When it comes to the world of wireless mics one might best describe me as “gun shy.” While I have owned very few of them compared to a real production company, I have faced the need to sell a few outside of the U.S. when we were kicked out of the 700 mHz band almost a decade ago. But the biggest reason for my hesitation is undoubtedly that I have been covering the politics and back and forth between gov’t, the audio industry and the much more powerful tech industry for at least that long.
(For those of you who have not been following this, the short version is that telecoms and the tech industry want the same “open” spectrum that is used for UHF-based wireless mics and monitors in order to increase bandwidth for things like smart phones and cellular tablets, They have way, way, way more money than the audio industry and they are GOING to get what they want. It is a question of when, not if.)
When I was asked to go with a group of sound pros from Nevada and California to speak with the congressional delegation of both states, one of the guys we talked to was the then-brand-new congressman representing northern Nevada, Dean Heller. Since then he was re-elected to the House three times, appointed to an open Senate seat, won that same seat in the 2012 election and is coming up on re-election. GW was in his second term and the conventional wisdom was the Hillary was gonna be president in the near-future. At least that part seems to have stayed consistent…
And I got hip to digital wireless at least a half a dozen years before that when I dropped in to a nondescript industrial park outside of Sacramento, CA and met Guy Coker and Jamie Scott at a company very few knew about called X-Wire. When Guy ended up at Line 6 after selling X-Wire to Sennheiser (who totally f’d up a system with huge promise) and launching as X2 when his non-compete expired and then selling that to Line 6, I was a big supporter of both their handheld mics and guitar systems. (Jamie went on to found Third Power, a company that makes guitar amps that I wish I could afford.)
This is the scenic route to explaining that I have been a proponent of digital wireless operating in the 2.4 or 5.6 gHz bands for a long, long time.
The Audio-Technica System 10 comes in a bunch of different flavors ranging from handhelds to stomp box-style guitar systems. But the System 10 PRO Rack-Mount that I saw more than a year ago at NAMM was the first one aimed at head-worn and lavaliere users with an obvious eye on the install—and especially the House of Worship—market. But when I first saw it, I had a very different use in mind. And I started plotting then to get a review in the works and—finally—get my horn section on wireless mics.
My section has been on clip-on wired mics—a mixture of A-T and AKG—for more than a decade. But as we moved into bigger and better gigs, I wanted to see them wireless just for the performance enhancing aspects. But until the System 10 PRO, it had been just out of reach financially to go that direction.
The System 10 PRO appears to have been designed with keeping costs under control in ways both overt and not so obvious. One of the things that can add greatly to the cost of a wireless system is an antenna combiner and external antenna that is not constrained to the position of the rack containing the receivers. The System 10 PRO makes that bit of extra gear un-needed by using a pretty ingenious modular design.
Each 1/2 rack space unit can actually house a pair of receiver “packs.” Each of these packs—about the size of the clicker that opens your garage door—can either slide right into the rack unit OR it can attach to the unit—which house the XLR audio output as well as all of the controls for pairing, setting gain, etc—via a standard RJ12 telephone cable and then be mounted AWAY from the rack on a pole or a wall or—you name it.
We got the System 10 PRO—three channels mounted in one rack space with a slot left over to grow on—about a month before my band started a month-long run at the Aquarius in Laughlin, NV. About 100 miles south of Las Vegas. Four hours of playing time over three sets every night, five nights a week for four consecutive weeks. In a move that was more balls than brains, I left the wired mics at home and dove head-first into the new system.
(For the completists, the actual configuration of the system was a pair of ATW-RC13 chassis units tied together with a mounting plate which gave us four slots for three ATW-RU13 receiver packs with one slot left open. Those were fed by three ATW-T1001 body packs which were in turn connected to a trio of ATM350cW mics.)
Setup was a snap. Choose a System ID number on the receiver (you can use up to 10 units on the same stage so you get system IDs from 0-9) and then press and hold the Pair button until it starts to blink. Then open the battery door of the transmitter belt pack and press the Pair button there. And the transmitter and receiver form a bonded pair that is not determined by anything as last decade as frequencies. Once paired, a receiver/transmitter package go through a little dance every time they are turned on.
When the receiver is powered up, it scans for a clean frequency in the 2.4 gHz range and locks onto it. When the transmitter is powered on, it is like the receiver taps it on the shoulder and says, “Hey, dude, we’re over here.” And the transmitter sets itself to the same frequency and we’re ready to go. Crucially, should that frequency become less than clear during a performance, the receiver finds a new clear frequency, does the same shoulder tap to the transmitter and they move in tandem to the new frequency.
It’s like being at a party with the perfect wingman.
This can’t be overemphasized in importance. The room we were playing happened, just by fate, to also be home to a wireless router that is SUPPOSED to be used for outside vendors visiting the property. Supposed…
We loved playing this venue but wifi service, well, it sucked. And it was expensive. So, as you can likely imagine anyone who works there who has ever had access to the password to that network that is supposed to be for vendors has it stored in their phone. It’s a busy little router. And it lives in the 2.4 gHz range.
The System 10 PRO was not the only digital wireless we were using. We had a Line 6 handheld mic as well which—just as crucially—does not frequency hop. It is a system with a few years on it in terms of design and it transmits on two frequencies at a time and jumps between the two in a more typical diversity-style setup. And after a few nights we had to hang it up and use the standard wireless—one that did not include the Heil PR35 head that we prefer—because it was getting hit and dropping out at an unacceptable rate. It’s a lounge gig. I can deal with a drop out or two in a night. But a drop out or two per song? Yeah. No.
But the System 10 PRO units made it through 19 shows without a single audible dropout.
Battery life was another welcome surprise. One of the downsides of the digital wireless stuff I have used is that it tends to chew through batteries. Remember, the transmitter is doing a lot more work than a standard, analog beltpack. in addition to transmitting the signal, it has to do the analog-to-digital conversion. Plus in the case of the System 10 PRO it is in constant secondary communication with the receiver for the whole frequency hopping thing. Added to all of that, as input, we used the ATM350cW clip-on condenser models so the packs are also providing phantom power. The batteries should be toast after a set, maybe two.
Between the three wireless mics for horns plus the handheld for a lead singer and a guitar pack for me and several sets of in-ears, we use enough batteries that finding a good rechargeable option was a must. We use Eneloop Pros. And a pair of those gets through a full night and halfway through a second night before they die using the System 10 PRO. In other systems, we are having to replace them before we get to the last set. If you are NOT using rechargeables, that can get really expensive really fast.
Sound quality—as should be expected from A-T—was exceptional. The house sound guy was more than happy with what he was getting from us. And the fact that he did not have mics on stands in front of a section helped keep the potential for audio gremlins at bay. I ran a split from the house snake and used that to capture multi-track of a few shows using the Capture software that came as a part of the PreSonus RM32AI system I use for mixing shows when we have to provide PA. When I went to mix those tracks down, the isolation between the individual horns was orders of magnitude better than what it would have been with mics on stands. We matched that multi-tracked audio up with some iPhone 6S video and you can check those out here for an idea of how the system actually sounds.)
So, to sum up… Easy to use. It handles hostile RF environments with ease. Long battery life. Easy setup. and it sounds great. The Audio-Technica System 10 PRO is a home run for anyone needing a wireless, non-handheld mic solution.