To wire or not to wire?

There is an increasing move towards going wireless in almost every production situation - but is that the best or most stable solution?

Recently, I have seen on Facebook forums many comments from people having challenges with their wireless systems. Often, their church installed these during Covid lockdown and they are now causing them production problems. If you are looking at upgrading your equipment, you may well be considering a wireless solution. So, I thought it would be useful to take a look at the question of what is best, a wired solution or a wireless solution. As usual there isn’t a definitive answer that will fit every situation and circumstance. But, let me state up front, that unless you have a compelling reason to go wireless, always go for a wired solution when it comes to production. One way to think about it would be that when streaming, would it be better to have your computer hard wired to the internet or use Wi-Fi? The answer is of course to have it hard wired. If that’s the case there, I suggest it’s the same answer across all your production.

The new shiny toy

Over the last 25 years working with professional broadcast engineers I can’t recall a single situation where they ever suggested a wireless solution if a wired solution was possible. Yet, I am surprised at how many churches and ministries seem to have favoured a wireless solution over a wired solution. Is this down to the “shiny toy” syndrome I wonder? This is a syndrome that professionals don’t care about. We only want the best, easiest, cheapest and most reliable system. Wireless of course seems “sexier” and even more future proof – and yet, the challenges created by going wireless add unnecessary headaches that can be avoided.

Before I take a look at the various challenges that going wireless introduce into any production set up, I want to be clear that there are two valid reasons that would dictate a wireless solution.

Reason 1 – When you have no way to get the signal from your device to where it needs to go by using a cable. For instance, I have deployed RF cameras in stadiums and open spaces where we wanted the camera to roam the crowd and had no way of doing that via a cable connection. Or, where I needed a camera on the roof of a building that was across a public right of way so I couldn’t run a cable to it.

Reason 2 – The movement needed FROM the device means that a cable is not viable or safe. This would for instance be where a preacher is roaming around a stage, or a vocalist sings and dances at the same time so you can’t give them a wired microphone or where a camera needs to be in multiple different locations during the course of a production and so a cable solution isn’t feasible.

Yet, my first choice is always to use a cabled solution if I can. Why? Well here are the primary reasons.

Interference – adding any wireless solution increases the chance of signal drops and interference which can be seen on your programme output. If you have ever watched Formula 1 on television, you will have seen signal drops from the wireless “Cockpit” cameras. The systems they are using are at the VERY top end of the technology and still they have issues. If that is the case, your (likely) cheaper solution will fall over from time to time causing disruption to your output – why take that risk? I have seen a few people talk about how they are discovering that the wireless system they introduced during Covid doesn’t work as reliably now that they have people back in their church building. Interference is the number one reason to go wired, running a cable completely eliminates this problem.

Wireless mics and talk back




Power – remembering to make sure every device has fresh batteries can be a challenge (it should of course be part of your pre-production routine) but if you go the cable route with most of your tech, this will cut down on your reliance on batteries. Even with cameras, the higher end broadcast cameras get power through their Triax or Fibre cable, making life much simpler. If you go wireless, not only do you have to make sure you have fresh batteries at the start of your production BUT you also have the possibility of batteries dying on you at inopportune moments. How many times have you seen someone swap out a radio mic mid preach due to a dead battery? Also, when it comes to cameras now, you may need batteries for your camera AND batteries for your transmitter and even batteries for your talk back system – that’s a lot of batteries to remember to check and have ready to replace.

Batteries

Ease of use – particularly when it comes to cameras, many “rigs” are getting unwieldy and way too complex to use and set up – getting rid of wireless transmitters will help simplify the set up and make the whole camera rig lighter and easier to operate.

Video camera

Human Error – this would include things like poor mic techniques, a singer holding a radio mic in the wrong place for instance can cause signal drop outs that you never get with a wired solution. Or, the cameraman knocking the power button on the transmitter off as he is walking around looking for his next shot. All these things can add to your headaches and are not worth the hassle.

Costs

Cost – you will always pay more for a wireless solution than a hard-wired solution. You will have to buy transmitters, receivers, antennas and other components as well as the camera or microphone etc. so you will be increasing your costs by going the wireless route. You also have more things that can go wrong, plus the added costs of the batteries etc. Overall your production costs will be higher.

One hidden cost many churches also don’t consider is the cost of licensing frequencies. This has become more important (and is also a way to get around interference issues as you “buy” a frequency). This can add up if you use lots of frequencies and is also a big admin headache as well.

For many churches, the reason of cost alone should be enough to rethink your technology. If you can save money by using a wired solution then what else can you use that money for? How can you spend your budget on things that matter and will raise your production standards? Can I be honest with you, wireless (particularly the cheaper end of the market) will not add any value to your production. Instead, you are going to spend more money and risk a lower standard of output due to the issues outlined above.

Go wired wherever you can and ONLY use wireless if there is no wired solution possible.

One final thing when it comes to cameras. If you have roaming cameras in the audience, then wireless is a good (and safe) option for you. For hand held cameras on stage though, while you can make an argument to go wireless, I still suggest wired for all the reasons above. By going wired, you also create an opportunity for people to be cable minders. These are people responsible for making sure that cables don’t get in the way and freeing the cameraman up to get the shots he wants. This position is an entry level for people who want to get involved in filming and production but don’t have any skills. By getting them to “mind cables” you start integrating them into your production team and they gain understanding and experience that can be valuable. So, by gong wireless you are depriving people of a way into your tech teams as well as giving yourself more headaches.

To conclude, you can go wireless if you want to spend more, introduce greater chances for technical problems and a less stable production – but is that worth it just so you can have the new “shiny toy”?

My advice - use a cable whenever you can, it’s that simple. I reaslise you may think differently and I'd love to hear you thoughts on this so let me know them in the comments.

Categories: audio, Broadcasting, Cameras, filming, Foundation, production, quality, set up, Technology

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