By Karl Winkler
While many smaller churches may not need a wireless mic system, the larger ones often do. When there are congregations of more than 250 people, and especially if there are contemporary services and praise musicians, wireless microphones can solve a lot of problems. Regardless of the size of your church, however, adding them or upgrading the ones you have can be challenging. Let’s explore some of the issues.
Determining if It’s Right for Your Church
First and foremost, I do not recommend adding wireless mics to your church services unless it is absolutely necessary. For one thing, good systems are costly. Perhaps more importantly, operating and maintaining them takes knowhow and resources.
How do you know if you need to add wireless mics if you are not using them now? Mainly from the type of services you have at your church. If your pastor stands behind the podium on the dais to deliver the sermon and the music comes from a pianist, organist, or otherwise fixed group of musicians – then wireless mics won’t do a lot of good. Instead, a fixed podium microphone and wired stage microphones will get the job done with the lowest cost and the highest amount of reliability. This still requires knowhow in the setup and operation of the sound system, but the added layers of dealing with battery management, frequency coordination, antenna setup and other issues are avoided.
However, if you have services where the pastor might walk around while talking, or a praise band that moves and/or puts on more of a “show,” or you have a few services or pageants per year with high production values, then wireless mics can be indispensable. Even then, it’s important to determine which mic channels need to be wireless, because many of them often don’t require movement. Any musician who is fixed behind the drums, piano, keyboards, etc. usually doesn’t need either a wireless mic or in-ear systems when the fixed or wired versions will work equally well, if not better, at a lower cost. Those players and singers or speakers that do move, however, would be prime candidates for the freedom of wireless mics and in-ears.
What System Components are Required?
If you have made the determination that a wireless mic system is in your future, or the future of your church at least, here are the components you’ll need.
Start with the type of microphone(s) you plan to use. Often, pastors will use one of 3 types of vocal mics – a handheld unit, a lavaliere microphone, or a head-worn or ear-worn unit. This last type is one of the best choices for hands-free operation, and the sound quality is often better than the other two because the mic element is kept close to the mouth, and moves with the speaker’s head. In sound system terms, the gain before feedback is quite good with this type. However, some pastors are uncomfortable with this type, since it is worn on the head or the ears.
If the handheld type is needed, then it is usually a single unit with the mic element built into or mounted on a transmitter. Most manufacturers make handheld transmitters, and most models accept a wide range of mic elements to suit your taste.
If the lavaliere or headworn mics are used, you’ll need a belt pack or “body pack” type transmitter with the appropriate mic connector. Most lav and headworn mics by various manufacturers are made with different connectors to mate with your transmitter brand of choice. Most people like the belt pack transmitters to be as small, light, and unobtrusive as possible. However, small sizes cost a bit more than “the usual”, so it may come down to your budget in terms of what you can afford in really small transmitters vs. the cost of the rest of the system.
Next in the system after the microphones and transmitters come the receivers. Most manufacturers today make multi-channel receiver units – some make 2 channel units, some make 4, and some make 6-channel units all to fit in one rack space. Here, the number of channels you need, and the brand you choose will determine which receiver models are available.
Feeding the transmitted signals to the receivers is the antenna system. Most systems use two antennas, so that each one sees a different combination of direct and reflected RF (radio frequency) signals from the transmitters. The receivers figure out which signals are the strongest and best from the two antennas and use those to convert to the audio signals. For most churches, amplified antennas are not needed, unless there are long coax cable runs from the “stage” area to the receiver racks. Since coax antenna cables have some signal loss over distance, amplified antennas are designed to overcome this loss.
Depending on how many receiver units you need, you may also need an RF distro unit to split the signals from the antennas out to the receiver units. For instance, if you have 16 wireless channels, and four units of receivers each handling 4 channels, you would use a distro unit with two inputs, and four pairs of outputs.
How About Setup?
Suffice it to say that with a large and extensive wireless mic system (in my opinion anything over about 8-12 channels), it’s best to rely on the professionals for installation. The pros figure out where the receiver antennas should go, the length of the coax cable run, determine if a distro is needed or not, how many rack spaces are needed, and what sort of wiring will be required to make it work. Most quality wireless mic systems now run on a computer network, and have control & monitoring software running to keep track of system status, choose good frequencies for the channels, and allow system and unit naming among other things.
If you plan to tackle these things yourself, it’s a very good idea to become familiar with the general issues faced by any wireless system operation, and also to read the equipment manuals. There are thousands of videos on YouTube covering the issues of antenna placement, system optimization, and even some that are specific to the gear you plan to use. Use these resources! Also, contact your manufacturers for assistance – they want to help you get the most out of your investment.
What About the Budget?
Speaking of investment, good wireless systems have never been inexpensive. If you only need a substantial number of channels for events a few times a year, it is far better to rent those systems so you can get top quality gear, rather than skimp on the system and suffer the consequences.
About the lowest price you should expect for purchasing wireless systems of up to maybe 8 or 10 channels would be $500 per channel. Once you get up to 12 channels or more, you will be better off looking at systems that cost $1,000 or more per channel. Stick with reputable manufacturers who have been around a while and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. That way, you’ll know that the service will be there years after you’ve purchased the system. This will be more valuable that you might know, if you are not familiar with wireless mic systems.
All in all, investing in a wireless mic system for the first time, or upgrading your existing system with new hardware is a substantial undertaking and should not be hurried. There are local professionals that will be happy to help spec, install, and set up your system – they are worth the cost. And, the equipment manufacturers are happy to assist in the process if needed.