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July / August 2009

Intercom 101:
What to Know Before You Start Your Installation

By Bob Boster

Setting up an intercom system for the first time in a worship facility can seem overwhelming, even for the most seasoned technical staff member. The advent of digital, wireless and now IP technology for intercoms has flooded the marketplace with a plethora of solutions, making it somewhat challenging to determine which will be the right fit for your space. Making this task easier involves a solid understanding of what intercom is, what makes it the right tool for professional communications and what to consider before installation.

What Is Intercom?
In simplest terms, intercom is a dedicated communications infrastructure. Unlike two-way radio, intercom systems offer full-duplex communication, which makes the experience of using them to talk much more like having a natural conversation. During busy production periods, such as just before a major holiday service, this feature really comes in handy, as you don’t have to grapple with the additional stress of communicating in a new and unfamiliar way.

Another important feature of any quality intercom system is the support of multiple functional groups. This lets you divide your communications into different channels, adding significant efficiency to the workflow. Lighting staff can talk on one channel, the sound guys on the second channel, and graphics and editing on another, for example. It cuts down on unnecessary and potentially distracting chatter during production.

Most of today’s intercom systems can also be used to connect production staff to other important areas in the worship facility - anything from service audio, the telephone system to the PA system. Everyone truly is connected.

Why Use Intercom?
The answer to this question is that form follows function. Intercom was invented to solve live production requirements. It is designed specifically for the challenges and situations inherent to this type of environment. Any other communications systems you try to implement for live production in your facility will always be a “workaround.”

Intercom also has the major plus of helping to improve production values. When you have a dedicated system for assisting with cueing, talking to other crew members, coordinating between the different production areas and other activities common to a live production environment, everything goes much more smoothly.

Beyond improved production values, intercoms help ensure safety while pulling off special effects and other theatrical elements, help with handling any monitoring activities the church video staff may require and are much more resistant to the types of interference that plague other communications devices such as cell phones and walkie-talkies.

Things to Consider Before Making the Leap to Intercom
While intercom offers a great deal of value for any house of worship, as with any new installation, there are some things to consider before making this type of investment. Perhaps the most important is what you need intercom to do for your facility. Which members of the production staff, and what production areas, would benefit from it the most? Where do the communications seem most lacking in the daily workflow of your facility? How do you envision intercom solving key production challenges? Ask yourself all these questions, and you’ll find that determining which type of intercoms are the best fit will be much less of a headache.

Other major factors to consider are cost (intercoms can run anywhere from the $1,000s for a simple party-line system with wired beltpacks to the $100,000s for an advanced matrix-based network with wireless beltpacks), the complexity of deployment and the amount of time it will take, and how easy or difficult it will be for your facility’s particular crew to learn.

Your house of worship’s particular infrastructure will play a major role in determining the complexity of the installation. Therefore, it’s a very good idea to thoroughly survey what, if any, infrastructure already exists on which the intercom system can operate. Also take into account the type of wiring you have and whether or not you have access to a conduit.

You’ll also want to look into any connectivity requirements for the intercom system. Most modern intercom networks run on fiber, an E1 or TI line, over IP, or over a combination of these. Check on the I/O requirements for the system as well.

Choosing the Right Intercom for Your House of Worship
As intercom technology has evolved, so have the amount of solutions available. These days, there are four major categories of intercom systems: party-line, matrix, wireless and IP. Here is a breakdown of each system, what it does, and the types of facilities for which they are best suited:

Party-line intercoms: A good starting point for small- to mid-size churches, party-line intercoms run over standard microphone cable, making their infrastructure requirements fairly minimal. They typically offer one to four functional groups (sometimes called “channels”) of communication, allowing everyone in each group to hear everything said as well as offering a choose to talk function. Simple to operate, they are great for coordinating four or fewer groups (lights, sound, graphics and music, for example).

Digital matrix intercoms: Digital matrix intercoms are designed for group-level and point-to-point communications. Highly flexible when it comes to configuration, they are the easiest type of intercoms to integrate with other communication tools, such as radios, telephones and IFB. They are ideal for mid-sized to large houses of worship, as well as facilities with multiple venues and complex production needs.

Wireless intercoms: Often used in concert with wired intercom systems, wireless intercoms add the tremendous benefit of mobility to virtually any size facility. They come in a variety of flavors: VHF, UHF, digital 2.4 GHz or 1.92 GHz. Though most are “wireless party-line” and “line of sight,” more sophisticated wireless intercom systems offer point-to-point and multi-cell roaming capabilities. These work very effectively for crew members seeking the flexibility of an untethered solution.

Wireless intercoms can be easily integrated with party-line or matrix systems. They come in especially handy when a small number of people need to do many different tasks for a worship service or other type of production requiring a high degree of coordination by many crew members.

IP-based intercoms: Recently, manufacturers have developed ways to harness the inherent flexibility and extendibility of Internet Protocol (IP) technology for intercoms, also known as Internet-Over-IP (IOIP). IOIP can be used to bridge two or more intercom systems located in separate facilities of the same church over an existing Internet, LAN or WAN network from a PC. This establishes a single communications environment for all staff members involved in production activities. It also offers a cost-effective way to extend the reach of the intercom systems in a facility.

While IP-based intercoms offer many benefits, not all IP solutions deliver the same grade of audio quality and scalability. Clear-Com’s I.V.Core technology, for example, is one of the few IOIP solutions currently available that allows users and user groups to access intercom from anywhere in the world via the Internet without a loss in audio quality. Quality audio is assured through automatic bandwidth priority control coupled with digital audio packets processed at the user’s computer, not through the bandwidth-intense mixing systems found in other IP products.

While setting up intercom for your house of worship might seem daunting, it need not be so. As with many large tasks, the old saying is true that “knowing is half the battle.” Now you have a better understanding of what intercom is, why it’s superior in many respects to other communication tools and what to keep in mind before installation.

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