Conferencing Solutions: When to Choose a Digital Discussion System

Imagine a summit meeting with hundreds of delegates from across the globe. They are seated behind desk-mounted microphones and many are wearing headsets.  There’s a nameplate in front of each one, indicating the nation represented. In addition to the listeners, there are a nearly equal number of interpreters. Somewhere in this milieu, a small technical crew is making sure that everyone can hear, that the interpreters are properly synched to the appropriate foreign representative and that all the microphones are functioning.

Unidyne IIIs rule at the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1970

Unidyne IIIs rule at the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1970

While that image may evoke memories of UN Security Council Meetings of the 1970’s, the audio systems that make large-scale multi-lingual meetings possible have moved steadily into the 21st century. Portable or permanent, conference audio systems have come a long way, adding convenience and control features that span the needs of municipalities, boardrooms, rental companies, conference centers and courtrooms.

In this post, we’ll discuss:

  1. The difference between conferencing and discussion systems
  2. The reasons to choose a discussion system, and
  3. What Shure has to add to the conversation

Two Kinds of Meetings

Many meetings are set up based on a “one to many” model, such as a presentation or lecture. The sound system distributes the voice of a few talkers in the front of the room to listeners in the audience.  A traditional sound reinforcement system – with a microphone for each talker and loudspeakers mounted on the walls or ceiling – can certainly work well in these types of meetings.

But some meetings use a “many to many” format with a donut-shaped round or oval table with seats around the outside. At these meetings, everyone can be both a talker and a listener, and needs to be able to speak and be heard by everyone else.  It’s more difficult to use a standard sound system in these types of meetings, because loudspeakers are typically pointing at the microphones, which can make it difficult to control feedback.

One-to-one vs. many-to-many meetings require different audio solutions

One-to-one vs. many-to-many meetings require different audio solutions

Achieving clear, intelligible audio becomes even more difficult when any of the following things are true:

  1. The acoustics are poor.  Background noise and reflected sound make it harder for people to hear, which necessitates turning the system up louder, which often causes feedback. Improving room acoustics is often difficult and expensive, and in a historic building it might be impossible.
  2. The meeting is large.  Adding more microphones requires a larger mixing console, plus a ‘home run’ microphone cable leading from every mic back to the mixer. This increases cost and setup time. With more people, it can be difficult for a technician to turn the right mic up at the right time. Automatic mixers can work well if the meeting is informal and free-flowing, but in more official meetings this may be inappropriate.
  3. The setup is temporary.  In a permanent facility like a corporate training center, the necessary cabling can be concealed in the walls, the ceiling, or even furniture.  But if the meeting is held in a rented hotel ballroom, the setup can look more like a concert than a convention.
  4. The meeting is formal. Giving the meeting leader the ability to ‘give the floor’ to a specific talker is not easy to do with conventional microphones and mixers, especially if the setup is temporary.
  5. There are multiple languages.  This requires simultaneous interpretation of each talker’s remarks into all of the other languages and routing those audio feeds to each seat. Using conventional audio components, this makes for a very complicated sound system that is time-consuming to set up, test, and manage.

A Sound System Designed For Conferences

There are specialized audio systems designed specifically to overcome the challenges mentioned above.  ‘Conferencing audio’ systems combine the microphone, control, and loudspeaker into a single integrated unit.

Instead of each microphone connecting to a mixer, conferencing microphones connect together serially, in “daisy-chain” fashion, using shielded CAT5e cables instead of conventional microphone cables. A central control unit at the head end powers each microphone unit and handles audio routing and control.

A Sound System Designed For Conferences

First, we had a practical question.  If the meetings most of us have attended – whether in person, on the phone or via the Internet – are any indication, everyone trying to talk at the same time (and possibly talking over someone else) can be frustrating.  In a group of 20 or 200, how does a discussion or conference system solve this problem? For guidance, we turned to Shure’s Chris Lyons, Senior Manager, Conferencing Market Communications.

