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The modern conference: AV, FOH consoles and the problem with press-to-talk

Political party conferences, high-level international government summits, local authority debates: everyone taking part needs to be heard. We convene a discussion on the current state of technology in the board room

Top-secret talks
Every delegate at every conference will doubtless consider that what they are saying and the general topic under discussion is massively important but there are levels of importance and, more critically, sensitivity. At the very highest level of conferences, international government and finance meetings – such as the recent NATO Summit in Wales – feature views, plans and other issues that, if leaked too early, could prove detrimental for world affairs. (This two-part feature is continued from partone.)

Delegate technology plays a major role in maintaining security for closed sessions. German manufacturer Brähler ICS’s equipment has featured at a number of major conferences over the years. Simon Sainsbury, managing director of the company’s British representative, Brähler ICS UK, says these are covered by strict non-disclosure agreements so discussing specifics is often tricky.

Secure connections for Brähler ICS wireless delegate systems are created using a version of the AES format that differs from what most other manufacturers use. “Brähler ICS decided on a different approach and uses a 256-bit encryption key that changes every ten seconds,” Sainsbury explains. “This means that even if someone does manage to make a brute force attack it could take seven seconds to get through, which means they would only hear three seconds of the debate. We think ours is more secure but if people want the highest level of security they should for wired.”

Brähler ICS and other delegate systems often feature in event-style productions, with press-to-play mic stations on tables in the main room, working in conjunction with a main live sound PA rig on stage. Sainsbury says collaborating with rental companies such as Dimension Audio and Delta Sound in the UK is nothing new, with feeds sent from the delegate system to the live rig.

Mark Bonner, joint managing director of Delta Sound, comments that sometimes press-to-talk systems are brought in from specialist suppliers to work with the company’s main system but generally it relies on the traditional live sound radio mics-loudspeaker-mixing console set-up. “We wouldn’t put in 30 to 40 mic-speaker units but would install a PA to support the feed,” he says. “We tend to work on AGMs where there might be 300 people in the room with six to eight radio mics for the presenters, who might move among the audience.”

Delta favours Sennheiser or Shure lapel and handheld wireless mics, with DiGiCo or Yamaha digital desks and d&b or L-Acoustics loudspeakers for the main system. Bonner says the equipment configuration for these production is “pretty much the same” as it was in the past, only with less outboard kit, more done on digital desks and wired or wireless communications for bigger shows. “It is what it was,” he says, “it’s just grown up a bit.”

Part of this maturity has come from digital front of house consoles. James Gordon, managing director of DiGiCo, says conferencing covers “a wide remit for us”, from fixed installations to large one-off productions. “The IT companies have conferences and presentations,” he says, “either as road shows or, in the case of Apple, in their own theatre.”
The DiGiCo SD11 desk is used for conferences, partly, Gordon says, because of its size – under 19 inches wide – but also for the connectivity, with Dante options to link into audio-over-IP systems. Another aspect to consider, he adds, is video. “In all the areas we work the link between audio and video has become more developed than five years ago.”

In the boardroom, too, video is making itself felt, with sessions now routinely recorded for archiving or later scrutiny. In some instances the video switcher is triggered by the microphone feeds, so the cameras switch to whoever is speaking. Which is similar to what many radio stations are using today. So how modern does that make conferences? Probably very.