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How AV is igniting live business events

Phil Ward explores the ever-more complex world of AV in live events

Now more than ever, people love an event. Starved of them this year, there can be no doubt that next year the events industry will bounce back like the echo from the Big Bang. Things will have changed, but the core task of interpreting a brief will remain at the heart of the business.

Take this mission statement from JR Event Services: “The company was founded with an overriding aim of taking a client’s vision and turning it into reality. We strive to work in synergy with our clients – advising, assisting, communicating and collaborating to achieve the desired outcome.” The market could not be more diverse – from Pride In London, a regular JR gig, to a Red Arrows display at the seaside; VE Day Commemorations in Trafalgar Square; or an ‘eccentric’ Devon bonfire night tradition involving the manhandling of heavy tar barrels. Set alight.

True, not many of these events will require object-based, immersive sound reinforcement. Yet. But a market is emerging that asks for the ego of its multinational corporations to be matched by their business events – with immersive audio just one of the  industry’s many new toys to play with. It demands that established pro audio and video interfaces with established business AV, and these are very different worlds. As they come together, a new frontier beckons.

Italian jobs
The networking options keep  growing. Adamson has launched the CS-Series as a networked upgrade to its S-Series loudspeakers, with onboard amplification, DSP and Milan-ready AVB connectivity. The spread of the other Italian-flavoured connectivity is best revealed by this statement by Mike Newman, sales and marketing Manager at Void Acoustics: “All of our electronics is partnered with Powersoft, so that drives our integration into networks and the use of Dante audio. Fundamentally we’re on that Dante train. Wherever that goes – integration with video, for example – it will take us with it.”

The mention of video opens Pandora’s Box. Five years ago Harman acquired AV over IP pioneer SVSi and incorporated the brand into AMX. Shortly before this Massachusetts-based ZeeVee Inc entered the same market and quickly established itself in Software Defined Video Over Ethernet (SDVoE), with uncompressed, real-time video at the top of the application tree. The question for entertainment technology is: how uncompressed does uncompressed have to be?

“This industry is a funny thing,” says ZeeVee president and CEO Bob Michaels. “HDBaseT, which answered a demand for uncompressed video, remains the dominant technology for signal distribution and for over a decade uncompressed video has been touted as the only acceptable approach. Video over IP becomes mainstream and suddenly latency is acceptable – largely because some companies began to make products for existing 1Gb/s networks and, of course, compression was required to suit their products and take advantage of existing infrastructure. Fair enough, but new installations of Cat-5e are a thing of the past and a minimum of 10Gb/s is becoming normal, as the need for exactness is more pressing than ever.”

Especially, as Michaels points out, when VIP audiences at a football match miss a goal twice because of the latency of the supporting AV: the crowd erupts; guests finally turn away from the screens to the pitch; then turn back to the screens seconds after the ‘live’ action has been broadcast. It’s not a problem at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium,  with ZeeVee’s SDVoE ZyPer4K encoders and decoders offering uncompressed 4k AV at less than a millisecond of latency.

“Some 1Gb/s solutions claim pixel-for-pixel perfection and zero latency, which is nonsense,” adds Rob Muddiman, ZeeVee’s EMEA sales director. “You can’t compress a signal from 8Gb to 800Mb without losing something and adding latency. Furthermore, most customers don’t want huge bandwidth on their 1Gb/s networks, so a parallel network dedicated to video is necessary anyway. This is where the ‘exploit the existing Ethernet’ argument falls to the ground.”

Under the boardroom
If live events need 10Gb/s networks or greater, pro audio will need to follow if it is to fulfil its destiny in commercial applications. There is some way to go. Even market leader QSC, so far, has only one video endpoint native to the Q-Sys ecosystem – the 1Gb/s NV-32H – and it’s designed for meeting rooms rather than event production. In general, the video industry regards pro audio as an outside source, connected at the point where the production needs that level of expertise and, usually, introducing yet another network. Furthermore, the growing need for the broadcasting and/or streaming of live events introduces an insurmountable bottleneck, as Georg Thingbø, CTO at global AV provider Kinly, points out. “At that stage you have to compromise,” he says. “You have to go to narrow bandwidth, choose the right codecs and get the best possible quality. Putting on an event is a skill. It’s about the placement of cameras, lighting,  acoustics, microphones. In the AV space we don’t traditionally have those skills. That’s where the pro guys come in, so we can get the right blend of people, process and technology.”

By ‘process’ Thingbø means staging, scripting and directing, and selecting equipment for both speech and music as required. For this level of production, Kinly would usually engage a third-party supplier – “with the exception of Benelux,” Thingbø adds.    

Interestingly, this dimension is as a result of Kinly’s acquisition of MK2 Audiovisueel and its event integration expertise. In this age of corporate consolidation, it’s hard not to imagine further aggregations of event, cloud management and AV support businesses, who share the common goals of delivering the finest events precisely tailored to the widening range of customer requests.Technically, the network requirements remain separate.

Thingbø confirms that the pro audio and video at an event have different criteria to what he calls the business audio and video at the same event, so the crucial factor is the interface between them. “Normally we take an output from the pro guys,” he says. “We try to avoid SDI if we can get something more cost-effective, like HDMI or a stream. For the business systems it’s more about distribution, over the internet or throughout the company. This means compressing the video and audio and ensuring we have sync between them when it’s compressed, and getting accurate content displays alongside this traffic.”

White nights
The business and technical dimensions to all this collaboration should not detract from the overriding creative vision needed for a strong live event. It should not be forgotten that the endpoint of any streamed production is likely to be the weak consumer outputs of smartphones and laptops.

“As much as we think we should be broadcasting in 8k and Dolby Atmos, people are not sat in front of a 50-inch plasma screen with surround sound,” says White Light’s head of business development, Lee Dennison. “Of course, we expect  broadcasters to capture content at the highest resolution, because when we can experience the audio and visual protocols in their fullest we sit in amazement. But most consumers are viewing through multiple-size screens, audio sources that are either free, cheap or average and on shared home Wi-Fi streams that don’t always deliver what’s promised.

“So, this means that as broadcasters we have to come back a stage and concentrate on the content. It has  to be engaging enough to keep people on board: multiple camera angles; maybe elements of augmented reality; and audible speech.”

This last criterion may seem frivolous but is perhaps the most mission critical. “It’s still a major problem,” says Dennison, “whether it’s live music in a stadium or spoken word in a theatre. You have to hear what’s being said. If you can’t get that right, everything else is irrelevant.”

Let’s hope the ‘business’ AV industry does not see the encroaching demands of good production as rolling towards them like a burning barrel. But if it fails to grasp its value, fingers will be burned.