I recently had the chance to hire a small ClearCom FreeSpeak II system from Sydney’s PA People for a combined church event. The event got cancelled at the last minute because much of Sydney was underwater, but I still got a chance to setup the system and play with it a bit. I thought I’d do a bit of a review here.
First, some background on my existing in-house comms system…
My church in Parramatta uses a simple two-ring Party Line comms system, with Creative Audio belt packs. These packs much like the Jands Ezicom or ClearCom Encore (except Creative Audio was manufactured by PA People in the 90’s or 00’s). It’s a simple three-wire system carrying power, audio, and a common. I wired up some adaptors to pipe it over RJ45’s, because I have lots of those in this building. We use one ring for cameras, and another ring for the rest of the production team.
Being a party line system, this means it’s ‘full duplex’. Multiple people can speak at once. This is different to a ‘single duplex’ system (such as two way radios) where only one person can speak at a time.
This event required us to add four wireless packs – one for the TD, one for the Event Coordinator, and two for wireless camera operators. I didn’t want to replace the entire party line system, which is where the FreeSpeak is very handy – it has an in-built interface for analog party line systems.
Master Unit Setup
The main unit is a FSII-Base-II. It has some in-built ‘master unit’ functionality like four channel controls, headset connector on standard 4-pin XLR, and some menu buttons.
The main menu is pretty easy to navigate from the unit. All four screens are used to help navigate the menu structure.
On the back, we have a LAN connector, antenna connector, four 2-wire connectors on 3-pin XLR (for my analog party line), as well as some things I didn’t use like GPIO, sync connectors, and program audio input.
The design of this system meant I could put the FreeSpeak master unit in the rack room, right near my Cat6 patching and existing party line unit. No need to prop it awkwardly somewhere out in the room – it could just hide away where I can forget about it.
The antenna can be extended via Cat6, which is nice and handy. It’s remotely powered too, from the master unit. I used my venue’s Cat6 patching to put the antenna on stage. PA People gave me a nice bracket, so it clamped to the balustrade. This was literally plug-and-play – no issues getting the Cat6 to behave.
All the config can be done via a web interface. Once the unit had powered up, it got a DHCP address on my network so I could go and sit out in the room on a comfy chair, rather than kneeling over the master unit in the rack room. It also does self-discovered IP addresses in the 169.*.*.* range if DHCP isn’t available (you could do static too).
The belt packs are well designed. We had the FSII-BP19 unit, which is ‘entry level’. These are DECT packs, much like the Riedel Bolero competitors. I’ve used the Bolero units before (only as a user of the packs, not an installer or administrator) and I was always impressed by the engineering.
The FreeSpeak belt packs are also well engineered. The buttons feel good to press. The screen seems easy to read in different lighting. I would not have any worry about these breaking. The on-screen display told me the battery would last for over 12 hours, which I did not get to try due to the event being cancelled. However, batteries are easy to swap in the field so if you need very long battery life you can always sub them out part way through – this would be handy for all-day conferences.
Being 1.9Ghz DECT, the range was fantastic. The quoted indoor range is 90m, which seemed about right! I did some tests in our building, walking between multiple sections and indeed multiple levels of the building. It worked two levels down in the basement, with concrete slabs and other services to compete with. It also worked almost to the far end of our main floor, with just a tiny discernible dropout. It didn’t, however, work in the lift shaft, which should come as a surprise to no one.
It appears to support two antennas on one system, and you can even extend the antennas via fibre if you need to do long cable runs!
While I’m comparing to Bolero, it’s worth noting that FreeSpeak does not support AES67 (this would be a big sticking point if I were installing a wireless comms system in a venue, but a non-issue if I were doing off-site events). It also doesn’t support Bluetooth headphones, which is a nice gimmick I guess but not something I’d ever want to do on a show. The purchase price of Bolero is a bit higher than FreeSpeak.
Being a rental unit, I did not need to configure every belt pack from scratch. However, to get a feel for the unit a reset a belt pack and re-adopted it into the system. Adoption is done over the air. You turn on the pack, it appears in your controller, and it’s just a couple of mouse clicks to add it back in.
Each belt pack needs a ‘role’. A role is a device profile to give it a certain set of settings. Every pack could have the same role, or you could assign roles based on who needs to use which channel. I only had two party lines and no matrix intercom needs, so one role is all I really wanted.
Here is a screenshot of the various settings you can assign to a role:
2-wire party line
To connect the 2-wire party line into FreeSpeak, it was a fairly simple process. There are four 2-wire ports on the rear of the master unit, and they are controlled in groups of two. First, I verified that ‘power’ was disabled on these ports – our existing master unit supplies power, and I didn’t want to test to see what happens if we have two DC power sources.
Second, I set them into ‘Clear-Com’ mode. You can also select ‘RTS’ mode. This specifies which pin has power, and which pin has audio. No damage is done if you play with this – but it won’t work properly if you pick wrong.
After setting this up, I physically connected the XLRs and saw the green status light come on. Success! At this point, audio could flow between the two systems. Very easy!
However, there was a slight return echo on the audio. This is where we need to turn on ‘nulling’. Broadcasters who have dealt with phone hybrids may be familiar with nulling. In a 2-wire interface, send and receive audio is on the same wire. You can get an echo back, and thus nulling is necessary to try and prevent this.
FreeSpeak has an auto-nulling feature. Press a button, and it runs a bunch of white noise over your comms system. After a few minutes of this it works out the correct values and applies some nulling. Echo all gone! I would like some manual parameters to change (I couldn’t see any), but the auto feature seemed good enough.
Aside from this, I could also change some gain settings to get the levels right across the whole system.
FreeSpeak also has in-built matrix functionality and a lot more which I didn’t need to dig into. Overall, I see why this system is popular with rental houses and venues. If I had the money I’d happily purchase one.
These systems easily cost in the tens of thousands of dollars range. At my church, we have a weekly need for one wireless comms pack, and the overhead of the master unit and antenna simply doesn’t make sense for one wireless unit. Instead, we have a simple receive-only comms pack using a Sennheiser IEM transmitter. This does the trick, but isn’t good enough for more complex events. I’m probably going to hire this system again.