Intercoms and paging systems are increasingly seen as essential when organising events or successfully running public services and facilities. But whatever the application, the bottom line for equipment is always to communicate and manage with an uncompromising level of dependability.
At the heart of most professional high-end communications systems is an intercom that allows people to talk to and hear each other. Typically the hardware consists of a key panel control port (basically an audio input and output to a central system) with a listen and talk switch, LED character displays, microphones, headsets or loudspeakers and paging devices. Ports are then generally linked to a central programmable matrix.
Riedel Communications, the leading German intercom manufacturer, makes the popular Artist Matrix System Series that can manage up to 1,024 port users. With recent installations at venues such as NFL stadiums in the US and the Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, business is going well.
Rising business in 2009
Last month Riedel opened a dedicated UK office, located at Pinewood Studios, 15 miles outside of central London, to cover rental and sales activities as well as direct customer support in the UK. Thomas Riedel, managing director of the company, says: "Riedel's business is definitely up again compared with last year. In 2008 we had an increase of approximately 30% in revenues. And, despite the economic situation, I expect significant growth in 2009. This is firstly because of our expansion in new geographical regions such as the Middle East and Latin America, and secondly because of us covering more and more markets outside our classic broadcast domain, such as theatre, campus and stadium installations."
Unusual locations for intercoms are proving fertile ground for other leading manufacturers. Clear-Com products are in use at a diverse range of situations: from medical hyperbaric chambers, police and rescue departments and nuclear plants, to yacht racing. The company's highly popular Eclipse Digital Matrix Systems series can support as few as 16 ports on a single matrix frame or as many as 3,120 user connections on a networked system platform. The company is reporting increased usage in theatres, including on Broadway in New York.
Managing director Matt Danilowicz comments: "Clear-Com's business has grown by 17% year on year. This is a tremendous accomplishment considering that we saw many projects cancelled or postponed in the fourth quarter as a result of economic retrenchment. Our research tells us that the live production sector is growing by 8-10% annually, so, as you can see, we are outpacing the growth of our market significantly."
Graeme Harrison, VP of international sales at Biamp Systems, the makers of the Biamp Networked Paging System, reports that in the past 12 months the corporate and hospitality industries have had the greatest demand for the product, with airports a close third. Each paging station features an LCD display and scroll-wheel interface, which enables users to quickly switch between pre-assigned paging groups and zones. The sleek, sophisticated look was designed to be aesthetically pleasing to the general public.
Rise to the challenge
These are challenging times as the recession in Europe tightens its grip. Chris Edwards, head of marketing at CIE-Group, an exclusive UK supply partner for a number of key brands in the commercial audio, AV and CCTV distribution and installation markets, urges caution about the marketplace.
"Due to the economic climate, we have, of course, forecast a downturn in sales in the next 12 months," he says. "This is as a direct result of the reduced investment in the retail, corporate and leisure markets. Though despite a definite downturn in the CCTV sector in recent months we have been pleasantly surprised by the buoyancy of the audio and AV market, as a significant number of key projects continue to come through."
Continuing on an optimistic note, Edwards adds: "Certainly due to the strength of our new DataBay HDMI/DVI-over-Cat/x cable product range - which provides real cost-saving installation opportunities - we have seen an upturn in business in the AV market. Also, the education market continues to hold strong as public money is much less affected than private-sector spending. In addition, the UK government's decision to accelerate £800 million of school capital investment to 2009-10 offers some opportunities for continued business in this sector."
VoIP as a driving force
A driving force in the current market place is the use of VoIP. Ten to 15 years ago use of and demand for intercoms had peaked. With the introduction of enhanced telephone systems during the 1980s and 1990s the market appeared to have hit rock bottom. Then, in the early 2000s, sound solution companies such as TOA Corporation began to develop their IP intercom systems, opening up new markets that conventional telephony systems could not handle and offering more features and cost-saving solutions. Currently TOA is experiencing strong demand from airports, the transportation sector, corporations with overseas offices and the security industry.
One of TOA's key products is the N-8000 Series IP Network Intercom. The system offers flexible communications for up to 1,280 stations on existing corporate local and wide area data networks. Built on TOA's proven NX-100 network audio technology, the new IP intercom products occupy minimal network bandwidth (130kbps maximum) for station-to-station calls and can be controlled and monitored through software or a web browser. Programmable system functions include 160 paging zones, time-based call forwarding and scan monitoring.
"The N-8000 installed at Gatwick Airport in the UK, in particular the baggage handling area, was a perfect choice," comments Paul Patterson, managing director of Sound Distribution Services, citing the networking capabilities of TOA's IP intercom. "We can change positions, locations and configuration of the entire system with ease, achieving what is truly a flexible solution to today's ever-changing environment."
At last month's ISE Show in Amsterdam TOA launched the VM-3000 Series PA/VA system. This offers a range of emergency functions, including built-in voice alarm and continuous speaker line monitoring without interruption of BGM distribution or paging announcements. All audio is digitally processed and controlled, resulting in PA broadcasting, paging and BGM delivery of consistently high sound quality and intelligibility.
