Radio for Small Sound Productions

Hey everyone!
I’m totally new to this 2 way radio thing. I am a sound engineer, and am now producing a few of my own small scale productions. The production companies I currently work with all have Motorola radios.

I need 2 way radios that will have the ability to have the external microphones. We are often clipping them to our collars and such. Not opposed to suggestions for budget or high $$. I want to find the best for my situation.

I am beyond confused as to what to get, what I can broadcast on frequency wise. Do i need an FCC license or not?

I’m open to any and all suggestions. Would rather do things right from the start and not have headaches. Feel free to suggest web sites for reading and research. I’ll try not to ask stupid questions.


You can get good headsets regardless of the radio. You just need to match the pins. (They are specific to the brand and the model.) There is a huge variety of headsets for two-way radios available. Check out our forum host’s website.

For your purposes, you may want to consider the “surveillance” style headset. They come with an earpiece that goes in your ear, a curly plastic audio tube behind the ear and a separate mic you clip to your short or collar. The reason why I think these would work best is because you can wear them underneath monitor headphones. I personally like the 1.5 wire headset because there is one wire from the radio to the mic, and a second wire goes to the headset. Others like the 2-wire because they can dangle the mic out the front of their shirt or jacket.

The best advice on headsets, based on wearing them 12-hours for the past 25-years, is to not buy cheap. Get good quality headsets, and especially ones where you can get replacement parts. The clear plastic audio tubes get brittle after a few years, and once you get the tiniest microscopic crack, they need replacing.

If you get the surveillance headsets with the clear plastic audio tube and the plug that goes in your ear, throw the plug away and replace them with ear moulds. Instead of blocking all sounds like the plug, the ear moulds fit inside your ear but doesn’t block out ambient sound. You can still hear clearly through your headphones. They come in three sizes, and most males are medium and most females are small.

As far as radios, you have three choices: rent radios as required for each project; get your own FCC licence, a dedicated frequency and buy your own business radios; or get licence-free radios.

Renting as needed is what film productions do. They get a dedicated frequency and don’t need to worry about licencing, maintenance, programming or extra batteries. Not cheap, but makes the most sense for large productions.

Buying your own business radios is expensive and may be necessary only if you use them a LOT. You get your own dedicated frequency, but budget for the frequency licence, radios, headsets, spare batteries plus time to program and maintain them.

In the licence-free category, you can buy consumer-grade FRS radios that use 22 shared FRS frequencies. Not great for steady use, they are ideal for occasional family use. Made for short-range communication up to a few hundred yards at best in real world conditions, businesses who use them end up replacing them on a regular basis. Consider them throw-away radios when batteries stop charging, headset sockets break or when buttons and switches stop making good contact. Every kid and drive-through in a two mile radius can potentially interfere with your communications, which is why they have 22 channels. Some areas in North America are near-silent on most channels but get near busy places like malls or theme parks and it is hard to find a free frequency.

Most business and FRS radios come with “privacy” or PL-tones (CTCSS/DCS tones) but these do not add frequencies; they prevent your users from hearing transmissions from others unless they broadcast the same PL tone as the ones programmed into your radios. But if someone is broadcasting on the same channel within range of yours, you can still interfere with each other regardless of the “privacy” tones.

The ultimate in licence-free radios in North America are the Motorola DTR and DLR digital radios on the 900 MHz band. They are top quality business-class, military-grade digital radios that use a unique channel-hopping algorithm and cannot be monitored or interfered with by anyone else unless they also have a DTR/DLR radio using the same ID code and channel. (With hundreds of thousands of possibilities, that is not likely.)

They are expensive but have longer range than any VHF or UHF business-class radio in real world conditions, especially inside buildings or structures. Being digital, they are always 100% readable within range.

Because they are digital, they transmit a short “handshake” signal to make sure another radio is within range, and this means there is a slight delay in the transmission. They are not ideal if you need instant communication such as calling cues or safety stops in theatres, but work very well if you can live with the slight (half-second or so) delay.

