Tech Focus: Intercoms

Part 1 — At the Crossroads

The sector is poised to embrace IP and wireless distribution


Communications via intercom for small armies of production-crew members on sports broadcasts systems is a hugely complex undertaking, and new tech platforms coming to market are designed to make it efficient.

The business side of intercom isn’t simple, either. The past year has seen a number of significant M&A moves, including Clear-Com’s purchase of Trilogy and Riedel’s acquisitions of Delec and ASL Intercom. Like other M&A activity in broadcasting and in media in general, these moves are part of a response to a television industry nearing its next technical inflection points: networked IP and wireless distribution and related changes in workflow.

CoachComm, which designs, manufactures, and markets wireless intercom systems for sideline communications for collegiate sports, will exhibit its Pliant Technologies CrewCom at NAB 2017. The new platform takes the most salient aspects of wired comms and puts them in a fully functioned wireless environment, with up to 200 full-duplex users and up to 1,024 conferences available without the need for a dedicated matrix.

“Until now, the wireless aspect of intercom has basically been an extension of the wired intercom,” explains Pliant Global Sales Manager Gary Rosen. “In traditional intercom design, partyline systems have offered limited functionality but are simple to lay out and have high reliability; in a matrixed design, you have a lot of functionality but at significantly greater expense. [CrewCom] is more like traditional audio routing: with conferences, you can assign any single user, group of users, or external source to anyone on the system but without needing a matrix to do so. The CrewCom beltpacks allow direct control over four separate conferences at one time. The RF components on CrewNet work like a network appliance, so the system is not limited to any specific frequencies.”

Category Drivers: At-Home Production and a Broader Sports Field
Two related and significant trends are affecting intercom development, deployment, and application: the shift to at-home/REMI approaches to production and the growth of second and third tiers of collegiate sports. Both are putting more reliance on IP-based signal transport, the latter resorting more and more to the internet as its main infrastructure.

Clear-Com’s HelixNet networked system is targeting sports broadcasts at non-NCAA schools, according to Vinnie Macri, product outreach manager. “Colleges like the University of Hartford, UMass at Lowell, Eastern Michigan University [are] great schools, but they don’t have the kind of budgets that the top-tier schools have as a result of deals with major broadcast networks,” he notes. “Instead, they’re building remote production in Sprinter vans with HelixNet and Ross switchers for a half million dollars, a fraction of what the top-tier schools are doing.”

That, says Macri, is building a foundation that leverages the internet and a campus-wide LAN infrastructure, which is already in place for a wide range of curricular and extracurricular activities, for a robust and competitive broadcast-sports universe full of content-hungry outlets, notably streaming and secondary cable channels.

He adds that the proliferation of interfaces that can convert an audio and video signal to an IP stream — such as Iptec’s VNP series network processors, which have been used along with HelixNet by several broadcast networks in proof-of-concept demonstrations — lay out an attainable architecture for these school’s sports programs.

“With platforms like these,” he explains, “schools are networking their campuses, putting a broadcast center in the basketball arena, and producing football and soccer shows from there or sending the van out to another school, calling the show remotely using four channels of comms.”

Riedel’s Christian Diehl: “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when,’ but we’re still at the beginning of moving to an IP-based model.”

Riedel’s Christian Diehl: “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when,’ but we’re still at the beginning of moving to an IP-based model.”

IP and Wireless Evolutions
According to Christian Diehl, product manager, intercom products, Riedel, the growth of smaller-market verticals for intercom systems, including regional sports broadcast, is propelling smaller and less expensive system designs and products. It’s also helping move the sector more deeply in the wireless and IP-based domains. One area of growing interest is in allowing intercom systems to extend to integrate personal devices, such as smartphones. Riedel will launch that capability, via Bluetooth connectivity, at NAB 2017 in April, Diehl says.

Although the IP evolution increasingly appears inevitable — a quick visit to Dale Pro Audio and B&H websites indicates how diverse that category has become, especially in the GHz-frequency ranges — Diehl says that, at least in broadcast, the crossover will take a while.

“Analog audio has been around for a hundred years, and technologies like AES3 and MADI have been in place for a relatively long time, too, and are deeply embedded,” he says. The implicit advantages of IP-based signal distribution will make themselves known over time, but broadcasters still want to make that transition at their own pace, he says. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when,’ but we’re still at the beginning of moving to an IP-based model.”

