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Wireless microphones turn in star performances at Oscars

The 81st Academy Awards telecast was a highly anticipated event, with producers promising a revamped format centered on host Hugh Jackman. But one thing that hadn’t changed was the event’s dependence on wireless microphones. Along with Jackman, virtually every singer and presenter in the Kodak Theater was miked via wireless bodypack. A total of 44 channels were required overall, and Dave Bellamy of Burbank, CA-based Soundtronics was charged with making it happen without a hitch.

Systems were supplied by ATK Audiotek along with Soundtronics and comprised a combination of Shure and Sennheiser systems, split about equally. All Shure systems were the company’s UHF-R line, incorporating both the standard UR1 and micro-sized UR1M transmitters. The Sennheiser installation featured EM3532 receivers accepting signals from both SK5012 and SK5212 bodypacks.

To keep track of the local wireless spectrum, Soundtronics owner and Oscars RF wrangler Dave Bellamy uses a COM 120B analyzer by IFB Systems. “It’s military spec and highly sensitive. I have to get a good picture of what the noise floor is doing. That helps me tune the antenna system, which is really the key,” Bellamy said. Using the Soundtronics Phoenix III antenna system, reception was maximized while the noise floor was minimized. Frequencies were coordinated among wireless mics, in-ear systems, RFPLs and IFBs.

Frequency assignments were based on the application versus the local spectrum map, with line of sight to the antenna system being the key factor. “I basically study and find the cleanest part of the spectrum and which is dirtiest. That’s usually a consequence of what’s happening with the other electronics onstage rather than what’s coming from the outside. I take the cleanest spectrum and I give it to the people who are going to be wearing lavaliers. A bodypack may be inside a costume, taped to the thigh, and those performers are moving,” Bellamy said.

With years of experience at this and other L.A. area events, Bellamy knew that the key to success was planning and implementation. The biggest threats to wireless operation actually came from inside the building, with RF noise coming from sources like the lighting grid and the video projection system. “The goal was to run as little gain as possible. It's a loud stage,” he said. “That takes antennas with a lot of gain and directionality, and more power. The more power I have coming off the transmitters, the more I can turn down the gain, and then less noise comes into the system."

Surprisingly, the dirtiest spectrum was used for the most critical microphones — the podiums, which are also wireless. “That’s because line of sight is guaranteed. The podiums use Schoeps mics and the Shure UR1 bodypack set to 100mW output,” Bellamy said. “That maximizes my signal to noise ratio.” Handheld mics get the middle ground frequencies, because they are generally held in clear view.

Host Hugh Jackman wore two Shure UR1M micro bodypacks with Sennheiser MKE Platinum lavalier mics. “(Broadcast mixer) Ed Green prefers the sound of the Platinums,” Bellamy said, “and the new Shure packs are the very reliable.” In the opening number, Jackman was required to stick his head through a series of cutouts, taking his transmitters out of the line of sight. To compensate, each of those cutouts had its own wireless, with Sennheiser 5012 transmitters and MKE Platinum mics.

For the nominee announcements, done by sets of five presenters, each was fitted with a Sennheiser bodypack. Most musical numbers were done with bodypack systems as well, with custom-fit headbands and model 4066 omnidirectional mics from DPA. In general, bodypacks were hidden in costumes — everywhere from suit pockets to Beyonce’s top hat.

At the end of the day, the broadcast was both a critical and technical success — the latter of which comes as no surprise to Bellamy. “It’s not like we’re dodging bullets right up until curtain time,” he said. “We know what the show is and what the mics are going to be. We’ve done a system design; we’ve done the frequency coordination. And we’ve done this before.”