Forgotten stepchild: Telos Alliance questions whether audio is getting left behind again in the cloud production race

By Martin Dyster, vice president of business development, Telos Alliance

For those of us intrepid souls who have made a career in broadcast audio, we’ve often felt like we are the forgotten stepchild of the industry. Whether it is the division of the capital equipment budget for a new project, or a drive towards a new technology that will revolutionise the industry, audio has often seemed to be viewed as less important than video somehow.

Thankfully, for those of us in the know, we have contented ourselves with the knowledge that we are part of an exclusive club, and that what we do and what we represent is more challenging and exciting, and that therefore the industry cannot function without us. Our day will arrive, our ship will come in!

Evolution versus investment

The pandemic (yes, that again) has highlighted yet another disparity between the evolution and investment in audio with respect to video production technology, notably that of cloud-based solutions. No sector has felt this more acutely in the last two years than sports production, which admittedly had already accepted that remote working, or REMI, is a permanent part of its future, but in turning to the cloud has found that audio has been largely forgotten.

While there is undoubtedly amazing technology from multiple vendors out there for acquiring video content, processing it, mixing it, editing, branding, storing and ultimately delivering it to the consumer, all via the cloud, only a few of these workflow elements can be adequately satisfied using the cloud-based audio tools that are out there right now. There’s not quite nothing available – and what does exist can be very good – but there isn’t much. And to be fair, it’s because we got caught napping. If we saw it coming, we ignored the signs and now we are playing catch up.

As many of you know, audio systems designed for remote production have tended to be built around existing hardware that has been adapted so that subsystems can be separated and acquisition, processing and delivery can be handled from geographically diverse locations. Microphones in the stadium can be faded up in a control room on the other side of the world while a commentator is sat in their kitchen in another country, providing an alternative language feed of the game to an audience on another continent.

Admittedly, this is an impressive feat, but it still relies on physical processing and hardware control surfaces as well as high speed connectivity between each piece of kit. So, imagine if you will that the entire processing back end of the console was virtualised and deployed in the cloud, with the control surface a remote control (software, hardware, or a combination of the two) that can be operated from anywhere via internet or VPN connectivity, with low latency audio streamed between locations, monitoring, and processing it using any computer of suitable device that you may have at hand.

Heading in the same direction

Also consider the case of communications. Traditionally, a talkback system has comprised a hardware matrix with associated operator stations, four-wire audio connections and peripheral devices that connect to many other audio subsystems. This model has adapted over the years to make it easy to remotely connect panel users to the central core using VoIP or AoIP but deploying such a system for remote production still requires a central point that everything connects back to.

It works well, but it is far from efficient and like the mixing console analogy, it is not an agile solution that aligns well with cloud production practises and the move towards a less hardware-centric world.

Removing the need for a hardware processing core, giving the options to deploy virtual panels instead of physical and recreating the rest of the system virtually, aligns perfectly with the concept described in the previous paragraph, and fits with the direction video production has been heading for several years.

Virtualised audio and communications solutions undoubtedly represent a significant shift in business focus for manufacturers whose heritage is in hardware solutions, and this might help to explain why those that have entered the space have tended to be more software-focussed operations who are less well-known to the TV industry, smaller stat ups who recognise an opportunity and have reacted quickly, or companies who have traditionally operated in the video sector and are expanding their remit.

None of the brand names who are more well-known have broken ranks yet, but we can be certain that there is ongoing development work happening behind the scenes that will become apparent soon.

Shifting audio gears

It is an exciting time to be involved in the broadcast audio industry as technology shifts gear once more. We’re not racing away from hardware at breakneck speed, but the wheels are certainly turning and gathering momentum. No sector in broadcast challenges us more than live sports where high productions values and the sheer volume of content produced, inspires, and drives innovation and evolution across so many parts of our industry. There are many technical challenges ahead if we are to shift closer to a world of virtualised solutions that matches the capability of the ‘traditional’.

However, the many commercial benefits such as ease of deployment, OPEX versus CAPEX expenditure, as well as being better suited to an uncertain world if we must live with the current health related limitations for the foreseeable future, makes audio production in the cloud too compelling to ignore.

Finally, none of this is going to work if each company operates in a vacuum. It is increasingly important that companies with shared interests in cloud technology solutions seek out one another and forge symbiotic partnerships. It is also imperative that we work more closely with content producers and broadcasters to develop products that are rounded, fit for purpose, and based around standards and not proprietary protocols that are bound by restrictive practises.

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