Review: Clear-Com FreeSpeak II

Successful productions depend on reliable communications among all team members—and FreeSpeak II is designed to handle just about anything you throw at it.

Years ago, “communications” for stage, arena, events, large worship services, conventions, and the like meant walkie-talkies. Times have changed, and thankfully, so have the options for reliable communications. Digital technology, better batteries for wireless use, and the ability to blend wired and wireless systems, have transformed the intercom into a communications nerve center for complex, advanced productions.

1_base unit

Figure 1: Clear-Com’s FSII-Base-II base unit and control center.

Cirque Du Soleil’s “Paramour” production, which uses Clear-Com systems (including the FreeSpeak FSII -Base-II shown in Fig. 1), is a good example of modern communications needs. The stage manager has to oversee about 800 cues; missing even one can throw off the performance. Event coordination is similar. At conventions, the security personnel, administration, and service providers for A/V services all need to be on the same page. Communications have also become increasingly important for houses of worship and team offsites for companies. For all these applications, because production values continue to become more sophisticated, so does the responsibility placed on communications systems.

Who Uses FreeSpeak?

If FreeSpeak II was a kitchen appliance, it would be a refrigerator, oven, dishwashing machine, microwave, and coffee maker. To those not familiar with modern intercom systems, the array of options can be daunting. However, you can think of these options more like modules, where you choose the ones you need to create a modular communications system suitable for a particular application. Perhaps most importantly, this modularity doesn’t lock you into a specific, non-expandable system.

Consider the kind of communications an awards show needs. You have people sequestered in the green room, waiting to be called on stage. That’s a perfect place to have a permanent, wired intercom line. You might also want a permanent, wired intercom line to the people doing lighting and mixing.

Meanwhile, the stage manager is running around, as are security personnel, various stagehands, and those coordinating traffic from the green room to the stage. They all need to be hooked into the same system, and some specifically need the freedom of movement that wireless offers.

Houses of worship have a different context, but similar requirements. The people handling audio, lighting, stage management, production, and live streams all need precision coordination.

Broadcasting can be even more of a challenge, because those coordinating the live shoot, network feed, and production control rooms all need to be in constant contact. On location, where permanent installations can be difficult, the emphasis is on reliable wireless communication—often involving dozens of people.

Theme parks have their own requirements, because how rides are handled, and how they’re run in parallel with shows, require a safety factor. It’s not just “nice” if these teams are communicating, it’s essential. The same is true of sporting events. What’s more, in both situations, you’re not always dealing with the controlled conditions of an indoor event. It could be a hot July day at Disney World, or a skiing competition in Colorado. So, there are environmental considerations as well. Then there’s government and military, which in addition to all the above needs, require secure communications.

The above gives you an idea of how diverse communications needs can be. It doesn’t make sense to offer systems that do only one thing, because needs change. The corporation that’s putting on an offsite for its employees one month might be holding a convention for its clients the next month, and participating in a huge global trade show after that. The congregations at houses of worship can grow over time, as can the venues, and you don’t want to start over from scratch every time a change is needed.

So What Does FreeSpeak II Do?

The Freespeak FSII-Base-II base station’s back panel tells the main story, because it defines the connective possibilities. For wireless cellular roaming, FreeSpeak II operates in the 1.9 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands (or a mix of both), and supports up to 25 beltpacks at 1.9 GHz, which is the maximum possible within one contiguous space, and supports up to 20 beltpacks when operating at 2.4 GHz. (Note that there’s also a less-expensive base station, the Freespeak FSII-Base-II-5. This is designed more as a drop-in replacement for older, more limited systems, and accommodates 5 beltpacks.)

2_Rear Panel

Figure 2: The rear panel reveals just how many options are available for wired and wireless communications.

For wired communications, you’ll find four 2-wire ports (these give “party line” operation where talk and listen share the same path), and four full-duplex 4-wire Matrix connection ports (with four RJ45 connectors). These use independent paths for talk and listen, and can connect to other wired devices, telephone hybrid gear, or products from other brands, because they use universal line-level audio.

Additional dual LAN ports accommodate PC programming; they connect to the same sub-net, and use RJ45 connectors. You’ll also find a DB15 port for general-purpose I/O (such as triggering relays). It’s assignable to the front panel (the most common use case), or a beltpack button in software.

The stage announce output uses an XLR, transformer-isolated, line-level output. The front panel headset jack offers 4-pin male and 5-pin female options. Finally, the XLR Program In connector lets you hook up a front of house mixer output, audience sounds, or other audio source.

