Only in recent years have digital snake systems become commonplace in the live audio production environment.
Roland Systems Group was one of the first audio manufacturers to bring an affordable, elegant, fully integrated digital snake system package to market. All of Roland’s live sound products operate on the company’s proprietary REAC (Roland Ethernet Audio Communication) protocol, which provides for 80 total channels of audio (40 channels going each direction) to be transmitted on a single piece of Cat-5e cable with very low latency at up to 24-bit/96 kHz. Though the REAC protocol was developed several years ago, the technology has proven itself to be highly robust and is still very respectable, comparing favorably with products recently released by other manufacturers.
Since the introduction of the original snake system, Roland has expanded its product line to include three digital consoles, a personal mixing system, and, of course, an extended selection of digital snakes. Two of the most recent additions to the lineup are the S-4000M REAC Merge Unit and S-0808 snake head.
The S-4000M is a device that (operating in its native mode) interfaces with up to four digital snake heads via Ethercon ports and combines the I/O from each into a single REAC bus, appearing on a fifth Ethercon port to be interfaced with any of the company’s V-mixer products. The REAC Merge is compatible with all of Roland’s snake heads, though it will be necessary to perform a firmware upgrade (available for free at the Roland Systems Group website) on most preexisting hardware.
The S-0808 is an 8-input by 8-output compact snake head in a stagebox-style chassis. As with all of the existing products, all audio inputs and outputs appear on XLR connectors with a REAC port on a Neutrik Ethercon connector. The S-0808, however, additionally provides for unbalanced quarter-inch jacks on inputs 5-8 for direct interface with acoustic guitars, keyboards, and the like. Also unique to the S-0808 is PoE (Power over Ethernet) capability, allowing for the power for the snake head to be delivered via the Category 5 cable from the REAC merge, eliminating the need for a 120v power drop to be located at each snake head. Where the S-0808 is not used in conjunction with the REAC Merge, it can alternatively be powered by a battery pack. Roland’s live sound products have gained market share in both the install and live production arenas, and the REAC Merge + S-0808 combination will be of interest to both.
In most medium- to large-scale concert setups, the stage inputs (microphones, direct boxes, etc.) are typically patched into sub-snakes (usually 50-100 feet in length), which are then patched into the main splitter snake or digital snake box. This is done to keep the stage clean and well organized. With larger sub-snake setups, the individual boxes are outfitted with multipin connectors to allow for quick connection/disconnection and pre-wiring (i.e. of drum mixes or for keyboard riser). Such setups have been necessary but costly, and maintenance issues do often arise with multipin connectors.
The S-4000M + S-0808 combination provides a very attractive alternative for such scenarios, maintaining the advantages of multipin solutions and providing some additional benefits. The multipin cables are replaced by rugged Cat-5 cables, which are lighter, more compact to transport, much less expensive, and easily replaceable. The Ethercon connectors pose much less potential maintenance issues than their multipin counterparts.
Additionally, the Merge + S-0808 solution places the preamplifier and A/D converter much closer to the various sources, reducing the potential for RF interference and high frequency loss over long cable runs. The cost of the REAC Merge + S-0808 solution compares very favorably when one considers that it replaces the sub-snakes as well as the main snake.
In the install context, floor pockets often serve the same function as the aforementioned subsnakes. It is worth noting that Ace Backstage, a CA-based manufacturer of stage hardware, has developed a custom floor pocket for the S-0808. One problem with floor pockets that I’ve seen repeatedly in the church market is that churches will often end up with a stage setup that bears little to no resemblance to what they had envisioned during the design of their auditorium. Consequently, the floor pockets are often located in very inconvenient positions. With the Ace Backstage custom box, the snake head sits inside the recess, but can be lifted out of the pocket (there is also space for a coiled rugged Ethernet cable), allowing the snake head to be placed in whatever position is most convenient; I find this to be particularly clever.
Another fact worth noting is that while each REAC bus only supports 40 channels of audio coming from the stage, more than 40 channels can be made available in the digital patch bay. So, if one wanted to set up a permanent installation with, for instance, a S-4000-3208 (32 inputs x 8 outputs) in an amp room and three S-0808s in floor pockets, all merged into one REAC stream, all 56 channels would be available to be patched, but only 40 could be assigned at one time.
I had the opportunity to test the S-4000M and S-0808 at a conference for a Christian denomination in West Virginia. I was responsible for the audio in the youth room. The front-of-house console was my Roland M400. I ran eight monitor mixes from the FOH console in the form of seven self-powered wedges and one wired in-ear amplifier for the drummer. The snake setup consisted of my S-4000-3208 snake head positioned at the side of the stage, my S-1608 snake head positioned at the drum riser, and the two demo S-0808s downstage left and downstage right. This setup provided far more inputs than I would actually use, but I wanted to put the system through its paces.
All four snake heads were patched into the Merge, the output of which was patched to the REAC B port on my console. I patched the main PA into the outputs of the S-3208 snake at the side of the stage, and used the outputs of the on-stage snakes to get my mixes to the powered wedges and in-ear amplifier.
For quick and dirty setup situations, the REAC Merge has an auto map feature, which can be activated through a command on the console or by pressing a button on the unit itself. When triggered, it will patch all available inputs from the device in port 1 of the merge to REAC channels 1-x, followed by all of the available inputs from the device in port 2, and so on. In my application, I opted to assign my inputs manually. The REAC Merge is controlled in the console software in its own patchbay screen, which is accessed through the SYSTEM dialog > REAC setup. (This is distinct from the main console patchbay screen.)
The patchbay dialog for the Merge is straightforward, and provides excellent visual feedback. I was able to get all of my inputs and outputs to show up where I needed them. I should note that an extra layer of flexibility is present for output assignment with the S-0808s that doesn’t appear to be available with the other snakes. All in all, the setup was painless and I was able to find everything where I intuitively thought that it should be. The show went well and everything functioned as expected.
The S-4000M Merge Unit and S-0808 Snake collectively represent the next logical step for digital snake technology. A friend, Josh Hoevelmann, who is the audio tech for a Nashville-area venue, remarked that the S-0808 could even function very effectively as a press box. The build quality of new hardware certainly seems to be up to par with what we’ve seen from Roland to this point, and I see no reason to believe that these two products won’t contribute to the continued success of the Roland product line.
Prices: $2,295 and $1,595 list (S-4000M AND S-0808, respectively)
Contact: Roland/RSS | 800-380-2580 | rolandsystemsgroup.com
Ben Williams is owner/engineer of Essential Audio, a Nashville-based live sound reinforcement, system design and integration firm.