Why the future of wireless is digital
As the amount of spectrum available for use by wireless mic operators continues to shrink, most microphone manufacturers (including Shure) are drawn increasingly towards digital wireless technology as part of the solution. But why exactly are digital wireless systems such a hot topic? How do they compare to traditional analogue systems? And what benefits, if any, do they bring to us as professionals? Throughout this article, we will try to shed some light on what’s driving digital wireless tech.
Firstly, let’s uncover some of the back story. It’s a well-known fact throughout the professional audio industry that clean spectrum available to wireless microphones and in-ear monitors is shrinking. In the years following the digital TV switchover (DSO), we’ve seen the amount of spectrum available to our industry reduce significantly. First to go was the 800MHz band (790–862MHz), which made way for next generation mobile broadband (4G) back in 2012. Then, in quick succession, Ofcom announced its plan to clear the 700MHz band within the coming years. On 17 October 2016 Ofcom announced that PMSE users need to vacate the 700MHz band by May 2020. In a short space of time, we will have lost access to nearly 50% of usable spectrum. To further compound the situation, additional announcements included granting so-called white-space devices permission to operate as secondary users in the UHF space – effectively introducing unlicensed, less predictable sources of potential interference. In short, the airwaves are becoming increasingly crowded with wireless tech as industries bid for more resource to feed our digital lives.
This growth in demand for wireless spectrum and the subsequent congestion has put significant pressure on wireless manufacturers to develop new technology able to maintain performance levels under progressively challenging circumstances.
“The airwaves are becoming increasingly crowded with wireless tech as industries bid for more resource to feed our digital lives”
Enter digital wireless systems…
Quite simply, the technology available to design professional-quality digital wireless systems has now advanced to a level where we can now run much higher channel counts in reduced clear spectrum. The improved efficiency is down to more predictable deviation of digital wireless signals when compared to a frequency-modulated analogue signal; this, in turn, allows for tighter channel-to-channel frequency spacing. In many cases, digital systems can deliver nearly twice the channel count in the same slice of spectrum as their analogue cousins. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be as simplistic to think that just because a system is digital it is more efficient. A critical criteria in determining spectral efficiency is the linearity of the transmitter and robustness of the filters in the receiver. The more the system costs, the better the performance in most cases. And lastly, good RF coordination and practise will also ensure that the deployment of large wireless system is a success.
With clean RF spectrum continuing to shrink — and demand for wireless mics and in-ears increasing each day — digital wireless technology will play a critical role in securing the future of wireless microphones at major events. The spectrum argument is clear, but what about the audio? How do digital systems sound when compared to their analogue counterparts?
Analogue vs digital audio is one of the most emotive topics in the business, and while the conclusion is mostly subjective across most devices (mixers, outboard processing, hi-fi, etc.), wireless systems are, in fact, a little different. For wireless microphones, the main difference between analogue and digital is how we modulate the RF carrier. Most analogue wireless system use frequency modulation (FM), and while this has proven to be a very robust and ultimately successful way of transmitting wireless audio, there are certain limitations to FM. Digital systems, for instance, have the ability to operate in far worse carrier-to-noise environments, meaning that even in ugly RF environments we get clean audio.
“With clean RF spectrum continuing to shrink, digital wireless technology will play a critical role in securing the future of wireless microphones at major events”
In order to maintain high dynamic range, analogue systems also use a process called companding — whereby the audio signal is compressed in the transmitter to accommodate the limited dynamic range of FM radio and then expanded at the receiver. This process, while almost undetectable in most high-quality analogue systems, can still lead to audible artefacts like “pumping” and “breathing”. Digital wireless systems convert analogue audio to a digital signal that modulates the radio carrier in discrete steps (think binary code: ones and zeroes). Since the transmission of a digital audio signal doesn’t require companding, it is possible to achieve audio with a wider, flatter frequency response. In other words, the digital audio signal arrives at the receiver unaffected by the radio link.
Spectral efficiency and audio transparency are the principle advantages of digital wireless systems, but the positives certainly don’t end there. Digital wireless operators can also expect greater battery life, as well as enhanced privacy through encryption — perfect for information-sensitive events such as corporate conferencing.
