Like every other piece of electronic equipment you’ve ever used or owned, the microphone has a storied history. What was once a huge and inconvenient contraption transmitting signals to a receiver through a long cable is now a sleek, lightweight, and portable device. We did some research and sat down with Brian Walker, an audio expert who works in Market Development at Sennheiser, and put together this brief timeline of the wireless microphone.
- The 1950’s. There’s a lot of speculation about who invented the first wireless microphone – there are various claims online – but we do know the onset of them was in the ’50s, when several individuals and companies patented their own wireless products. In 1951, Herbert McClelland of McClelland Sound made a small wireless microphone worn by umpires during a baseball game (a transmitter was strapped to their back). The first claim of a wireless microphone system came in 1953 from audio company Shure Brothers, but the microphone could only go about 15 feet away from the receiver. Sennheiser‘s first wireless microphone also arrived in the ’50s as well. “It was a box about the size of two water bottles and it hung on your back and had an antenna that came up the back of your jacket and clipped to your collar,” said Brian. “It held six big D-cell batteries and could last for 90 minutes.”
- The 1970’s. The biggest problem with the early wireless microphone systems was their sound quality and limited range. Audio company Nady Systems helped improve that in 1976 by introducing companding, which is the process of compressing the dynamic range of a signal before transmitting it to the receiver.
- The 1980’s. While they had been around for almost thirty years, the first huge demand for wireless microphone systems didn’t come until the 80s. Theater productions were growing and more actors on stage meant more microphones were necessary. Many Broadway productions at the time featured lots of dancing and moving around stage, says Brian, so that helped increase the need for discreet and wireless microphones.
- The 2000’s. The FCC banned the use of wireless microphones that operated on the 700 MHz band in 2010 to reserve those frequencies for police, fire, and emergency services and mobile and broadband voice carriers, which rendered hundreds of existing models obsolete.This created a need for new wireless microphone systems and paved the way for upgrades in technology, which brings us to …
- Today. The next wave in wireless microphones systems is digital, and according to Brian, where the future will continue to head. Digital wireless systems have better audio quality and the ability to put more sound frequencies in a specific spectrum. “When you’re trying to put a lot of wireless microphones on stage, you can do that in digital,” says Brian. “And the audio quality is unbelievable.”