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Roundup: Wireless Guitar Gear

June 30, 2014
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Six guitar products that let you strut your stuff, untethered

More than other musicians, guitarists often find themselves tangled in a rat’s nest of cables connecting pedalboards, rackmount gear, and amps. But that doesn’t mean they have to stand in one spot when playing. For the musician who wants mobility, there is the wireless guitar system.

The idea is simple: Your guitar plugs into a transmitter that is clipped to your belt. The transmitter sends your guitar signal over high-frequency carrier waves to a receiver that is plugged into your pedalboard, effects rack, or amp. The system you choose should be easy to set up and use, free of signal dropouts, and allow you work at a distance from your gear that makes sense for the types of venues and stage sizes you play.

Five of the products in this roundup transmit audio; the Godin Custom Session TriplePlay transmits MIDI data. Although all of the audio systems were designed with guitarists in mind, they can be used with other instruments, as well.

To test the wireless systems I used three electric guitars—a Godin Custom Session TriplePlay, an Epiphone Genesis Pro, and a Brian Moore. Because each wireless system’s frequency response exceeds the range of the typical electric guitar, I auditioned everything through a Hartke KM60 keyboard amp and a MOTU UltraLite audio interface to see if there were any issues at the edges of the sound spectrum. (All prices are manufacturer’s suggested unless otherwise noted.)

Audio-Technica System 10 Stompbox
audio-technica.com
$614.95

Audio-Technica produces several System 10 wireless configurations, designed for various microphones and guitar. The System 10 Stompbox ATW-1501 departs from the bulky, rabbit-eared receiver by combining the ATW-R1500, a solidly constructed, metal stompbox receiver, with the ATW-T1001, a light but sturdy plastic transmitter. You can place the receiver within a pedalboard or plug it directly into your amp. The transmitter fastens to a belt with a rigid wire clip. A 3-foot cable connects the transmitter to the guitar, using a locking 4-pin connector that terminates in a 1/4" TS phone plug. The receiver includes a 9V power supply (and will work off external supplies of 9-12V, tip positive or negative), while the transmitter uses a pair of AA batteries (not included). Battery life is about seven hours.

The 24-bit digital wireless system operates on the 2.4GHz industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) band, keeping it well away from common types of television interference, including HDTV. To ensure a continuous, uninterrupted signal, the unit transmits on two frequencies. The system arrives already paired together at the factory. However, a button at the top of the receiver lets you change system ID numbers to accommodate additional transmitters. The illuminated display identifies which system ID is in use, and a 3-segment meter warns when your transmitter’s battery level is low. Two small LEDs are on the left side of the unit: One glows red when the input is overloaded, and the other glows green with a successful pairing.

The footswitch toggles the receiver between balanced TRS 1/4" outputs A and B, or mutes one for tuning. A small switch next to the power supply sets the receiver’s output mode so that, for example, the footswitch can mute the A output to temporarily access a tuner attached to the B output.

The transmitter’s input is factory-set for guitar level signals. However, you can remove the cover and adjust the input level with the supplied screwdriver. I would have preferred an external trim pot, as the trim screw feels fragile and could be at risk for stripping. Fortunately, the input seemed to be just right for my guitars, and the signal was clean and static-free, affording me a line-of-sight range of all 40' that my space allowed. (The system can reach a 60' radius.) According to Audio-Technica, in environments with more possible signal interference, the unit will dynamically search for and select cleaner frequencies without disturbing the output signal.

The System 10 Stompbox comes with a 2-year limited end-user warranty.

Intellitouch Freedom One WT1
onboardresearch.com
$149.95

The Intellitouch Freedom One represents the simplest and least-encumbered system covered here. Rather than relying on a clip-on body-pack that connects to your guitar with a 1/4" cable, the transmitter plugs directly into the guitar’s output jack. The receiver doubles as a stompbox tuner and can take its place as the first box in your pedalboard or plug directly into your amp. Stepping on the pedal toggles the tuning function, which mutes the guitar output. You can also plug directly into the receiver and use it as a tuner, passing the signal through its output.

The 24-bit digital wireless transmitter and receiver are constructed of high-impact plastic, and the transmitter swivels from the end of the plug, enabling it to accommodate virtually any location on the guitar’s body where the jack plate might be mounted. The package supplies a 9V battery for the receiver; optionally, you can use a power supply. You also get a AAA battery with the transmitter. The company promises 10 continuous hours of battery life.

There are no channels or frequencies to set: The unit automatically selects the best of 18 channels. Simply power up the transmitter and receiver, and you are connected. The unit broadcasts at 2.4 GHz. Intellitouch claims an effective broadcasting range of 30', but I was able to achieve 40' (and probably could have squeezed more from it).