Diehl is similarly confident that wireless intercoms — Riedel’s Acrobat digital wireless product leverages the Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) standard’s base layer — will be more widely used in broadcast, and he hints that there may be some announcements relating to it around the time of NAB 2017.

But he also cautions that, as more professional wireless application are pushed further into the GHz range, the ability to manage that increasingly crowded part of the spectrum will require more cooperation by manufacturers and users. “No one has really mastered this band efficiently enough yet,” he observes.

Networked Audio
This is the first year that Dante appears in an intercom-market overview. As of last year, Audinate’s network-product juggernaut has swept the sector: most major players in the market — including RTS, AEQ, Riedel — are now Dante licensees. Not surprisingly, Kieran Walsh, a comms and network specialist for Dante, agrees that the evolution into an IP infrastructure for broadcast intercoms is likely inevitable.

“As the cost of bandwidth has dropped and [broadcasters] need to move larger and larger amounts of audio around, they’ll want to do that with fewer cables,” he explains. “That’s the core message for Dante and for IP in general.”

He concurs that the embedded broadcast culture won’t allow that transition to happen overnight. But he adds that the efficiencies that IP transport offers are undeniable. For instance, as digital-audio quality continues to improve, it will allow all audio sources to pass through the intercom matrix interchangeably: a voice talent could plug into a comms matrix and have his or her commentary sent to air just as easily as an A1 or a director working the same show on the same system.

“It’s an exciting time,” he says of the accelerating IP movement in broadcast-audio applications. “We’re at the point where we’ll have a common platform that all vendors — different intercom products and different remote-production trucks — can use to exchange information. That has very positive implications for intercom use in broadcast sports.”

Part 2 — What’s on the Market

System features include DECT-, RF-, and Dante compatibility

By pro-audio standards, intercoms constitute a small market sector, but it’s an essential one. Here’s a look at the latest offerings from the market leaders.

FreeSpeak II operates in multiple license-free DECT bands from 1.897 to 1.933 GHz, enabling continuous, clear communication even in RF-hostile settings and eliminating the need for frequency coordination. Time-division technology allows DECT to use a single frequency for multiple channels of transmitters and receivers. With the advent of serious reallocation in the first quarter of this year, users who have been using UHF intercoms will pretty much be forced to abandon those solutions.

Clear-Com’s FreeSpeak

Clear-Com’s FreeSpeak

FreeSpeak II’s active antennas and wireless beltpacks use separate data and audio channels in DECT6 to create a dependable link between beltpacks and the base station or Eclipse HX matrices. Beltpacks possess cellular auto-roaming technology, allowing them to constantly scan and automatically select the optimal wireless signal. FreeSpeak II is scalable: users can add more beltpack users as their team and workload grows; a single 1RU base system can support 25 full-duplex wireless beltpacks. Implementing it as an integrated wireless solution within Eclipse HX matrices, known as FreeSpeak II Integra, enables up to 50 full-duplex wireless beltpack to be used simultaneously.

The system’s wireless coverage can be expanded with locally powered active antennas. Antennas can be positioned up to 3,200 ft. away, 800 ft. when centrally powered from the base station. Two five-way antenna splitters can be deployed on fiber, and up to 10 antennas can be installed to create a wide coverage zone for beltpack users to roam. FreeSpeak II offers 12 PL channels and 12 groups in the system, and beltpacks offer five intercom channels to enable efficient management of workflows. Such features as Listen Again message replay, quick-reply key, and battery-health, RF-status, and antenna-link monitoring add to the convenience of the system.

Pliant Technologies
Tempest has been the go-to wireless intercom system for professionals worldwide for almost a decade. Three modes of operation are available within each Tempest BaseStation: Normal, Shared, and Split. This feature allows from five to hundreds of users depending on configuration, all of which are simple to deploy. Tempest is available in 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz frequencies and in a two- or four-channel configuration. It is fast to set up and simple to use, and its cutting-edge RF technologies provide interference-free communication.

