Regardless of your preferences: analog vs. digital, touch screen vs. buttons, DVD vs. Flashcard, or simply, loyalty to one brand over another, everyone must agree that during the last 10 years Zaxcom has blazed the trail for new sound technologies in film and video production with a very influential sword. Zaxcom was the first to put nonlinear recording on the set which now seems to be the only way film production is recorded. Zaxcom was the first to put digital wireless systems on the set which is growing in acceptance and likely to become as standard as nonlinear recording. Zaxcom even put digital transmitters that are also recorders on the set–also likely to become a standard practice. Whether you use all of these things now or not, you probably will in the future. And when you do, whichever brand you choose to go with, you can thank Zaxcom for being creative enough, brave enough, and for working hard enough to make their vision our new reality.
However, that trail is often blazed with a sword that cuts two ways…
Being “the first” must put an immense amount of pressure on manufacturers, because it seems that, with new products, too often there are loose ends to tidy up. As you’ll see below, I believe the TRX-992 is a remarkable achievement that will, if not become the standard, at least be the predecessor of the standard. But we were able to test all of the unique features only after extensive, time-consuming, and frustrating efforts to sort out firmware revisions and undocumented boot-up settings. Even today, early March 4, 2009, the recently revised manual contains no information on how to setup and use most of the communications abilities of the TRX-992. Part of a good vendor’s responsibility is to protect the end-user from these burdens. For this reason, Trew Audio will not recommend the TRX-992 until the product can be shipped from the manufacturer properly documented, properly configured, and ready for the customer to use. It might happen soon, but it will have to happen before we recommend the product to our customers.
The TRX-992 is designed to answer all of the dilemmas and limitations that accompany cumbersome wireless boom microphone rigs. Here’s a list of some common problems and basic answers followed by Zaxcom’s specific solutions.
Customary answers for wireless boom needs:
1) Phantom power for the boom microphone. Answer: External power supply box (unless using a plug-on type transmitter).
2) Wireless monitoring for the boom operator. Answer: External Comtek or Lectro IFB receiver.
3) Private talkback from the boom operator to the mixer. Answer: Out of luck.
4) Protection of audio in the case of a drop-out. Answer: Out of luck.
5) Full day battery life. Answer: Rechargeable external NP-1 battery.
The TRX-992 accomplishes the boom operator’s wireless microphone needs, complete with 48V phantom power, 2-way private communication*, long-lasting internal rechargeable battery, and high quality recorder, all-in-one compact belt-worn box. Mission mostly accomplished.
In my awareness of most A to B comparisons made with the goal of choosing the wireless system that sounds most like a hardwired mic, the Zaxcom digital wireless has long been accepted as being the best sounding for film and video production. Since such a statement can make other wireless mic manufacturers rise up, I’ll point out that “best sounding” alone does not make any particular wireless system the best choice, particularly when there are other darn good sounding systems out there with their own fortés. Anyway, suffice it to say, if the TRX-992 proves to sound as good as other Zaxcom wireless systems (which it seemed to in the short time I listened to it) its audio quality is more than adequate, if not the best sounding.
The TRX-992 system consists of the belt-worn transceiver/recorder, the receiver, and, if wireless monitoring is wanted, the IFB transmitter.
The first thing about TRX-992 that sets it apart from other wireless mic transmitters is that it has a headphone connector on the top. Of course, it would have a headphone jack, since it is also for boom operator to monitor. But after using it, it occurred to me that it sure would be nice if all transmitters had a headphone jack, allowing the mic to be heard without having to listen only through the receiver. To be fair, of course, a headphone jack would make bodypack transmitters larger when small size is a primary goal, but the point is that it is a very useful feature which goes beyond simply being a way for the boom op to monitor.
The next thing you notice is that the TRX-992 has two control knobs on the top. The first knob is for the boom operator’s headphone loudness. The second knob pans between listening directly to the boom mic (fully clockwise) and listening to the IFB signal (fully counter-clockwise). Boom operators can mix these two sources in their heaphones as desired, and there are occasions when they would want to do just that, such as:
1. When monitoring the program signal from the mixer through the IFB receiver, the boom op would want to have the monitor pan pot fully in the IFB position.
2. If the boom op wanted to hear only their microphone (and not other microphones it the mix) but also wanted to hear their boss talk to them through the IFB, then they would keep the monitor pan somewhere between IFB and Direct–achieving their desired balance between the two.
