Dante-enabled products are becoming more and more common with each passing day. Manufacturer support of the AoIP network is a key component in the successful integration of Dante into installed systems, live sound applications, studio setups and other large-scale systems that rely on stable communication and consistent control between devices. I chose to dive into several various system set-ups using a combination of different Dante-enabled products to discover as much as I could about connecting, routing, controlling and monitoring audio through a Dante network.
The following devices will be mentioned in this article: Focusrite MP8R, Focusrite HD32R, Focusrite RedNet AM2, Bel Digital BM-A1-64 Dante, Allen & Heath M-Dante I/O expansion card, Allen & Heath GLD-80, Yamaha CL5, Yamaha M7CL, Yamaha Rio: 1608, 3224, and Ro8-D. The following software will be included: Audinate Dante Virtual Sound Card, Audinate Dante Controller, Focusrite RedNet Control and Avid Pro Tools LE. All computers involved are Apple.
Currently, I find myself doing more live sound work and live recordings (or on-location recording) than working in a tracking studio. What is so exciting about networked audio is we are now looking at equipment that can be used both in the studio and in live sound: bridging the two together, making live recordings simpler. The fact that this crossover exists means a lot to engineers who find themselves in both careers—this equipment can be very expensive, as we all know. Most studio engineers who have been working in digital recording for the last decade or so have a background in understanding word clock, device sync, latency and I/O pathways, which gives them an advantage when learning about Dante or other AoIP protocols. For all of these reasons, I’m excited to see audio-over-Ethernet take a foothold in the industry.
Allen & Heath M-Dante Expansion Card
I began creating a Dante network for my workflow by installing an Allen & Heath M-Dante I/O expansion card into my own GLD-80 console. The GLD-80 has its own proprietary network connection (D-Snake) built-in that communicates with up to three A&H stage boxes (40 channels) plus four XLR and four stereo RCA inputs on the rear of the console for a total of 48 channels. I am doing a lot more live recording and have previously been limited to an analog snake splitter; recording to two-channel USB flash memory; or using an I/O card that typically only provides 8 to 16 channels of output. With the M-Dante card, I now have the ability to connect directly to my laptop and record up to 64 channels at 24-bit, 48 kHz with no interface in between. It’s huge, being able to record that many channels from a live show without racks of A/D converters and word clocking.
Connecting to my laptop for recording was pretty simple. I connected the M-Dante card through the switch where my laptop was also connected. I used Dante Controller to route my transmitter (A&H GLD-80 channels) to my receiver (MacBook Pro). I record in Pro Tools LE so I had to change the playback device to the Dante Virtual Sound Card. Pro Tools I/O then showed the number of available inputs based on what was routed in the Dante Controller. I have tried using different sources as the main clocking device; if I don’t choose the proper master clock, I see and hear clocking errors in the recording. Unfortunately, without some type of Dante monitoring hardware, there is no way to monitor the input or output of Pro Tools. When recording from my A&H console to my laptop, this is not a terrible problem—I can monitor individual channels from the console itself, although that does not allow me to hear errors as I’m recording—but for critical location recording, not being able to confidence monitor the recording is a bad idea.
I used my Allen & Heath GLD-80 in another Dante system rig that was outfitted with a Yamaha CL5, two Rio 1608s, one Rio 3224, and one Ro8-D, at Reynolds Auditorium in Winston-Salem. I wanted to mimic a setup that would be very desirable in touring productions and festivals: leaving the house system as it was and just adding in my console with my show files and settings. I could just reroute audio via the installed stage boxes.
I connected the GLD-80 in the house through a switch connected to the Dante network. I slaved my console’s clock again to the I/O slot. This time, the problem was no head amp control from the Rio stage boxes at the GLD-80. This meant I had to keep the CL5 in the system in order to use the mic preamps and then patch from that console to the GLD-80, giving me digital trim only. This would be similar to a monitor desk setup where two consoles are in the mix and the head amps are only used in one.
Since the CL5 was up five flights of stairs, I used an iPad to control gain via the remote app, which was not exactly the smoothest solution. Instead of running the outputs of the GLD 80 back to the CL5, I routed in the Dante Controller straight to the Ro8-D and to the outputs on the stage boxes on stage, hoping it would cause less latency that way. I was definitely concerned about latency with the signal routing so many different pathways, but it ended up not being a problem. The CL5 has its own Dante Controller on board so I had to tell the console to listen to an outboard Dante Controller (via my laptop). The word clock master ended up being the Yamaha CL5.
