Derby University & RedNet

The University of Derby's Arts, Design and Technology departments are home to a complete sound studio complex that has recently been completely refurbished and re-equipped – and includes the world's first Focusrite RedNet installation. RedNet is a brand-new audio system that combines Focusrite's legendary experience in mic preamp and digital interface design with the tried and tested Dante system for transferring digital audio via a standard Gigabit Ethernet network. In this article, Richard Elen talks to the University of Derby's Subject Leader, Popular Music Production, John Crossley about the University's use of RedNet and his experiences with the system.

The University rebuilt the recording facilities at its Markeaton Street campus over the summer of 2012, consisting of two recording studios, each with a control room and a live room area. The immediate feeling you get on walking into the studios is that you are not in a special “educational" facility at all: instead, the atmosphere is one of a modern, working commercial studio complex – and an impressive one at that. In addition to the two main studios, there are three post-production rooms – smaller, self-contained areas constructed as part of the same suite. The University also has a TV studio and a radio studio, with lines linking them to the main studio complex.
“We do a lot of basic, standard music recording," Crossley notes, “but we also do bits and pieces of synchronisation for film, and we venture out and do little bits of Foley now and again – because at the end of the day, we're trying to give our students the opportunity to make their way in lots of different ways within the media industry."

The larger of the two main control rooms, Control Room 1, features a classic Neve desk from 1985. Originally a broadcast console, it was refurbished by former Neve employee Neil McCombie. Control Room 2 is based around an Avid Pro Tools C24 system, and both studios feature Pro Tools HD systems. All three of Derby's Pro Tools HD systems have been upgraded to HDX with new interfaces and Pro Tools 10 software.

The control rooms also contain a respectable complement of outboard gear, including Drawmer 1960s and 1961s. Crossley notes, “We also bought quite a bit of Focusrite equipment as part of our refurbishment, so we now have some 828s, ISA Producer Packs, a couple of Liquid Channels, and one of the new 2-channel preamps."

The production rooms are also Pro Tools equipped, one with Pro Tools HD Native, running on an Avid Omni, and the others with standard Pro Tools running through Focusrite Saffire interfaces. This gives the facility Pro Tools in all the studios, and thus full room inter-compatibility, enabling sessions to be moved from one studio another and maximising flexibility.

There is also an additional Pro Tools HDX studio, upstairs on the same floor as the building's rehearsal rooms. “And we have another basic Pro Tools studio over at another site," says Crossley, “so in total we've got four fully-equipped recording studios plus the three production rooms."

Crossley has been a Focusrite user for several years, going back to the time when he ran his own studio. “My background is in music production," Crossley points out. “I've run studios, I've run record labels, done lots of producing and remixes and stuff, and I've always been a fan of Focusrite gear – we had Reds in my studio in Nottingham," he recalls.

When Crossley and his colleagues were specifying the new studio complex, they therefore naturally went to Focusrite, intending to include some interfaces and preamplifiers in the new rooms. They thought they might like to try a RedNet system too. “We had gone through the brochures and information, and I thought it sounded great. So I said 'We'll have one of everything – one of each bit'. In actual fact we ended up with almost one of everything!"

Derby's current complement of RedNet units includes three RedNet 4 8-channel mic preamps, giving a total of 24 mic pres; two RedNet 1 8-channel line-level I/O units; and one RedNet 2 16-channel unit. They also have two PCIe cards.

Being very much Pro Tools based, Crossley is looking forward to the possibility of connecting RedNet direct into the system. “I'm keen on the RedNet HD Bridge, RedNet 5," says Crossley, “so when that's released, we'll be looking at getting one or two of them."

Rather than permanently installing RedNet in the studios and control rooms, Crossley has opted for a more flexible approach. “The way we've set it up at the moment is as two mobile racking units," he says. “One rack contains all the RedNet 4 mic pres – 24 mic preamps in the one unit – and one of the 8-channel RedNet 1 units." Also in the rack is a switch to connect the units together, along with a headphone amplifier. “The idea is that this rack goes into whatever is going to be the live room," Crossley continues. “You just wheel this rack in, and you've got your mic pres, you have some line inputs if you need them, but more importantly you have some line outputs, which then of course feed into the headphone amplifier so you can have that two-way communication into the room."

The other, slightly smaller, rack includes the RedNet 1 and RedNet 2 units – providing 24 ins and 24 outs – plus a switch: this goes into the control room.

Derby being largely Pro Tools based, the system is used without the PCIe card. Says Crossley, “It's perfect if you want to use Logic or some other software, which we've got, but we mainly use Pro Tools, so what we do is to put the smaller rack in the control room and patch it into our system, bringing the 24 inputs into Pro Tools, and then outputs for foldback and so on. Plus, obviously, an Ethernet connection to wherever the other rack is, and then we have the communication and we can set that whole system with mics and inputs as needed for recording."

