This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Pro Sound News. Innovations is a monthly column in which different pro audio manufacturers are invited to discuss the thought process behind creating their products of note.
For more than five decades, Clear-Com has focused on harnessing the latest technologies to facilitate clear and reliable communication solutions. It pioneered many of the intercom technologies that are commonplace today, including partyline systems, digital wireless systems, IP-based systems, mobile intercoms and many more.
Choosing a particular innovation for this article has been rather like choosing your favorite child. But if pushed, I would single out FreeSpeak, our digital wireless intercom system, as a product that has made a significant impact on the industry.
Where Did We Start?
FreeSpeak was introduced around 2002 by Drake Electronics, which was soon to be cooperating with Clear-Com while both companies were owned by Vitec Group. We were receiving a lot of feedback from users who wanted to stay connected to multiple destinations while they moved around, so we started thinking about how to create an intercom key panel on a beltpack.
Digital wireless was in its infancy, and we used DECT telecom technology in a different way, putting key panel audio and data over a digital radio interface. Beltpack users would be able to walk between antennas seamlessly. A menu screen showed the callers, and users could set their own key labels. We built in a role-based selection system to enable users to grab any free beltpack and load their own keys—truly innovative back in 2002.
FreeSpeak was essentially the first multi-zone roaming digital wireless system. It worked very well, but we learned a lot from its initial operation. For instance, we had built FreeSpeak into a high-density matrix system, which was effective in Europe, where there was good bandwidth, but didn’t work so well in the United States, where radio bandwidth was narrower. Second, our competitors in the United States featured base stations connected to smaller wired partyline systems, so for the U.S. market, we built a base station version called Cellcom.
Related: Clear-Com Updates FreeSpeak II Wireless Intercom, Aug. 7, 2018
By this time, Drake had been absorbed into Clear-Com, and Clear-Com had been taken over by HME. Merging our product inventories and quality manufacturing knowledge was a great success. From HME, we learned that our system needed to be a lot more rugged; I don’t think we had fully appreciated how people treated the beltpacks!
We also began to improve the range and capacity of the system with an enhancement to the radio performance despite regional bandwidth issues. On the technical side, we fixed a lot of radio issues with tighter input filters, which significantly reduced the amount of radio interference. FreeSpeak II was born.
Wireless intercom usage grew, and while we initially focused on extending the range of the FreeSpeak II beltpacks, paradoxically, we also needed to enable users to limit the range with smaller cells, and add DECT synchronization so that multiple teams in the same space could avoid overlapping with other systems.
Similarly, so many people wanted to equip such large teams with beltpacks that the 1.9 GHz bandwidth was often overloaded. To solve this, we added 2.4 GHz to the mix, enabling users to add up to 40 beltpacks on the different bandwidth, thus easily extending the system. A matrix-based system with multiple radio cards offers great flexibility here—the same system could have some users on DECT, some on 2.4 GHz. The 2.4 GHz bandwidth is also popular in areas where DECT is harder to regulate.
Where Are We Now?
Technology doesn’t stand still, and we continue to develop new functionality for changing environments. Recently we added packet loss concealment. Where you get multipath in radio systems, in fringe areas, it can sometimes drop packets of data. This newly added feature identifies pre and post data to recover packets and improve audio quality. It is particularly useful in venues with overarching roofs or lots of reflections. Better codecs have also been added that are much more tolerant to loss of data. For IP-centric managed installations, we have added AES67 IP audio connectivity to the transceivers.
Another focus of ours is diagnostics. While it’s not a headline-grabbing function, it gives crucial insight to staff who manage the wireless systems on site, providing visual information to track the system’s operation.
– Stage Sound Services Invests in Clear-Com Digital Communications Solutions, March 13, 2019
– CCTV Goes IP with Clear-Com, May 16, 2018
While we feel that FreeSpeak II has earned its place as a true innovation, we continue to listen to customers and partners in the field for insight into how it is actually being used and how it can be improved. We know that radio spaces are becoming more congested, and people also want to increase the capacity of their systems. We are developing solutions to solve these issues.
A pleasing paradox of FreeSpeak II is its simultaneous simplicity and sophistication. People can pick up a beltpack and understand very quickly how to use it, but it is also a sophisticated multitasker when it needs to be. We are looking at new ways to provide even more functionality for those who want it.
The need for mobility is where FreeSpeak started, and there is even greater demand for it today in terms of larger teams and greater capacity. Improving digital intercoms in large arenas will also be addressed to combat the existing wireless “noise” from pico-cell telephony, Wi-Fi and so on. We’ll be looking at these issues in upcoming versions and look forward to sharing some new features with our customers and the wider industry later this year.
Clear-Com • www.clearcom.com