Wireless Guitar Systems Explained

UG’s Justin Beckner explains in details this gee-whiz gear. Though pretty useful and handy, there are some misconcepts about it.

Wireless systems can be a very useful tool to the working musician. Not only for mobility’s sake, but for overall tone in certain situations. Understanding and learning to correctly use your wireless system will help you get the most out of it. Cables themselves have a host of ways they can affect your tone (more on that in article soon!). One thing to note is that they do have latency directly proportionate to their length. Your signal travels through a cable at approximately 66% the speed of light – we call this the speed of electricity. That’s 122760 miles per second. So the latency in cables is more theoretical than it is noticeable.

A “Wireless System” will usually be comprised of a transmitter and a receiver. Often the receiver plugs into an outlet and the transmitter usually requires batteries or is rechargeable – most guitarists hang them on their guitar strap. A lot of companies make wireless systems these days and they have a pretty significant range in price from cheapest to most expensive. Generally speaking, the more expensive systems will have better range, quality, reliability, and often come with some other fancy options.

The first wireless system to be consistently used was the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System (SVDS), which came into existence in 1976. A lot of people used these and still use them, particularly the replicas they are making now. The original wireless systems were used by The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, KISS, Eddie Van Halen, Aerosmith, Grateful Dead, and Pink Floyd. The Schaffer has often been thought to be the secret sauce behind the tones of some of these guys. In fact when AC/DC went in to record “Highway to Hell” with Mutt Lange, they brought all the same gear they used on stage and it didn’t sound right until Angus played through his SVDS. So, on the old AC/DC records (Highway to Hell, Back in Black, and For Those About To Rock), Angus recorded through his wireless system. Another interesting story regarding the SVDS is when Pink Floyd was rehearsing for the stage show for “The Wall,’ the stage was so big that the inventor of the SVDS had to invent wireless monitors to compensate for the latency of the miles of cable being used on that stage between monitors. Ken Schaffer was inspired to create a better wireless system in August of 1975 while coming to the rescue during the Rolling Stones US tour. Mick Jagger’s microphone would pick up police radio frequencies, so concertgoers famously would hear police calls through the PA. A couple months later, Ken invented the SVDS.

Although in some cases, the wireless unit was an essential part of a player’s tone, the alteration in tone is also one of the biggest critiques of wireless systems. This alteration comes from how a wireless unit functions. A wireless system will convert your guitar signal into an FM signal. Basically, there are two types of wireless units out there – Analog and Digital. Analog systems will require your signal be compressed at the transmitter and uncompressed it at the receiver. Some quality is lost when you do this. So, these days digital systems are preferred because they don’t need to compress and decompress your signal. In addition, digital system has a broader range in the radio wave bandwidth. Analog systems use two different groups UHF and VHF – you can usually switch between the two on your receiver. VHF (Very High Frequency) uses the range 30-300MHz while the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) uses 300MHz – 3GHz. Sometimes, especially with bass or baritone guitars, the lower notes can drop out of this range and your lower notes will not have the same quality as your higher notes. Again, with digital systems, this doesn’t happen. Analog systems are obviously the cheaper option.

Another common misconception is that you can’t use a wireless system in line with your pedals. A wireless system works exactly like a cable, so you’d just send your receiver output into the input jack of any pedal or pedal chain and that would be it. Some wireless receivers are pretty small and can be placed on a board. Wireless units sometimes implore circuitry that will knock out some of your feedback because it sees it as interference.

Regardless of the type of wireless system you decide to go with, try your best to have a clear line of sight between your wireless transmitter and receiver, most bands will put them in the wings of the stage or on top of their amp. Before you play on stage, it’s a good idea to walk around during soundcheck to make sure there are not any spots where the quality dips – this is pretty rare, even with the newer analog units. Depending on the quality of your wireless unit, the range will vary. Going outside this range will see a dramatic drop in quality and often cutouts and increased latency. Again, most low level wireless units have a pretty good range, especially with a clear line of sight. I had an old Audio-Technica analog unit and I could play my guitar from the other side of the lake I lived on (about 250 yards). There was a latency in the signal traveling that far but it did work. If I’m working with a band that uses a wireless unit, I generally insist on having a backup unit and/or a cable backup. As a tech, wireless units with multiple transmitters make changing out guitars really easy and your guitarist doesn’t ever need to unplug or plug in a cable. The tech can just switch the input transmitter at the receiver.

Wireless units can be a great tool to use, especially if you typically use a long cable or have ever tripped over a cable on stage in front of a lot of people. Long cables tend to knock out your high frequencies so a nice digital wireless unit will rid you of that. If you just want to play bars or smaller venues, there nothing wrong with an analog wireless unit, as I mentioned before, the newer ones are pretty good quality. Some people find the tone alteration of an analog unit wireless units to be the missing link in their tone and others find the convenience of being wireless worth the risk of tones being lost (although with professional grade digital units, you don’t lose any more quality than you would in a cable). Most of the time companies are very up-front with what the range is for a wireless unit and the frequency range – the higher end ones will have auto tuning which will select the best frequency for that gig, which is good if you’re using multiple wireless units or you’re at a festival where several bands might be using them. So if you want to go wireless, find a wireless unit that fits your needs, cut the cord, and long may you run.