Preparing for 700MHz Clearance: Q&A with Autograph Sound
For anyone working on major UK shows and events, the upcoming clearance of the 700MHz wireless spectrum is set to have a big impact. From the 1st of May 2020 PMSE (Programme Making and Special Events) users of wireless microphone and in-ear monitor systems will cease to have access to another large portion of critical UHF wireless spectrum. In light of the roll-out of Ofcom's major funding scheme—and with the switchover now fast approaching—we caught up with Duncan Bell from Autograph to see how the change might affect their operations.
What impact does the 700MHz clearance have on your business?
Duncan Bell: As a specialist sound rental company, primarily servicing the West End and UK theatre industry, Autograph Sound are heavily affected by the 700MHz clearance programme. We have a rental inventory of over 1200 radio mic channels and these include a wide range of products from different manufacturers that have been built up over a long period of time.
In addition to this, the vast majority of our inventory is on medium to long, and very long-term productions. With prior experience of the 800MHz clearance in 2012, we knew the scale of the task at hand. This time, however, the change is arguably more significant, as quite a few of the older systems are now obsolete. We have more equipment to surrender and replace, and this will require us to invest in newer, future-ready systems.
How are you preparing for the switch?
DB: For starters, we have expanded the team and are working hard to plan the changes as seamlessly as possible. The initial stage was for Scott George (our projects and IT manager) to make sure our asset management data was fully up-to-date with everything we own, and that the details of which production it is on, are fully up to date.
Following that, Matt Bird (our RF technical support engineer) undertook a site visit to assess each individual system. Each show has its own setup—with unique quirks and nuances—meaning an on-site consultation is critical. Scott and Matt’s next step was to undertake the process of planning when the equipment can physically be updated or replaced. In many cases, this is out of our hands, as it is determined by the producers so that the work can be planned when cast changes or rehearsals are scheduled.
Also outside our scope is the sound designer's choice of replacement equipment, which is a very different decision than the ones that were made nearly ten years ago. Now there are more manufacturers in the frame with a wide range of products — most of which offer the switch to Digital systems which are still relatively new to the industry.
What benefits are you seeing from new wireless systems?
DB: Modern wireless systems provide incredible audio clarity and dynamic range, together with a range of beneficial features. For example, two-way links with the transmitter allow for remote gain control and programming.
Automatic interference detection and frequency switching has also been a game-changer. Most modern systems are also digital, which means they offer significant improvements in spectral efficiency, which is an essential part of planning productions in the future in an ever-decreasing and more congested spectrum landscape.
How is the implementation of these new "2020-ready" systems going so far?
DB: Once we know what each show needs, we "simply" have to buy the equipment and work with the producers and sound designers to ensure seamless integration into their shows. In most cases, this has to happen between curtain down on Saturday/Sunday and the next show on Monday or Tuesday.
In order to schedule the changes with the producers, we have already started on some of our existing shows. The rest of our switchover will run in line with the Ofcom scheme being fully open. All of this is keeping our engineers busy with buying, planning, testing, installing and surrendering the old equipment until the middle of 2020. No small task.
What are your thoughts on the Ofcom funding scheme?
DB: We're pleased with the funding scheme that was set up, and we recognise that the scheme is a positive outcome for the industry. This result was achieved through the work of British Entertainment Industry Radio Group (BEIRG) and its many years of engagement with Ofcom, DCMS and Parliament.
As a group, BEIRG was set up specifically at the time of the 800MHz clearance to help campaign in the interest of PMSE users of wireless microphones. We require sufficient access to both quality and quantity of spectrum if we are to continue creating and producing the world-class entertainment content expected from the UK.
BEIRG has continued the campaign, in conjunction with Ranelagh International (political consultants) throughout the lead-up to 700MHz clearance. This has led to the industry exploring new spectrum options for PMSE as well as the previously mentioned funding scheme. Access to small parcels of useable spectrum in the new "Air band" goes some way to mitigating the loss of 700MHz. This will help keep the curtain up or the production on air for the largest users in the densest RF environments..
As a founder member of BEIRG, I would like to say a big thank you to all of those in the industry (producers, rental companies, manufacturers, associations, and individuals) who have offered their support in either time or financial terms to ensure that "the show goes on".
Autograph is a leading theatre sound design and rental company based in North London. Duncan is a Director at Autograph and joined the business in 1984.
Duncan has a specialised knowledge of radio microphone technology and has experience as the production sound engineer on many West End theatre productions, including: Anything Goes, Carmen Jones, Hair, Budgie, Les Misérables, and many more.
As one of the co-founders of BEIRG (British Entertainment Industry Radio Group), Duncan continues to play a key role in Radio Spectrum issues.