This article originally appeared in the October, 2017 issue of Pro Sound News. Innovations is a monthly column where different pro audio manufacturers are invited to discuss the thought-process behind creating their products of note.
In 2009, the 700 MHz DTV transition was in full force, causing significant operational disruption and expense to licensed wireless microphone users, especially broadcasters who needed many channels of wireless microphones to handle increasing demands for content creation. That reality created a necessity that demanded invention. Microphone maker Audio-Technica began looking at alternative frequency bands and variants on currently deployed technologies to meet the immediately obvious needs of their customers, and to prepare for the further changes that loomed threateningly on the horizon.
Representing Audio-Technica, I attended a Vitec Group Tech Forum that year and spoke about a number of our broadcast-oriented products and our technology innovations, including our new ultra-wideband wireless conference microphone system—the original A-T UWB system, a license-free, plug-and-play, secure digital wireless system. At the forum, I was invited to see how wireless microphones were being used at Belmont Park race track for the last leg of the Triple Crown races. Walking the Belmont Park grounds, and taking in the size of the venue, I realized that the original UWB product implementation wasn’t up to the task—and that was the beginning of an idea that I took back home to our R&D team.
By 2010, we had patented two ideas as a result of that visit: HD Wireless—a method for operating many simultaneous channels of wireless microphones in a small amount of spectrum—and Multiple Coordinated Wireless Receivers—a method by which we could create a specific coverage area, or mesh, of coordinated distributed receivers to allow expansion of our use of the UWB/digital wireless technology into an entirely different class of operation and coverage.
Two years of labwork to implement these new methods followed. In early 2012, it was time to conduct field tests as the next-generation, ultra-wideband wireless microphone system prototypes were ready to be unveiled, and ready to be tested in actual professional venues. We were able to prove that our new ideas worked in large venues, in broadcast studios, outdoors and under a number of different conditions—so well, in fact, that we decided we should continue to develop and refine it into a specific product.
Later in 2012, Audio-Technica began the process of creating a specific product definition for a professional-level wireless microphone system based upon its 6.5 GHz Ultra-wideband experience and additional technology innovations. The obvious first goal was to create a system completely immune to the spectrum auctions and densification affecting existing wireless systems that operate via legacy technology. Additional system goals included easy set-up and operation, yet with a highly flexible and comprehensive control and feature list spanning the demands of the full gamut of wireless applications. The feature specification included the ability to handle a high simultaneous channel count with very low latency, uncompromised and uncompanded audio performance, and high reliability. The system needed to be neither a source of or exhibit susceptibility to interference to or from other gear. The system requirements further included operational compatibility with various types of digital audio equipment or formats, including AES67 and AoIP.
After the first professional UWB product definition was created, we got down to serious design and prototyping in the summer of 2013. During this phase, we had access to a large professional broadcast facility and its technical staff so that we could ask questions and conduct experiments in an actual performance and operating environment that perfectly matched the system’s expected application.
One year later, the A-T team was prepared with a fully-working prototype based upon their definition and development work. We were able to install the system and confirm 24 simultaneous channels of full RF coverage in a very large sports broadcasting studio in less than a day. Over the course of the next year, a number of live sound and broadcast industry professionals tested and commented on our successes—and failures—with the prototypes. We went back to the drawing board a number of times for upgrades and adjustments—each time resulting in a system with more stable operation and additional features that made it more reliable, easier to operate and more flexible.
The UWB wireless system we developed is based upon a highly modular and redundant system of internal building blocks all managed by a number of patented firmware innovations. That approach allowed the development team to stay flexible, adjusting operating and performance factors based upon user input. Our broadcast and live consultants helped our team maintain the laser-focus required to successfully develop a technology solution that had never been tried. They pushed us to attempt more and better designs. In fact, our work was so cutting-edge that some of our schedule was determined by having to wait for production versions of the beta FPGA and other parts we had used for prototypes. There is nothing as satisfying as the opportunity to try something out in a challenging actual setting to motivate engineers to go above and beyond their previous comfort zones and expand their knowledge base.
In order to best address the rapidly changing interoperability, workflow and spectrum demands for top-tier of professional applications, Audio-Technica US created a new subsidiary company, Alteros, to manufacture the new system and to continue developing additional tools that allow high-end broadcast, live and theater users to take advantage of advanced technologies while maintaining wireless operations without risk of interference or the effects of densification.
The Alteros GTX system, which shipped this summer, provides up to 24 channels of license-free, interference-free, 48 kHz/24-bit networked audio in a single 3U rack package, and no frequency coordination is needed. The GTX system immediately “cleans up” spectrum when used in a high channel count or dense spectrum. In fact, utilizing 24 channels of GTX UWB microphones will clear more than a full TV-channel’s worth of bandwidth, which will then be available to other wireless devices for use in the area.
The GTX Ultra Wideband Wireless Microphone System is a stunning technology achievement accomplished in a very limited timeframe. We pushed the envelope in response to the loud and clear message from top industry collaborators: Develop new wireless tools that will avoid risky spectrum problems and provide secure operation in rapidly evolving environments. We created a wireless for the future, but will not stop there. We intend to continue listening to industry experts to provide the best possible solutions for future success.
Jackie Green is president and CTO of Alteros.