All radios within the new DTR or DLR family are identical; the only difference is the number of channels one can program.

The difference between the DTR and DLR is that the DTR radios like the existing DTR550 and the new DTR600 and DTR700, can call up individual radios. Other users can still use the same channel even while a private conversation is going.

The DLR radios are more compact, have a built-in antennas and can’t call up individual radios but they can reply privately. Even with the more compact antenna, they have almost as good range as the DTR radios with their longer antennas.

The DLR1020 has two channels and the DLR1060 have six channels (that can be expanded up to ten channels with the latest free customer programming software just released this week from Motorola.) The larger DTR600 has 30 channels and the DTR700 has 50 channels.

If you can afford the cost and can live with the very slight delay in transmissions, I think the Motorola DLR1060 would be ideal for your purposes.

The production company you work with have Motorolas? You need to talk to them, or just wondered why they use them? The show I’m currently running has taken a million and a half pounds at the box office, and our production budget for sound, lighting, video and effects is at an appropriate level. We too use Motorola for general comms, and special very, very expensive duplex units for production comms, rather than production support. There is no problem using dirt cheap Chinese products in the UK subject to a licence. That’s the easy bit. What we need though, are radios that work 100%, are totally user proof. No clever stuff at all. Ear-pieces like chickenhawk said - audio tubes rather than active in-ears, with PTT buttons where they are needed. We have some with bool mics, but most of the time the users just listen. For the clever comms that is linked into the show cabled comms we use headsets, digital packs and a base station to manage the cabled connection. We do NOT use digital walkie-talkie. That **** motor boat pulsing RF has the ability to leak into mixing desks, sound systems and even video monitors. Mac computers running Qlab can go mad when they are very close to a digital radio, so for comms we carry on with analogue.

So much depends on what you need the comms for. Our sound people are situated one at the rear of the auditorium and one on stage, and they’re using Motorolas on our licence free PMR446 system, similar to the US one - and they actually work reliably and fine. Not the toy ones in pretty colours, but proper ones that can be dropped and stood on. I really don’t care what brand they are as long as they never, ever go wrong. Batteries of course go flat because people are involved, but I can justify the expense of Motorola for the show. Me personally? I’d be happy with something cheaper if it was my money and me using them. For the idiots we have to work with sometimes? I’ll go with the Motorolas.

You make a very good point about buying quality gear!

Strangely enough, neither the Canada nor the U.S. have the choices of good-quality business-class FRS radios like you have in some of your high end PMR446 radios that you can get in the UK. Basically, all we have here are consumer-grade family bubble-pack radios that can be bought at the big box retailers. They are good for their intended purposes, but I would not recommend these consumer-grade radios for steady or business use.

I did not discuss the alternative of cheap Chinese-made Ham radios, reprogrammed to FRS frequencies because this is not legal, in spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands of people may have done this. Plus, so many users think they are like the walkie talkies they used to own as kids and they can simply turn them on and start transmitting on any old channel the factory may have randomly programmed in to them. They could be seriously interfering with legally licenced businesses or public safety frequencies. There are no Ham or GMRS radios that one can buy in the U.S. that don’t need a licence of some kind.

As for interference, I have never seen any interference with digital radios on any of our electronic or sound gear, but that could be because we don’t use too many digital radios on film sets quite yet. Rental radios are almost exclusively analog. (The same cannot be said of the cheaper Ham radios; I have seen analog Chinese Ham radios with RF leakage so bad that will turn on my dash-mounted GPS every time I transmit.)

The DTR and DLR Motorola radios that we can get in North America especially cannot interfere because they don’t stay on one frequency for more than a few thousandth of a second.

You make a good point about the importance of testing your gear and working with a good radio dealer who can swap radios if you find them interfering with any gear.

Don’t stand near the Yamah M7 desks - they get very cross if you us a 5W Digital radio near them, and the couple of zoom recorders I have also seem to pick it up in the headphone amp - but it doesn’t thankfully get recorded. They also annoy my JVC 750 camera.

That terrible motorboat engine sound seems to get into all sorts of kit.