A button on the transmitter engages the unit’s Soundcheck mode, which provides a visible confirmation of your range boundaries—green when you are within range or flashing red when you’ve lost contact with the receiver. Its range makes the unit ideal for small stages and situations where you aren’t expecting to play at great distances from your rig.

The system’s frequency response is listed as 10 Hz to 20 kHz, which will more than adequately cover the range of any electric or acoustic guitar. I plugged the receiver into my amp, and the signal was clear and clean, and to my ear at least, equal to any of the more expensive units in this roundup.

Line 6 Relay G50
line6.com
$399.99 street

Line 6 offers several digital wireless guitar systems. The G50 pairs their standard TBP12 transmitter with the G50 RXS 12 receiver, a stompbox-style unit that sits on the floor in-line with a pedalboard, though there’s nothing to step on. Instead, two antennae lock to the left side of the floor unit. The G50’s range is double that of the Relay G30—200', line-of-sight.

Both the receiver and transmitter have solid metal, built-like-a-tank construction. The transmitter, rather than the receiver, carries most of the informational display, which could make it more difficult to consult without careful positioning. The transmitter clip is rigid metal, maybe a bit more rigid than I am used to, requiring extra force to pry open and fit on a belt, guitar strap, or shirt. However, I was confident that once it was positioned, it was not likely to fall off.

Two AA batteries power the Relay body-pack transmitter. On power up, the battery light glows blue when fully charged, glows red as a low-power warning, and flashes red when it’s time to change batteries. The light next to it glows green when audio is present. The LCD includes a countdown of the number of hours left in the battery.

Most of the controls are conveniently placed on the transmitter, and the switches feel smooth and solid. Setup uses two buttons situated just below the display, including naming, setting the transmission channel (it can access 14 channels, although the G50 receiver offers 12), and high or low power consumption. The low-power setting extends battery life, but limits the wireless range and leaves the system more vulnerable to RF interference. Nonetheless, the low-power settings were acceptable and are ideally suited for folk clubs and jazz gigs, where your typical venue is smaller. Once you have made your settings, press and hold the two buttons to lock the settings.

The receiver has a relatively simple interface. In addition to the antennae, you get a pair of unbalanced 1/4" outputs, a main out, and an auxiliary output for a tuner or another amp. A 9V wall-wart power supply is provided.

Take note of the unit’s Cable Tone knob, which helps you match the wireless tone to a cabled signal that you might also be using. A second knob on the receiver is used to match the channel ID with the transmitter. Pairing is quick and painless, and the signal is clean, dynamic, and nuanced.

Sennheiser XSW 72
sennheiser.com
$399.95

Sennheiser markets several versions of their XS Wireless line, including systems for microphones and headsets. Specifically for guitar, the XSW 72 package includes a body-pack transmitter. Unlike the other units covered here, the XSW 72 is analog and operates within the 500 to 600MHz range. Because these frequencies may be more densely populated (and subject to RF), it’s good that you can tune to any of 960 frequencies. True Diversity enables the EM-10 receiver to compare two signals and continuously shunt to the strongest. The unit stores eight banks, each of which can hold up to 12 preset channels.

The EM-10 is housed in a light-but-solid 1/2RU metal body with a backlit LCD. In addition to a Sync button and small volume knob, it offers three multifunction buttons that govern navigation and menu selection.

A pair of BNC connectors for the antennae skirt the rear panel, which also holds XLR and unbalanced 1/4-inch outputs. A switch squelches unwanted interference from other signals, although its awkward positioning next to the power socket can make access difficult.

Powered by AA batteries, the SK20 bodypack is a relatively simple, lightweight unit housed in metal and backed with a wire clip. A flexible, nondetachable antenna sits at the top. Just below the power switch is the Sync button, which initiates the pairing process. A small red light at the top of the transmitter confirms on or off status, and behind it, a yellow light activates when you hit the mute switch sitting to its left. A plastic 4-position switch lets you boost the transmitter’s amplitude in 10dB increments. I would have preferred a more expensive switch or continuous rotary control, as this one felt rigid and subject to wear and tear.

Finding a frequency was a bit difficult given the three buttons governing the menu of manual tuning, preset selection, or scanning (which will search for the strongest frequency available). Once settled on a channel and frequency, you only need to hit the Sync button on the transmitter and then on the receiver. After a band was established, the signal was clean and stable, with a frequency response of 50 Hz to 15 kHz.

The XSW 72 seemed less susceptible to line-of-sight issues, allowing a stronger signal where walls and doors blocked a direct line to the receiver; frequencies in the UHF range have a longer wavelength, are less directional, and are less subject to absorption than frequencies in the 2.4GHz range.

