Intercoms are the key to successful live events

Performers, show staff and facilities managers need to communicate and rely on intercom systems to speak to each other. Steve Montgomery investigates how these are used and their integration into the venue environment.

Each type of venue has different requirements: a large arena capable of hosting a major sporting event may also host music concerts, even large political rallies. A large venue or event will have many tasks running simultaneously, requiring several independent channels of communication serving separate groups of people; whilst a small theatre may need little more than a couple of channels to manage stage directions and lighting and back-of-house services.

In all cases, clear and reliable communications are essential.  “It is crucial that everyone involved in a live performance knows what and when they need to do something,” says Emma Wilson, director of technical and production at Sadlers Wells Theatre.  “Performers need to be ready to go on stage, lighting operators know when to change scenes and adjust follow spots. Special effects and props technicians must be ready to act on cues.  During a performance everything is under the control and direction of the stage manager who has to issue clear and concise commands.”  

This requires a dependable intercom system and method of operation and one that is completely independent of other systems; usually hardwired but supplemented by mobile devices when necessary.  “A particular etiquette has developed in the theatre industry that everyone abides by: these are duplex systems but people don’t speak over the intercom unless they really need to, apart from the stage manager and certainly never between the cue and action commands.”  It also requires a simple system; one that is instantly usable by in-house and freelance and staff and those of visiting companies, especially as they often operate in dimly-lit conditions.  There are few basic controls, channel selection and push to talk to ensure that it is simple, almost instinctive, to use.

For small theatres of this type, the intercom system is likely to be a self-supporting system with direct interconnection between the receiving station remote speakers or beltpacks on independent circuits.  In larger venues with more complex requirements a more sophisticated intercom is likely to be installed.  Direct connection is generally not possible, or convenient and other networks are more likely to be used.  

“Most, but not all facilities have an IT infrastructure useable for production.  Almost all facilities have category cable run throughout,” explains Vinnie Macri, market outreach manager, Clear-Com. “It is a decision for the production team and the how the facility has to operate from a tenant’s or user perspective that may or not leverage the category infrastructure.  IP protocols are the predominant transport methods used in networking. Clear-Com has designed communication products using standardised IP protocols for over a decade and has recently has introduced specialised products for remote-to-facility productions.  These products are useable on any IT infrastructure. It is typically the IT department who will manage the network and they will accommodate any intercom devices that sit on the network; whether for in-house maintenance crews or for a show.”

The major benefit of network audio, which includes intercom applications, is the ability to route audio throughout a facility.  “Using a distributed IP network makes the cabling and interconnection of devices very much easier around a venue, and is far less time consuming, for both set-up and tear down no matter if it’s copper or fibre based.   However the IP network is not necessarily the most appropriate network for intercom deployment because intercom systems tend to be fixed.  Where they do become interesting is when we turn to the use of tablets, smartphones and laptops running Clear-Com intercom applications with users who are not fixed and would like to operate with other devices on the network; both fixed and remote.”

Installing a new cabling backbone in a facility can be expensive and, sometimes even impossible due to physical obstacles in running additional cables. Christian Bockskopf, head of marketing and communications at Riedel: “Being able to leverage cabling infrastructure that is already in place is a huge time and money saver.  Other benefits include increased bandwidth, interoperability with other devices, common control interfaces, and ease of maintenance.  By replacing proprietary device protocols with IP, we are able to use an existing IP infrastructure for our intercoms.  Also, since intercom systems are working alongside the audio infrastructure, they can interoperate with other audio devices like mixing consoles. Using network technologies, this interconnectivity can be designed much more efficiently and flexibly.”

Systems are often mixed on a single network, a capability that is enabled by standardisation.  If the sound system is brought by an external company, they use their own preferred network.  The key is to offer a system that will be useable on any network whether provided by the venue or the sound company and adapt to the venue’s and show’s requirements.  Ideally the system will also offer interoperability with other equipment such as speakers, mixing console and processing.  

“We think the best way to make the customer’s investment safe is to opt for and work with standards,” continues Bockskopf.  “And when I’m talking about standards I mean standards designed by international institutions like IEEE, AES, and ITU.  Standards are likely to be implemented and supported by many manufacturers and they are driven by technical needs of our industry and not by financial interests. Also, audio standards are more likely to be chosen as being a subset of video standards.”

“OMNEO offers interoperability as a layer three compatible system that is interoperable with any Dante-enabled device,” says Markus Schmittinger, regional marketing critical communication EMEA at Bosch Communications Systems.  “It is based on two key technologies: Dante by Audinate and the system-control component OCA (Open Control Architecture), enhanced by Bosch-specific features.  This provides the highest possible sound quality, interoperability, flexibility, reliability and future-proof technology by using an open public standard.  Whilst ensuring lowest levels of latency in a highly reliable set up at lower system cost due to the use of standard IT components and lower installation as well as maintenance cost.

“The technology provides a number of options for the interconnection of equipment from different manufacturers also outside of the traditional audio or intercom applications. An OMNEO media networking architecture can be scaled to include up to 10,000 nodes and can interoperate across multiple IP subnets and long distance for complex network designs and applications. The benefits are ease of deployment, cable infrastructure cost savings and of course interoperability with a large range of manufacturers. Offering an open standard platform also allows the venue to stay up to date with future developments.”

As the industry works towards standardisation of low-latency audio transport over a network, interoperability between products from different manufacturer will expand. There is, says Macri, “a lack of understanding about networking and a realisation that networking is not necessarily a cheaper solution but one that requires a lot of design consultation and cooperation between all interested departments.  For venues with fixed or virtual intercom devices sitting on a network there are no disadvantages other than those associated with living in an imperfect IP world with some transmission latency.  This of course is a matter of design.”

The nature of many events means that staff and operators are often hired for brief periods and are unfamiliar with the venue and its equipment, yet still must provide critical services.  “The audio and intercom systems must be user friendly,” insists   Emily Golding, VP of marketing, Anchor Audio.  “Most systems are difficult to set up and operate on a daily basis.  It is crucial to have an intercom that is intuitive, easy-to-use, and dependable.  Dependability is important in an environment where multiple staff members are using the unit and there is increased risk of physical damage to it.”

Bockskopf agrees: “Operators just want to know that when they press a certain button, they will be able to talk to a specific group or person, clearly and reliably. Systems must be extremely easy to operate.  Features like individual volume control via dedicated rotary encoders is a huge benefit for customers.”  Another benefit is the monitoring possibilities that IP-based systems provide. It helps administrators ensure the faultless operation of the system. They can also assist inexperienced users during operation by accessing their panel remotely and talking them through any issues.  

Specification and installation of an intercom system is a complex procedure and specialist consultants are often involved to assist the in-house IT team.  “Wherever people need to communicate with each other there needs to be consideration on how extensive the system should be, who needs to talk to whom, interfaces to other systems like telephone lines, other audio systems or wireless systems. Then it is important to know what kind of operators are going to use the system; whether they are likely to be familiar with most intercom systems need to have something that is easy to use,” points out Susan McLohon, sales and marketing director of ASL Inter.

Designing and selecting the correct pieces for a specific client use and workflow differs from venue to venue. “There is no one-size-fit-all solution, explains Macri.  “Consultants are important in specifying communication systems for venues and we often recommend one.  We also have web portals with design tools and system design reviews to help designers.”  


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