Networked audio has been around since the late 20th century. However, that’s like saying rail travel has been in place for 200 years.
There’s a big experiential difference between climbing aboard a mid-century diesel on the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) to Patchogue and taking the Acela from Boston to D.C. Both will get you between points on a map but the latter will do it faster, more efficiently and more effectively.
That’s where we are in terms of audio networking. CobraNet and other last-century platforms that have been in use for decades remain reasonably viable even as their efficiency declines in comparison to newer networking solutions. But a new generation of networked-audio systems has changed the landscape of networking, moving it closer to the IT paradigm.
Over the past 15 years, new network systems have come to market, a combination of proprietary ones and open frameworks, bringing with them hundreds of networked-audio products, such as microphones, DSP systems, amplifier and loudspeakers, that have been adapted to operate on a network.
And most recently some solutions that assert to be able to bridge the proprietary ones have been added to the mix, allowing products that are intended to work with one type of network protocol to be adaptable to the protocols of others.
Where older networking approaches were clumsy and kludgy, the current generation of network systems has brought a number of improvements that make them friendlier to AV systems integrators, easing the concerns of AV/IT convergence.
Related: The AVB”Systems integrators are recognizing that the high cost of materials and labor to install and configure point-to-point systems is becoming pointless,” says Lee Ellison, CEO of Audinate, parent company of Dante, which is the networked-audio market leader by a wide margin with 280-plus vendors offering more than 725 Dante-enabled products.
Performance Anxiety Persists
Reminders that we’re still in a transitional era are not hard to find, however. The ratification of interoperability standards notwithstanding, there is no shortage of projects that require multiple kinds of audio networks, and that can lead to some challenges and no small amount of anxiety.
On a recent project outfitting a corporate presentation space, Jim Maltese, president of Audio Video Resources on New York’s Long Island, was faced with the fact that the client required that they continue to use the Yamaha digital audio consoles their staff was familiar with but also to integrate into the sound system two new Biamp Tesira DSP automixer units, used for echo cancellation and other background operations.
Yamaha was an early adopter of the Dante standard but Biamp is natively compatible with the AVB (Audio Video Bridging) standard. According to Maltese, in order to pass audio between the console and DSP mixers, both a Dante (Yamaha to Biamp-1) and an AVB (Biamp-1 to Biamp-2) network was required.
The networks were on separate routers to keep things discrete, and to reinforce to the operators that they should not mix Dante and AVB signals. When they utilized AVB as the audio bus between the two units, everything was fine, but when the two platforms came in contact, it was critical that their I/Os not cross.
That, unfortunately, was what happened on one occasion after the installation and integration had been completed: a client-staff technician accidentally plugged a Dante output into an AVB input and a Dante signal was put onto the AVB router, which caused the entire system to stop passing audio to the room, necessitating a repair trip to the client.
“When we’re part of the bid-evaluation process, we actively request [that integrators] indicate the amount and level of knowledge and experience they have with networks. We don’t want one of these projects to be [an integrator’s] first networking project.” —Gonzalo Rodriguez, Callisonrtkl
Maltese says AES67 wouldn’t have necessarily avoided the problem, because the two different networks were fine working independently; it was the potential for human error that raised the stakes, something he feels is endemic with networks at this stage of their evolution. “Everyone wants simplicity, they want it all to work right out of the box,” he says.
However, the much heralded plug-and-play nature of networked audio can mask very IT-types of issues. “Some networks need very specific kinds of switches, and there is the constant need to make sure the firmware is current,” Maltese explains.
“That’s something that Dante tends to do well, whereas AVB has a lot of requirements when it comes to the switches it can work with. In fact, AVB is arguably a beefier standard, but their ‘rider’ is long, and the switches tend to be more expensive. People have been defaulting to Dante because it’s simpler to access.”
That doesn’t mean he dismisses AVB on a practical level, noting the difference of methods to creating the standards. “Dante and Q-Sys are proprietary, so changes can happen fairly easily and as often as required to react to market changes and pressures,” he explains. “AVB went the standards route, which is impressive because you get a consensus across industry professionals, but the revision process has a lot of inertia. Dante and Q-Sys therefore have the benefit of being more agile.”