It’s 2017, and there are new realities to face when it comes to utilizing wireless microphone systems for video and sound professionals. In the U.S., the Federal Communication Commission has been engaged in an ongoing mission to auction off most or eventually the wireless UHF spectrum to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, for us, the UHF spectrum is where almost all professional wireless microphone systems operate. In 2008, the FCC auctioned off the 700 MHz spectrum to HD broadcasters. In 2017, the 600 MHz spectrum was auctioned off to mobile data services. Audio companies like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica and Lectrosonics don’t have the financial resources to become players in bidding for spectrum against global conglomerates like T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T, so it seems likely that in the longer term this wholesale pillaging of the available wireless UHF spectrum by the FCC will continue unabated.
What’s a sound mixer or video producer to do for solutions to record wireless audio if the UHF wireless spectrum continues to be sold off? There have been some wireless microphone systems hitting the market over the past few years that operate in the 2.4 GHz WiFi spectrum (RØDE Video Wireless System) and in the 1.9 GHz spectrum (Sennheiser AVx systems), but some users have had mixed results with either system. For situations where wireless microphone systems just aren’t practical or feasible, Lectrosonics has introduced the PDR (Portable Digital Recorder). While other manufacturers have introduced products that fulfill this role—the Tascam DR-10L comes to mind as I own one—the PDR recorder can travel with your subject and capture professional-quality audio, synchronized with timecode. This feature automatically relegates the PDR to a different class of performance from the Tascam, as it should. Keep in mind, the Tascam sells for under $200 while the Lectrosonics sells for around $750. The Tascam is all plastic, while the PDR is machined from aluminum. The Tascam operates with its own real-time counter while the PDR can be jam-synced with any professional timecode source via its Lemo connector. The two products are intended to operate in a similar fashion, but that’s where the similarities end.
Enter The PDR
Its diminutive size and rounded corners make the PDR unobtrusive and easy to place in wardrobe and garments, and easy to conceal when used as a “plant” microphone to capture environmental or location sound. The PDR records in 24-bit, 48 kHz digital onto a microSD card (HC type) in the industry-standard .wav (Broadcast Wave File) format. The PDR can be jammed to external time code and a headphone output jack allows for monitoring the signal input or listening to previously recorded files. The PDR’s input connector is an industry standard TA5M jack that accepts any mic or line level signal and provides bias voltage to power a wide variety of electret lavalier microphones. The input connection and wiring is compatible with microphones pre-wired for use with Lectrosonics professional wireless microphone transmitters with servo bias type inputs.
Setup and adjustment is made through a simple and intuitive interface via the keypad and LCD. The PDR runs for over six hours on a single lithium AAA battery. I decided to put the PDR through its paces on two different video shoots. We didn’t have a sound mixer on the crew for any of the shoots, and even though we were utilizing wired and wireless microphones for all three shoots, I wanted to compare and contrast the sound that the PDR was recording and compare it to the camera sound. The first shoot utilized a RED WEAPON 6K cinema camera, and the second utilized a Canon EOS C200 Digital Cinema Camera. Fortunately, I own a Tram TR-50B lavalier microphone that I had wired for Lectrosonics wireless transmitters. I plugged in the Tram to the PDR, and it worked perfectly.
In The Field
For the first project, utilizing the RED WEAPON, we were shooting interviews and B-roll at an open house for a radio station. If you’ve shot using a RED camera, you’ll know that while RED has improved its overall audio quality over the first generation of RED cameras, audio, as a whole, isn’t a prime consideration for most RED users, simply because usually they’re shooting with a professional sound mixer to an outboard recorder. In comparing the sound recorded with the Lectrosonics PDR with the RED WEAPON’s sound, we could clearly hear that the sound quality of the PDR audio was superior, with more dynamic range, a better signal-to-noise ratio and much less hiss when the signal was highly amplified. Not a huge surprise there—Lectrosonics has yet to make a poor-sounding audio product in my 20-plus years of experience using its products. The specs for the PDR bear this out, with a 105 dB(A) signal-to-noise (in HD mono mode), with <0.035 percent distortion.
For the second shoot utilizing the PDR, we shot interviews on a beach at sunset, very close to the water, with lots of ambient sound challenges. For this shoot, we used the Canon EOS C200 camera and ran a Tram TR-50B hardwired into the C200, in addition to running the Tram TR-50B into the PDR and double miking the talent. With this shoot, reviewing the audio in the edit bay, utilizing Genelec 1030A monitors, the Lectrosonics sounded slightly better than the C200’s but not by as large of a margin as it was for the RED WEAPON footage. The sound from the PDR was still more open and transparent and less gritty than the C200 audio, but there wasn’t a huge difference.
Operationally, the Lectrosonics PDR is pretty straightforward and simple to use. The soft-touch buttons on the unit respond only to deliberate pressing, which is a good thing, as you don’t want the PDR pressing up against your talent or wardrobe and shutting off or stopping the recording. The PDR comes with and requires a Class 10 microSD card. The 16 GB SanDisk unit provided with the PDR worked fine with no errors, glitches or issues.
Recorder Versus Wireless
This is the part of the review where we discuss the inherent limitations to devices like the PDR. It’s a stand-alone recorder, and because of that, you can’t wirelessly monitor the audio the unit is recording. This means that clothes rubbing on the microphone, ambient noise issues, cable noise or level adjustments, if needed, are not possible to hear as your talent does their thing. It means that, at the end of a scene, you have to plug in headphones and carefully listen to the entire take to make sure the audio is usable. Since the PDR has a headphone output jack, technically you could hook it up to a wireless system to monitor what the unit is recording, but to do so would kind of defeat the whole concept of the product being small, lightweight and simple, not to mention adding a wireless transmitter would be more expensive. The PDR works beautifully, but the bug in the ointment is that for many users, not being able to monitor the sound it’s recording relegates it to backup for a wireless microphone system or for low-risk, low-stakes shoots where a re-shoot to fix bad audio wouldn’t be the end of the world.
The PDR is a beautifully crafted, intuitive, simple and great-sounding recorder, and I would expect nothing less from a manufacturer like Lectrosonics. Whether or not your usage of it is the right solution for your situation depends on the circumstances you’re shooting under. Many people feel that for crucial shoots where you only get one chance to record a subject, not being able to monitor is too big of a risk to take. But, for some uses, a small recorder can be very handy. Most of the Lectrosonics wireless microphone systems retail for about $3,500 and up, so being able to obtain this level of sound quality, with operational simplicity, time-code recording and that great-sounding Lectrosonics mic pre-amp at this price is nothing short of amazing.
Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.