Each room has at least half a dozen Ethernet sockets, and these all lead to a central switch room where they can be interconnected. As a result, rooms can be linked very easily. Ethernet lines also go up to the TV and radio studios as well as to a well-equipped live auditorium and rehearsal rooms.

In addition to Pro Tools, the system has also been used successfully with Logic and the RedNet PCIe card. However, while they await the arrival of their RedNet 5 units, the system is a little more complex than it might be. “The only downside of the system at the moment is that we are converting all our signals into the analogue domain and then back into digital in Pro Tools," he notes. “It's not a problem, because it's no different to the situation had we just plugged our mics into mic preamps. At the moment it's actually fine – quality-wise I've got no complaints. When we get the HD Bridge to interface with Pro Tools, we'll be completely happy," he says.

So far, Crossley and his colleagues have been using the Audinate control software – originally designed for the Dante system, which is the Ethernet-based network that RedNet uses. “It's very simple – it's just a basic routing matrix. As soon as the stuff's plugged in it sees the interfaces, and you've just got a matrix, a bit like the physical plug-board matrix in the old VCS3 synthesiser, and you just click on what you want to go where. And that's it." At the time of writing, Derby was just beginning to install Focusrite's own control software, which provides not only routing capability but also full remote control of the mic preamps for example.

Crossley's view of RedNet in action is remarkably straightforward. “To be honest with you," he says, “you just plug it in, and then you just forget it's there, really. That seems to be the beauty of it. From a technological point of view it's very clever, but in actual fact what it's doing is very simple: it's grabbing a signal, shooting it down a cable and giving it to you at the other end. Because it's doing that, and it doesn't seem to have any issues with doing that, once you set it up it's very straightforward. That's exactly what you want."

One reason for not permanently installing the RedNet system in the studios was to provide the flexibility to experiment – including in live sound applications. “I know that there are other live solutions that do this kind of thing, and I know that one of the big selling points for RedNet is the low latency and the fact you can do drop-ins and so on, which is obviously very important; but because we do carry out such a lot of live stuff with our courses, being able to use the system in a live situation both out-front and for recording simultaneously, is really useful. Being able to tap into the Ethernet feed and record it at the same time as it's being used for a front-of-house mix – that's really interesting."

Dante started in the live sound arena, where it has been used for some time. Derby owns some Yamaha M7 live consoles, and they intend to add Dante cards to them and integrate them into the system.

Crossley is very pleased with the performance of the system. “RedNet sounds great. I haven't been able to notice any particular problems, or artefacts, or anything with it: it just sounds great – really. It just works! When we first did some tests with it, I set aside plenty of time to be fiddling around with the software… but it wasn't necessary. The one thing we had to spend a little time on was checking the sample rates – but it was really easy to click on the unit and see what sample rate it was running at and make sure everything was all running at the same sample rate – and then it was all fine."

The staff at Derby University are also considering the longer-term applications for RedNet. The use in the studio and production areas is straightforward and obvious, but there are many other possibilities. “We have several rehearsal rooms for our performers to play," Crossley notes, “and if someone wants to rehearse and then record something, then rather than have some kind of portable recording system up in the room, we can wheel in the RedNet system and record it properly, in the control room. So that's quite handy and interesting."

In fact, the system can be used in virtually any room in the building – anywhere there's Ethernet. “We have an auditorium – a large lecture room essentially – that's mainly used for general purpose lecturing, but it happens to have a couple of grand pianos in it, and quite a nice acoustic. Students often ask if they can record the pianos, and in the past it's been a matter of using some sort of portable kit in there and it's never the same – you can't monitor it properly, for example. Now we can just wheel in the RedNet system, plug in a couple of mics or whatever, and record that in the control room. You could even record in a completely different room without taking one of the main control rooms out of service."

Being part of a University, the department also finds itself involved in all kinds of different recording projects, including choirs and small orchestras, that can now be recorded in the regular control rooms with a full complement of recording equipment and quality monitoring, rather than being forced to use portable gear in the room as in the past. They can also bring different rooms into use for a studio session, where a particular acoustic is required, for example. “There's nothing to stop us rolling a RedNet system into the main auditorium and sticking the drums in there. Then world is your oyster, so to speak. We just plug it in anywhere, and it just works," he continues. “Having this kit and being able to use it in different ways is really great for us."

“The only other thing I would say," John Crossley concludes, “is that it's really nice to be working with a UK-based company."