Improving Headset Comms At Extreme Events:  Part 1 - Ergonomics And Practicality

Core to any successful television production is the effective application of clear and precise communications. Camera operators, sound assistants, playout, slow-mo operators, and floor managers all need to hear direction from the production teams. Without comms, the production would soon degenerate into a chaotic cacophony of incoherent images and sounds.

This article was first published as part of Core Insights - Improving Headset Comms At Extreme Events - download the complete Core Insight HERE.

Intercom systems are at the core of all production facilities and their concept is as old as the television studio itself. A whole protocol and discipline of who can talk, how, and when has built up over the past eighty years and stood the test of time. However, no matter how good the intercom and intention of the users, the system is only as good as the end user’s ability to understand the instructions they’re being given.

The final three feet is critical for anybody receiving instructions over the intercom. In the comfort of the gallery this can be achieved with simple loudspeakers and microphones, even those working on the studio floor can cope with simple earpieces and headsets. But as we progress to harsh environments, such as rock concerts, car racing, and sports events, the need to separate background noise from the director’s instructions becomes critical.

Merely winding up the volume is not the solution, not unless we want to deafen our crew and damage their hearing. Noise cancelling and advanced environmentally aware headsets are the way forward as they provide crews with the ability to easily understand auditory instructions to guarantee high production standards.

More Than The Ears

Human hearing is only secondary to vision in terms of our senses. But the human hearing system consists of much more than just the components of the ear. The auditory cortex within the brain combined with our audio transducers (mainly our ears) gives rise to the human hearing function.

The majority of our frequency response lies in the 20Hz to 20KHz range but the highest sensitivity we have is between 500Hz and 4KHz, and this is the area where most of our speech occurs. Unfortunately, many other sources of sound occur in these frequencies, potentially impairing our ability to hear instructions over the intercom.

Noise cancellation is the solution and as a technology has now had many years to perfect. Headsets used for broadcast generally have a microphone as part of their design so can act as a source to negate some of the lower frequency sounds using active sampling and processing. The physical construction of the headphone further helps remove the higher frequencies from the operator’s headset.

It is possible to reduce external noise reaching the operators ear by increasing the pressure of the headphones against the ear thus removing much of the acoustic spill. Although this is a relatively effective method, it requires the headphones to be compressed more and more against the operator’s head. In the short term this may be acceptable, but when wearing the headphones for prolonged periods of time severe discomfort can arise.

Comfort Is Key

To help maintain concentration it’s important to keep the headphones as comfortable as possible. If they’re too tight then not only can they cause discomfort, but the operator can actually start to experience stress, leading to a poor user experience and possibly even making mistakes as they will find hearing the instructions becomes more difficult.

Active noise reduction will help reduce the possibility of any long-term stress occurring as the headband doesn’t need to be so tight and the overall volume of the headset speakers can be kept to a minimum.

Although active noise cancellation as a concept is a relatively mature technology, it has improved greatly in recent years due to the implementation of digital signal processing electronics. This has further led to the improvement in clarity resulting in much improved user experience allowing operators to wear headphones in environmentally challenging environments for long periods of time.

Demanding Environments

The physical construction is a significant consideration, especially when working in challenging surroundings. Paradoxically, if the headphones are not tight enough then they run the risk of falling off the operator’s head when they’re moving around a lot. This can occur if there is a camera operator on the stage of a rock concert where they may be moving around to keep up with the musicians.

A pair of headphones falling off can be bad, but only partially falling off is worse. Camera operators have a challenging task controlling a handheld camera at the best of times - trying to capture that award winning shot whilst fighting the intercom is an unwelcome additional distraction.

Weatherproofing is a key consideration that also has an impact on the operators user experience. An over ear headset not only keeps the rain out but helps improve acoustic isolation. Maintaining weatherproofing seals for the whole design, where possible, further improves the longevity and reliability of the headset.

Concerts, car races and sports events can last for hours at a time. Not only do the headphones have to be comfortable and have clear acoustics, but they must be durable and reliable too.

Field Servicing

One of the aspects that differentiates broadcast equipment from domestic, other than its improved reliability and quality, is the ability to conduct field repairs. Broadcast events rarely occur during the nine-to-five working day and have a habit of taking place in difficult to reach places with few service centers.

Modular designs help broadcasters achieve field repairs without having to carry complete replacement products. All systems have their weak points that can be improved but never entirely eliminated, such as the connector and cable on a set of headphones. This is just a consequence of working in unpredictable hostile environments. Keeping these components modular makes them easier to replace should they fail in the field.

This further leads to the idea that the whole solution is much more than just the product in isolation. International support and warranties further help broadcasters working in difficult environments as spares can be quickly and easily sourced. Quite often problems occur that are completely outside the control of the user due to the unpredictable nature of the environment they’re working in.

Systems that are built for reliability with serviceable components are much easier to work with in environmentally challenging conditions and help to keep broadcast systems operating reliably.

Importance Of Communication

Communication is as important as the video and audio in any broadcast environment, and some would argue that it is even more important. The whole crew needs a reliable communication system that delivers clarity while at the same time providing an ergonomically stress-free experience. 

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