FDA Relies on Broadcast-Quality Intercoms

Staying in touch is critical
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Producer Mike Sobola (left) and Technical Director Stan Rose call out shots for an FDA production.

The Food and Drug Administration is the federal agency that makes sure the nation’s food and medical supplies are safe. This means the FDA is responsible for assuring the safety, efficacy and security of drugs for people and animals, the biological and cosmetics products we use, the medical devices we rely on, any products that emit radiation―and the food we eat.

It’s no small mandate. This is why the FDA produces a range of network-quality informational programming at the FDA Television Studio in Gaithersburg, Md.

“We have a complete HD production facility that produces videos for the FDA and all other federal agencies that need high-quality broadcast productions,” said Chad Heupel, director of the FDA’s Division of Communication Media. “We produce content that supports training, industry education and public information, all delivered by satellite, fiber, webcasts, live streaming, plus DVDs and videotapes.”

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Rose (left) and Sobola stay in touch with the crew at FDA's studio using Clear-Com intercoms.

To do the job properly, the FDA Television Studios has a full range of broadcast-quality equipment, including a Clear-Com Eclipse intercom system.

“We had an old partyline system, but it just couldn’t keep up with the complexity of our productions,” Heupel said. “After looking at a number of options, we decided that the Eclipse made for the best fit.”

A NETWORK-QUALITY FACILITY

The FDA Television Studios would do any commercial TV network proud. Located just off the Washington, D.C., Beltway, the facility has a 64- by 64-foot main studio equipped with six Ikegami HDK-77EC HD cameras, four of which have teleprompter hoods for live rolling scripts. The studio has a 30- x 30-foot chromakey green “infinity” set for virtual productions, as well as portable set pieces for specific recurring shows.

Master control is equipped with a Grass Valley Karrera video switcher and a Yamaha M7CL 48-input audio mixing console. The facility has Avid AMS video servers for its four channels of primary record/playout functions, plus four channels served by legacy Omneon servers. Editing is done on eight Avid Media Composer v.7 workstations, with a shared Avid AMS ISIS 5000 core.

“Our intercom is the Clear-Com Eclipse digital matrix system,” said Heupel. “We use both 12-key and 24-key units, both in rack-mounted and desktop units.”

The FDA’s operators wear headsets connected to the Eclipse by wire.

“Most wear single over-ear headsets with boom microphones for easy response,” Heupel said. “A few do wear double over-ear headsets, with the intercom being fed to one ear, and the production audio to the other.”

THE NITTY-GRITTY

The Clear-Com Eclipse system consists of system frames, interface cards, modules and user panels equipped with either 12- or 24-channel controls.

The Eclipse system frame supports point-to-point and group-based multi-connections. There can be as few as 36 users on a single matrix frame, or as many as 3,120 users on a networked system platform. External sources such as telephone lines from remote locations can be brought in via interface cards and modules, which are housed in interface frames.

User panels are available either as rack-mounted units with four- or five-pin XLR male headsets, or desktop devices with flexible gooseneck mics. A typical unit, such as the V-Series 1RU 12-pushbutton panel, comes with 12 talk pushbutton keys and 12 listen pushbuttons, including one reply/answer-back key and eight shift pages.

Each button can be labelled using programmable, illuminated 10-character alphanumeric fonts that allow direct connections to be easily specified and read during operations. One nice feature is the Eclipse’s “Listen Again” option: It replays the last 30 seconds of the last incoming call, allowing the operators to verify what was actually said.

Clear-Com offers user panels and desktop controllers with lever switches, pushbuttons or rotary keys (knobs). This allows producers to select whatever interface works best in their working environment.

Two other major intercom manufactures are Riedel and RTS, the latter of which was recently acquired by Germany-based Bosch. Unlike either Clear-Com or RTS, Riedel (also based in Germany) manufactures communications systems that can be used for all types of video and audio networking.

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Riedel Artist Virtual Key Panel

For intercoms, Riedel can outfit large and small facilities with professional systems using its Artist and Performer product lines. The Performer series includes a digital partyline system with two- and four-channel master stations, as well as rack-mount, wall-mount and desktop speaker stations.