Here’s Chris: “When there are many participants in the same room, people naturally shift from a conversational mode to a ‘classroom’ mode, where they ask to be recognized before speaking, often by raising their hand. One of the core benefits of a discussion system like the DDS 5900 is that it can be set up in either mode – so that anyone can speak when they want, or they must push a button to electronically ‘raise their hand’ and wait until their mic is activated by the meeting leader. A discussion or conference system adapts not only to the meeting size, but the meeting style.”

Discussion Systems vs. Conference Systems

As the use of these systems at meetings has grown, two distinct types have emerged: “discussion systems” and “conference systems.”  Both provide the fundamental features necessary for a typical meeting:

  • Sound reinforcement
  • Microphone control (by individual users and by the meeting leader)
  • Connection to additional recording or videoconferencing equipment

The difference between these two types of conferencing solutions is one of scale and feature set. With so much in common, we wondered what criteria a customer could use in choosing between a digital discussion system and a digital conference system.  Chris offered these guidelines.

When to Choose a Digital Discussion System

The Customer Needs an All-in-One Sound System

A discussion system is an instant sound system that doesn’t require anything in the way of external equipment — each audio unit integrates a speaker, an amp and a microphone, and the power supply and brains of the system are all contained in a central unit (CU). Everything needed to conduct a successful meeting is built in.

The System Must Be Portable and Easy to Set Up

For temporary meetings, setting up a sound system can be time-consuming and result in cables running all over the floor.  Since discussion units daisy-chain together, setting up is almost as easy as connecting a printer.  If desired, the meeting leader can adjust the volume, activate microphones, and control the entire system using any PC, tablet, or iPad.

Consistent Sound, Without Feedback, In Any Room

Probably the primary concern of anyone running a meeting is that the system won’t be loud enough or it will feed back before it is loud enough.   The close-mic/close-loudspeaker design allows a discussion system to deliver great sound without feedback, regardless of room size or acoustics.

When to Step Up to a Digital Conference System

Participants Speak Many Languages

While most meetings in North America can be accommodated with the two languages of the DDS 5900, international conferences often require additional language support.  The DCS 6000 Digital Conference System allows every participant to select from up to 31 languages.

Polling or Voting Is Required

Lecture halls, legislative bodies, or large corporate meetings often require a means of polling the participants or allowing them to vote. With optional software, the DCS 6000 can be configured for polling/voting, and provides an automated means of recording and displaying the results.

Custom Features Are Required

Some customers need special features to fit their organization’s particular meeting protocol.  The DCS 6000 can be expanded with optional hardware and software to do things like recognize each participant’s ID card, display the meeting agenda on a touchscreen, or archive each participant’s remarks.

What’s Shure Got to Do With It?

Today, it’s not uncommon for meetings to include celebrity keynote speeches, live music performances, and even press conferences in addition to formal discussion between attendees.  Capturing pristine audio in all of these situations requires artful integration of wired and wireless microphones, personal monitor systems, and conferencing systems.

With the globally-recognized DIS brand of conferencing products added to the Shure lineup of wired and wireless microphones, system integrators can now choose from the industry’s broadest array of microphone solutions.  From economical Centraverse wired microphones, to the state-of-the-art Microflex Wireless System, to the DDS 5900 discussion system and DCS 6000 conferencing system, there is a product for each of the diverse activities that make up a meeting.

Businesses, organizations, educational institutions, and municipalities can all benefit from the unique capabilities of Shure discussion and conference systems.  The global Shure technical support staff stands at the ready to assist with finding the ideal audio solution for each customer.

For more information about Shure conferencing solutions, visit:

shure.com/americas/conferencing/overview

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Davida Rochman

A Shure associate since 1979, Davida Rochman graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and never imagined that her first post-college job would result in a life-long career that had her marketing microphones rather than speaking into them. Today, Davida is a Communications Manager, lending her skills to a wide spectrum of activities – from public relations and social media to content development and sponsorships.

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