Online, my sister is quite the socialite.
She has more friends on Facebook than people I’ve ever met, and a very active Twitter account. Let’s not even get started on LinkedIn, Buzzsprout, Flickr, You Tube, MySpace and Scrib’d. Half her life is on the web, and while the conventions of these online relationships remain a mystery to me, my sister is rather blas about it.
The truth is, I am too out of touch to face the fact that these social networks are incredibly efficient ways of communicating. A well timed Tweet can do the work of a thousand phone calls.
Social media has changed the way we work and the way we communicate, in exactly the same way that technology has allowed us to develop other networks. Even in our little industry, networking has been turned on its head, as exemplified by ber-modern broadcast centres currently being constructed in Manchester and London.
And the results are exactly the same – greater efficiencies, less work, more scope.
It was in the 1970’s that networking was first introduced into computing, exploited initially with simple Local Area Networks (LAN). Over time broadcasters picked up on these ways of working, and networking became a technical solution to sharing incoming and outgoing sources. Audio networks were originally designed to provide a means of routing digital audio around and between mixers - with the emphasis firmly on the consoles. All of the hardware and software controlling the audio network remained in the desks.
Nowadays the opposite is true. Increasingly, studio managers and planners start with the network and build consoles and mic boxes into it. In other words, rather than starting with the console at the centre of the system, it's more helpful to think of the console as a mere component on the network, like an I/O box. More and more I/O processing and control hardware can be added to this when required, and routing can rapidly be redefined in software.
Forward-thinking broadcasters are now taking full advantage of this technology. In the last 18 months, three of the most ambitious new broadcast centres in the world have been planned, specified and built in the UK. All three have proprietary networks at the heart of their infrastructure.
In Salford Quays, Manchester, the MediaCityUK facility will house one of the largest high definition studio facilities in Europe, featuring seven HD television studios and two audio studios. The facility has three Apollo consoles for studios A, B and C, and an Artemis console for studio E. All four studios will be used to provide live to air and live to tape content for light entertainment, news and sport. In addition, all four consoles will be networked via Hydra2 technology, providing MediaCityUK with the flexibility enabling every console to access all I/O resources on the network.
More recently, BSkyB commenced work on Harlequin 1, Sky's new HD studio, post-production, and broadcast control centre in Osterley, West London. Again, the network is very much a central part of that project, with a number of consoles sat on a huge network which connects them across six control rooms, six studios and a further 10 voiceover booths within their extensive International Commentary Area.
Finally, the BBC’s massive West One redevelopment of Broadcasting House in London uses four Artemis consoles networked across four studios and four control rooms.
All three facilities use Hydra2 networking to ensure that the network topology meets the specific requirements of each facility, from simple console to console connections to more complex topologies involving centrally located routers and interface resources.
This is the chief advantage of this new breed of networking; flexibility. In broadcasting, a hard-wired setup requires a separate physical connection for each audio channel in the broadcast system. This can be from a microphone, mixing console, or some other third party equipment. If any re-routing of that signal is required a new physical wire has to be connected. This might be a trivial concern, but in modern broadcast environments such as the three illustrated above, it can be much more complicated. On a properly thought out network, system hardware is already connected (usually via CAT5 or fibre), such that any input signal can be fed to any output and the routing of a signal is software-controllable, easily remapped and re-routed with a few mouse clicks.
This not only makes it easier to route incoming and outgoing signals, but it also gives operators and studio managers more flexibility, and allows the creation of complex broadcast setups that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. In a networked environment, if you have to move talent quickly from one studio to another, or need to press extra mixing hardware or processors into service quickly to sub-mix a complex LE or sports programme, you can patch in the required mixers, hardware or radio mics in seconds, without having to run extra cables or monitoring systems.
Generally speaking, fixed-topology systems now require more (and more expensive) cabling in comparison to networked systems. In outside broadcast, this means hard-wired solutions involve longer set-up times, have a higher propensity to technical failure, weigh more, and are less transportable.
So it’s cheaper and more flexible, but surely this increased flexibility also introduces other layers of complexity? In early audio networked systems, quite often stations would find that the introduction of a network actually introduced more restrictions than the hard-wired systems they were supposed to supercede. Very early networks used off the shelf IT infrastructures and were not best suited to the delivery of multi-channel audio in real time, and early efforts to adapt these protocols to carry audio resulted in networks with much higher latency than fixed-topology systems, prone to dropouts and loss of channel sync, or of sync to video.
Not so with modern networks - the last few years has seen the development of low-latency proprietary networking protocols specifically designed for audio routing that work within the physical layer of standard Gigabit Ethernet technology, allowing connectivity via affordable CAT5 and CAT6 cabling and fibre-optic connections. Recent developments have also seen the early 'Unicast' Ethernet-based systems develop into true 'one-to-many' Multicast networks, whose capabilities go way beyond those of hard-wired audio systems.
In a fixed-topology or Unicast network, if you wish to route the output of (for example) a surround microphone to three different destinations, separate connections must be made between the surround microphone's multi-channel output and all of the subsequent destinations, which can rapidly overload the network. In a Multicast network, any audio source connected to any point on the network can simultaneously address any other point on the network - including all outputs at once if required.
If designed intelligently, the nature of modern integrated networks means that all resources and labels are shared between consoles no matter where they are physically connected to the network. Input and output ports may be patched at any time, either manually or en masse, as part of a memory load.
Modern networks, such as Calrec’s Hydra2 network, are more dynamic – if a new audio client (such as an i/o box or control surface) is connected to the network, its presence is automatically detected and its resources are made available within seconds. This makes it very quick and easy to make ad hoc networks, such as connecting two mobile trucks together. It also makes it very easy to deploy extra resources as they are needed. Seconds after consoles and interface units are connected together they behave as a network, without the need for any more hardware or software to be installed. They also carry and support the sharing of non-audio data, in particular transportation of GPIOs.
At Calrec, such networking protocols have been factored directly into our product design over the years, culminating in the latest generation of mixers having a proprietary low-latency multicast networking protocol which underpins all of the consoles' functionality. We believe that networking will increasingly play a bigger part in broadcast infrastructures in the future, and it is sensible to plan with this in mind.
But right now I have other things to think about. Someone’s just poked me on Facebook, whatever that means.