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In depth: conferencing venues – talking headspace

Phil Ward looks at how conference venue spaces are changing to provide the best audio possible

There has never been a better time to hold a conference. Brexit negotiators, Mexican wall builders, FIFA World Cup selection committees and their offshore bankers… all can shoot their mealy mouths off with the reassuring knowledge that not a single word will be missed, misunderstood or lost in translation. The battery of audio solutions on the market today designed to focus, isolate, amplify, clarify and scintillate modern discourse has never, as British PM Harold Macmillan once said, had it so good.

The art of noise
“First and foremost our products are about the highest quality of audio,” says Richard Knott, market development manager at Shure UK, “but then also about being able to offer multiple form factors. We can fit into many different scenarios, whether the business wants to be completely clutter-free, with nothing on the table – or even no table at all! Stand-up conference rooms are gaining popularity, so having ceiling solutions is particularly useful – plus the kind of wireless products we’re very well known for. Flexibility is paramount.

“I’d like to think we’re moving beyond the small ‘a’, big ‘V’ paradigm,” he adds, “and that people are starting to get the real value of audio. The IT and AV managers I talk to are very aware of it, even if their hands are tied sometimes. One of the most interesting uses of our MXA910 Ceiling Array Microphone is for voice-lift: the mics can amplify that near-field spoken sound so everyone in the room can be clearly heard at each stage, whether in presentation mode or Q&A mode – or completely automated, so the system ‘follows’ the conversation. It also links into conferencing quite naturally. It’s set up for specific scenarios, but as the user you are completely in control of the eight ‘lobes’ available for chosen areas of the room – to get accurate coverage according to your needs.”

This is a sea change. The main pitfall in the implementation of a conference centre audio system, in common with most audio applications, is signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). The balance of intelligible programme to unwanted hiss, hum and other contextual blurring is the basis of all good sound systems, and the choice of tools for capturing the signal is critical. In fact, the current trend towards the kind of ceiling microphones that Knott describes, and away from desktop and other types, is the next step in the search to get that ratio under control.

Traditionally the microphones favoured in presentations are handheld, lapel or headset. Their chief drawbacks lie in the way they isolate the user in a conversationally unnatural way, and a lot of noise can be generated in inexperienced hands. Two other microphone designs have dominated conferencing, each one ergonomically tailored to rest on furniture but with similar disadvantages.

The boundary microphone rests on a tabletop somewhere, typified by Audio-Technica’s PRO 44, the MXL AC404 USB or the circular Philips 9172. The gooseneck mic populates a surface and assails the seated delegates – witness the Weymic G109, the Shure CVG18 or the

MXL AC-400. Another solution proposes a change in emphasis: commonly optimised for the use of VoIP, speakerphones also sit tabletop but are intrinsically linked to the building’s telecommunications.

In their favour are the absence of physical contact; the sharing of one resource between users; and permanent installation. On the other hand the signal gain fluctuates as delegates move around, with the obvious effect on SNR. Furthermore, boundary mics are sensitive to general office clutter: stationery that covers the capsule; elbows that knock it; open laptops that mask the input; and noise from any other electromagnetic paraphernalia brought into the meeting. Goosenecks are less susceptible to these conditions, and if properly deployed offer superior SNR, but they have one exclusive hindrance: it is surprisingly common for users to consider them threatening and invasive, at which point effective use is handicapped and even sabotaged.

Living on the ceiling
The ceiling microphone, including the ceiling array microphone configuration, evolved to address most of these issues. Standalone models include the 360° Polycom HDX, the ClearOne Ceiling and beyerdymanic’s Classic BM, while array solutions have recently added DSP in order to take full and more accurate advantage of the remote and discreet qualities of a system that interlocutors can effectively forget about.

The advantages multiply: everyone can move around freely; no one feels intimidated or press-ganged into arbitrary groups; the ‘lobes’ described by Knott can be programmed to focus on predetermined areas of the space; they can form part of an elegant fixed installation; and unless the delegates literally start throwing their executive toys out of the pram they are safe from interference, masking and neglect.

In particular the signal processing helps the SNR. As well as built-in noise reduction, the new models have introduced beam-forming technology into the conference space, able to pick out individual voices or even dynamically follow them around the room. While Shure’s aforementioned MXA910 features ‘Steerable Coverage’ to create the eight lobes into which the space can be divided, Audio-Technica’s ES954 Hanging Microphone Array has a similar technique that is adjustable in 30° increments.

Sennheiser’s new TeamConnect Ceiling 2 solution carries the concept a little further into the realms of AI. As well as “automatic adaptive beam-forming technology”, where ‘adaptive’ refers to the system’s ability to adjust gain intelligently according to the relative levels in the room.

“TeamConnect Ceiling 2 and the Sennheiser Control Cockpit software will vastly improve the conference room experience for users, integrators and staff,” claims Jens Werner, portfolio manager business communication at Sennheiser. “Users will benefit from highly intelligible audio and a totally natural and free way of conducting a meeting. There’s no need to sit near a microphone or stay in a pre-defined ‘speaking zone’, no clutter on the tables, no fixed seating arrangements.

