How many times have you been forced to sit through the cellular phone commercial with the geeky technician smugly asking, “Can you hear me now? Good!”? Anyone who actually uses cellular phones might see these commercials and experience the desire to promptly smack the irritating character with a dose of reality, or perhaps something from the cartoon world, like a satisfying iron skillet accompanied by a resounding clang! I don't know about the rest of the country, but cell service in Manhattan is closer to “Can you hear me now? No? Damn.” We have been forced to accept nasty cell phone realities like dropouts, black hole zones, digital echo, and flutter signals. They are commonplace problems in this modern world. Let's not forget the damage to a good tower signal from clouds and rain, which will render your valued cell phone useless, albeit only temporarily (like those critical moments when you have to negotiate your design fees or royalties). Talk about your fair-weather friends, indeed! But can we drop this technology like our calls are dropped? No way; we're married to our phones, two-way pagers, Nextels, and PDAs. Our Wi-Fi is a way of life.
Face it, we're connected. Either by choice or by the demand of our clients, designers are constantly available for communication. Who works in this industry and does not have at least two personal communication devices such as a cellular phone, Nextel phone, two-way pager, laptop, PDA, pager watch, high-speed/broadband internet wireless network cards, and whatever the most recent wireless technology is about 16 seconds from now? We seem to thrive on being plugged in, be it wired or wireless. Designers are a group that by our very nature must be constantly available for many modes of communication. If we're not available at any one given moment, we might lose a job or client. So, should we be surprised that communications systems are expanding at an exponential rate to match our personal lives?
Whether in the theatre or theme park, from network studios to local access cable TV, our communications needs and systems are growing and improving. It is more and more common for smaller shows, theatres, and events to need and seek out increasingly large communications, as well as more types of systems that often fall, somewhat surprisingly, to the responsibility of the sound designer. For starters, there is the IR (infrared) Assisted Listening System. The American Disability Act mandates enough assisted listening devices/headsets for 4% of the theatre's seating capacity. The infrared mix is easy enough to achieve — apply a compressed console mix of footmics or post-fader wireless mics with a balcony rail mic, ensure the emitters are focused correctly, and voilà! It's a shame, though, that the ADA is unable to mandate that the patrons use them correctly.
Next, color and infrared camera shots from the balcony rail are more and more common, especially when mechanized or moving scenery is involved. While stage managers who call from onstage positions might be able to see the action from offstage, a front picture is almost imperative. The infrared shot from the balcony rail allows the stage manager to see the stage in darkness and determine if a scene change is complete. These tools are imperative for the safety of actors and crew alike.
As our personal lives become more complex, our workspaces reflect those changes. More and more people want flexibility and connectivity; web resources are constantly needed, as well as e-mail. Ergo, while tech tables are sporting more and more computers, they are also upgrading to high-speed internet access. The cable modem and wireless access hub have become commonplace recently, just like the espresso machines in road boxes during the 1990s.
But nowhere is the change in communications as great as in our interpersonal communications. In the entertainment industry, this means PL (party lines), better known as com. Not simply Clear-Com lines, but the concept of “com” now includes wired and wireless, two-way, and RF interfaces.
Doesn't it seem like yesterday when we all worked wired together, on a single-channel Clear-Com system? Remember when the stage manager's stern warning for headset etiquette kept dozens of technicians quiet on a single-line system, and the only other piece of communications was the Aiphone? We recall the Aiphone, a basic battery-powered telephone/intercom device, commonly used for two to three locales within a venue, such as from house manager to the calling booth, or from office to office. Aiphones were more common back in the golden age, when doctors would leave their pagers with the coat check attendant in case of an emergency. These days the Aiphone is still alive and well in many theatres, while the single-channel party line is more akin to the dodo bird. Eventually, com evolved into a two-channel system, with lighting isolated from the other disciplines. Now, two-channel com systems are like the spotted owl — sometimes found in reclusive areas of antiquity, but still rare.
Why do we need so many channels when a single channel used to be enough? It all started with the need for a separate channel for different departments to communicate within their own subgroup, isolated from the whole yet available. So we added party lines — stage management on a channel, carpenters and flyman on one channel, lighting on a channel, sound and the musical director/conductor on a channel. Then the carps and flyman wanted to communicate privately, as did the RF tech and FOH engineer, as did the LD to the programmer, so we added private channels. Now, a party line has a DC voltage applied to pin 2 of its XLR to provide power for the com line. You can add many individual positions (beltpack positions, also called drops) simply by looping additional cable from one headset to another. By upgrading to a two-channel beltpack, the user can have a public and a private channel. But for the private channel to work properly, it also needs a dedicated “wet” or DC-powered channel. So, we might elect to use a second main station or a matrix master station to create the private channel on an unused channel (on a master station) or on a matrix output set to the off position (from any matrix station). This is a commonly used design for modern productions, and the sound designer incorporates special hardwired 1×6 XLR blocks to allow for easy patching and multing of com positions into various channels.
