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Opinion: audio networking

Audio networking is an under-used resource just waiting for adoption says Richard Northwood.

I was a very early adopter of audio networking, first using the technology in 1999. Speaking as someone who has been using it for over half my career, I find it strange that overall this technology is still only used on a minority of audio projects. If we discount the tiny, localised projects such as bars that may not need it, it seems that audio networking is only used on a small quantity of large projects; that leaves an awful lot of medium-sized projects. What is ironic is that many of these medium-sized projects probably have equipment installed that has networked audio ports of one flavour or another, but they are not being used.

The question I ask myself is why? But the answers are easy if you think about it.

One of the reasons why I am known in the industry is because I make systems work: when systems are large or complex, or when people have problems, I am there to make it happen. In many ways that part of my job shouldn’t exist anymore; the reason it does is because audio networking is still too difficult for most people.

We use audio networking because of the considerable advantages it offers – high-quality audio, interference-free signals, large channel counts, anywhere-to-anywhere signal patching and flexibility to expand and adapt relatively easily in the future.

For all the talk of standards and compatibility, audio networking still requires a great deal of thought and care. Even now I come across new issues all the time. We are still a long way from plug and play.

Manufacturers don’t seem to really think much about things beyond adding a network port to their products. The real on-site user experience needs far more work. We have long said that the industry doesn’t need more standards – it needs better software. I think that it is down to manufacturers to provide a lead here. We have rapidly become used to a world where software is free or costs next to nothing as it is funded by hardware or advertising sales. This makes it increasingly difficult for a third party to come in with some excellent ‘digital glue’ to make our life easier.

Another area is that of compatibility. I’ve used most of the audio networking protocols and they all have their advantages and disadvantages; but we’ve never been able to make them work together. When we carry out a project we have to decide at the beginning what protocol we will use and then we are stuck with that decision for a very long time. The only alternative has been to convert to an intermediate format such as analogue, AES3 or MADI and then convert to the other networked audio protocol you wish to use.

However, there is now AES67, which is not an audio protocol but an interoperability standard. It allows some of the newer audio protocols to communicate with each other. Some data is lost, but the key audio information can be transferred between different audio devices. This inevitably means I have more to learn, but it will be worth it as it will lead to more robust solutions for my clients, with greater longevity.

This opens up the possibility of having a much wider choice of products to choose from and more confidence that you can connect different systems together, both now and in the future. This is still in its early days and the same issue of ease of implementation still applies.

To date I’m unaware of a true multi-protocol multi-manufacturer AES67 installation actually in the field. Who knows – we might be the first? If we are, we will report back on what was involved in taking that route and how successful it was. If you have already done this please let me know: I’d love to hear from you.

Richard Northwood is a consultant at RH Consulting. He was talking to Phil Ward.