3. If going out alone with a boom mic to record sound effects directly to the TRX-992’s recorder, the boom op would put the monitor pan fully in the Direct position.
The TRX-992 is complex, but only because it has so many capabilities from which to choose. For example, it’s menu-driven features include a high quality recorder with full timecode and metadata options, and it writes to removable SD flashcard. It has two levels of IFB monitoring quality–high and low. In the low quality position (still better than most other wireless monitoring options) it can receive external timecode for its recorder. If timecode is not an important option (most of the time, probably) then the high quality mode is chosen. It has two internal switches for Phantom power ON/OFF and MIC/LINE level inputs. There is a lot this device can do.
It should be said that while the TRX-992 internal IFB monitoring is of superior sound quality than many other systems traditionally used, the range of its 2.4GHZ transmitter will be shorter–long enough range most of the time, but comparatively shorter. For this reason, and to remove susceptibility of a low-level tone being induced into the IFB circuit when located directly next to the receiver while the IFB is in high-power mode, a small external IFB antenna is recommended.
It’s great that the TRX-992 has an internal, replaceable, high capacity, fast-rechargeable battery–one that is even available inexpensively at Home Depot (or Lowes, or Ace or other places that sell Black and Decker tools). It’s also great that it is Lithium Ion because it is small, light weight and lasts a long time. But the “green” accolade is quite a stretch. Come on now… let’s be real here. The only “green” way to use a boom microphone is to use a cable, like they did in the days before global warming–no batteries required.
One of the more unique features of the TRX-992 is that the “up arrow” can be selected to be a talkback button (just don’t expect to find it in the manual today ). This is a very interesting feature to me because one of the limitations of traditional wireless boom rigs is the inability to talk back privately, wirelessly, to the person operating the mixer. As someone who uses a hardwire system with full duplex private communication, I can attest to its value and usefulness. However, as clever as the Zaxcom talkback feature is, I believe it’s also where the system falls short, as I’ll explain.
The TRX-992 does not have the ability to use a separate talkback microphone, requiring that the boom operator still talk into the boom mic. The talkback becomes “private” when the boom operator presses the talkback button because it is then muted in the receiver’s channel 1 (taking it out of the program mix listened to by everyone on the set) and redirects it to the receiver’s channel 2, which is then fed into the mixer’s communication input. In addition to the possibility of accidental muting of the boom mic while recording (though very unlikely), there are several shortcomings with this approach. First, the boom mic is often 18 feet away when the boom operator has something important to say. Second, it is disconcerting when the boom mic suddenly disappears from the program each time the boom operator presses the push-to-talk button. Third, if the boom operator is listening only to the IFB for their monitoring and communication (typically the way I operate), then their voice disappears from their own headphones when using the talkback. Fourth, since the Sound Mixer is already listening to the boom mic in their mix, even though the boom mic is removed from the mix when the boom operator uses talkback, it seamlessly reappears in the communications channel. This means that the Sound Mixer cannot tell that the boom operator has made the communication private. In other words, the boom mic sounds exactly the same to the Sound Mixer whether others can hear it or not. This issue is addressed somewhat at the boom operator’s end, in that a low level tone is produced in their headphones when pressing the talkback button. If the same tone could be superimposed at the Sound Mixer’s end when talkback is activated, it would be a big improvement. Since it is common for Zaxcom products to evolve when things can be changed with firmware revisions, hopefully the “talkback indicator tone” can be added to the receiver as well.
Though traditional taped together wireless boom systems are a bit clunky, the only thing that’s really missing from them functionally is the ability to communicate privately. This is ironic because, for me, the exciting prospect about a wireless boom “do-all” box was the inclusion of private two-way communication, which, I’m afraid, is largely still missing in the TRX-992. This is particularly frustrating because, from what I can tell, a separate talkback mic (external input, preferably) could have been implemented.
There you go: The good, and the bleeding cutting edge. With all that said, pretty much everyone who uses wireless booms (a growing majority) has been surviving without private communication. And though I’m still hoping for the TRX-993 (with separate talkback mic), for those of us using two, three, or even four boxes for our wireless boom rigs, the Zaxcom TRX-992 doing it all—and even more—with one box, will make it that much easier to do our jobs better.