Organizing wireless system hardware and keeping track of it at busy shows/events.

So, you’ve done your scan, frequency coordination, antenna placement, walk-around and war-gaming tests, and everything works.

All of your wireless transmitters are resting comfortably in their metal trays, the batteries are good and line check has verified that all of your units are sending audio where they’re supposed to. What else can go wrong?

Well, for one, a presenter or performer can end up with the wrong transmitter in his/her hand at a critical moment. Wireless microphones, being, well, wireless, have a much greater chance of ending up in the wrong place than a mic that’s tethered to a certain spot on the stage via its cable. (Not that I haven’t seen this as well, in the bad old days of horrible, messed-up festival stages where there could be a 50-foot mic cable stretched across a stage at 45-degree angle. But that’s another article…)

Logical Path
Ensuring that wireless hardware is deployed correctly during an event starts with pre-production. If you have control over the racking of the gear on the show build, try to make sure that the equipment is laid out in a logical manner.

My preference is to start with the lowest frequency band gear in the top of the rack and then work in sequence to higher bands as required so that “RF-1” is the top left unit, “RF-2” the top right, and so on.

This ensures that any paperwork generated by a frequency coordination program (or sent out to the network by a management program like Shure Wireless Workbench 6 or Sennheiser Wireless System Manager) will – hopefully – have the transmitters in order from lowest to highest. (I discuss this topic more fully here.)

Once you’re on site, making sure that there’s a suitable tech area to lay out and label all of the hardware is vital. This is typically a table with an area marked out for each transmitter and its corresponding tray. There should also be enough space for one to two laptops, spectrum analyzers, batteries, and above all, the script and/or show run-down.

The next step is allocating the mics. It’s really important to be on top of this during rehearsals, as everyone is going to want to see the same mic(s) that an act rehearsed with used during the show.

My technique is to work through the order (i.e., first up RF-1, then RF-2, and so on) like a baseball batting line-up. There are several reasons for this. First, it helps in making sure that each transmitter gets about an equal amount of use, rather than starting over at RF-1 for each act. This evens out battery consumption and more evenly distributes the possibility of handling mishaps (like a unit being dropped).

Second, it helps to avoid the situation where a mic or mics have to “travel” quickly from place-to-place to make the next cue, as in situations where, say, a presenter walks off stage left with a mic while the next presenter is in the wings, stage right, waiting for that same mic.

Third, there’s sufficient opportunity to wipe down each mic with an alcohol prep pad between use, partly for general hygiene, partly as a courtesy to the talent (which is even better if they see you do this), and partly because even though I don’t own the gear, I treat it like I do because it’s quite likely that I’m going to end up using it again down the road.

Finally, this approach is better for the crew who are pre-setting musical acts back stage, because they can set a whole act’s worth of inputs without having to wait and run the vocal mics out during the changeover.

On that front, keep in mind that the people you are handing the mics off to for a band set-up (usually the patch techs) may not be the same folks who are striking the band risers during the show (the stagehands), so occasionally you may have to find time to go and search struck band risers for mics that didn’t make it back to home base.

One other hardware note: in situations where there are two different transmitters on the same frequency, such as a belt pack and a handheld that get used at different points in the show, it’s a good idea to pull the battery out of the transmitter that’s not in use so that there’s zero chance that they’ll both be on at the same time.

Charting It
To keep track of “what mics went where” during rehearsals, I use a simple spreadsheet devised some years ago while working on a TV variety show. Figure 1 is a screenshot of this sheet from a past show.

As you can see, all of the RF devices are listed down the left hand side, while the performances and their time slot and item number are listed across the top. Note that this particular sheet doesn’t show the mics moving around that much because the first two segments are the same act, up twice.

organizing wireless system hardware - organizational spreadsheet

Figure 1: Screenshot of the simple spreadsheet developed by the author to keep things organized.

The grayed-out columns are my way of indicating that the segment has been and gone. Other features of the chart are an area on the far left to check off when batteries have been changed for the show and a “Notes” area on the far right for any further useful information. By the way, this chart could just as easily be set up on a dry-erase board at a long-term installation like a church.

Another common approach to keeping track of transmitters, especially with “traffic” (i.e., presenter) units is to make notes in your script, or more commonly your show run-down. (Most tech folks don’t want or need a script, which has way too much paper and detail most of the time, except in theatre, where it’s an essential.)

The big challenge here is that these documents almost always change a lot, sometimes several times a day and invariably with a new one on show day. So you either end up copying and re-copying your notes from one revision to the next, or picking a version and sticking with it and trying to keep track of the changes. I generally do a combination of the two, culminating in marking up the final version before the show. I find this helps me review all of the moves while at the same time ensuring that I end up using the version that the show runs to.

One really important part of the wireless tech gig is communication. For example, last year as the mic A-2 for the Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammys, a much smaller show than in the U.S., but hey, it sells the doughnuts) and again this year on the TED Talks, I spent a huge amount of my time on intercom, on the radio, and just walking around to various mix positions asking “Have you heard about this change at item 47?” “Did you get the note about item 63 now being Traffic 1, 2, and 3, along with the host’s mic?” and so on—just making sure that everyone was literally on the same page.

It paid off. Both shows ran very smoothly, without a single hiccup. And that’s the whole point, right?

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