Brett Downing, sales and marketing director, TOA Corporation (UK), comments: "The VM-3000 is compact and can be set up directly from its front panel without the need for connection to a PC. Dedicated software is also available for those installers who want to configure, maintain and update the system remotely."
Barix, a Zurich-based manufacturer of IP-based audio, intercom, control and monitoring, chose to showcase the Barix Paging Station PS16 at ISE. The compact multifunctional master station for use in IP intercom, paging and VoIP applications offers a variety of key features, including group call, public address broadcast, per location audible call identifier, remote relay operation and unattended mode operation. This latter feature allows operators to easily and quickly record an unattended message for automatic answering of calls when the central station is unmanned.
Johannes G Rietschel, CEO and founder of Barix, comments on current technology trends. "Proprietary standards come and go... while 'open' standards-based Ethernet and TCP/IP has survived and evolved. We see a very strong trend in the intercom/paging and even telephony market based on the use of these open standards. IP-based systems are interoperable, open and not tied to a certain vendor or chip manufacturer. Customers understand this trend, and there is a strong demand for such systems."
New growth for events
Optimism from the installed sector has spread to the events industry, with opportunities opening up for companies such as Orbital Sound, based in London. In 2006 the company set up an event communications division, dedicated to installations across a variety of events. Tim Sherratt, technical director at Orbital, explains: "We have a large fleet of RTS Matrix Key Panels, Tetra walkie-talkies, Duplex radio communications, microwave links, VoIP network technology as well as full staffing and logistics back-up."
On the fixed installation side of Orbital's business, collaborative design installations and consultancy work in conjunction with RTS Telex have been completed on intercom systems at the Glyndebourne Opera House as well as for Ireland's National Concert Hall in Dublin. Tender work is under way for the Clwyd Theatre, Mold, North Wales, a large building spread across three venues. Sherratt is working on a system that will allow for an integrated intercom and paging system for up to 60 different zones in the building that can be programmed as required for each new performance.
Turning back to the manufacturing sector and looking to the Swiss market, Ateïs International is a leading maker of voice alarm and installed sound equipment. For the past 25 years the company has been serving markets in Italy, Russia and other Eastern European countries, while also enjoying significant success in markets such as South Africa. More recently it has planned to set up subsidiaries in key markets as and when opportunities arise. The UK subsidiary opened in March last year, headed by Neil Voce. With 20 years of experience in the PA/VA industry, including time as MD of Millbank, Voce is confident about business at the moment, and about Ateïs UK.
One of Ateïs's most in demand audio matrixing systems is the UAPG2, designed for small and medium-sized paging and multi-zone audio routing applications. Discussing the product and the features attracting the most favourable market response, Voce comments: "I guess we're seeing the wholesale adoption of front-end software, which is permeating down from the exotic to the everyday application. Also, third-party control to provide integrated audio/video solutions seems to be a draw.
"The Ateïs UAPG2, a fully programmable DSP audio matrix, is a case in point. Where you would have had a mixer amp and a paging microphone a few years ago, our new-generation controller stores messages and has a scheduler, full DSP control on EQ and processing, and stacks into a matrix with simple software control that allows engineers and operators different screens. You may think that sounds like overkill, but so far I've not been able to get one onto a shelf because they're sold before we can get them!"
Over in Belgium, Audac provides a complete range of audio equipment, including amplifiers, speakers, microphones and much more. For the intercom market the company is seeing significant use of its amplifiers and loudspeaker integration with intercoms. Of particular interest is Audac's CSE55, the company's newest single-cone loudspeaker with an integrated red signal LED (24V), which emits a visual evacuation signal. The ceiling speaker is specially designed to deliver high-quality speech reproduction, but can also be used for background music. It is standard fitted with a 100V line transformer and with connections for different powers. Recently 700 units have been installed at the central fire station in Antwerp.
Looking to the future
The intercom market place is clearly healthy, robust and maturing quickly. As to the future, manufacturers including Riedel predict that intercoms will move from pure voice communication to a new kind of backbone system, able to provide broadcast-quality audio and transport additional data such as Ethernet or relay contacts. A new step will probably be the integration of video.
Riedel says: "My personal vision is that intercom migrates more into a real-time production backbone. Intercom then will only be one aspect of the system. At this year's NAB show we will introduce MediorNet, a fibre optic media transport network, which will already show the first steps in that direction. Be curious!"
Clear-Com's Danilowicz is convinced that the technology produced must be intuitive and easy to use. He concludes: "It's all going to get a lot easier. Why? Because it has to. We're investing more than ever to create an easier user experience, an area in which we've been weak in the past. Our new systems are going to be much more intuitive, providing all the advanced logic mapping to satisfy a veteran intercom specialist, with an ease of use that a kid can pick up in 10 minutes. That's the standard for all our new offerings, including Production Maestro and Logic Maestro, which provide a thoroughly intuitive approach to conference routing and workflow set-up. We'll be demonstrating these new products at trade shows like NAB and InfoComm this year, and I think they will be setting a standard for the simpler, more elegant world of intercom to come."