Chatterbox for HPDE

As I rolled into HPDE instructing in 2015, a majority of instructors were using the Chatterbox Tandem Pro 2 wired intercom system. Nobody loves them, they're just relatively cheap and simple, and they mostly work.

They're primarily designed around motorcyclists, for communicating with your 'passenger' on the seat behind you. The ports on the head unit are marked "R", "P", and "DC" - Rider, Passenger & Direct Current (charging port) respectively. I'm not aware of any electrical difference between the R and P ports, and I swap them around when troubleshooting an iffy connection.

When I was first purchasing the system, I had trouble figuring out "what was what" and visited my local brick and mortar race shop. I'll lay it out for you here, along with links to Amazon, along with things I've learned along the way.

You need one "head unit", the Tandem Pro 2 kit. Two headsets plug into this. It has a rechargable battery built in, and it's charged with a USB cord. A "wall wart" (charger) is included, but I often just plug the USB cord into an Anker universal USB charger. The head unit kit includes various ways to mount the head unit to the instructor helmet directly - screw clamps, sticky patches, stuff like that.

You need a minimum of two headsets. I started off with what I call the "Instructor Headset" (not pictured, but linked to Amazon) permanently installed in my helmet. It has two ear pieces and a mic on a loose cord that velcros to the mouth area of a full face helmet. This headset has a short cord, designed to plug directly into the helmet mounted head unit.

The student headset has a reasonably long cord, and can connect directly from the student headset into the instructor's head unit. Alternatively, you can use an extension cord. One "design flaw" in the student headset is that the cable has virtually no strain relief, and the headsets see some abuse. It's pretty natural for the student to pull on the cord to get the headset out of their helmet. Savvy folks strategically zip-tie the cord to the boom mic first thing to provide the needed strain relief. Be sure to use a decent flush-cutting cutter on the zip-tie, as this is a really bad place to have a sharp burr.

The student headset is designed for an open face helmet, with a boom mic that's rigid enough to keep the mic in place. I have yet to encounter a full-face helmet that it didn't also work well with. You just have to give your student a glance to see if the mic is tucked up inside instead of drooping outside the front of the helmet.

For the student headset, I have my student put their helmet on, unbuckled. Have them grab the helmet strap and pull it "down and out", away from their ear. Slide the headset up into the gap with the padded side towards their ear. Bend the mic boom around to the the mouth area, inside the helmet. Don't forget to then fasten the helmet (easy to forget).

Many instructors I know buy two student headsets and never bother mounting the head unit to their helmet. Student headsets have reasonably long cords, and the loose head unit can usually be safely stashed in a cup holder or some other 'cavity' between the seats in the vehicle.

My head unit got tangled up on my NecksGen HANS device when it was mounted on my helmet. Probably because of that, the mounting clip broke. Using the extension cord with my instructor headset, I used my head unit "loose" between us for the past year, much like an instructor using two student headsets.

Battery life
No real complaints. A full charge seems to last for a full day of instruction on track - note that my instructor "duty cycle" rarely has me with a hot intercom for more than four hours in a day, your mileage may vary. I do turn it off when not actually using. Charge it each night for a multi-day event. If you're savvy with USB car cords and/or external battery charge packs, you can top it up at the track if need be.

This is a mixed bag. Each connection seems to be a potential failure point, whether intermittent or hard. It's not unusual when getting into a car to have to wiggle various connections until the thing works. The student headset seems to be a variable, it can sound good until the student touches it to maybe make the earpiece more comfortable, and then it goes dead. I have run many sessions where the student can hear me fine, but I can't hear them. Better than nothing. Beware also, the 3.5mm TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve) audio jacks can cause a painfully loud squeal if you plug/unplug them with the volume turned up - it's the nature of the beast to cross connect as it's being inserted. Be kind, switch off, before playing with the cables then switch back on.

One of the reasons my stuff is labeled with numbers after my name is to keep straight which ones are charged, work well, or have problems. I own a few complete set-ups.

I have one headset that got stepped on or something and it's held together with zip ties. It's sort of my "last resort" headset. These are not mil-spec rugged.

The instructor headset has a little patch of velcro to hold the microphone foam in place in front of your mouth on a full face helmet. This is pretty weak, and it's why you see blue tape on my helmet in that area in some of the photos; it's there to hold the microphone in place. Other instructors have had issues with wind noise when using an open face helmet, and they experiment with the commercially available "dead kitten" fuzzy microphone covers.

Why Bother?
I am blessed with a booming voice, and I can make myself heard in pretty much any car that is street legal, even with the windows down. I have found that if I have a functioning intercom, I can more easily communicate calmly in that "Test Pilot" or "Houston Center" voice. This gives me more dynamic range, if you will, so that "brake brake brake" is the nudge I'm going for, and considerably different from, "BRAKE! BRAKE! BRAKE!" which should be reserved for more dire circumstances.

In addition to my assigned students for a track day, it's not unusual to be called upon to do "one session" with a student; could be an orientation session, a proficiency check, or simply a temporarily absent instructor. The Chatterbox student headset is pretty quick and easy for these situations.

I don't use intercoms for Driver Skills. There's too many changeovers with my time in a given car usually down to five minutes or less.

One other odd tip I learned from watching endurance racing. As you get into the car, take the loose end of the cord(s) and stuff them up in the visor area. Fasten seatbelts or harnesses, then retrieve cords and plug them in. Keeps them from getting lost / hung up in your harnesses.

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