Making Connections

In most applications, the first step is to set up your transceivers by patching them to the base station. You can connect two transceivers directly to the base station, or through the use of an FSII-SPL splitter, connect up to five transceivers to each transceiver port. A transceiver has approximately an 800 foot radius outdoors, and a maximum of around 300    feet indoors. Note that the beltpacks use decked sync technology (similar to cell phones) so they can jump from one transceiver to another seamlessly.

3_Typical system

Figure 3: A typical system setup, with five transceivers and 25 beltpacks.

There are two transceiver models; the FSII-TCVR-19 supports up to 5 FSII-BP19 1.9 GHz belt packs per transceiver, while the FSII-TCVR-24 supports four FSII-BP24 2.4 GHz beltpacks. Fig. 3 shows a system with a single FSII-SPL splitter connected to the base, which allows up to five transceivers and a total of 25 beltpacks. Connecting two FSII-SPL splitters to the base allows up to 10 transceivers, which can accommodate up to 50 beltpacks at 1.9 GHz.

You can use CAT5e/6 cabling to connect the base station with transceivers, and power transceivers from the base station; however, transceivers can even be as far away as a mile if they have local power. Another option is to connect fiber to the FSII splitter, which can then feed up to 5 transceivers. This gives you an additional 800 feet of range beyond the reach of the fiber connection. For example, suppose you’re setting up for communications in a giant convention hall, where you need only one transceiver per hall. You can use CAT 5e/6 cable for the one closest to the base station, and then run fiber to a splitter, which handles the transceivers that are further away.

LQ Interfaces: Expanding the System

LQ interfaces are audio-over-IP (Internet Protocol) linking devices that work in conjunction with FreeSpeak II’s 2-wire and 4-wire functionality, and allow networking your communications audio via LAN, WAN, or the internet to remote locations. Accommodating virtual connections between two end points eliminates the need for long cable runs, although you can also connect into networks via CAT 5e/6. Another advantage is that LQ interfaces can connect FreeSpeak II with existing 2-wire and 4-wire platforms from other manufacturers, which allows for easy scaling. LQ interfaces accept power over ethernet (PoE), or use an external “wall wart” power supply when cable runs are long enough to make PoE impractical.

4_LQ Interface

Figure 4: LQ-4W2.

There are separate interfaces for 4-wire and 2-wire systems. For example, the LQ-4W2 (Fig. 4) supports up to 12 channels of audio, which can be routed to up to five other LQ units. It has two network ports, and two audio I/O ports. To deal with potential latency issues, the use of the low-latency OPUS codec means you can trade off bit rate for speed, or even use different bit rates—like a higher bit rate for outgoing communications (where fidelity might be the priority), and a lower bit rate for incoming communications that are dedicated solely to monitoring.

The LQ-2W2 is a 12-channel, party line interface with two XLR connectors for the two audio ports. It, like the LQ-4W2, can be routed to up to five other LQ units. Another member of the LQ family, the LQ-4WG2, provides 4-wire GPIO connections.

Also note that anything that attaches to an LQ box can also connect to a phone. There’s even an app called Agent-IC that turns your smartphone into an intercom (the app is free, although you need to buy client licenses for the LQ boxes).

Software Configuration, Too

The CCM (Core Configuration Manager) software in Fig. 5 is the key to configuring a FreeSpeak-based system, including any LQ interfaces. The CCM is browser-based, and compatible with Chrome, Safari (MacOS and iOS), Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Opera (and presumably Edge as well).

5_CCM

Figure 5: The Core Configuration Manager allows for browser-based system setup.

It provides an overview of all system components and interfaces on a single page, incorporates password protection, and even offers light and dark themes to accommodate the lighting available in different environments.

Power to the System

The FreeSpeak II’s rear panel has both a standard AC adapter as well as a 12V connection. The latter is suitable for use with an external power “brick,” backup power supply, or even a car’s cigarette lighter connection (the base station’s 60W power consumption is well within the typical 180W car lighter rating). For mission-critical applications, the dual-supply feature is important in case one of them fails. Clear-Com also makes the AC60, a battery charger optimized for charging up to five FS II belt packs, or just their BAT60 Li-Ion batteries, to full charge in about two hours.

Which Setup is Right for You?

Clearly, the FreeSpeak II system can handle many possible situations, and a wide variety of applications. However, it’s also clear that you’ll obtain the best (and most cost-effective) results by choosing the system components carefully. Which is more important—wired, wireless, or both? How much area do you need to cover? What kind of intercom setup will work best for you?

Fortunately, the Full Compass sales professionals can take the mystery out of specifying the ideal system for your needs. Call Full Compass at 800-356-5844 (Monday-Friday, 7:00am-5:30pm Central time) for expert, helpful advice on tailoring a FreeSpeak II system to your specific applications, as well as how to plan ahead for future expansion if needed.

 

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