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Intercom solutions are the nexus of production unit activity. We break down the newest and most popular kit on the market


Making a film or TV show can be a challenging and exhausting experience, regardless of the budget. As any crew member or actor will tell you, the production process is never as glamorous as what adorns the screen. Yet, while visual technological advancements continue to augment

what viewers are paying to see, one thing remains constant: reliable communication.



Two-way radios – walkie-talkies – used to be the staple of production units. But today, modern intercom systems combine the robustness of the analogue connection with the speech quality

of a digital system and latency of a closed system. In other words, things have moved on.


When productions resumed following a the Covid-19 hiatus, social distancing meant intercom

solutions became ever more critical. There were questions concerning what to expect once the ‘new normal’ arrived.


However, Francisco Herrería, technical sales and business development manager at Spanish broadcast audio manufacturer Altair, doesn’t believe the pandemic irrevocably changed the direction in which technical developments have been moving.


“It’s true that intercom use was boosted by the huge growth of streaming during the pandemic, but it did not affect the design of new devices – apart from the videoconferencing world, which is a separate subject.”


Networking

Herrería explains that ‘the trend nowadays’ is to try to maximise the versatility of the intercom network and number of channels in the system (groups and users), as well as channels a user can access from their beltpack.


“Also, integration with other brands and technologies is of great relevance,” he adds. “The use of IP technology, both for cable-based and wireless devices, is changing the landscape of the industry really quickly, with bigger and more flexible matrix-type systems. Several brands are now doing interesting things, offering a wide range of options for the user. That is a major change if we compare the current situation with a decade ago: there are now more manufacturers and a wider range of options – partyline systems, AES67 and Dante systems, other IP solutions.”


One brand with a rich history in this space is Clear-Com, and senior product manager Stephen Sandford explains how reliability, flexibility and scalability are the key features to be considered when purchasing a solution.


“The intercom is the glue that binds a production together, and needs to be dependable day in and day out,” he says. “It is incredible how critical intercom has become in TV & film production today, and with the industry’s drive to reduce costs, a clear and reliable intercom system is invaluable in reducing time on-set. The system also needs to have the flexibility to adapt to a variety of different filming needs, whether that’s simply cueing talent on an IFB or coordinating with camera operators to get the best angle, the intercom system must be ready to accommodate the needs of filming a modern show or feature. Scalability is a growing requirement for productions; more and more people on-set need access to the intercom, so a system that can grow is essential.”


As well as knowing what to factor into any purchasing decision, it’s also important to know what one should avoid. Sandford notes that one common challenge to navigate in the intercom world is initial overcomplication. That’s because trying to plan for every eventuality on a production may seem sensible, but can often lead to user confusion and frustration.


“Our advice is to configure an intercom system that is usable, but one you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand,” he insists. “Intercom systems naturally grow and evolve as they are used. Through experience, we have learned that you cannot rush the evaluation of a system; it matures and develops to meet the production’s demands.”




The Matrix

Every decade brings change – and while it’s not always easy to anticipate what that will be, Herrería predicts that smaller local or regional studios will shift from less-versatile partyline systems to IP-based matrix-type solutions by ‘medium-level’ manufacturers.


“Typically, these matrix systems have been overwhelmingly expensive, but there are now some brands (us, for instance) manufacturing professional solutions – sometimes not as powerful, but equally effective – to satisfy the demands of medium studios and OB vans that did not have suitable options,” he continues. “As for filming environments, I don’t see a major change here. Just wireless and some cable devices for coordination during shoots, especially for SFX, action scenes, camera cars, crowd management, etc. There are many systems and brands doing great stuff to cover these needs.”

“Intercom is the glue that binds production together, and needs to be dependable... A reliable intercom is invaluable in reducing time on-set”

Wired for sound?

Of course, both wired and wireless varieties have their strengths – otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted in such a fast-evolving space. However, Sandford explains that while he would never say one is better than the other, a particular solution will suit the customer and environment better than others. He also notes that there are considerations when planning and designing each system: cost verses extra mobility, the number of users and lines of input or output demanded in the system, wireless beltpack management (ie, battery life and coverage areas).


“Our network-based belt pack system named Helixnet runs on studio networks and utilises the power of Ethernet technology,” Sandford adds. “So, the beltpacks can be quickly rolled out across a facility, and Helixnet has been designed as a simple plug-and-play system. This is a next generation of wired beltpacks, over and above the Clear-Com Encore analogue wired partyline systems that were the genesis of Clear-Com nearly 55 years ago. Wireless has the full flexibility of movement, but does need that extra set-up time to place the transceivers. Yet why choose between them when Arcadia can support all wired and wireless beltpacks in one system?”




Come the evolution

Although walkie-talkies continue to play a key role on-set and on location, Herrería can see a time

when they will fade in importance. “Walkies and simpler systems are OK for some basic applications, but as productions become more complex, so do the communication networks to make them possible,” he explains. “I’d say broadcast environments and demands are the ones that have pushed in amore significant way towards the creation of more complex and powerful applications, since communications are critical for the operation of a TV studio, just as an example.


“Also, the more complicated TV shows have gotten, the more complex the intercom networks are, giving them special relevance on live productions. Imagine trying to conduct and broadcast the Olympic opening ceremony, for instance, without an intercom network that runs like a Swiss clock.” Tech evolution is always a race between manufacturers to satisfy growing demands. The good news is, there’s plenty to choose from.



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