Inexpensive Assistive Listening System

Taniith

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Boston, MA
I'm looking for suggestions for an inexpensive assistive listening system for our theatre. The original plan was to wait until our current construction project to make our building/theatre accessible was complete, and then fund-raise to hire a consultant and get a good quality system in place. Unfortunately the local accessibility board threw us a curve ball by saying that we must install an assistive listening system if we want them to approve the variances on our (physical) accessibility construction plans.

Our current thinking is to get something cheap that will meet the bare minimum of the requirements, and then replace with a better system down the road. Our band monitor system is also well beyond end-of-life (can't get replacement parts, etc), so I'm thinking a good approach may be to get something we can use as band monitors later when we get a better ALS.

From my understanding of the law we need 10-11 listening packs for our space (~260 seats*4%). We already have 16 Sennheiser sk100s split between their A and G bands, so I'm not sure how much more we can reasonably fit in those bands. I've seen a few cheapo IEM systems around in the low 900Mhz frequencies (like this and this), but I'm hesitant about buying things from companies I've never heard anything about.

Anyone have any thoughts on known low-end IEM manufacturers, or other ideas for a good way to handle this little curve ball?
 

sk8rsdad

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We use a Listen infrared system. As an added bonus it provides illumination during blackouts for our low light camera. There may be government or other funding programs available that your vendor will know how to access.
 

MNicolai

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IEM systems are not designed for assistive listening and should not be used as such. To comply with ADA, you need and FM, IR, or loop system in place that can accommodate both earphones as well as t-coil compatible hearing aids. You will not be able to provide inductive neck loops for t-coil hearing aids using IEM's.

An important part of this recipe is that most people hate wearing the earphones so the neck loops are preferred. You still have to provide earphones because not all hearing aids have t-coils, but if you only have earphones people will not be happy with the system and you will also not be in compliance with ADA.

A standard assistive listening system from Listen would look something like this (all prices MSRP, so street price would actually be lower):

(1) LT-800-072 FM transmitter, $470.60
(1) LA-326 rackmount kit, $63.00
(1) LA-122 universal antenna, $89.00
(12) LR-4200-072-P1 receiver kit with neckloop, earphone, and rechargeable battery. $238.00/ea
(1) LA-381-01 12-slot charging tray, $335.00
(1) LA-304 Signage kit, $20.00

Overall, about $3-4k for the FM system.

Proper implementation of the system would be setting up a house mic to feed into a DSP with a vocals-only mix from your console. In general, the house mic plays through the ALS system but gets ducked whenever someone is talking/singing through the vocals-only console mix. Running it this way means the ALS is still active and functional for acoustic content and regardless of whether someone remembers or not to set up an ALS mix on the console. Usually in DSP I'll throw a little delay in as well to time align the mix to 1/2 to 2/3 back in the house, though alignment isn't as big a deal for a 250-seat room.

I always use a Shure VP88 for house mic's, which is about $800, though you can certainly get by with less.

As an aside, it shouldn't be considered a curve ball to have a compliant system. Regardless of whether you are seeking a variance, it is a requirement of ADA to have these systems in place. Even if it wasn't required, theater should be accessible to everyone.
 

Taniith

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Location
Boston, MA
Thanks all. I did some more in depth research after posting and discovered the first half of @MNicolai's post about why IEM's are a no-go. A friend in education suggested Williams, but the Listen ones look very nice. I'm glad to see that it's only $3-4k. We should be able to find a way to get that money somehow.

Where would you place the house mic? At the back of the house? edit: several hours later I realize what a silly idea that is, since this is to pick up dialog and not the sound of the room. I assume you want it closer to the front somewhere, right? We have hanging mics down-stage for our non-musicals, but they don't always pick everything up. We'll have to look at that.

