Tools of the trade

AUTHOR: Inavate

What’s in your toolkit? InAVate provides a round up of some of the tools available to the AV integrator. From signal generators to label printers and cable testers to STI analysers there’s a piece of equipment for every job.

Designing and installing an AV system is only half the battle, when was the last time you built a complex AV system that worked perfectly first time? The issue is then bug hunting and trouble-shooting until it works. Fortunately for installers there are a huge range of tools available to make life easier, not just for trouble shooting, but also calibration and measurement to prevent problems occurring in the first place.

Cables and connections

Despite what you may have heard from the wireless world, cables are here to stay for the foreseeable future. They should still also be one of the first ports of call when hunting down problems in a system, or when pre-testing components before installation. Connectors likewise, and whilst more and more services are moving on to Cat-5 type cables and connectors, there are still a huge number of connectors, cable-types and therefore testers available to the integrator. At a very basic level, testing the integrity of copper is still essential.

Coaxial cables still outnumber their digital counterparts in existing installations, and there are a host of products on the market with BNC connections that will test the integrity of a link. Some come in the form of network test-style products that combine a LAN input and a BNC connector on the same unit, such as the Mini5 from Minitran. Others are far more complex, including interfaces for serial connectors, 15-pin VGA, USB and all the standard PC interfaces. These are also three to four times more expensive than the simple versions, but probably worth a look if you’re using a lot of PC-based standards.

There is a Cat-5 / 6 tester for every day of the year, but Fluke Networks are arguably the market leader in this space. They have a large range of test tools for any budget, and accompanying software, which allow you not only to check the integrity but also potential available bandwidth on a particular run of cable. You can expect to pay from €750 to €5500 for a full network testing and certification tool depending on what features you’re looking for. Other possible suppliers are Agilent Technologies and Test-Um.

The popularity of Fibre as a distribution solution is on the rise, and again there are numerous professional tools available from the IT vendors, which will check both the terminations and integrity of the run. Fluke Networks are again a good bet here, as well as being expensive, but there are plenty of other options so shop around for good deals. The two things you are looking for are a fibre optic power meter, and a calibrated light source. The latter is used determining whether existing fibre can handle AV applications.

Audio cabling is the other area of interest. There are several tools out there, which manage to combine most of the possible connection types on one unit. A good example comes from CableJog. The AudioJog Pro8 features male and female XLRs, Speakons, RCA, BNC, USB and even RJ45 connections all in one box. The device will test continuity, open and short circuits.

Signal integrity

So you know your connections are intact, but there is still something not quite right. Unexpectedly low data rates, bad or no audio, picture gremlins or poor wireless reception. All of these things can be diagnosed using signal generators and analysers.

Test pattern generators help pro AV professionals test performance, troubleshoot and calibrate video transmission systems and displays by comparing the actual output from the display, with the expected output given the particular test signal. The same principles are applied to audio signal generators, which check the performance of DSP systems and can also be used to help with speaker placement. Extron produces the VTG 300 and 300R, which are handheld test generators for both audio and video applications. 13 video test patterns and 6 audio test patterns cover the majority of situations.

Sencore are another port of call with an exhaustive range of audio and video signal generators. In addition the company has a suite of products aimed at the IPTV sector, which includes the VIP1350. This device analyses MPEG encoded streams being sent over an IP connection.

On the pure audio front, NTI supplies the Minstruments range. This is a comprehensive family of products, which includes signal generators and analysers for both analogue and digital systems.

Wireless network identification and diagnosis equipment is commonly available from IT vendors. At a basic level they can tell you where wireless reception is available, and how strong the signal is. The most advanced tools give complex signal strength maps including dead zones and areas of strong interference from other sources. Fluke Networks is again a big player in this market, with the EtherScope II suite of hardware and software covering all the bases.

Another field strength measurement application is induction loops. Newly published IEC standards (IEC 60118-4) are extremely stringent on the subject of the performance of loops. One of the requirements is for uniform field strength, with variations of only 3dB in the space covered. To help integrators, Ampetronic has released a new test tool the FSM (field strength meter), which is a simple hand-held device measuring field strength, frequency response and background noise. The company’s web site also provides background information on the standards.

Measurement and calibration

So your system is now installed and working happily. Final tweaks are now the order of the day, colour calibration to make sure the display is perfect or SPL and STI measurements are required for final sign off.

Datacolor produces a suite of products for the calibration of all kinds of video displays. The SpyderTV Pro is a hardware / software combination, which measures contrast, brightness, colour, tint, colour temperature pre sets and cuts/gains on screens and front projectors helping you make the necessary adjustments to improve picture quality.

NTI’s Acoustilyzer AL1 is a handy little device, which can carry out most of the common audio checks. It measures SPL, STI-PA intelligibility, reverberation time and delay. Similar products are available from Sencore (SP395) and Phonic (PAA2). They all interface with a laptop or PC for expanded functionality and are generally supplied with a Type II microphone for measurement purposes. However if you want your readings to stand up in court, you’ll need a Type I microphone and the unit’s calibration certificate.

What turns a good installation into a very good one is the icing on the cake, the quality of the rack builds and the ease with which key components can be identified. Labelling your components is therefore really important. It makes things clear to the client, and to the visiting service engineer. Whilst not strictly an AV tool, label printers are a handy addition to any toolbox. Products like Dymo’s RhinoPRO 3000 or Brother’s PT2480 can help the installer quickly mark up components and cables to make life easier in the future.

Ultimately all of these bits of kit are designed to make things run smoother. Pre-testing and assembly of systems can go along way towards preventing snags, but nothing can truly duplicate the system “in the wild”. Hopefully some of these tools will make that situation easier.