Freedom. Sweet, sweet freedom. Freedom from confinement or constraint. Freedom from the ties that bind, specifically those pesky guitar cables that limit your ability to move about the cabin. Until you’ve roamed the stage untethered by wires, you haven’t known what it truly means to be free on stage.
A wireless guitar system not only allows you to explore the furthest reaches of the stage, it makes the whole venue your playground. Whether your getting intimate with your audience, strutting your stuff on the bar or just getting the audience’s aural perspective during sound check, a wireless system opens up a world of possibilities for your playing and your showmanship.
A wireless system bypasses the use of a traditional instrument cable to connect your instrument and amplifier and instead consists of a paired transmitter and receiver. Your instrument’s output plugs into a battery-powered transmitter beltpack via a short cable. The pack can then be secured to your strap or belt. Other units integrate a small and lightweight, nearly invisible, transmitter into the jack plug itself. This signal is then converted into radio waves and transmitted to a receiver located near your amp or pedals. The receiver’s antennae collects the transmitted waves and converts them back to audio. A standard ¼” jack then feeds your signal from the receiver to your amp or pedals.
As you might expect, the transmission range limits the distance you can wander from the receiver. You’ll want to take this into consideration if you plan to roam beyond the boundaries of the stage. Visiting the upper balcony or the burger shop across the street, mid-show, will require a transmission range of several hundred feet. The frequency range of the unit (VHF or UHF) also plays a role in where you can travel and where you can’t.
Radio frequencies used in wireless microphones and instrument systems can be found in two band ranges, VHF (Very High Frequencies, ranging from 30 MHz to 300 MHz) or UHF (Ultra High Frequencies, the range between 300 MHz and 3 GHz.) There’s a lot of talk out there asserting that UHF is superior to VHF, and though there are some advantages, it really depends on how you’ll be using the system.
UHF’s short wavelengths allow high gain antennas to be conveniently small and because of the multitude of frequencies available with UHF, if you’re using your wireless at venues where several other wireless systems are likely to be present (think catering hall), you will have more channels available from which to choose. Lastly, interference from computers, digital equipment, and electronic devices is less of an issue with UHF.
Where UHF is thought of as a “line-of-sight” transmission, VHF’s longer wavelengths allow them to pass through walls and other impediments and voyage farther distances. VHF systems also tend to be the cheaper of the two options.
Operating on the 2.4GHz frequency at the top of the UHF band, where there are no radio or high powered signals to cause interference, digital wireless systems are among the most reliable in avoiding drop-out. You will also experience a “truer” signal with a digital system with less coloration. Another advantage digital has over it’s analog brethren is the lack of need for companders. Companders compress the signal at one end and expand it at the other. This is a neighborhood where the possibility of noise and signal degradation abound. Since many digital systems avoid using them, you’re left with a more accurate, lower noise signal.
True Diversity refers to a system consisting of one transmitter paired with a unit containing two separate receivers, each with it’s own antennae. By continually examining the signal strength on each receiver and seamlessly flipping reception back and forth between the two, a true diversity system ensures the best signal strength at all times.
The channel of a wireless system refers to the frequency on which it transmits and receives. When using several systems at once, each has to be set to a different channel so as to prevent cross-talk. Units are available with a single channel or multiple channels that are switchable manually or in some case automatically. The lower priced systems come set to a single channel but are available in several different channels allowing several band members to go wireless on the same stage. UHF systems offer the greatest assortment of channels.
Quite simply, this is the relationship of the volume of your guitar versus the sound of any noise or hiss generated by the unit. Pretty much everything in your guitar’s signal chain generates some kind of noise and your wireless system is no exception. This noise can range from hiss and hum to interference from electronic devices. Any noise in the system is usually not at a level where it’s a problem but the least amount of noise you generate from any one thing in the signal chain, the better. It all adds up.
The kind of batteries housed in the beltpack and the amount of time you’ll get out of them is always a consideration. Running out of juice two measures before your solo can definitely put a damper on your performance. Check how many hours of operation you’ll get out of a fresh set. Rechargeable batteries may also be an option.
About the Author - Michael Barberich
A New York guitar phenom from a young age, Michael still smiles looking back on playing his first bar gig at the ripe old age of fourteen. By eighteen, his acrobatic guitar style had caught the attention of a popular local band (whose members were all ten years older) and together they quickly conquered the legendary Long Island music scene, playing six nights a week to large audiences. Says Michael of this period, "To fill time, the band would often throw me two solos per song. I did the math recently and realized I was playing about sixty solos a night times six nights a week. That's three hundred and sixty solos per week! That's really where I learned to play, on stage every night in front of lots of people."
As comfortable playing or producing in the studio as he is on the stage, Michael's varied career has afforded him the opportunity to work with many of his heroes including Steve Vai, Justin Hayward, Gary Brooker, Rod Morgenstein, Steve Howe and Cheap Trick. Always happiest with a guitar in his hand, you can find Michael showing his versatility performing with LI Hall of Fame inductees Barnaby Bye, Macca Nation (a tribute to Paul McCartney & Wings) or his kitschy 70's band, the insanely popular, 45rpm (voted Long Island's best cover band for 2013 and 2014.)