What happened to audio networking


Brad Price TV-Bay Magazine
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It may seem hard to believe, but audio networking has now been with us for over 20 years. In 1996, Peak Audio released CobraNet, the first system that used computer networking of some sort to transport audio.

Looking at that early system, it wasn't easy to see all the benefits that were to come. Yes, you eventually got up to 64 channels on a single Ethernet cable, but simply getting products on the system and establishing connections required significant knowledge and effort. Because CobraNet was originally intended simply to replace an analog snake, it was not up to the task of managing the large numbers of channels and sources required for broadcast. Routing audio required different tools from different manufacturers, and channels had to be manually defined in groups. Getting the technology to coexist with other network functions was challenging, which meant that control systems often required separate networks merely to function. In other words, it was like a lot of technology when it is new: fussy, complicated, and not for the faint of heart.

It's 21 years later, and we all have smartphones that put any computer of 1996 to shame. Unsurprisingly, networked audio has also made the leap from arcane to indispensable. What changed to make it so important and popular?

1 - Everything around networking got better. Networks became dramatically faster. The associated gear became far less expensive and simultaneously more reliable. Standards evolved, tools became more elegant. It was now possible to imagine audio running over networks that could provide incredibly high system channel counts and virtually perfect performance, allowing broadcasters to expand access to a nearly unlimited number of sources.

2 - Audio networks became truly easy to use. Modern audio networking solutions leverage advances in standards to automatically discover devices, self-configure clocking, and provide simple, clear workflows with visual feedback to operators and integrators alike. Just as our phones hide their immense power behind intuitive screens, audio networking now "just works" under the hood. Rather than requiring a technician to change physical connections for an event, broadcast or show, operators could now simply load a preset using ordinary PC software and go.

3 - Audio networks could now scale up to any size. Clients today want to know that the system they choose will be able to expand in both devices and channel count, something that in the past meant prohibitive costs. Modern Gigabit-speed solutions like Dante provide up to 512 bidirectional channels per device and can be extended by simply adding inexpensive switch ports, allowing for systems that support thousands of sources and destinations. Lightweight Ethernet cable can be unobtrusively pre-installed to allow for nearly instantaneous future expansion at a site or studio.

4 - More gear leads to more use which leads to more gear. Any technology that connects things together needs lots of devices to succeed - if there were only a handful of telephones in the world, having one wouldn't very interesting. The right combination of technology, tools and engagement have resulted in a thriving ecosystem of networked audio products using Dante, providing users with over a thousand products from which to choose and build systems today. This creates a win-win for broadcast professionals, giving them the freedom to select gear that matches requirements while ensuring absolute network compatibility.

5 - Computers are now everywhere. The term "computer" no longer simply means a bulky desktop system. Our phones are computers. Our DSPs are computers. Most modern mixers and even power amplifiers now contain computers that do much of the audio "heavy lifting", driving controls and features. In such an environment, computer-style networking makes sense, allowing devices to freely communicate, passing audio, commands, information and warnings to devices that request or require them. This integration streamlines the system, reducing errors and problems commonly encountered when combining non-networked convertors, routers and controllers as broadcasters have had to do in the past.
6 - IT taught us something about management. Modern computer networks are administered to grant users the access they need, while keeping others out. When there is a problem, it can quickly be found and corrected. Most audio installations have no such protection, and may be in environments where users can make potentially destructive changes, requiring hours to track down and solve. By applying IT management techniques to audio networks, installations may now be kept secure and stable, providing the system administrator with notification of any changes or failures - who, what and when. Only a networked, computer-driven system can provide this type of control and peace of mind.

The proliferation and popularity of audio networking isn't due to any single event or change. An accumulation of improvements from within and without the audio industry drove product development and put opportunities within grasp, while at the same time users greatly increased their use and trust in digital technology. Like the modern smartphone, the pieces were just waiting to be assembled into something new and powerful - and that time is now.


Tags: iss125 | audinate | networking | audio | dsp | Brad Price
Contributing Author Brad Price

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