As an aside, it shouldn't be considered a curve ball to have a compliant system. Regardless of whether you are seeking a variance, it is a requirement of ADA to have these systems in place. Even if it wasn't required, theater should be accessible to everyone.
Just to address that part, I 100% agree that theatre should be accessible to all, as does everyone at our theatre. Adding a system like this was always in the plan. But we're already stretching the fundraising budget to the limit trying to make the building accessible at all, and none of our consultants mentioned that we needed full ADA compliance all at once (vs doing elevator+ramp first and then finding the money for other pieces). It's a curve ball in that we were not aware and, at the time I wrote the post, I thought it was going to be in the $10-20k range over our existing accessibility project budget. It's not a curve ball that it needs to be done as soon as it can be done.
 
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MNicolai

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House mic placement depends a little. I usually park it at about halfway into the house for 700 seat rooms. In a 250 seat room, if you have a shorter ceiling I might try to get it a little closer to the stage to avoid picking up too much nuisance audience noise (coughing, etc.). It's not terrible if picks up some of your PA system but you want to make sure it's not in the direct flame of any speakers.

The VP88 I spec has a nice feature for adjusting the polar pattern, and it's a 2 channel mid/side mic so usually I have the mid more prominent and then gain down the side so it's picking up some of the room acoustics without blurring the speech intelligibility. Also happens to make for a decent recording mic if you want a room mic to record your events with.

Probably not a priority for your budget but I also like to program a feature into the DSP that toggles an "ON AIR" light on/off in the wings and near FOH with the mute status of the house mic. Easy to forget when the mic is hot before house opens or after strike begins and inevitably someone will say something about someone else that ends up getting broadcast into the lobby or dressing rooms since I use this same ALS feed for the lobby and backstage areas.
 

MNicolai

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Why do you use a stereo mic to feed a mono hearing assistance system?
I run in it mid/side mode and do mono sum within the DSP. Usually leave the mid more prominent for speech intelligibility but side helps cover the width of the stage. During system tuning I'll have someone walk around the stage and talk, and make sure if they're far left/right that they still get picked up as if they were standing center.

Since I use the same mic to feed the lobby and back of house, it's nice to be able to adjust the level of the side output to better capture the room acoustics. Just the mid can leave the feed sounding a little dry.

All of that mixing happens in a DSP. I don't run the mic directly into the ALS transmitter because I tend to be serving multiple purposes with it. I also generally use the DSP to spit the house mic back into the Dante network. If someone wants to use Nuendo Live or the mix console to record the show, they have that ability.
 

MNicolai

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Installing a loop system so that it works effectively and getting all of the wire under the seats fitted into the existing flooring is no small project. I highly doubt that will qualify as a budget-friendly option by the time labor and other materials are factored in. Also not the kind of system an end user can lay out and install on their own. And if you don't do it right, you end up hearing your ALS feed coming through the guitarist's pickups.

Loop systems are fantastic when done right but they are absolutely no small undertaking.
 

FMEng

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Someone proposed a retrofit loop system at my church. The idea fell like a lead balloon when the company described loop wires glued to the surface of the vinyl tile floor. It's a nice way to go before the floor is installed.
 

Ben Stiegler

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I looked at a loop system for a historic venue populated mostly by seniors with hearing aids, where notching the ancient stone floors was going to be required (then backfill with epoxy). That proposal was also DOA.
 
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Ben Stiegler

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at floor level, or up high? Did you go up from baseboard and over doorways?
 
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FMEng

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Most of my installations the wire has been run along the molding, quick and easy.
The seating area is way too big for just a perimeter loop, while meeting field strength specifications. The center aisle is like 80 feet long. They proposed rubber floor molding behind pews, which would have been a dirt trap, something for kids to kick at with their feet, a trip hazard, etc. It was a stupid proposal.

I have my doubts about getting proper field strength with a single loop in a 75 x 75 room. Have you ever measured it?
 

teqniqal

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Dallas / Fort Worth, Texas
A note about the typical parts list for a system: An ALS notification sign is required adjacent to each door from the lobby to the audience chamber, not just one. It is also advisable to have a sign at the ticket office window, too. Please note that there is a specified mounting height range for the signs.
 

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