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Optocore at 20: Rings around the world

Twenty years ago the first Optocore products were released and a networking technology odyssey began in earnest. Key personnel Marc Brunke and Tine Helmle take a trip down memory lane

“We are where we hoped we would be… it just took a little longer than I expected,” laughs Optocore founder Marc Brunke. “But when you are young you think that everything can happen quickly… I thought maybe I could do this in three years then go back to studying music again. It’s the folly of youth!”

But whilst Brunke still performs “every once in a while”, it is clear that music’s loss has been pro-audio’s gain – although it was his former life that provided the impetus for the entire Optocore project. Observing the challenges that a mixing engineer encountered with copper snakes when he was playing saxophone with his then-band led Brunke to wonder whether fibre optic might provide an effective replacement.

The initial 1993 patent was “really quite basic – just establishing the basics of the technology”, but a mere three years later the first Optocore products were ready to be brought to the market. The 8-channel A-D and D-A converter modules dubbed the ‘Brunke Modules’ were the first audio network systems to feature multiple nodes, with the first sales made to Polish Broadcast in advance of a Papal visit.

The decision to base Optocore products on established open standards (AES3 and AES10 (MADI) undoubtedly contributed to the technology’s growth over the ensuing seven years as the Germany-based team began to spread the word about its ability to provide transport, routing and format conversion, as well as distribution of audio, video and control data with management and diagnostic capabilities.

The LX4A stage unit was “among the first products to really put Optocore on the map,” suggests Brunke, although the next few years played host to a series of notable launches. These included the X6P 16-channel converters and – “entering the digital world” as the new millennium got underway – the DD32 I/O device.

The first “digital-only device in the range”, the DD32 could be used in conjunction with Optocore’s analogue X6 modules, as well as any other connector, console or third party equipment. The 1U unit – which was equipped with a dual 1Gbps full-bandwidth optical interface – quickly became a best-selling item in the Optocore range and ensured that the technology developer was well-placed to make a significant contribution to the then-nascent digital audio revolution.

Incorporation & implementation

By this time, the scope of the Optocore technology to “help with touring and remove the need to move masses of copper cabling around in trucks” meant that it had begun to establish a particularly notable niche in live sound. But two key developments in the 2002/03 period would serve to ramp up the entire Optocore project significantly. Firstly, mixing console giant DiGiCo decided to implement the native Optocore protocol for audio and control in their consoles and racks, making it possible to offer combined console and network in their systems. Secondly, the incorporation of Optocore GmbH took place, ushering in a more regimented approach to organisation and growth.

“The production aspect did not change much as that had always taken place in and around Munich, and continues to do so today,” says Tine Helmle, who was Optocore GmbH VP of sales and marketing from 2001 to 2012 and is now managing director of broadcast-oriented sister company BroaMan. “But we did secure some new investors as a result and were able to start building proper departments for marketing and sales, and overall the whole organisation of the company moved up to the next level.”

Subsequent years saw further refinement of the Optocore philosophy with introductions such as the R-Series hardware platform in 2009, which – among other improvements – led to a doubling of Optocore network capacity to 2GB. The company also continued to add new OEM clients, not least Clear-Com, with whom Optocore commenced a fruitful relationship when the US-based manufacturer elected to integrate Optocore technology into its ProGrid fibre-based infrastructure system.

With the technology now firmly established throughout live entertainment sectors, the team also acknowledged its appeal to a broadcast market evermore in thrall to the rock-solid nature of MADI connectivity with the creation of an entirely separate company, BroaMan.

“Our [existing] distributors were geared towards theatre and live sound, and the broadcast world is quite different, so it made sense to establish a separate company to cater to the demands of that network – something that we finally did in 2012,” says Brunke.

Get your kicks

Whilst the 20th anniversary has occasioned some well-earned reflection upon two decades of sustained growth, it is destined to be a very brief interlude given that the pace of R&D work continues to accelerate. Accordingly, Optocore/BroaMan’s presence at Prolight + Sound 2016 played host to several major product launches.

The upgraded Route66 video router from BroaMan – which now features Auto Routing and an intelligent fibre patch bay – has already found an inaugural customer in UK-based live sound provider Wigwam Acoustics, with Coldplay set to become the first user of the system when the European leg of its current world tour begins in Nice on 24 May. Underlining the diversity of the Optocore remit, Route66 is suitable for broadcast and installation as well as live events.

A new module, SANE-FX, was also highlighted with regard to its incorporation into speaker manufacturer Fohhn’s Linea Focus series. A SANE-FX module is mounted directly inside the Linea Focus housing, enabling direct fibre connection to the speaker.

The number of high-profile OEM clients to be announced has increased noticeably in recent years, and Brunke confirms that “adding more OEMs – really expanding our relationships in that area” remains an integral part of Optocore strategy. But he also draws attention to the organisation’s continued educational efforts and its ability to support clients on a 24/7 basis.

Whilst Brunke takes a light-hearted approach to PSNEurope’s question about whether the reality of today matches the expectations of 20 years ago, he concurs eagerly with Helmle’s more measured response. “I think we are in a great position now,” she says. “We have great partners, clients and projects worldwide. On the broadcast side, we have so many strong relationships – NBC and BBC to name just two – whilst our business in live sound remains strong and we continue to see installations in all manner of settings, from theatres to cruise ships.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we owe a lot of the success to the fact that the technology is so rock-solid and user-friendly. The products we make are also long-lasting and green thanks to their low power consumption; that’s a very important consideration. And whilst I feel that we do give something important to the industry, it is clear that the industry gives back to us too.”

Top pic: Marc Brunke in 2016. Middle pic: Brunke explains fibre technology at Prolight + Sound, 1996. Bottom: Tine Helmle, MD of BroaMan