Ultimately, I would like to see Dante-supporting manufacturers increase interoperability, allowing devices from other manufacturers to connect through the Dante network. The problem arises when I run into an issue because it’s not clear who to call for tech support. If I call Audinate, the makers of Dante, they tell me how to fix settings in the Dante Controller or Dante Virtual Sound Card, but they do not know the specific settings of the Yamaha or Allen & Heath board. They can’t be expected to know the inner workings of every Dante manufacturer. I found myself having to assess all three manufacturers’ products separately. Compatibility is changing constantly so I am seeing improvement in the ability to have control over other Dante products, but we’re not quite there yet.
Focusrite RedNet MP8R, HD32R
Focusrite is surely one of the longest-running supporters of Dante, enabling its higher-end RedNet products designed to be interfaced with Pro Tools HD and large live sound or studio setups. There are three ways RedNet devices can be connected for DAWs: Pro Tools HD users can connect a RedNet 5 interface via its PT HD PCIe cards. For other DAW applications using ASIO or Core Audio interfaces, users can utilize the RedNet PCIe card. The last option (although with greater latency) is to use Audinate’s Dante Virtual Soundcard and plug directly into the computer Ethernet port. This is how I used the MP8R; it was my only option as a Pro Tools LE user. RedNet devices are typically configured to work with at least one device acting as the RedNet network master and the Pro Tools clock source, with the other devices converting analog to digital and then syncing through a network switch sending signal to the master device.
I took the MP8R to Trinity Moravian Church to record its Moravian Music Sunday. With the MP8R, I had eight mic pres on the 2U rack device. I decided to use it as a replacement for my other eight-channel interfaces I typically use for on-location recordings—a combination of Avid, Focusrite and MOTU units connecting via optical, FireWire and USB. The MP8R only replaced one of these units for eight channels of mic pres. When recording from analog lines off of a console or mic lines to recording position, this seems to work well as a replacement. With the unit and microphones on stage while my computer is conveniently in another location, it worked nicely to be able to run one Cat 5 cable instead of multiple mic lines through the house. The only issues I encountered were preamp control and monitoring. With the unit on stage, I had no preamp control via the unit; however, through RedNet Controller, you can control the gain remotely as well as phantom power and other pre-insert controls. Regardless, I was back to the preamp control snag: When using the MP8R for live sound, no one wants to adjust preamps in the computer when gain control is via the HA knobs on your console. Firmware updates for RedNet Controller have changed a few times in the last several months, making it hard to get my laptop (running Mac El Capitan OS) to recognize the RedNet Controller. I also had similar issues with my older laptop (running Lion OS) not being able to work with Dante Via.
I believe that technology is going to continue to move at lightning speed, forcing technicians and engineers to stay as current as possible on all of their software, operating systems, drivers and firmware—all while checking to make sure when updating one item that it does not destroy compatibility with something else. It’s sure to be a continuing battle.
Monitoring with the Bel Digital BM-A1-64 DANTE
The next task to tackle was monitoring, which is the same problem I was having when recording from the A&H GLD-80 M-Dante card to Pro Tools. At this point, I know that I need another piece of Dante hardware at the input monitoring section of the network. For Pro Tools HD users, the solution will be in the HD devices of the system—the PCIe cards, or the RedNet HD32R which bridges Dante and PT HD and offers 32 channels of input with word clocking. For Pro Tools LE users like me, the solution is a monitor device connected to the system that receives the same transmitter path I am recording. In my setup, I used the Bel Digital 64-channel confidence monitor. This monitor received a signal from my recording source and I was able to select individual channels or groups of channels. I could even set up presets with the group of channels I wanted to monitor. Also, I had volume control and could pan items, if desired.
Focusrite has recently released a monitor solution called the AM2. It connects into the network chain and gives headphone output in addition to line outputs and monitor control. There does not seem to be a way to solo channels on the hardware itself, but I imagine that the RedNet Controller would allow individual or grouped routing, or routing via Dante Controller. It’s a little inconvenient while using it for on-location recording. I see this being another personal monitor for on-stage use or studio use, replacing distribution products from folks like Furman or dbx. It seems monitoring is still something that Dante-serving manufacturers are addressing.