“To achieve this, TeamConnect Ceiling 2 employs 28 Sennheiser capsules that form an intelligent, automatic microphone beam that makes everyone in a conference room clearly audible. This patented technology automatically focuses on the active speakers and follows them. Integrators will value the connectivity and the various mounting options that TeamConnect Ceiling 2 offers: the ceiling microphone can be integrated into both analogue and digital environments, and supports Power over Ethernet (PoE), the Sennheiser Control Cockpit, Dante Domain Manager and the Crestron control platform. It also offers an open media protocol (API) for integration into media and camera control systems.”

Loose tongues
Meanwhile infrared conference systems protect sensitive content by confining the signals to within the walls of a conference space. One market leader in infrared systems is Taiden. The organisation claims to have introduced the world’s first infrared simultaneous interpretation system in 2001, featuring interference immunity to HF-driven lights, and has continued to innovate in this field: in 2008, the company developed the digital infrared audio transmitting and control technologies (dirATC) chipset, and invented the patented HCS-5300 Digital Infrared Wireless Conference System – followed by the the world’s first Digital Infrared Wireless Lecturing System in 2015. At ISE this year, Audio-Technica made its own contribution to security with the ATUC-IR infrared conference system, a wireless solution that lines up alongside the company’s ATUC-50 digital discussion system, also wireless.

The other major trend is Audio over IP, which has internationally recognised encryption standards. The DICENTIS Interpreter desk by Bosch, introduced at ISE, is an addition to the DICENTIS Conference System with its 100 language capacity. The encryption guards against unwanted listeners, data theft and sabotage, while overall integrity is provided by the company’s OMNEO IP technology, which is also the gateway to third-party solutions and all available networks.

Juhana Kari, project manager with the Audio Systems department of Finland-based integrator Caverion, recently collaborated with Finnish Parliament IT planner Jarmo Erling to use DICENTIS to add IP capability to the government’s committee rooms. “IP is getting more and more important in audio distribution,” Kari says. “I can say that almost 100% of the new projects we are working on are IP based.”

As well as security, IP offers no-latency uncompressed digital audio and exploits OMNEO’s standard Ethernet connectivity and software updates. “Perhaps most importantly, the use of existing IT infrastructure makes IP extremely cost effective – audio, video and meeting data can all be carried on an existing Ethernet cable, with very little technical training required to install the system,” Bosch states.

Brand designs
Just as the market called ‘AV’ has been co-opted by major touring rental companies, so the ‘conference’ has burst out of the boardroom and hit the big stage. To do this, pro audio has become the key supplier of serious speech reinforcement solutions that would make a rock band proud.

SSE Audio Group has not only supplied full line array with networking and prediction software for large corporate clients such as Vodafone, it also sells best-in-class touring PA to customers such as PSP AV Rental & Staging or FE Live that specialise in conferencing and special events.

“These guys buy d&b audiotechnik and L-Acoustics packages from us,” says Kyle Durno, technical sales & installations at SSE Audio Group, “plus complex wireless mics and IEM from Shure or Sennheiser, of the kind that we’d put out on a rock and roll show. Instead, it’s for NatWest’s AGM in London or something similar. It’s also scalable right down to a small L-R system and a couple of handhelds, but all of our customers in this sector want the most respected brands from the key players. It’s a complete solution.”

At Adlib, whose recent conference projects include the International Festival of Business at Liverpool Exhibition Centre and a roadshow conference for Renault in Manchester, London and Birmingham, the use of multi-purpose spaces usually demands the finest attention to audio detail. Tom Edwards is actually video manager at Liverpool-based Adlib, but is fully aware of the potential of both audio and video in this direction.

“The skills for these events are very transferable from our touring work,” he says, “right down to the careful delays and pattern dispersion using the DSP you get with the L-Acoustics and Coda Audio systems we typically use. The main stage at Liverpool Exhibition Centre was all about controlling the dispersion and keeping the audio away from other areas in the complex. You’ll have several headset mics as well – we try to avoid lavaliers because of the gain before feedback and SNR – plus handhelds to pass around the audience. It’s a lot of PA and processing for 350 people, but that’s what you need.”

Silence is golden
There is another frontier for conference audio, and you don’t need to worry about pattern dispersion. Silent Conference does exactly what it says on the flightcase: everyone wears headphones in a tightly controlled wireless zone.

“The journey started in 2009,” says Silent Conference and Silent Disco King founder Paul Gillies. “I was working as a radio presenter for Capital FM and as a club DJ. Through one of my club residencies I was booked to DJ at a Silent Disco for a freshers event in October 2009. It was my first experience of a Silent Disco, as with everyone else there. We were astonished at its popularity – the customers literally didn’t leave. I came away exhausted but happy, and convinced more people would love Silent Disco if they got to experience it. Silent Disco King was born, and the mission to make wireless headphone events accessible to more people began.”

Custom headphones were developed, initially with two frequencies or channels for DJ’ing but soon extra channels were added, as well as LED lights. “By 2015 we’d built up some credible corporate clients and events around the world,” continues Gillies, “and through these developed a deeper understanding of conferences and corporate events. We launched Silent Conference as a dedicated brand to serve this sector.”

Silent Conference uses bespoke equipment for higher quality audio, increased channel count and licensed configurable frequencies. Clients include Google, Amazon, John Lewis, HSBC, Adobe, Xero and Salesforce, and of course the events can take place anywhere from Excel or Olympia to Paris Versailles – no challenge to noise regulations, no costly and complex installation.

Let’s talk.