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Intercom System Basics – Production Intercom

by Brad Herring

Production intercom is one of the most critical components for any production. The intercom system is the backbone of communications between all parts of the production team. There are many different systems (and prices) available on the market today. Your specific needs will determine which system is best for you.

A good production intercom system should be full duplex. This means that all parties on the line can talk AND listen at the same time. It works much like your telephone on a conference call.

For general comparison there are three different broad categories of production intercom systems: Hard Wired, Wireless and WiFi/LTE based systems. Lets take a moment and look at the pro’s and con’s of each.

Hard Wired:

The hard-wired systems are where it all began. There are two primary flavors of hard-wired intercom systems; balanced and unbalanced.  Both systems work fine and have been battle tested over the years. The big thing to know is that the two types of systems do not work with each other (painfully obvious – right?).

In general, the big player for a balanced system is Telex and the big player for unbalanced is Clear-Com. All other brands pick and choose one side or the other to follow.

Call me old fashion, but when it comes to critical production work I still like a good hard-wired system. It’s robust and much less prone to failure. It doesn’t require batteries and is far less likely to have interference issues. They also typically tend to be the most cost-effective solutions for production intercom.

In the old days, and still currently with the basic systems, hardwired intercoms were all simple twisted pair. They are very easy to install and low maintenance. Today many hardwired systems are also running digital signals over Cat5 or fiber.

Pro’s: Inexpensive, reliable, no batteries, robust, clear signal

Con’s: Not very mobile friendly, requires physical wiring

Wireless Systems:

As technology improved the industry saw production intercom move towards wireless. These systems are generally very reliable. Range is sometimes limited or requires repeater antennas. Many wireless systems operate in a line of site environment.

Wireless intercom allows amazing freedom. Now a technician has full mobility around the stage or production area – without hassling with tangling messes of wire.

These systems are also available in full duplex and most of them interface with a hard-wired system giving you the best of all worlds.

Wireless intercoms, like all wireless devices, are prone to interference. Since they work off radio frequency you always run the risk of losing your ability to talk to the team. While in many cases these risks are minimized they still exist. Wireless intercom also require batteries to operate which adds another potential point of failure to the system and an increase in operational cost.

It’s also worth mentioning that just like wireless microphones you must make sure the system you are buying is legal and do your due diligence to future proof against more frequency changes in the future by the FCC.

Pro’s: Super mobile, full duplex communication, freedom from wiring

Con’s: Battery usage, failure to charge batteries resulting in com not working, radio interference, range

WiFi / LTE Based Systems:

Newer to the market are many WiFi and LTE based systems. These systems utilize a computer to host the audio transmissions and users simply download an app on their smart phones to connect to it. Generally these systems allow integration to a conventional wired or wireless system as well via a digital interface.

These systems are very cost effective and offer a great value for many houses of worship that need non-critical production communication. These systems are as reliable as your WiFi or LTE connection.

Some of these systems have a little latency still as a result of the WiFi/LTE network path. Due to this latency they might not be the best choice when critical cue calling is needed but might be an excellent choice for general communication.

Pro’s: Inexpensive, expandable, easy to install and easily accessible

Con’s: Latency can be an issue, only as reliable as WiFi or LTE, some phones might drop signal, depends on the cell phone charge

In conclusion, there are several choices available to the House of Worship depending on budget, size and production needs. In today’s world a production intercom system not only allows for smooth production but also allows your team to communicate in time of crisis or emergency. If you don’t have a production intercom system setup you should consider it’s uses and give serious consideration to adding a production intercom system at your church.

 

Brad Herring operates Church Production Resources, Marietta, GA, a for-profit ministry based business that trains and consults churches in the use of A/V systems. Visit his website at www.churchproductionresources.com
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