Feature: Analysing the uptake of audio networking

If everyone agrees that audio networking is a good thing, why is fuller implementation of the technology taking so long? Kevin Hilton finds out.

The key to success for a technology is to promote it as not only what the industry has been waiting for, but also where everyone should be going anyway. That is certainly the case with networking. The ploy has worked in computing and is now reaching its ultimate implementation in the Cloud. The professional audio sector has been talking about networks off and on for around 20 years and now, with digital, IP and off-the-shelf IT components, it looks as though its time has come at last.

The means are certainly available and the general issue of interconnectivity in broadcasting, live sound and installation has been debated widely over the past few years. There is the realisation that people need to move on from not just analogue but also MADI. While MADI has had a resurgence it does not have the capacity for the several hundred channels of audio that will be required for large-scale events and outside broadcasts, ever bigger commercial installations and the prospect of Ultra High Definition (UHD) video and ‘3D sound’ for television.

Ethernet-based distribution and connectivity, as offered by AVB (Audio Video Bridge) and Audinate’s Dante, is regarded as a way to work over long distances or throughout large buildings at a lower cost of installation and operation because cheaper IT components – including Cat5 and Cat6 cabling – can be used to carry the data. Audio over IP (AoIP) is being promoted as the ideal carrier to run over these connections, offering high bandwidth, multiple channels and additional capacity for metadata and control. Dante is accommodating this but has a major rival in Ravenna, developed by Lawo affiliate ALC NetworX.

With the technology in place the expectation would be that broadcasters, systems integrators, venue operators, facilities and rental companies would be adopting it en masse. The reality however, as is so often the case, is somewhat different. There has been some level of implementation, but not on a massive scale or with enough momentum to trigger a wholesale migration. Unhelpfully there are as many possible reasons for this as there are networking formats.

Audio consultant Roland Hemming identifies the barrier to mass adoption as being ease of use. “It still isn’t simple enough for many people to put together an audio network,” he explains. “I feel that there is a reason bigger than audio networking itself. This technology is just a transport, so while it does offer many advantages over analogue, it is only part of the bigger picture of what we need in networking. We need to have integrated control and networking across products from many manufacturers – truly interoperable systems of the sort we are used to seeing in the IT world.”

Hemming gives the example of unplugging his Mac from an Ethernet connection and having it link without interruption to WiFi, while at the same time connecting his RAID drive over Thunderbolt and making a call on his Bluetooth-enabled iPhone. “This level of integration requires not just networked audio transport but seamless control of the network as well as configuration, control and monitoring of equipment,” he concedes. “This will then offer facilities and advantages way beyond what we have now. Unfortunately, given the way the audio industry develops products, that is probably some way off.”

Plus Points

Hemming lists the advantages of networking as being: multiple channels over a single cable; simple accessibility for audio on and off a network; far cheaper cabling and installation costs; less interference; system flexibility; long distance transport using standard fibre-optic technology and ease of use in many situations. “Fibre also offers truly electrically isolated systems, eliminating issues caused by multiple sources of power on a large site,” he adds.

The problem can be, Hemming observes, that “people are used to doing things the same old way so many don’t feel the need to change their methods”. 

Above: The largest ever full Ravenna implementation for a live event occurred at the 40th anniversary concert of the Orchestre Nationale de Lille (ONL) in July.

Chris Hollebone, sales, operations and marketing manager with Merging Technologies, saysthe main obstacle to adoption is inertia: “If you don’t have a specific reason for wanting to change your system – large or small – you probably won’t until you have to replace something major. For many an existing point-to-point connection is OK. I think there is a still a curious mistrust of sending audio down an Ethernet cable, which is curious since modern life as we know it would pretty much stop if you disconnected all the RJ45 connectors in the world.”

Merging Technologies produces the Pyramix range of digital audio workstations, which are used in music recording and post-production. These can be networked through either of the company’s audio interfaces, Hapi or Horus, both of which feature Ravenna and the AES67 interoperability standard. Through AES67 it is possible to connect Merging systems to equipment using other formats, including Dante. Hollebone comments that people would “have to be crazy” not to see the benefits of networking and while he says it will “definitely happen in a big way soon”, many are resisting because they don’t want to be the first to try it out.

“It would probably take a major broadcaster or other huge facility to switch entirely over to a networked solution,” he says. “There are obviously a ton of people using our gear for recording or using Dante in a live situation that are enjoying the benefits, but it is a more elegant way of doing something they probably would have done with MADI and a lot of extra gear. Our customers are pushing the envelope with really high-resolution audio and MADI does not have sufficient capacity to deal with that. In addition, the ability to control gear remotely is a huge plus, but it has been quite hard to get users to really extol the virtues of working with networks.”

Despite asserting that networking will happen, Hollebone points to the case of MADI, which took a long time to be adopted by the mainstream. “I was still at Sony when that was invented,” he says. “I left in 1994.” 

