Just in case you have been napping for the past couple of years… News Flash! The world of performance audio wireless systems is officially a nightmare.
After farting around and pretending that the issue had not been long-decided in favor of the computer and telecomm companies with really deep pockets which also serve as a cozy home for many a U.S. legislator, the FCC banned the use of wireless mics, monitors and instrument packs operating in the 700 mHz space effective in June of this year. What does that mean? Well, many expensive, “pro” units are now illegal to turn on in the U.S.
Without getting to far into the protracted battle, here is a basic rundown. Audio wireless has been operating in kind of a legal gray area for many years. The UHF spectrum we have been using is actually licensed to TV broadcasters but our devices are low-power and we were operating them in what has come to be known as “white space”–little slivers of bandwidth between the TV signals that no one was really using. We have effectively been “squatters” since John Nady made the first wireless rig for the Rolling Stones in the ‘70s.
But then came two things–digital TV and the wireless Internet. Digital TV uses a much smaller slice of bandwidth than its analog cousin for each signal broadcast and the rapid proliferation of CrackBerries, iPhones and similar devices has led to huge increases in demand for broadcast spectrum for consumer devices. And there are more coming all the time. Since the airwaves are a public resource, COngress and the FCC license its use. And when it comes to Washington, money talks very loudly. On one side of the debate, Verizon, ATT, Google, HP, Dell, Yahoo and the like. On the other side makers of mics and guitar wireless systems. Was there ever a doubt about the outcome?
For many large productions and audio rental houses, this has been a very expensive problem. Because the stuff using the 700 mHz range was considered top-of-the-line, pro gear, it was expensive. One large production here in Las Vegas spent close to $1 million “upgrading” to units in other frequency bands. On a personal front, I have a really nice guitar wireless that I am hoping to sell in Europe (where 700 mHz is still legal) or it is going into the trash.
But wait! There’s more!
The amount of wireless in use may go down ever so slightly because of this but not near enough to account for the loss of what ends up being in the range of 1/3 of the wireless spectrum. ANd no one thinks this is over yet. The same monied interests that were aligned against us before are eyeing “open” spectrum in the 500 and 600 UHF bands and they will eventually get it.
The answer? Get the hell out of the licensed UHF band and into one of the other non-licensed areas. Which is just what Line 6 has done. L2P got samples of the new Line 6 Relay G50 guitar wireless and their new wireless mics as well. For today we focus on the Relay guitar package. Text and video reviews on the mic system are in the works.
WHAT IT IS
The G50 is a DIGITAL wireless transmitter/receiver system operating in the no-license-needed 2.4 gHz consumer frequency space (ISM band). What does that mean? Just like a digital TV signal uses less bandwidth than its analog cousin, the same holds true for any signal broadcast digitally. Using a smaller sliver makes it viable to use the same space your wireless internet router and cordless phone at home. And because it is digital, it is just data. And data can be "encrypted" and “error corrected” so that even if there is a glitch or interference you will never hear it.
There is another issue related to digital. Analog signals take up a huge amount of bandwidth so in order to make them fit in the available space, traditional wireless uses “companding”–compression on the transmitter end and expansion on the receiver end. But in the end, a compressed signal is a compressed signal and no amount of expansion will make it the same as it was pre-compression. Digital data takes much less bandwidth so the need for compression goes away. In practice, that means your signal will sound as good as it does wired. More on that in a moment.
So, the G50 consists of a beltpack transmitter and a “stompbox” format receiver. A racked version is available, but you don’t have to rack it. Just find room on your pedalboard. (On my test gig, I was not using my talkbox, so the receiver sat on top of it.)
The receiver has four connections and two knobs. Two of the connectors are standard BNC type for connecting the two included antennae. The two 1/4” connections are both outputs–one to your amp or pedals and one aux or tuner out. One of the two knobs lets you choose among 12 available channels (note: each channel uses multiple frequencies to further reduce the possibility of interfence). Pick one and match it to the transmitter and you are ready to rock. The transmitter has two switches–on/off and mute–that are easy to access but not so “out there” that you ar going to hit them accidentally. A third control lets you choose the channel–again, one of 12 choices. The screen shows the channel that is active. LEDs by the switches tell you the unit is on, transmitting and warns of low battery life.
But, we skipped one control on the receiver. This is the “more on that in a moment” part. Digital wireless has been around awhile and one of the beefs has been that some players find the sound “too bright.” What they are hearing is the true sound of the instrument but they may not be used to it. Traditional cables introduce electrical resistance that rolls off some of the high end. The second dial on the receiver allows you to “dial in” cable loss to suit your ear. I did rehearsals with that all the way out of the chain and ended up dialing in a 15’ virtual cable on the gigs which worked out well.
HOW IT WORKS
I did three rehearsals and two gigs with the G50. These were not my normal R&B gigs but big, loud rock gigs with a metal band playing their take on classic rock tunes. The gigs were in a large showroom at Sam’s Town in Las Vegas and on an outdoor stage at the Blue Water Resort Casino in Parker, AZ. My rig consisted of three semi-hollow guitars (an Epi Dot Studio, a Shecter Diamond Series and a vintage ’72 Gibson ES 335) going through a Line 6 M13 stompbox modeler and a wha pedal all feeding a vintage ’81 Mesa Boogie Mark IIB amp.
The band is crazy loud and with the lack of brightness and the compression of some wireless systems, my single 12” combo amp could have been totally swamped out by the lead guitarist’s three (count ‘em) Marshall half stacks and Egnator and Marshall heads. But cutting through was never an issue.
I was the only one on stage that was wireless. For everyone else, the chore of finding a clean channel in the UHF band was a hassle and fraught with potential problems so they opted to be wired. Indeed, I was using a UHF system for my in-ears and it took RF hits and dropouts all through both gigs. In fact on one I could not take the constant interference and pulled the earbuds out and just managed to get by. But the G50 (and the Line 6 mic) glitched not a single time. More on the mic coming soon but just know both units were rock solid.
A final note: Digital products have a rep for chewing through batteries. But I did two rehearsals and one gig on the no-name batteries that came with the G50. No issues at all. And, unlike many traditional wireless systems, when the battery did get too low idid not get a blast of wireless static through my rig. It just shut itself down. I saw the battery light was red, switched out the two AAs and ut in another air. Easy, peasy. Oh, and these things are built like tanks. A good friend of mine has been mixing and tour managing Blue Oyster Cult for years and they had been using the previous iteration of Line 6 wireless. Loved the sound and simplicity but broke belt packs all the time. I dared him to try to break a G50. It ain’t gonna happen.
I gotta try to get that 700 wireless I mentioned at the top and sell one or two more things because I need three of these to put everyone in my band on the system. Two thumbs way, way up.
LINE 6 G50 GUITAR WIRELESS SYSTEM
STREET PRICE: $399 online