The bottom line
The long and short of it is, digital wireless technology has reached a point where we can now leverage the many advantages to address the challenge of our modern RF environment. And, while analogue systems will not have inherent signal latency, even this minor drawback (less than three milliseconds in Shure digital systems) isn’t enough to ignore the huge gains in spectral efficiency. After all, the situation isn’t going to get any better. Wireless communication (particularly mobile) is entrenched into our daily lives and will continue to develop at a fast pace. Consumers will continue to expect increasing amounts of wireless tech — with relatively plug-and-play usability — all of which need to operate in the limited amount of spectrum available. Continuing to develop spectrally efficient digital wireless systems is one of the key ways we can continue to operate at the level audiences expect under progressively challenging conditions.
Live goes digital—and why phones aren’t the enemy
Nearly every aspect of discovering and attending a live event – bar, of course, the event itself – is now chiefly a digital one, with the finding of events, ticket purchase and the sharing of experiences with friends all primarily driven by digital channels.
That’s the conclusion of Decoding the Live Event Consumer, a new report by Mark Mulligan’s MIDiA Research which analysed the findings of a See Tickets/Schlesinger Associates survey of US consumers to deliver a comprehensive overview of the buying, discovery and sharing habits of eventgoers in 2015.
Advertising is, unsurprisingly, still the main way promoters get the word out about their events, with 78% of respondees saying they’d heard about a concert or other live event via a TV, radio, print or online ad. Online is by far the most heavily relied-upon platform – 63% found out about an event through an internet advertisement – with local radio in a distant second, at 14%.
However, social media – Facebook is by far the most popular – has leapfrogged recommendations from family and friends to make it to second place (58%, compared to the latter’s 57%), with mail from a band/sports team or festival in third (46%) and mail from ticketing companies and browsing a venue’s website in joint fifth (both 39%).
Online is by far the most heavily relied-upon platform for event discovery – and social media is now in second place
When it comes to buying, “search is the first step”, says the report, with half of eventgoers heading straight to a search engine to find out more about an event after they first hear about it.
While 57% ask others if they want to go before they buy tickets, a more impulsive 35% buy more than one ticket immediately without a clear idea of who they’ll take.
Over half of respondees said they compare ticket prices on price comparison sites, with 61% eventually buying tickets from ticketing companies’ websites and 58% from venues’ sites.
The tickets themselves are also becoming increasingly digital: 39% of eventgoers print e-tickets, and 29% use them as-is on their smartphones. Over half of physical ticketholders, however, keep them as a memento “for at least five years”.
Attitudes towards smartphones – “once seen as the bane of live events, and even viewed as threats to copyright and other intellectual property”, says MIDiA – are apparently changing, with 87% of live eventgoers using their phones to take photos and over half (55%) to shoot videos. “Creating a digital record of being at an event is now a default consumer experience,” says the report. “It is the digital extension of being physically present and watching a live music performance.”
“Creating a digital record of being at an event is now a default consumer experience. It is the digital extension of being physically present and watching a live music performance”
Seventy-six out of every 100 eventgoers post photos or other content on social media when at concerts and other events, and 65% use social notifications to let people know they are attending. The figure of 76% is higher among younger audiences and vice versa: under-36s are most likely to post (84%), compared to 64% of those over 36.
MIDiA offers a number of recommendations for marketing and selling live events to digitally native consumers, “especially millennials who have grown up on social media and instant access to services”, including:
- Acceptance and mastery of social media is key
“The use of smartphones in events is an invaluable form of brand promotion and can be leveraged to build engaged future attendee lists through tactics such as image competitions on social platforms”
- Eventgoers want fair pricing
“Though 55% of eventgoers will buy tickets immediately upon learning of a new event, only a minority will pay over the face value for a ticket”
- Physical tickets have intrinsic emotional value
“Older eventgoers are more likely to immediately throw out a ticket than millennials. This taps into the millennial consumer’s fascination with physical in the age”
The report can be purchased in full from the MiDIA Research website.
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