There was a time when television production intercom systems consisted of big headsets and boom microphones, making those early analog units simplistic in design, clunky to work with and bulky to wear.
But time has been kind to TV intercoms, for as broadcast technology has advanced, TV intercom systems have advanced with them. The results are lighter-to-wear, portable and highly functional two-way communication systems that are as similar to their analog forebears as 1950s-vintage cathode-ray tube TVs are to modern high-definition TV receivers.
WHAT HAS CHANGED
TV intercoms have made the switch from analog to digital technology, and all of the advantages associated with digital are now found in these intercom systems. That includes higher quality two-way speech audio, with a broader dynamic range and more intelligibility. Because the audio is digitally captured, distance is not the issue that it used to be with analog audio. In short, users can understand and be understood better when using a digital TV intercom, and such a device can transmit voice traffic over much greater distances.
A production crewmember receives instructions through Riedel Communications’ Acrobat Digital Wireless Intercom. “This is an amazing step forward,” said Nils Quak, public relations manager for Riedel Communications, a manufacturer of TV intercom and network delivery systems. “Where this extra clarity and distance truly matters is in mission-critical applications.”
The move to digital has also opened up routing options for TV intercom systems. Freed of the analog prison of hard-wired direct connections, TV intercoms can now be switched using software-controlled routers. As a result, intercoms have grown from one- and two-channel two-wire (TW) party line (PL) systems, to a multichannel matrix similar to a telephone private branch exchange (PBX) system, said Joe Klinger, founder of JK Audio, which makes headset and belt-pack interfaces for intercom systems.
The ability to be switched digitally means that TV intercom systems can be linked to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) backbones. That means a technician using an intercom can be connected via IP to anyone else with an Internet connection.
“The ability to interface with remote locations is a great advantage in realizing installations,” Quak told Government Video. “The only downside of IP-based communications is that it is not real time.”
However, “while IP is the latest trunk or transmission backbone for large matrix intercoms, cellphones may become the tool of choice out in the field,” Klinger said. A 4G cellphone connected to Skype becomes a free codec. Just add the necessary headset interface and you have an excellent IFB feed from the station, he said.
As for Bluetooth? When it comes to actual two-way communications, “Bluetooth is not a factor,” Quak said. That is because Bluetooth “doesn’t provide the reliability, the bandwidth and the quality of speech to consider it an option,” he said. So when it comes to wireless, Riedel relies on their proprietary Riedel Acrobat technology, which is based on VoIP over digital enhanced cordless communications (DECT), the wireless standard used in high-end cordless telephones.
However, Bluetooth does have a place when it comes to connecting headsets to belt packs, or belt packs to cellphones.
“Bluetooth provides freedom from cord tangle by offering a truly wireless headset,” Klinger said. While wireless intercom belt packs have been around for years, the headset has remained tethered to the belt pack. A truly wireless Bluetooth headset works without a cumbersome belt pack. Bluetooth adds the flexibility to connect a cellphone to a belt pack for quick remote access to the intercom feed, he said.
Headquartered in Germany with offices worldwide, Riedel Communications has been making TV intercom systems since 1987. It develops, sells and rents those systems as well as for the fiber, audio and radio technology for the broadcast, pro-audio, event, sports and theater markets.
The full Acrobat Digital Wireless Intercom system In the area of TV intercoms, Riedel has three product families. They are the Performer Digital Partyline Intercom, the Artist Digital Matrix Intercom and the Acrobat Digital Wireless Intercom.
“The Performer Series provides the world’s first digital party-line intercom system,” Quak said. The Performer system includes two- and four-channel master stations, rackmount wall mount, desktop, speaker stations, call light indicators and two-channel belt-pack headset stations.
“In addition to pure party-line applications, the C44plus system interface makes the Performer series the first fully integrated ‘digital’ solution for combining digital matrix and party-line intercoms,” he said. The Performer product line also includes the Performer 32 digital intercom matrix/stage management system, designed for standalone broadcast applications as well as for theaters and sports venues.
The Artist Digital Matrix Intercom is a modular intercom backbone that can carry both analog and digital signals. Its claim to fame is its switching capability, enabling the Artist to provide up to 1,024x1,024 non-blocking ports per system — and switch signals between them all.
“The system is based on a dual, optical fiber ring to form a single large, full summing, non-blocking distributed matrix,” Quak said. “It has no limitations in the number of cross-points within or between the different nodes of the system.”
As for coverage, the Artist can go up to 1,650 feet between nodes on the Artist network and boost that distance up to 12 miles with additional equipment.
