BFV Interview: Clear-Com starts shipping its FreeSpeak Edge

In this issue BFV speaks exclusively to the President of Clear-Com Bob Boster. During lockdown the firm announced it is now shipping its FreeSpeak Edge, the most advanced digital wireless intercom system on the market today. The intuitive design features in the system’s transceivers and beltpacks also give users more control. The FreeSpeak Edge beltpack is designed with nine programmable buttons with level control for four channels and a master volume.

Despite these challenging times, Clear-Com has remained very busy and has supported many operations for Clique, a daily current affairs show. I am sure this presented many challenges for the firm with severe restrictions being put in place. How did the company overcome the technical issues?

BOB is responsible for the set-up and management of the technical control room for Clique’s daily programming. With severe restrictions in place for travel and social contact, BOB’s technical team needed to ensure that this daily content could continue broadcasting while limiting travel as much as possible and keeping technical teams at home.

There are 14 people who work on the live shoot, including the director, producer, editor, sound engineer and camera operator, all of whom have been relocated to their homes. The equipment manager and sound assistant are the only team members who still physically report to the studio.

The technical choices we made when the control room was designed took remote workflows into consideration even before COVID, which made it easier to set up as a remote production as most of the equipment could already be operated virtually.

An existing Clear-Com Eclipse® HX-Delta digital matrix intercom system is installed at the studio and facilitated seamless and flexible integration with intercom panels installed at each of the production team members’ homes. Some staff are using V-Series™ panels, while others have downloaded Clear-Com’s Agent-IC® mobile intercom app to their mobile devices, giving them a fully functional panel on their smartphone, tablet or wearable device that allows them to talk and listen to all the channels of the matrix, including IFBs.

The V Series panels allow audio staff to remotely monitor the audio console. How are the panels connected?

In the case of BOB, the V-Series panels allow audio staff to remotely monitor the audio console (and any other audio coming from remote technical rooms) via two additional channels on the panel’s Aux audio connector. At the studio, the console’s control room outputs are connected into two matrix inputs, and the Eclipse HX-Delta frame then routes these to the Aux audio connector on the remote sound engineer’s intercom panel.

The panels are all connected via IP through ADSL interfaces or 4G connection. All panels can talk to the presenter’s on-set wireless earpiece with very low latency.

During lockdown the company announced its FreeSpeak Edge is now shipping, there is nothing like this on the market today. Am I correct in saying this is the company’s most advanced wireless intercom system? It also gives users more control and configuration options?

FreeSpeak Edge is the most advanced digital wireless intercom system on the market today. It is built around 5 GHz technology, which is an entirely different landscape, where frequencies have more bandwidth for data.

More data means finer control, additional audio channels, lower latency and better audio quality.

While the 5GHz frequency also supports Wi-Fi, there are still a significant number of unused channels which can support a wireless intercom system. A simple RF scan can be completed to identify high traffic channels and unused channels can then be assigned to the Edge system. To increase the size of an existing system, frequency coordination can be done to add or re-use channels. The result is a highly scalable, deterministic intercom set-up that is both stable and reliable.

The intuitive design features in the system’s transceivers and beltpacks also give users more control. The FreeSpeak Edge beltpack is designed with nine programmable buttons with level control for four channels and a master volume. The large easy-to-read color OLED screen delivers key communication details at a glance. The beltpack has a new curved frame that fits closely on the hip along with additional features to make communication seamless and easy.

Clear-Com carried out extensive field tests on the system. Can you tell me more about the tests and what challenges you had to overcome to enable the system to withstand harsh environments?

Field tests are showing that 5GHz is expanding the possibilities for digital wireless intercom technologies in particularly challenging radio environments. After participating in field trials with FreeSpeak Edge at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Montreal Bell Arena, Geoff Maurice of Gerr Audio comments, “As a FreeSpeak user from the very beginning, it’s clear that Clear-Com has done their homework and checked all the boxes with the new Edge system – I’ve never heard something that sounded so good and covered so well. I look forward to deploying this system in some of Canada’s most challenging RF environments.”

Following a trial run with FreeSpeak Edge during their live streaming broadcast of Times Square on New Year’s Eve Corey Behnke of Live X had this to say of the system, “New Year’s Eve in Times Square is one of the most challenging radio environments, and this was the first time our field producers were able to be on a reliable comms system. It was especially helpful that it tied in with all our other systems so easily. We are often working in these very crowded wireless scenarios and it’s great to know that now we have another wireless band with Edge. People using it in the field came back to say that the beltpack ergonomics and overall sound quality of Edge was very impressive.”

Clear-Com technology recently helped ITV accomplish get 11 separate regional studios to communicate seamlessly with no disruptions to on-air time. This is an absolutely massive achievement and Clear-Com has worked with ITV for many years. The addition of FreeSpeak II now allows the teams to produce more efficiently and communicate among all sites. I am sure you are very proud of this achievement?

The broadcast expansion initiative with ITV has been a long-standing project, and we are excited that it is now complete. The fact that ITV initiated a company-wide adoption of Clear-Com solutions assured us that our product was well-received, and they wished to further their experience working with Clear-Com. ITV noted that they chose Clear-Com’s technology for its flexibility, easy deployment and ability to deliver clear audio quality—these are key characteristics that we consider at every stage of our product development, and we are pleased they are recognized by our end-users.

Clear-Com is always present at many big trade shows throughout the world which have since been cancelled because of the pandemic. How important are trade shows to the firm? Am I correct in saying the firm is hosting webinars?

Tradeshows have always been a great way for us to showcase our new products and meeting in person with partners and end-users was extremely valuable. However even without tradeshows, we have found alternative ways of reaching our customer base and staying engaged. We have developed technical training webinars that cover the features, functionality and integration of several of our products, as well as market solution webinars that cover new remote workflows, innovations in theater intercom, communications in HOW, and socially distanced media production. We’re also big proponents of picking up the phone and calling people! We’re certainly relying on our strong existing relationships to get through this time without a lot of in-person contact.

What does the future hold for Clear-Com?

In a situation like the one we have seen unfold in 2020, the critical thing is to fall back on your core values and allow those to operate as guiding principles as you flex the tactical plans to address the specific challenges of the moment. Clear-Com has done exactly that by focusing on our staff well-being and our customers’ operational needs as the top two priorities and keeping those two points in focus has allowed us to persevere. The future will continue to evolve for us, as it always has, based on the demands of the marketplace and while we have consistently been conscious of serving multiple markets, the current business environment has only made that more requirement more stringent.

We innovate constantly in the application of our products to create solutions to new communication challenges all the time. Our toolkit continues to evolve as we advance new, market-sensitive technologies (e.g. AoIP or 5GHz wireless) into the portfolio and that innovation will definitely continue, but in the end it’s the expertise and understanding of how to achieve the goals our customers put forward to us which continues to put us on top. In a constantly changing world with new requirements arriving everyday our future looks bright!