The next evolutionary step is to upgrade a wet channel system into a point-to-point system. The most basic of these includes a computer-control station with user keypanel stations of various sizes that allow great access and flexibility, while using standard Cat-5 interconnect cable. The central controller in point-to-point systems is a digital mainframe host computer control terminal which can provide hundreds of user stations with complex gain control, alphanumeric labelling, point-to-point accuracy, and complete privacy to boot. Some of the finest systems available are the Clear-Com Digital Matrix, Zeus, RTS's Adam, and the McCurdy interface, often used on remote trucks.
Remote television trucks are equipped the way most shows should be. Often they have nine or more wet channels, point-to-point stations for every location within the truck, and a few additional main stations for any key personnel (like lighting designers) who may need to sit in the house yet communicate with many channels simultaneously. While these systems are expensive, they allow for variable, comprehensive communications setups with computer-recallable accuracy. Knowing that the hardware component stays the same and the software interface is easy to save and recall, it makes PL systems pretty easy to deal with. Another com feature one sees regularly on remote trucks but less often in theatre is the two-way radio interface. This allows the remote stations to interface directly with a channel of walkie (two-way radio) with comfort and ease, which America seems to have accomplished quite easily on its own.
While Motorola likes to advertise them for families on vacation, the real users of two-way radios are the attractions that vacationing families like to see: Movie lots, production companies, galleries, museums, theatres, national parks, theme parks, circuses, corporate industrials, rock-and-roll shows, the Barney tour, you name it — they're using two-way radios. Sometimes these walkie-talkies carry up to 16 channels! And they've gotten small. Those cool wrist mics on personal bodyguards and the headsets you see on Green Berets? They're connected to the latest two-way radios. Come to think of it, I'd bet it was the walkie-talkie that pushed communications manufacturers to develop full duplex wireless com systems. While the early versions of simultaneous talk-and-listen wireless com sounded not much better than a tin can, these days they sound great — like two tin cans with a string! Seriously, a well-tuned RF com system is a fantastic piece of machinery and technology — a veritable modern working wonder — and today we have dual-channel, dual-listen systems which are quite flexible and powerful. When wired, and RF PL is combined with a two-way RF interface, all the com elements can be tied together for an immense system with users in distant locales. Not only do we increase our coverage zone, but we allow more potential for easier communications with fewer devices at an overall lower cost and a greater number of people in constant communication. The Nextel wireless telephone/two-way radio is a widely used combination communication device on the marketplace, especially for small-to-medium businesses, like the entertainment industry. If you don't believe me, check out what your favorite rental shop is using.
For those who are still wondering about the plethora of wet PL channels I'm suggesting, let's look at the requirements of the lighting designer. LDs can have somewhat complicated communications needs. On Broadway, many LDs are often surrounded by one or more associate designers, one or two assistant designers, a moving light programmer, a conventional light programmer, a lighting board operator (aka road electrician), a house electrician, a deck electrician, a dimmer rack/patch electrician, plus two to three spot operators. To further complicate this conundrum of com needs, the stage manager needs to be able to speak with most of these people. How do we accomplish this? With a single four-channel matrix base station, we can provide two party lines: a main lighting channel and a main spots channel that are the primary channels for the SM to talk to the LD and his/her team. Next there are lighting private, programmers private, and spots private lines to allow the subgrouped teams to talk amongst themselves yet remain isolated from the rest of the com system.
And, of course, lighting is only a single example. Our modern shows have wired stage manager positions in conference with wireless stage manager com; deck positions including carpenters, fly rail, property persons; electrics (LD, assistant LD, lighting board ops, programmers, moving light programmers, house electrician, road and deck electricians, spot ops), sound (sound designer, assistant sound designer, conductor, production sound engineer, RF tech, house sound); let's not forget the video folks — how about graphics, video director, video tape op, camera positions, teleprompter, and … uh oh, I think I had better specify some more wet channels. And I suppose I'd better call the producer or GM to warn them how much the additional PLs will cost.
Can you hear me now? It's the future calling … and it's saying CATCH UP!
Jim van Bergen is a sound designer and engineer whose career started without any electronic support. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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