Let’s look at choosing your next wireless microphone to help your performances be heard clearly in all situations. This is a practical guide. I’m not an audio technician, but I have learned what works for me.
I was recently shopping for a new wireless microphone, after using my previous system for about 15 years, and examining my criteria for the right system. I’ll walk through my considerations to share some tips along the way.
One obvious choice is the type of system you want. In the world of “hands-free” microphones, which magicians require*, there are two basic options.
*In his book “Maximum Entertainment” Ken Weber suggests performers should use handheld microphones. I understand his reasoning, but it does not jive with my energetic performing style.
The body-pack transmitter is usually about the size of a pack of playing cards, and fits in a pocket or on your belt. (or in professional theatre situations, on a special band around your torso which allows for costume changes) The microphone connects to this transmitter with a short wire that runs under your clothing.
- Most common, wide variety of price-points, options, and frequencies.
- Ability to change to different microphone types.
- Some people don’t like running wires through their shirt.
- Transmitters can be bulky/heavy depending on your costume.
Shure SLX is the system I used for over a decade. Never had an issue!
Initially created for fitness instructors, the idea of head-worn transmitters is gaining strength. There are no wires as the microphone and transmitter are a self-contained unit.
The Samson Airline series is the most popular brand of these among magicians, particularly the behind-the-ear “hearing aid” style seems to be a favourite. (not MY favourite!)
- No wires to get tangled, can be put on in seconds.
- Small and portable.
- Unable to change microphone types.
- Battery cannot be swapped out, must be re-charged.
- Limited options and frequencies.
Two of the popular Samson Airline products which have a head-worn transmitter.
Ryan’s Tips on Transmitters
I personally prefer and recommend a body-pack transmitter. The biggest reason is the ability to attach different microphones for different venues. (I’ll get into that below) The second reason is I don’t find the head-worn units comfortable for my ears, or visually appealing. (I want my microphone to be nearly invisible)
Product Tip: Regardless of the transmitter type, I encourage you to select a receiver unit which is also powered by battery. That way you’ll never have to search for a spare plugin, and combined with a battery powered speaker you can go completely wireless. These are often called “video mics” because they can easily attach to cameras.
Battery powered systems (for video cameras) offer the best of both worlds. Flexible mic options in a small portable package.
One of the most important elements of a wireless microphone, but also one of the most confusing! Just as you tune in a radio station, a transmitter and receiver are tuned to a matching frequency to receive the signal. Problems occur either from interference on that same frequency, distance from the receiver, or the signal is outright blocked.
As a magician, you don’t want a VHF microphone system. It’s not practical for somebody who travels around, as you will be constantly searching for an open channel. These can be cheap, but it’s not a bargain.
Longer waves have no issue travelling through your body, and there is less interference from personal devices. This is my suggestion for the preferred frequency range.
Look for a system that allows you to select different channels (within the frequency range) so you can work around any interference issues.
2.4 Ghz and 5.8 Ghz
Newer microphone systems are using these frequencies more often, but watch out! These frequencies are crowded by WiFi signals everywhere you go. Worse yet, the signals are easily blocked. Turning to the side, so your body is between the transmitter and receiver, can cause your voice to drop out. (I speak from frustrated experience)
As I mentioned, a big perk of a body-pack transmitter is that you can plug in different kinds of microphones to the same transmitter. This is a big deal. It will prevent most of the issues you may have with bad sound at gigs.
Basically, the closer the microphone is to your mouth, the better signal-to-noise ratio. (up until the point you are breathing right into it!) There are three options for microphone placement.
Clipped on a shirt or tie, this microphone is position high on your chest. It’s used most often on video to capture clear audio from each person speaking. For live sound, where the microphone is in the same room as a PA speaker, it is the most susceptible to feedback issues. Only recommended if you are working with a professional sound technician.
I really like these small microphones that wrap around one ear. Some people have trouble keeping them on, but my ear is quite happy. No tape required. The hold the microphone close to your mouth, and capture the sound no matter where your head is turned. (Lav mics will fade in and out as you move) Best bet for indoor performances.
Sometimes called “Madonna mics” these can be bulky and feel like they are really in your face all the time. I prefer the lighter earset, but there is one place these big headsets win… the outdoors. A good unidirectional headset will eliminate feedback and wind noise for an outdoor show. It’s not pretty, but having one of these as an option will save the day.
The good news is that you can have one of each in your case at all times, and plug in the microphone that is best suited for the job of the day.
Product Tip: The “Countryman” earsets are expensive ($500 and up) but I have had great results with a Pyle Pro microphone for many years. It looks the same, and functions the same, for just $20 bucks. Buy two so you have a backup if/when the wire starts to fail.
This was a big picture overview of wireless microphones from the perspective of a magician. I’m not going to drop any specific product recommendations because, by next week, I might want to suggest something different.
My goal was to bring attention to what’s important for you to consider when shopping. Hopefully this will help you have a better conversation with the staff at the local music shop to find the right solution for you.
Note: I did not cover anything about actually using microphones, and many microphone issues can be fixed with better speaker placement and and tweaking audio settings. As per usual, it’s not about owning the best gear so much as knowing how to use the gear you have!
The Good Kind of Feedback
I’d love to hear from the collective wisdom here. What systems and options have worked well for you, and what has caused trouble?
Post a comment below, or discuss in the Facebook Group.