Multitrack On-Location Recording
With a Dante setup configured, I next took my gear to Hope Presbyterian Church and set up to multitrack a recording with a praise and worship band. The location was configured with a Yamaha LS9 and dbx monitor system. I wanted the performers to be able to use the in-ear system so I took the analog feed into the LS9 and rerouted it to my outputs. I then ran the mic lines directly into my stage box. Again, I slaved my A&H word clock to the external slot and my Dante Controller remembered the routing I had set up the day before to the confidence monitor as well as to the laptop running Pro Tools. Once everything was connected, I was able to do my magic. I have found that the more I do these setups, the quicker I become. We all know time is money and sound engineers don’t want to spend the whole sound check worrying about routing and synchronization; we just want to mix!
I view the Dante Controller like I/O settings in Pro Tools; once I create a session with all my preferences, starting a new session and pressing record happens quickly. With any new gear, there’s a learning curve and subsequent prep time. My goal is that this same level of prep time shortens with each event.
Because I was able to monitor my input sound, I was a much happier recording engineer, able to hear microphone bleed, compression and EQ. You know—all the important things!
Dante for Theater
Last year for two solid summer months, I found myself diving into my first installed Dante system at the North Carolina School of the Arts’ Stevens Center. It was running a Yamaha M7CL and began an upgrade integrating Dante into its system. With its first purchase, the Center installed a new d&b audiotechnik center speaker cluster and Focusrite RedNet to drive the cluster and amps: RedNet 1 (8 channel line input/output), RedNet 4 (8 channel mic preamps), two Dante slot cards for the M7 as well as Dante Virtual Sound Card and Dante Controller on a laptop.
During the first show on the new system, I immediately ran into some unpleasant situations. Because it was an upgrade that was being made in stages, the installers were only able to put RedNets on one side of the stage instead of both. This meant that all the lines on stage left were analog and all the lines stage right were digital. The other issue was, again, preamp control. I had no way to control the head amp in the Yamaha M7; it had to be adjusted from the unit itself or in the RedNet Controller—neither of which were convenient. For the shows, I ended up using the RedNets as outputs from the console only and used all analog runs for inputs. In the end, I used 40 channels of inputs, which had to be run through another analog mixer, and 12 channels of outputs back to the stage running all Dante. It wasn’t pretty but it worked!
This spring, I discovered that I could make a Yamaha Rio box work with the head amps of the M7. Because the next upgrade at the Stevens Center would be made in stages, the decision was to purchase a Rio 1608 and place it at stage left where there was no digital stage box. Unfortunately, there were many firmware and software updates that needed to be made. I spent a good bit of time updating the console, Dante controller, slot cards, virtual sound card, RedNet Controller and RedNets; some of these had to be updated more than once to be current. Once completed, I assigned the Rio a device ID and set it up in the system to allow head amp control from the console. In the controller, I routed the 16 inputs to Slot Card 1, channels 1-16 and the outputs from Slot Card 2 back to the Rio 1-8. I had to use the second Slot Card for returns because the first one was already set up to send to the center cluster RedNet box. This did not magically allow head amp control via Rio. Upon researching through Yamaha’s site, I learned to connect Slot Card 1 via the remote cable (a serial DB9 connector) to the console; slot Card 1 is the only one that will control head amps. Once this was done (and after searching all over town for a serial cable), I was up and running with head amp control. The external HA page showed my controls for the Rio and now I could see gain, phantom and HPF options on the individual channels—this was exciting!
Next, I set up the RedNet line outputs on stage right to be outputs 9-16 from the console. Because the Stevens Center only has mic lines running from the stage, I had to gender-bend the lines to use them for returns, thus eating up the already too few mic lines available on stage. By adding 16 channels of returns to the stage, I now have a ton of flexibility for shows.
At this time, the venue’s M7 does not have head amp control for the RedNets; the CL5 does, though! So, once the Stevens Center completes its sound system upgrade, it will be able to use the mic pres on the RedNet 4.
It all comes around full circle. The continued manufacturer support of Dante and offering drivers to connect to other manufacturer devices is key to Dante setups. Also key is someone understanding not just Dante routing, but IP addressing, networking and other IT skills to assist with Dante installations.
I am excited to see new Dante-enabled products coming out every day and happy to see more and more manufacturer support. The in-between transition for even large venues trying to migrate systems over to Dante is, honestly, a bit messy. Yet I look forward to a time when Dante is a standard in all digital systems.
Liz May is a live sound mixer, producer/engineer, educator and classically trained pianist now serving as Production Manager of Reynolds Auditorium in Winston-Salem NC. twitter.com/soundlizzard