Is wireless transmission an obstacle or an effective tool for video and sound professionals?
Why the Rant On Wireless Transmission?
While I’m not going to say that this blog entry is an attack on wireless, though it may seem so from the title of it, I’ll state that in my experience, especially over the past six months, I’ve concluded that while wireless audio, video and internet allow you to accomplish things in ways that you never could have even envisioned in the past, I’m kind of on a bit of a warpath about wireless. Allow me to explain my recent experiences and why I think wireless isn’t ready for prime-time technology.
Is This Thing Working?
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. I’ve been involved in location sound for a number of years, and I’ve seen wireless microphones move from an occasional necessity to shoot and mike certain scenes to 2020 when there’s a whole generation of sound mixers who rely on wireless microphones for nearly everything. In the past, wireless sound technology was typically bug-ridden, susceptible to RF interference, drop outs, mosquito noise, RF hits and many other forms of bad audio artifacts that aren’t conducive to recording quality dialog. If you go into any high-quality recording studio, you simply aren’t going to see many, if any, wireless microphones or microphone systems. Why? Simply because wireless sound isn’t really needed in a studio environment. Studios have patch bays, audio wall outlets and integrated wire runs that negate the requirement for wireless sound.
Venture out of the recording studio onto a film or TV set though and it quickly becomes apparent that with the advent of gimbals, sliders, cranes, drones and handheld rigs that location sound is now often audio on the move. Boom operators do an amazing job of positioning a shotgun or hyper-cardioid right above talent’s head, just out of frame, but as the camera and talent begin to move, the boom op’s job becomes much more difficult. It can be difficult to see the frame so the boom op knows how close they can ride the edge of the frame. Wide shots of talent speaking shot from far away precludes being able to get the boom op close enough in frame to record high-quality sound.
Enter the wireless lavaliere microphone. Wireless lavalieres allow sound mixers to mic talent in ways that are simply not possible with a boom and boom operator. Wireless mics are great for wide compositions where a boom mic simply won’t fit. Wireless mics are great for scenes where there are too many talent to boom.
The Secret About Wireless Audio
If you haven’t used wireless microphones much, you may not know their deep, dark secret. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. In its infinite wisdom, over the past decade, the FCC has been slowly auctioning off the crucial UHF bandwidth that wireless microphone systems need to work to cell phone carriers and digital television broadcasters, among others.
What this means for sound mixers and video/digital cinema producers is that as the amount of wireless microphone users has grown exponentially, the available UHF bandwidth has shrunk just as quickly. More users over less bandwidth means that even though manufacturers have been making heroic overtures with new wireless technology, the end result is that using a wireless microphone in 2020 can be an exercise in futility. I work largely in the Los Angeles market and a quick poll of local sound mixers reveals that no matter which UHF block they try to use, there’s often no viable open bandwidth in certain areas of the city.
There are other new technologies that use the 1.9 Ghz (Sennheiser) and 2.4 Ghz bands (Røde, Deity, among others) and when these technologies work, they work well and can sound good. But often, these frequencies are overcrowded as well, especially the 2.4 Ghz as it’s the same bandwidth used for wireless Internet Wi-Fi. While the manufacturers should be applauded for continuing to refine and innovate with wireless audio, in the real world, wireless audio, in comparison to wired microphones, can’t be counted on to work. Sometimes it works and often, it simply doesn’t. The key takeaway here is that wireless audio has infinitely variable effectiveness and that effectiveness is constantly changing, depending on dozens of environmental factors and how the signal is transmitted and received.
In a nutshell, wireless audio, when it works, can be very helpful and useful. The reason it sucks though is using it effectively is a moving target—it can sound perfect one minute and fall to pieces the next minute, depending on what’s occurring in the local RF environment at any given moment.
Wireless video is a new enough technology that the average pro video user may or may not have used it yet. While the ubiquitous Teradek wireless video system is now an industry standard used for wireless monitoring in narrative filmmaking, if you shoot weddings, events, documentaries or corporate, you may not have yet used wireless video. When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that we can transmit and receive 4K wireless video on set at a very high-quality level. We have $25k Teradek video systems that can look very good, but lately, we have also seen nascent popularity of lower end wireless video systems that cost as little as $150. The amazing thing is that the lower end systems really are doing essentially the same thing that the high-end systems are, it’s just that the higher-end systems do it better and more consistently. I own the Accsoon CineEye, a low-end wireless video transmitter that utilizes a 5G signal and provides surprisingly high-quality wireless video transmission for phones and tablets and it only cost me about $350.
The downside of wireless video is that it’s still not consistent or reliable. With the same dilemma as the sound department with wireless microphones, wireless video can provide great results one minute, yet the next minute, the picture and/or sound quality can plummet to a broken up or static-filled screen. It’s for the same reason too—there’s simply not enough open bandwidth for all users to utilize wireless video or sound.
While wireless video can be decent for monitoring, its inconsistency and unreliability relegate it to monitoring functions and even then, wireless video can be wildly inconsistent to use in professional production.
As a partner in a live streaming company, I have experience with a lot of forms of wireless internet. We utilize a live streaming system called vMix and part of its unique value proposition is that it has a module called vMix Call that allows up to eight remote live streams from anywhere in the world to be integrated into our live stream production. These remote streams can be up to broadcast quality 4K and we have utilized this function using professional crews and camera systems from all over the world.
Often, though, the remote call feature is utilized by clients for live streaming talent that they can’t afford to fly to or travel to, so we end up utilizing whatever camera system the talent has, which is often their laptop, tablet or cell phone. While a laptop is easy to hook up to a hard-wired Ethernet connection to the location’s router, tablets and phones are wireless devices. Often, people don’t have direct access to their wired router, so we end up working with their wireless internet connection quite often. And quite often, not always, but mostly their wireless internet connection sucks.
vMix shows us real-time signal strength, latency of both the incoming audio and video signal as well as real time readout of their signal strength by the amount of data their connection is sending us. We constantly see an otherwise healthy, robust wireless 2 Mbps signal to us routinely dip to zero, then back up, then down, the entire time the talent is signed into our system. Almost always, the talent who uses a hard-wired connection sends us a consistently clean and robust signal while rarely is a wireless internet signal robust or consistent.
Wireless signal transmission is mostly about convenience. Not using a cable for audio, video or internet is simpler, easier and cleaner for the user. But the end result is often inconsistent and of poor quality. The bottom line is, at least in 2020 (pardon my bluntness), wireless sucks. It’s possible with the advent of 5G and other upcoming technologies that wireless audio, video and internet connections may someday achieve the consistency and results that will make using hardwired connections old fashioned and irrelevant, but as of today, if you need a consistent, professional result, it’s time to break out the cables. As the world fills with 4G, 5G, Bluetooth and other wireless traffic, it seems that in order to deliver consistent, high-quality results, avoiding wireless is a valid strategy.