Production Communications in a Shrinking World


Gary Rosen TV-Bay Magazine
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Communications today is a critical issueno matter if you are producing broadcast television, doing a live festival or rock concert outdoors, setting up a musical on the West End, or producing a local school play. Over the last few years, the proliferation of cell phones and other wireless devices has made it clear that most people prefer to communicate untethered.

One of the best examples of this shift is evident when attending any grade school play. If you had seen a child ten years ago using a wireless microphone, you would have been impressed. Today, it's not uncommon to see a dozen young students running about the stage with full wireless microphone support. Of course, it then follows that professional production requirements are an order of magnitude more complicated. One thing is clear, no matter the size or setting of the production, all users prefer wireless communication, and that trend is nearly certain to continue. The demand for wireless spectrum will only increase as time goes on. And of course, there are only so many available frequencies for our use and we all have to share them.

Governments around the world have discovered how lucrative it can be to sell the precious frequency spectrum we have long used for production. In addition to this hardship, production communications are faced with the ever-present pressure to provide more technology with less budgetmore mics, more in-ear, more intercom, more users, more range, more of everything wireless.

While all areas of professional productions have to compete for wireless frequency spectrum in order to broadcast, some areas like intercom, are more forgiving than others in its requirements. When it comes to performance applications, there are very specific requirements. On-air or on-stage talent wireless microphones, IFB (interrupt fold back), IEM (in-ear monitors), wireless instruments, and other live audio support must have reliability, fidelity and near zero latency. These applications actually use one-way transmission to a receiver, also known as simplex communications.

In contrast, full-duplex crew communications requires simultaneous sending and receiving of audio. This allows collaborative communication; all parties can speak at any time to deal with urgent, time-sensitive or critical production elements. However, full duplex communication requires a very different set of requirements than simplex does. For example, full-duplex users often need to have multiple conversations with one or more groups of people. Again, this is very different from wireless microphone technology.

Luckily, some of the absolute requirements of talent microphones and in-ear monitors do not necessarily constrain production crews. Lower bandwidth and some small latency is quite acceptable and is the norm for all digital intercom systems. In practice, neither of these issues actually inhibit the production crews, as the audio is quite clear and intelligible, and the minimal latency does not have a real impact in application. Because of new digital RF technology, a number of manufacturers have been able to provide advanced digital full-duplex intercom systems that provide great new functionality, albeit with some minor compromises that are actually quite tolerable for the production staff to use in the professional communications world.

These new systems can be placed in frequency spectrum areas outside of those required for performance microphones and monitoring, which frees up valuable RF spectrum for talent needs. Many systems are also compatible with other digital RF devices in the same frequency range. Most of these systems provide communications in frequency bands that do not require licensing from end users.

Advancements in RF are extremely important and necessary for successful communications, but there is another dramatically important aspect of duplex crew communication: the intercom system itself. Unfortunately, many current and new duplex intercom systems are based on fairly old intercom technology.

In many cases, wireless intercom systems are designed as accessories for a larger wired intercom system. Some can operate as standalone systems, but these have significant restrictions for signal path and they still require the addition of a wired intercom system for any sophisticated signal routing or large deployment. Generally, party line or matrix intercom are the most common types of wired systems in use today. Party line is fast, easy, inexpensive and reliable. It is also extremely limited in functionality. Matrix systems provide great functionality, but they are expensive and require a lot of wired infrastructure and a knowledgeable operator. Often, wireless intercom systems are just connected to these types of systems as a simple add-on. Its actual functionality may be limited to just being a wireless link to the existing intercom system.

Interestingly, there are some new approaches to wireless communications that solve numerous issues while meeting the many demands of productions today. These new approaches utilize the RF spectrum efficiently in order to have enough users and range for todays productions, and they offer significant intercom functionality that allows the complex communications paths that are vitalall without requiring users to spend a tremendous percentage of their budget on additional intercom components to get this flexibility and routing. Some systems can now provide over 1,000 individual intercom signal paths for intercom conversations, in addition to providing network-distributed intercom conferences and many RF access points to provide both RF and audio connectivity where you need it. These networks can go as far as 10 km (6.2 miles) on fiber.

Todays most advanced systems are offering network based-technologies that do the following:

  • Support dozens of access points for the RF signal of dozens and even hundreds of users
  • Utilize new and efficient RF techniques for users to all connect reliably
  • Provide advanced audio signal routing to meet users communications and intercom connectivity requirements

In addition to these features, the truly advanced systems have been designed to allow easy setup and operation, without extensive end user training and without the expense of a dedicated intercom operator. A simple system should be able to be set up in just a few minutes, without requiring a dedicated engineer for operation. More complicated systems can be designed and engineered properly offline or in real-time because of innovative software. This means that live event crews are able to quickly and easily have wireless communications available to help expedite show set up.

As this new generation of intercom systems roll out and expand, they will provide a whole new level of functionality with dramatically improved cost per user. The communications features that users require are becoming available in flexible and innovative productsproducts made by companies who understand the limitations facing production crews today, and who have designed products to sound better and go farther than ever before. From small schools and corporate or church events to full-on TV, concert or festival productions, youll be seeing more wireless communication and less wired users in the future, to be sure.


Tags: iss127 | pliant | comms | intercom | duplex | Gary Rosen
Contributing Author Gary Rosen

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