In addition to pure partyline applications, the Riedel C44 system is a combined digital matrix and partyline intercom. The Performer product line also works with the company’s Performer 32 digital intercom matrix/stage management system, which is targeted at large-scale video applications, opera houses and theatres, as well as sports and cultural events.

For more complex systems, the Riedel Artist is a digital matrix intercom switcher providing up to 1,024 x 1,024 non-blocking ports. The Artist is completely non-blocking and has no limitations in the number of cross-points within or between the different nodes of the system.

The maximum distance between two nodes can be up to 500 meters (1,650 feet) as standard, and can be optionally extended up to 20 km (12 miles).

RTS has a wide variety of intercom products, including easy-to-integrate two- and three-wire systems, as well as wireless models that can be digitally encrypted. An example is the company’s Audiocom balanced intercom line that uses industry-standard three-wire audio cable for connectivity. Using RTS’s MS-4002 intercom base stations and EMS-4001 expansion units, an intercom system of up to 20 channels can be built that will serve most small- to medium-sized video operations.

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RTS RP-1000 alphanumeric intercom control panel

For larger facilities and venues, the RTS ADAM digital matrix switch can support more than 880 users, and packs 272 intercom ports into a single 7RU frame. The company has a range of portable and fixed intercom panels and controllers, including some with easy-to-program alphanumeric keys that change to keep pace with changing production setups.

Of course, systems from all three major intercom manufacturers can connect to each other’s systems, as well as interface with outside communications sources such as phone lines, two-way radios and the Internet.

THE FDA’S EXPERIENCE

It’s fair to say that the FDA is happy with its Clear-Com Eclipse intercom system, especially because it resolved capacity and traffic-management issues associated with the previous partyline intercom that the Eclipse replaced.

“Besides giving us more channels, moving to the Eclipse system allowed us to end the confusion of intercom party lines,” said Chad Heupel. “Although party lines are fine in small studios, things can get confusing when you have five camera operators on the channel at once. Add the fact that our production facilities are dispersed―with live video production in one room, audio in another, and so forth―and the need for reliable, easily-accessible communications is vital.”

The ability for the Clear-Com Eclipse to be specifically programmed and labelled with distinct communications pathways, such as technical director to camera operator, reduces connection errors during live production.

“You can find the person you need and access them by pushing the right, clearly labelled control,” Heupel said. “You can also tell who’s calling you by whatever specific key/light is flashing. There’s no guesswork.”

MORE INFO Clear-Com: www.clearcom.com

Riedel: www.riedel.net

RTS: www.rtsintercoms.com

One big advantage of the Eclipse, as far as the FDA Television Studios are concerned, is its ability to interface with outside telephone lines.

“When we’re doing a remote shoot in tandem with an in-studio production, it is really useful for our outside crew to be able to speak directly to whomever is calling the shots,” said Heupel. “From a coordination standpoint, it is as if the outside crew is also in the studio. That’s how easy it is for us to link them into our intercom.”

As for set-up? The Eclipse system uses IP networking to interconnect its elements, including Cat-5 network cables.

“Setting up and moving the user panels is extremely simple, while the included software allowed us to program the intercom network using a PC,” Heupel said. “Compared to traditional intercom systems with their dedicated wiring and patch panels, the Eclipse set-up was a breeze.”

ADVICE TO OTHER AGENCIES

The FDA Television Studios is so pleased with its Eclipse intercom system’s functionality that Heupel suggests that other government agencies adopt a similar intercom approach.

“Whatever manufacturer’s equipment you’re buying, having direct-entry intercom channels with the ability to connect two people makes very good sense,” said Heupel. “It ensures that the right people are talking to each other, and ends the pileups that can occur on partylines. I also find that the lighted channel labels, such as are found on the Eclipse, make it easy to locate them in a production environment where lighting is sometimes less than ideal.”

His one caveat: “Whatever intercom you buy, leave some room for expansion down the road. For instance, if you think you need 24 user panels, get an intercom matrix that can support 30. This way, you won’t be pinched for capacity when things expand, because they tend to expand in TV production.”

All told, Heupel is satisfied with the FDA’s choice of the Clear-Com Eclipse intercom system.

“It allows us to do our jobs, even in complex in-studio/remote location productions,” he said. “Our clients count on us producing broadcast-quality content, and the Eclipse plays a significant role in ensuring that we can.”

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