understand you can only use it in place of the primary transmitter and not in addition to it unless you buy a second receiver.
Switching Bandwidth – in 2019 I would caution anyone against buying a system with less than 36 MHz of switching bandwidth. In Dallas for example, the old J4 Shure band (554-590 MHz) that has 30 MHz of space, has ZERO completely free channels and so running an entire show on this gear could be very problematic. 36 MHz should be your bare minimum but of course more is more. Personally, I use Shure UHF-R and Axient with 60 MHz of space.
Also remember with IEM systems, that even if the transmission seemingly goes in a different direction, RF is RF and if your IEMs are in the same frequency range as your wireless microphones then you are trying to pack that many more channels into the same space. So either ensures that your systems have plenty of bandwidth (i.e. more than 36 MHz for example), or run the IEMs and wireless microphones in different areas of the spectrum.
You almost certainly want to be in the UHF range, VHF systems are often older and not suitable for a pro show (with the exception of a few newer VHF systems, but these systems are best left to experienced pros and go beyond the scope of this article). Avoid the 2.4 GHz band for any serious pro-usage, these systems have appealing price points but are limited in channel count, short range, and long latency.
From the legal side (and technical side) of things, you need to know where in the spectrum your wireless microphones are allowed, and where they will best function.
The 700 band, technically anything from 698-806 MHz has been illegal in the USA since 2010. However there is a LOT of pre-2010 gear in the 700 MHz as these higher bands were considered better for transmission in terms of less users, and shorter antennas. As such you can still see a lot of 700 MHz gear on the secondary market, and not all sellers even realize that it is prohibited to sell it to USA users. Complicating matter is the fact that the 700 MHz band is still perfectly legal in some other countries, so you will sometimes even brand new state-of-the-art systems in the 700 MHz band on the secondary market that has been imported into the USA or is being sold by an international seller.
The 600 band very recently became illegal and the process was not as cut and dry as the closure of the 700 MHz band. As a result major manufacturers where selling new systems in the 600 MHz range up until just a few years ago and as such there are now many of these relatively recent systems on the secondary market and some can look very attractive. So where does a 600 MHz system stand today? You can still use your system provided T-Mobile (the incentive auction winner) has not yet begun operation or testing in the area you are trying to use them. Otherwise use of your 600 MHz systems must cease now if they can cause interference, otherwise have until July 13th, 2020 at the latest to be off the air. So to make a long story short, I would highly advise against buying a system that tunes any higher than 616 MHz, no matter how good the deal may seem, because the shelf life will be VERY limited if it all. Also as of Oct 13th 2018 it is now illegal to sell these systems for use in the USA even if you are consumer selling a used system to another consumer in a private sale.
While individual manufacturers may offer some sort of trade-in rebates, neither the FCC nor the federal government offer any trade-ins, rebates, or any other form of compensation for now defunct systems. This is simply unfortunate for some users, as the major manufactures were still selling 600 MHz systems new and for full price up until just a few years ago.
Systems in the 900 band are rare and are largely for specific professional users. It is very unlikely that a band or artist would want to own gear in the 900 MHz range. For example, the 902-928 MHz is a very crowded band that has many sources of interference, and the 944-952 MHz is largely used for STL transmissions.
Transmission power is something else you need to consider and what you need may depend on where you are in your career and the way you like to perform. To put it simply, the further your transmitter is from your receiver, the more transmission power you need to put out a strong signal. However, more IS NOT always better, because you can overload the front end of your receiver if your signal is too hot. So let’s look at two examples here: In scenario one let’s look at your typical 5-piece rock band that is touring mid-sized clubs. Most of the time the wireless receivers will be on stage with the band and as a result never further than say 50 feet from the transmitter with a direct line of site view. In this scenario a low RF power level of 10mw would be preferable because anything higher than say 30 Mw could overload the front end easily. Additionally, a lower output will lead to increased battery life. However, let’s look at a second scenario, a large major-label touring band playing amphitheaters with their own sound guys and an intricate stage set-up including catwalks. Here the receivers may be located at FOH or off to the wings, and due to the size of the staging could be several hundred feet from the transmitters at anytime. In this instance, a large output of 50 Mw may make sense to ensure a reliable connection. Additionally, a large tour is not going to care about batteries ($10k plus in battery costs is not unusual) and so the decreased efficiency will be of no concern. So you need to evaluate your career trajectory when making output power choices. The good news is that many pro systems are scalable and as such have selectable output power. Being able to choose between 10, 30, and 50 Mw for example can be a Godsend and is something to consider when purchasing systems.
As an unlicensed user you are restricted in how much power you can use. This is the reason that the system sold in some European countries for example may have a 100 Mw output power setting, while the American system will not go higher than 50 Mw, manufacturers are forced to “throttle” their systems so to speak to comply with FCC regulations. However the U.S. is not the only country to regulate output power for wireless microphones and we actually have it better than some countries that will not allow higher than 10 Mw.
So we’ve talked about a lot of laws and regulations, what happens if you run afoul of these? Fines and criminal penalties are technically on the table, (up to $10k per system) however the odds of either happening to you are quite low. The real enforcement mechanism is that the now illegal space of airwaves will simply be unusable for a relatively low powered wireless microphone system, you will be subject to show stopping interference at anytime in the 600s now. Also I have it in good authority that a warning is often issued first. Your 50 mw or less system doesn’t stand a chance against T-Mobile so you are very unlikely to cause any interference that will show up on anyone’s radar. However do know that the easiest targets for the FCC are fixed installations and large events. So if your band is playing at the super bowl, you should probably make sure your ducks are in a line first. As a lawyer I always advise following the law and avoiding trouble, however I have it on good authority that there has yet to be a case of a regular touring band being subject to FCC fines or sanctions (readers: please do correct me on this if you can point to a specific instance), so rolling the dice here wouldn’t be the riskiest thing in the world if say you are using something like the Sennheiser 2000 series in the Gw range which tunes from 558-626 MHz, as long as you only use it in the legal ranges between 558-608 and 614-616, you would likely be ok.
Largely the wireless systems manufacturers themselves are the largest interest group in the corner of musicians and production companies. They lobby personally and also send out calls to action when pending legislation that will impact the airwaves for musicians is coming around. The best thing that you can do is to get involved and stay informed. It’s hard to go up against companies like T-Mobile and even harder to go up against the almighty dollar (which is what the incentive auctions have really been all about), but by being vocal and organized we can do everything possible to ensure that there is critically needed airspace available for bands to continue to put on their best show possible.