Modern Misconceptions

Alex Lepges, product manager for Europe at Audio-Technica, observes that there may still be a perception that networking is only for a certain type of project. “Networked audio was first adopted for large-scale applications and therefore it was not – or not seen as – a solution ‘for the masses’,“ he says. “And still today many audio applications can be easily – and most of the time very efficiently – solved with ‘traditional’ point-to-point solutions: some microphones, other audio sources, a mixer and speakers.”

The front and back ends of the audio chain are generally seen as the most problematic when it comes to fully implementing a technology, notably anything digital and, specifically, networking. Audio-Technica is addressing the starting point with its ATND range of microphones, which connect to Dante over digital 
Ethernet, replacing analogue XLR cables with Cat5. 

Lepges comments that there are some aspects that people have to get their heads around when considering the move towards fuller network connectivity, including what he calls ‘invisible audio’. “In the traditional audio set-up we are used to following the signal flow of audio from its source to the final destination – a speaker,” he says. “We could ‘meter’ the signal, adjust the gains and slowly route the signal from here to there. In networked audio solutions with, for example, Audio-Technica’s ATND Series mics connected to standard network devices, the audio becomes ‘invisible’ and harder to track down, especially if you do not want to use packet-sniffer software to monitor your network traffic. Overcoming this seeming loss of control is one step you have to make to learn the newly gained freedom of signal routing.”

Dante and Ravenna are newcomers to a technology area that has promised much for nearly 20 years. Earlier attempts to standardise and simplify networking were CobraNet – originally developed by Peak Audio in 1996 before being bought by Cirrus Logic – and Livewire, introduced by the Telos Alliance in 2003 primarily for its Axia brand of IP-based consoles. Both carry audio over Ethernet and established themselves in specific installations based on either their manufacturers’ equipment or that of other companies licensing the technology, as in the case of QSC with CobraNet.

Above: The recently-released Dante Via is designed to allow a range of applications and devices to be networked and interconnected easily.

Because of this Marty Sacks, vice president of sales, support and marketing at the Telos Alliance, says that if there is any “hesitancy” from the market in implementing networks, he and his company are not aware of it. “It’s not something we see because the people we talk to are familiar with AoIP,” he says. “But because we don’t see anyone being hesitant doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Telos this year upgraded its Ethernet/AoIP network offering as Livewire+, which, Sacks explains, has been updated to be “extensible into the future” using standards such as AES67. “It has interoperability capability,” he says, “and also support for other internationally accepted standards to allow somebody with a Livewire installation to continue to be relevant with what is next.”

For Sacks the question people should be asking about networking is not whether they should adopt it but what kind of reliability and assurance it, in whatever form, will bring to their installation. He adds that by incorporating AES67 into Livewire+, and into other technologies, it is now “hard to isolate customers” regardless of their choice of technology.

Looking Ahead

Speaking at last year’s Audio Networking Forum, Patrick Warrington, technical director of Calrec, observed that a possibility for the future was “hybrid networks”, citing the example of his company’s consoles connected to the Hydra2 network router, which would in turn connect to any chosen AoIP system through the portal provided by AES67. 

Calrec’s vice president of sales, Dave Letson, comments that the lack of an accepted standard for audio transport over IP “is frustrating broadcasters and manufacturers alike” but that the situation is not standing still. “Calrec’s vision is an agnostic one with regards to transport of audio,” he says, “and IP streams will clearly play a large part in the future broadcast ecosystem. In the future we see a great opportunity in expanding the Calrec broadcast networking tool set across IP infrastructures. The first stage of this is to allow IP protocols like Dante and AES67 audio transport to integrate with Hydra2. This means that even in this uncertain time, our customers can implement whichever protocol best suits their needs and still enjoy the additional benefits of Hydra2.”

Networking is one of those ideas that broadcast, live sound and audio installation engineers like but they often come up against barriers created by clients, bosses, accountants or just the technology itself. But it is starting to happen, albeit largely at the top end. Hugo Burnard, a project engineer with distribution and installation company Sound Technology, observes that both Dante and AVB are going into large-scale performance venues and big office buildings. “Dante has a lot of backing,” he says, “and we are seeing a lot of people manufacturing AVB switches, such as NetGear and Extreme Networks, so AVB is a lot more accessible than it was.”

Burnard says there is definite uptake, with frequent enquires for venues, stadiums, universities and large theatres. As well as AVB and Dante, Sound Technology is also dealing with CobraNet, which Burnard says has an established user base, and Harman’s HiQnet software protocol, which is used for smaller installations. “When you consider the alternative for something like a large office block, digital networking over a single Cat5 cable carrying over 1,000 Dante channels makes more sense than running in lots of discrete tielines,” he comments.

The consensus is that people should consider networking for new builds and installs but look at it in terms of what it can do rather than as a complicated piece of technology manifested in various formats and products. 

As Hemming concludes: “We need better products and ones that are based around solving user problems, not just features. Once we crack that the standards will follow.”

Main Picture: The multi-Calrec Apollo installation, featuring a large-scale Hydra2 network, at MBC Sangam in South Korea.