When IT & Audio Converge

11 Jan 2017

Applying the 21st Century advantage in an analogue world.

Words: Will Hoult, Commercial & Professional Audio Product Manager, Focusrite.

It’s hard to think of an area of technology that has not been influenced by—or taken advantage of—networking. Whether it’s computers, mobile telephones, televisions or home automation; networking is used a widely to provide previously unobtainable functionality. You can even buy a kettle that is WiFi enabled! So it stands to reason that real-time transportation of audio should be no different. 

From a product development point of view, audio-over-IP (i.e. audio carried by an IP network) is wonderful. As a hardware manufacturer, we can take advantage of the low-cost, ubiquitous, and stable nature of products created by billion-dollar IT companies. We can benefit from the technological advances of a mature industry that’s trusted by enterprises the world over by using their machines as our infrastructure. Thanks to them, we can deliver a flexible and reliable system with increased value to users.

For those deploying and using such systems, the benefits can be wide ranging. These include a decrease in the cost of cabling by reduced need for long stretches of analogue multicore; reduction in cabling weight and associated freight costs, and simplified interconnects (remote control and clocking data shares the network with the audio, which is all transmitted via standard Cat-6). The IP infrastructure can also open up scenarios that simply weren’t possible previously, such as having performers in different parts of a university or studio campus, or even in a different city entirely. 

The trouble is, audio engineers have a stressful enough time focusing on the core element of their job: delivering the best quality sound possible. This is often under great pressure, due to both limited time and simply the magnitude of the event. As a result, it’s important that IT technology and audio engineering converge, not collide.

A system diagram from a 2015 Focusrite RedNet install.

Fortunately, for even relatively large channel counts, a robust system can be easily established without the need for a degree in networking. Various different audio-over-IP implementations exist, from open-technology standards to proprietary licensed protocols. At Focusrite, we decided to deploy Dante from Australian company Audinate, for our line of RedNet products and as one of the interface options on the flagship Red range. There are various reasons why Dante was our choice, but ultimately the majority of audio-over-IP implementations attempt to achieve a similar result: high-quality, low-latency audio using standard, off-the-shelf hardware and cable. (Or indeed fibre optics.) 

One feature stands out as more important than all others, and that is ease of use. Ultimately, if the network starts getting in the way of delivering a great performance, recording or broadcast, we’re all going to return to older point-to-point analogue systems, despite their limitations. As a result it’s important that we get it right.

It is possible to build an audio network which features products from multiple manufacturers, and in fact this has been the case for quite a few years. Yamaha consoles paired with Focusrite I/O and processors from Lab.gruppen — all unified by Dante — are a common sight in live sound and install applications, for example. The difficulty arises, however, when attempting to use devices based on differing audio-over-IP implementations.

“It’s important that IT technology and audio
engineering converge, not collide.”

Cue: AES67
Published in 2013, AES67 is an Audio Engineering Society standard for interoperability between different IP-based audio transport systems. It allows equipment based on Dante, Ravenna and QLAN, for example, to transfer audio between themselves in real time. Another topic worthy of mention is that of control and discovery of devices: that is what protocols should be used so that devices can be remote controlled, and such that they can be ‘aware’ of each other. It is here that AES70, the ‘standard for audio applications of networks’, is focused. The intention being to solve the interoperability of control of devices through a common protocol. 

The Media Networking Alliance presentation of AES67, featuring the author. (Note: Will Hoult is no longer the Chairman of the MNA.)

As of December 2016, we’re still a short way away from having a fully interoperable platform that delivers the ease-of-use of any single implementation: for example a universal device-discovery method, or unified control and routing software. However, industry bodies such as Media Networking Alliance and Open Control Architecture Alliance are working toward this very attainable future. (Read on for links to those institutions.) This brings the day ever closer where we can specify ‘audio-over-IP equipment’ and know that it will all be interoperable — much like the ever-present XLR.

Don’t change, adapt instead.
One thing is clear to me: the core principles of audio production and mixing will not change, so it is vital that we continue to develop a generation of engineers who are grounded in the fundamentals of sound. But do I think that audio engineers will need a degree in IT Networking in the future? No. Will a decent understanding and experience in networking be advantageous? Absolutely.

The Media Networking Alliance is an industry body comprising multiple audio equipment manufacturers and protocol developers focused on promoting the adoption and development of AES67, both by other manufacturers and end users. www.medianetworkingalliance.com
The OCA Alliance is a non-profit corporation formed to secure the standardisation of the Open Control Architecture (OCA) as a media networking system control standard for professional applications. www.ocaalliance.com