Daily Tedium

Addicted To Spectrum

Wireless microphones are a hugely important technology for the stage, but the mobile industry keeps crowding out the theater industry's wireless spectrum.

By Ernie Smith

You know a tool that’s proved incredibly useful to the theater world? The wireless microphone. It sounds small, but it’s actually a really huge improvement over what they previously had.

These devices, which have come into their own over the past two decades, have helped to improve actors’ freedom of movement allowing their performances to be more natural while still remaining fairly easy to hear. But they haven’t always been perfect. A great piece on Shure’s blog breaks down how earlier forms of wireless microphone technology created some major issues for performances—including changes in costume design simply to allow actors to conceal the battery packs they were wearing, along with plenty of problems with battery packs not being ready for the action on stage.

Zoe Milton, an administrator at the United Kingdom’s Association of Sound Designers, noted how complicated the wireless mics often made things, particularly one day when a power socket for the rechargeable battery packs was accidentally put out of commission during a performance of The Coast of Utopia:

We ran around like crazy and managed to find some AA batteries, we put whatever rechargeables we could on to charge for as long as possible, and then we watched the LEDs on the receivers from the wings. In those days, when the lights started to flash, they would die about five minutes later. We had to keep swapping transmitters on actors as soon as they came off stage, and hoping that the AA batteries we’d found actually had some charge in them, and that the actors whose packs we needed to change would be making an exit from the stage before their transmitters stopped working … ! It was awful!

But nowadays things work pretty well, thanks to improving designs and the drumbeat of innovation.

But there’s a problem, and that problem is the smartphone. Phones are great, obviously, but their growing demand for spectrum is crowding out stage productions, particularly in the United Kingdom, where Ofcom required wireless mic users to give up their frequencies (in the 800MHz range) to mobile providers. While they were given a replacement band (in the 700MHz range), it caused significant disruption of theater productions. (Nobody seems to like cell phone towers either.)

And now the mobile industry wants that range, too. Ofcom is pushing those wireless mic users off the 700MHz range on an accelerated schedule—and is compensating them so that they get out of the way. They’ll get a new range—between 960-1164MHz, which they’ll share with distance measuring equipment used in airplanes—but it sounds like a huge pain in the butt for stage performers who simply want to put on a good show. Plus, the current technology on the market isn’t designed for these headaches.

“At the moment there is no wireless mic equipment that can operate in the air band,” Autograph Sound Recording’s Duncan Bell told The Stage. “It’s also difficult to say what impact there will be on existing equipment. It’s hard to define how much spectrum will be available from location to location and how much of the air band we will need to do what we do.”

If I worked in the theater industry, I’d write a play about it. There’s one hell of a plot in this story—how the drumbeat of innovation is screwing with the arts.

(Photo by clanlife/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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