Shure GLXD16
shure.com
$449 street

The GLXD6’s metal stompbox receiver is compact, but hefty and solid. This, the GLXD1 transmitter, and proprietary cable, comprise the GLXD system. The forward-thinking design incorporates powerful, rechargeable batteries and a built-in guitar tuner in the receiver that can switch from the standard display to a strobe display, which can be more handy onstage.

The GLXD transmitter hosts a minimum of buttons or controls. Other than the power switch and a link button nested with the mini- USB charging port on the side, you’ll find a four-pin connector for the proprietary guitar cable; an LED that indicates linkage, power, and battery-charging status; the antenna; and the battery well. The metal-encased transmitter, with its solid, professional construction, has high-quality switches and buttons throughout. The batteries retain up to 16 hours of charge, and a quick recharge of 15 minutes will garner about an hour-and-a-half of battery time. Charging options are flexible, requiring either a wall-wart power supply or USB.

Built like a tank, the GLXD6 receiver has a raised surface that flanks the display and controls to prevent wear. The footswitch sits just below the protectors for easy access. I prefer the unit’s lump-in-the-line power supply, as it takes up less real estate at the socket than a wall wart.

All setup is handled via the foot pedal, and given the amount of allotted workspace, the buttons are easily accessed and sensibly laid out. Yet there was little for me to do: The transmitter and receiver connected instantly on power-up. Should you need to reprogram the pedal, it’s simple to group multiple receivers, and you get a choice of presets based on how many receivers you need to accommodate: Hold down the Group button momentarily until it flashes and hit the same button repeatedly to cycle to the group you want.

Hitting the Channel button in a similar fashion accesses the channel you want. Then hit the corresponding Link button on the appropriate transmitter, and you are set. Tap the footswitch and the receiver mutes its output and puts you in tuning mode. Group and Channel buttons double as increment and decrement buttons, and Tuning mode switches between a needle or strobe display. The bright display can be seen easily while playing.

Shure claims an effective range of around 200', line-of-sight, and a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The GLXD16’s signal was powerful, clean, and detailed.

Godin Custom Session TriplePlay
godinguitars.com
$1,095 street

The Custom Session TriplePlay does not send audio over its wireless system—only MIDI. For guitarists used to the standard 13-pin DIN cable that feeds a guitar-to-MIDI converter, wireless is a great relief, as most 13-pin cables succumb to shorts and are generally expensive to replace.

The guitar I reviewed featured a maple neck and a basswood body, resembling a sort of hybrid Telecaster/Stratocaster design with a neck-position humbucker, a bridge-position single-coil pickup, and a five-position switch allowing you to get a wide variety of tones. Fishman’s TriplePlay MIDI pickup was factory-mounted, with its controls and transmitter built into the guitar. The divided pickup is just the right distance from the strings, though Godin provides the tools to make adjustments.

The TriplePlay is powered up from a switch mounted in the back of the guitar body. The receiver, a USB device that plugs directly into your computer, has a button that lets you pair it with the system. Alternately, you can do that from a button on the back of the guitar. Achieving a link is quick and painless. The Custom Session TriplePlay relies on a proprietary 2.4GHz ISM band. There are no channels or frequencies to search for: As soon as the light on the receiver glows a steady red, you are paired and ready to play.

The unit is powered by a rechargeable battery embedded in the controller, and it can run for about 20 hours before recharging. A mini-USB port in the back of the guitar’s body accepts a cable for charging.

Godin provides a suite of software tools, including Fishman’s TriplePlay host software, along with Native Instruments Komplete Elements (essentially, limited versions of Guitar Rig, Reaktor, and Kontakt, with patches optimized for guitar), PreSonus Studio One Artist, IK SampleTank, and Notion Music Progression. These are more than simply bonus software packages; they are hosted by the TriplePlay software, which includes the setup and tuning of the guitar and can be launched from the guitar itself, wirelessly. The software works standalone or as a VST plug-in. However, you can easily set up any software instrument or DAW to work with the unit.

Remarkably, the tracking from this guitar system is superb—accurate and articulate. And while my line-of-sight traveling space was limited, I had no problem transmitting from upwards of 40'. (Godin claims a range of up to 100'.)

Although there is no official support as yet for iOS devices, I connected the receiver to a USB camera interface with my iPad 3 and was playing its synth apps with equally excellent tracking and no perceivable latency. Likewise, if you have a portable MIDI interface with a USB input, such as the Kenton USB MIDI Host, you can play hardware synths without a computer (although you will need the computer to tweak sensitivity and other performance parameters).

Marty Cutler’s music draws from decades of experience as a bluegrass banjo player and electronic musician. He has worked with a range of artists, including Tex Logan, Peter Rowan, and Twyla Tharp.

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