“With up to 128 intercom ports per matrix frame, the Artist allows a high degree of decentralization of the entire matrix in a very cost-effective way,” Quak said. “As a result, the matrix frames can be located near the needed positions or facilities, saving a considerable amount of wiring and installation costs.”
For wireless, the Riedel Acrobat Digital Wireless Intercom system is a full-duplex communications solution (i.e., both ends of the call can talk at once) that uses the DECT standard’s base layer (also used by DECT cordless phones).
“This provides a license-free, cellular architecture with seamless hand-over between cells, allowing each Acrobat Wireless Beltpack to continuously monitor and automatically select the best connection to the Acrobat Cell Controller,” Quak said. Depending on individual requirements, the Acrobat Digital Wireless Intercom can be set up as a wireless party-line system or as a point-to-point system, he said. It provides digital audio quality without interfering with UHF radio microphones or IEMs.
There are a wide range of production facilities in which intercoms are used by government, from small video production such as the studios aboard an aircraft carrier, to larger applications such as U.S. government departments connecting their offices across the United States to a central video-production location, according to Terry Skelton, the director of the military, aerospace and government division for Clear-Com.
Clear-Com’s Eclipse Median However, government production facilities generally lack the level of sophistication found at network news organizations. Therefore, government production is not as complex. These facilities also have unique budget concerns. Because of these factors, it is likely government facilities from small military production to the public, education and government (PEG) channels are probably going to use a party-line system, Skelton said.
To meet the government’s needs, Clear-Com offers a line of digital matrix intercom infrastructure units called the Eclipse, Skelton said. The Eclipse is available in three sizes: the smallest, the PiCo; a mid-sized version, the Median; and a large-frame size, the Omega, said Skelton, who recommends the Eclipse Median for government applications.
The Eclipse Median is a six rack unit (RU) frame that houses two central processing units (CPU) and seven matrix slots with eight built-in interface module slots designed for outside broadcast vehicles, mobile flight-case systems or any production environment where rack space is limited, according to Clear-Com.
In the current version of Eclipse (v5.2), the configuration software has been improved to simplify operation and streamline the user-interface infrastructure. The software has more automation; a pre-set factory configuration installed; intuitive hardware discovery; and better visibility of all settings, providing users with the communication they need quickly.
The Eclipse can be programmed from a PC, Skelton said. “That’s one of the secrets to its power is that it can be programmed to do many different things.”
What Riedel Communications is to TV intercom systems, JK Audio is to intercom interfaces.
JK Audio’s BlueSet belt pack and BSET-HS Headset “JK Audio has a long history of supporting TV commas with its line of telephone audio interface products,” Klinger said. Many of those flexible audio interfaces function as standalone, interruptible feedback (IFB) tools, while others connect to intercom systems either through the headset jack or wired intercom feed.
While most of JK Audio’s interfaces are portable products more suited for ENG and SAT trucks, some models have unique applications back in the studio, such as freeing the news director from wires and a bulky belt pack as he or she paces the floor, Klinger said.
JK Audio has three key intercom-interface products, including JK Audio’s BlueSet, which replaces the wired headset on most belt packs or control panels with a Bluetooth audio interface. “You can pair it to a headset for truly wireless freedom,” Klinger said. “The JK Audio BSET-HS Headset has the look, feel and comfort of a lightweight intercom headset, but without the wires. And the JK Audio Interloop Wired/Wireless Belt Pack connects to common intercom systems like any other belt pack, offering a Bluetooth audio connection in place of a wired headset jack.”
RTS INTERCOM SYSTEMS
In most TV shoots, the production’s crewmembers are all working in the same area. That means the intercom systems used by those production companies need cover only short distances.
RTS Intercom Systems’ Virtual Linked Intercom, or the VLink However, there are instances where one or more of the crew is in a remote location, sending back their video by satellite or fiber. In such cases, connecting these people to the main production intercom system can be a challenge.
RTS Intercom Systems has solved this problem with its Virtual Linked Intercom, or VLink. “VLink enables remote users to interface with RTS matrix intercoms via the Internet using a simple, PC-based application,” said RTS spokesman Guy Low. That approach allows “an unprecedented degree of control and flexibility from anywhere in the world.”
There are two VLink systems available. The basic VLink-LE system offers limited interconnect functionality into any existing audio feed. The premium VLink system uses intelligent trunking links ported into an RTS intercom matrix. It provides support for RTS intercom alphas and matrix access for standard communications requirements.
CUTTING THE CORD
Today’s digital TV intercom systems offer high-quality, two-way audio, matched by tremendous deployment flexibility and wireless portability. Users can be free from the chains of analog-cabled headsets, for a new age of TV intercoms has dawned, and it is far easier to work in.