Digital audio networking not only connects devices, it also connects professional communities – communities that hitherto were segregated by analogue discreteness. Everything and everybody is on board, and you can see the gravitational pull of these market forces in the orbital tumult of a packed Integrated Systems Europe.
Such previously isolated groups range from FOH sound engineers and theatre sound designers to system integrators in conferencing and event producers in the corporate sector. All have understood the mission-critical capture and delivery of time-aligned audio, but now the means of production are the same: as Brad Price, senior product manager at Audinate, sums it up, “Special routers or repeaters are obsolete, as all signals are always available on the network and may be sent to a nearly unlimited number of endpoints.”
Just like Coldplay’s Dan Green, integrators are able to deploy mics and speakers exactly where necessary, but more cheaply. And thanks to the software, the reconfiguration or resetting of any system for almost any use is only a few clicks away.
The democracy of the technology is like a revolution: it doesn’t happen overnight, and as it does happen the original goalposts are moved many times over. The people involved adjust more slowly, but in Amsterdam we will once again see pro audio setting up camp in the promised land of AV. It will be most welcome.
Mike Breen, head of systems integration at Media Powerhouse, the AV solutions provider for ‘live events and internal spaces’, is typical of the AV industry bedrock encountering new offers – well aware of the need to import some more heavy-duty pro audio kit.
“As soon as audio scales to larger rooms with multiple microphone elements and speakers, software processing alone can really struggle,” he says. “This is where the audio DSP comes into play. Like the sound engineer tweaking parameters to ensure a PA is performing optimally before and during a show, the audio DSP fulfils a similar function – a good DSP can feature complex AEC algorithms, automatic noisegating, matrix mixing and full gain control to deliver the best audio possible.
“Coupled with this is the need for good quality microphones, amplifiers and speakers. The DSP can only manipulate what it’s given – if the signal going into the system is mangled, it’ll be mangled coming out. And if the amplifiers and speakers aren’t of good quality, they can actively introduce issues into a nice clean signal like hum and distortion.”
Another thing about networking is that equivalent end-points can be totally elsewhere – video conferencing rooms, by definition, don’t exist in isolation. “Just because one room has a well-designed system with a good quality DSP and associated hardware, the far-end destination may not and the call quality can be compromised,” Breen points out. “Clearly, clients can’t influence external attendees and their room setups, but we would stress how important it is to standardise setups across an estate to ensure that intra-company communication is the best it can possibly be.
“Despite all of the above, clients can be surprised by the need for high-end hardware and the costs involved in delivering a robust, consistent audio experience – it’s not the simple plug and play that is so often promised – and the onus is very much on us as system integrators to inform and educate in this regard.”
THE NETWORK CONNECTION
So system integrators are coming to appreciate pro audio. The final hurdle to the marriage that would be blessed by ISE is the network integration of audio and video, and the portents are there: the strategic alliance between QSC and Wyrestorm that unites Wyrestorm’s Network HD encoders with Q-Sys; Harman’s acquisition of AMX, placing AMX’s SVSi family of professional video management systems under the same corporate roof as HiQnet and BLU link; Biamp’s pioneering TesiraLUX audio-plus-video encoder using AVB; and AV network technology specialist Visionary Solutions Inc’s PacketAV Duet, billed as “the first platform to deliver Dante connectivity for video”.
Enabling the routing of video via the Dante Controller software, 4K UHD signals can be combined with Dante audio over Gigabit Ethernet, avoiding switches and promising compatibility with most IP networks already installed. “It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Dante, AVB or AES67,” says Adam Holliday of Bose Professional. “But one of them needs to be adopted as the audio component by the video industry. That’s when we’ll see all of the advantages being taken.”
Meanwhile Audinate, the home of Dante, has of course already launched Dante AV and its time-aligned delivery of audio and compressed video over a single network. According to Brad Price, the value of audio to the AV experience cannot be overstated and probably explains this opening of the floodgates to professional audio at ISE. “Human beings are intensely visual,” he admits, “meaning audio generally takes a back seat to visuals, leading some to think that audio quality can be ignored or reduced in importance when compared to video. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“While audiences can enjoy both audio and video under sub-optimal delivery conditions, audio often delivers the words people must clearly understand in a time-linear fashion. Interruptions or significant distortions can easily create annoying gaps in that understanding, quickly becoming stressful or intolerable. A simple real-world example from the not-so-distant past is over-the-air analogue television. Many recall watching hours of programming with horribly compromised video. But, the generally clear audio made the shows easy to follow and enjoy.
“Audio in video programming is not only used to convey speech, but it also communicates everything from humour and joy to fear and danger via the use of sound effects and music. Whatever system delivers a high-quality AV experience for viewers and listeners must render these elements with sufficient accuracy and impact to match the intentions of the content creators. The alternative is often flat, uninspiring or simply unintelligible.”
While the 100-plus professional audio brands at ISE gaze upon their new settlement, the natives are restless – with anticipation. Regular visitors from AV will continue to encounter audio solutions they either didn’t know about – like the production director of New York digital art space ArTecHouse, who last year accidentally discovered L-ISA – or have set out at the show to add to their increasingly sophisticated multimedia solutions.
“Years ago you would often get comments about the poor quality of the sound, but that very rarely happens nowadays”: Chris Richards, Jack Morton Worldwide
Chris Richards is director of technical services at Jack Morton Worldwide – the event marketing expert now exploiting the creativity of live experiences for the good of the marketing portfolio and the stimulation of brand advocates. “At shows like ISE, everything is based around the impact of video, and we haven’t done enough about the audio dimension to events,” Richards says. “I’m very interested in the new generations of desks, speakers and digital multicores, and particularly networking – which interlinks everything. Each supplier has its own flavour-of-the-month products, but everyone expects hi-fi audio.
“Years ago you would often get comments about the poor quality of the sound, but that very rarely happens nowadays. The key to it is the intelligibility of vocal presentations, and given the quality of pro audio microphones, radio microphones, types of capsule and their processing we’ve gone leaps and bounds in terms of what we’re able to achieve now. It is a whole new landscape.”
Richards considers it his mandate to deliver these qualities to his customers, and is in a position to specify bold new audio initiatives if they offer a creative edge. “I’m from a video background, where there’s a lot of emphasis on media servers, LED, projection and so on. That’s of interest, but I do think we’ve been missing a trick. Somebody from a sister agency mentioned the other day that they wanted ‘interactivity’ at an event they were doing based on shipping containers, so I looked into it and discovered a theatre group offering binaural audio together with VR. Now, I used binaural audio back in 2005, but pro audio has moved on so much with immersive solutions such as L-ISA, Soundscape and TiMax – really useful stuff that doesn’t need expensive software to set up.
“Given the opportunity to come up with something slightly different, it’s always a good thing to take it. If we can apply technology to solve a problem, to achieve an effect the client wants, I’m happy that we go out and find that supplier. It doesn’t need to be within our existing supply chain because they don’t all have that specialist knowledge, and now’s the time to step it up.”
Jack Morton Worldwide is now among the interested parties attending, say, an L-ISA demo in Highgate or putting on workshops at the company’s HQ in order to open up the possibilities that pro audio offers to a wider audience. The agency has also recently reviewed the SARA II Premium Rendering Engine from Astro Spatial Audio and has used d&b audiotechnik’s Soundscape at an event. In so doing, an event specialist in AV is actively bringing audio to the foreground, fully aware of the advances in technology that will benefit the business. No wonder pro audio is getting on with the new neighbours in Amsterdam – and next year, Barcelona.