Pliant Technologies’ CrewCom 2400

Pliant Technologies’ CrewCom 2400

CrewCom is a brand-new type of intercom system, based on proprietary CrewNet network technology. It offers high user density with 200 full-duplex users, unparalleled range with up to 46 RF access points connected via copper or fiber up to 6.2 miles, and 1,024 always available user-defined conferences.

CrewCom provides excellent kHz-bandwidth voice quality; the industry’s smallest full-featured, full-duplex wireless radio packs; and multiple simultaneous frequency bands. It offers users the ability to talk to whomever they need to talk to, without the added expense of a matrix or the restrictions of PL systems. CrewCom is designed to handle any application from simple out-of-the-box solutions to large-scale designs for broadcast, live sound, EFP/ENG, and industrial environments. With the system, production crews can easily deploy communications solutions to connect more people in more places than ever before.

The Artist digital-audio matrix platform can be used for intercom applications and the distribution of analog and digital audio. The system consists of a fiber-based backbone providing a decentralized infrastructure for live audio and intercoms with matrix sizes up to 1,024×1,024 ports. Multiple frames can be interconnected by a dual optical-fiber ring to form a single large, full-summing, non-blocking distributed matrix that looks like one system to the user. With Riedel’s AES67 and Dante client cards installed into the Artist mainframe and then configured through the Director software, the platform can accommodate AVB, AES67, and Dante audio networks. The AES67 interface supports connectivity between the Artist and SmartPanels, as well as other third-party devices.

Tango, Riedel’s first network-based communications platform, supports both the AES67 and AVB standards. It is a cost-effective and efficient 40×80 digital intercom matrix that features two integrated Riedel digital partylines, two AES67- and AVB-compatible ports, two Ethernet ports, one option slot, and redundant power supplies. The 1.5RU system features a shallow mounting depth and low-noise design and is fully compatible with all of Riedel’s current and legacy intercom panels, including the RSP-2318 SmartPanel.

Riedel’s SmartPanel

Riedel’s SmartPanel

SmartPanel is a powerful multifunctional user interface that includes three high-resolution, sunlight-readable, multitouch color displays; stereo audio; a multilingual character set; and 18 keys in a single RU. The SmartPanel can be further expanded through the use of intercom, control, and monitoring apps. Three intercom apps are available, offering different levels of functionality to suit various feature sets. With the RSP-2324 Expansion SmartPanel, users have the ability to extend SmartPanel configurations to up to 19 displays and 114 keys.

The Performer digital partyline intercom system provides two- and four-channel master stations; rack-mount, wall-mount, and desktop speaker stations; call-light indicators; and two-channel beltpacks. Performer can be directly interfaced to Artist and Tango.

Acrobat full-duplex wireless communications solution offers up to 100 individually addressable wireless control panels/beltpacks and 18 wireless partylines. Compatible with the Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) standard’s base layer, it is well-suited for use in crowded RF environments.

With its recent acquisition of ASL Intercom BV, Riedel Communications has significantly extended its portfolio of intercom technology optimized for demanding live entertainment and broadcast-production environments. The company’s flagship ASL FLEXUS intercom system is notable for allowing multiple standards — Dante/AES67/AVB and RAVENNA — to coexist in a single system, and its Pro Series two-wire systems address the needs for a high-quality low-cost communications solution. ASL also includes Enchorus, a new Dante-based digital-audio network for live-production environments.

The BTR-80N two-channel wireless intercom system offers extremely reliable and secure full-duplex communication with up to four wireless TR-80N beltpacks and an almost unlimited number of half-duplex beltpacks. Variable transmit power is available up to 249 mW. Operating in a very tight frequency band (at 25 KHz vs. the 800 Series at 100 KHz), the BTR-80N system can be effectively used in RF-difficult environments and is approved for license-free use in most countries. The system also incorporates unique ClearScan technology, allowing users to select the optimal RF channel for communication at the touch of a button. Features include a choice of two independent or simultaneous audio channels, multiple antenna options and accessories, easy-to-read LCD indicating system status, expanded coverage using BTR-80N access points, simultaneous two-wire and four-wire wired intercom interface, XLR in/out for interfacing with general audio systems, auto-select condenser or dynamic microphone, and a choice or rechargeable or standard batteries supporting a wide temperature range and up to eight hours of operation.

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