Rode’s new performance-oriented wireless set promises ease of use and robust performance.
Headed by the enigmatic Peter Freedman, Rode microphones may have started out small but they now occupy a huge industrial site on the edge of Sydney, Australia. Here Rode design and build their own microphones from the ground up, making effective use of some seriously sophisticated robotic machinery to maintain efficiency as well as consistency of quality. The company recently bought Soundfield from their UK owners and appointed their top engineer, Pieter Schillebeeckx, as head of microphone development for Rode, so it doesn’t seem like they plan to slow down any time soon.
We’re all familiar with Rode’s studio mics, and anyone into video and film-making will have seen countless camera-mounted microphones sporting the Rode logo, but now they’re extending their range of affordable radio mic kits to the live performance market.
The RodeLink Performer Kit is based around a hand-held TX-M2 back-electret capacitor microphone with built-in transmitter, and its companion the RX-Desk desktop receiver. The kit is intended for use by performing musicians, speakers at events, lecturers and so on. Included with the kit is a universal-voltage PSU for the receiver, complete with various mains plug adaptors, a micro-USB cable for charging the included LB-1 lithium-Ion battery pack in the microphone, a mic clip and a soft case for the mic. A multi-language, quick-start guide steers you through the essentials. There’s no plastic carry case for the kit, just the pouch for the mic, though the cardboard box that it comes in is pretty robust.
Transmission employs 128-bit digital encryption, and three types of diversity enhance the reliability of transmission: signals are sent over two channels at the same time, data packets are sent twice to avoid errors, and having two antennae enables the system to select the best signal path. A simple link routine pairs the transmitter and receiver for easy setup, and the set operates on the licence-free 2.4GHz band using series II 2.4GHz digital transmission.
The designers tell us that as the systems are totally encrypted, and able to hop around the 2.4GHz spectrum as necessary, you could have up to eight different systems turned on in the same room, straight out of the box, all set to channel 1, and they still would not interfere with each other! This is particularly important for users of the filmmaker version of their kit — if, for example, a video crew is covering a trade show and they pass somebody else using the same system set to the same channel, then there should be no interference.
It seems that eight channels is the practical maximum for any system working in the 2.4GHz band, so you probably wouldn’t choose a 2.4GHz system for a Broadway or West End musical, but for a typical gigging band, guest speaker or lecturer, it provides a very practical solution. The lithium-ion battery allows around 10 hours of continuous use, or two AA alkaline batteries can be used instead to give a run time of more than six hours; the receiver shows the battery status to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Once up and running, the range can be up to 100 metres in ideal conditions, but in most practical situations, the receiver is likely to be much closer, often at the side of the stage. Walls and other obstacles will reduce the range as they would with any radio system.
The mic is longer than a typical corded mic, at 256mm, and it is quite wide, at 40mm, but it has a similar weight to a wired vocal microphone and it fits comfortably in the hand. Safely tucked away under the base of the mic is the power button, and this needs to be pressed and held for a few seconds to power up or down. A discrete LED shows when the mic is on, and this shines green when the mic and receiver are communicating with each other.
A lockable slide switch can be used to mute the mic. However, Rode have come up with something sneakily clever in that regard. The slide switch on the mic appears to work as it would on any other mic and has a screw to lock it in place if that’s what you prefer. However, if the performer does switch the mic off when it should be on, it can be reactivated by pressing the mute button on the receiver. Very useful.
Unscrewing the body sleeve reveals a small numeric window showing the channel to which the mic is set, a red pairing button, and a micro-USB port for charging. There’s no dedicated charger supplied with this kit but pretty much any USB power supply will do the job (I tend to use a surge-protected power strip with two integral USB power outlets at gigs as that can also charge the iPad I use for mixer control). Gold-plated terminals at the tail end of the mic interface with an optional ‘drop-in’ charging dock — an unusual option for a mic in this price range. Beneath the wire basket, which can be unscrewed for cleaning, is a hypercardioid-pattern back-electret capsule, identical to the one in the Rode M2 wired mic, specified with a 35Hz-20kHz frequency range and capable of handling SPLs of up to 140dB. This particular capsule is voiced to ensure clarity of both spoken word and sung vocals, and to my ears exhibits a more ‘open’ sound than a typical dynamic microphone.
A system dynamic range of 118dB is quoted along with a figure of below 4ms for latency (mic input to receiver output). All radio systems add some latency, which is negligible if using floor monitors, but if you add the latency of a digital mixing desk and a further transmitter to feed in-ear monitoring, the cumulative delay might be enough to perceive as slight ‘out-of-phase-ness’ when what’s heard in the earbuds combines with what you hear through natural bone conduction. This is simply a fact of digital life and something we have to learn to adapt to — but it is worth pointing out that some of the ‘big-name’ European radio mic systems costing rather more introduce considerably more latency than this system.
The RX-Desk receiver operates on the diversity principle, where two detachable external antenna screw onto rear-panel coaxial connectors. A screw-lock connector attaches the power cord from the 15V PSU to the receiver body so it isn’t going to come unplugged by accident. Both line- and mic-level XLR outputs are catered for by means of a mic/line switch, and the connection options are balanced XLR or unbalanced, line-only quarter-inch jack. Overall, the case measures just 208 x 37 x 166 mm and weighs 792g.
Around the front there’s a window for showing the receive channel, battery condition, signal status, level and peak indicator. Also on the front panel are a red pairing button, a mute button, a button for stepping through the channels, and two buttons for controlling gain. The gain can be adjusted in 10dB steps from -20 to +20 dB using the +/- dB buttons, and there’s a recessed power button over on the right. Apparently the digital signal path will only clip at a point just above the overload point of the capsule, which is already quite high, so getting the peak indicator to come on is a real challenge.
Before listening to the mic I wanted to check out the pairing process to see if it was indeed as easy as claimed. First the red button on the receiver must be pressed, which causes the channel number in the display to blink. The Channel button can then be used to step through to the desired channel. All that remains is to slip back the mic body sleeve and press the red pairing button inside, at which point a flashing letter P appears in the mic display and pairing completes automatically, with the P being replaced by the chosen channel number. That all worked as it should. Prior to pairing or when first powering up the system, the small power LED at the end of the mic shows orange but turns green when the mic is paired and in communication with the receiver.
The metering section in the centre of the receiver display is arranged as three blocks, the lower two green and the top one yellow. Below the channel number is the transmitter battery status and to the right the radio link strength and the input gain setting.
Operationally this system sounds as clean as a wired mic, with the latency so low as to be negligible, no perceptible noise and none of the side effects of those horrible compander systems that were used in analogue radio mics to keep the noise down. If you go out of range the mic will mute politely rather than having everything dissolve in a sea of noise, but during my tests using typical live stage dimensions and a brick wall as an obstacle, I never had anything less than perfect reception. For my tests I used a mini line-array PA system, which has near-hi-fi sound quality, and the RodeLink Performer sounded really solid and clear at all times. It also turned out to be virtually impossible to overload the mic. In fact the only trick that’s been missed is one I saw on a European system I checked out a couple of years ago, where turning off the receiver automatically turned off any transmitters paired with it to save battery life.
So to summarise, the RodeLink system provides an effective and affordable solution for anyone needing a radio mic. It sounds just like a Rode wired M2 mic and works reliably over a more than adequate range without fuss. It can be used in systems of up to eight channels without the hassle or the expense of a licence, and the TX/RX components are fully compatible with other RodeLink, Filmmaker and Newsshooter products.
Most of the European mic manufacturers offer their own 2.4GHz wireless systems nowadays, as do Line 6.