IP Audio Forum 2024: Stand up and be heard

Warner Bros. Discovery senior sound manager Matt Thomas is at the sharp end of IP

Is it time for audio folk to take a stand? There was certainly a cry for the audio community to make themselves heard, if that’s not too drenched in irony, as SVG Europe Audio kicked off its 2024 programme of events last week.

More than 60 people attended the IP Audio Forum on 16 February, and the online discussion about the state of IP and how it is already empowering next generation audio (NGA) through Serial ADM was very much a tale of two halves.

Split into two sections, the first part of the event was a lively discussion about how different broadcasters are implementing IP networks into their workflows. With four manufacturers, an experienced network designer and an end user on the panel there was a range of different voices, and an even wider range of opinions.

While Dolby Laboratories’ senior staff architect, James Cowdery, Lawo’s head of marketing, Chris Scheck, Calrec senior product manager Pete Walker, and Tom Knowles, SSL director of product management are all actively helping broadcast customers implement IP into their facilities, other members of the panel were coming from the other direction.

Chris Goddard, a broadcast systems engineer who designed the UK’s first ever IP outside broadcast trucks back in 2016, and Warner Bros. Discovery senior sound manager Matt Thomas, are both at the sharp end of IP. They are both dealing with the real-life complexities of IP and despite its widespread adoption, there are still many to deal with.

On the up

The panel discussed what 2110 is good at, and what it is not; how Dante is everywhere, used as a gateway, a router and capable of providing quick, ad hoc IP networks; and how even when IP is being used live on air every day, it is still a work in progress.

But it is definitely on the increase, says Walker from Calrec: “We’ve already seen a lot of the bigger players who want IP to be a fundamental part of their infrastructure, but now we are seeing smaller customers in some of the emerging markets wanting IP to be at the heart of the facility.”

Meanwhile Lawo’s Scheck reminded the session that the German manufacturer has been working with IP for a long time. He noted: “We decided a long time ago that the broadcast world was waiting for an open and comprehensive standard and so everything we’ve built and installed for almost the last 10 years has been ST2110 compliant.”

But although it is gaining ground, implementation remains challenging, with most installations consisting of hybrid systems and utilising multiple gateway devices to connect all the elements together.

In the thick of it

“Fundamentally, it is simple,” said Goddard. “All devices are edge devices and there’s a switch in the middle. Just build it. But it the requirements for the system are never that straightforward and I’m still putting systems together that have many islands of different IP.”

And it is not just about having to connect islands; Discovery has been transitioning to IP for several years, and Thomas spoke about how other equipment exerts its influence on its ST2110 network.

“Audio consoles are generally quite flexible with regards to receivers, standards, numbers and channels,” he said, “but one of our biggest challenges is EVS because it only does 16 channel senders and receivers, so if we want to reduce DSP count on the desk we have to split it, and take it through another device, which adds latency.  These are the things that you come up against that you don’t realise and until you are actually in the thick of it.”

With many different interpretations, integrations and use cases IP is being used in countless ways, and one thing that everyone agreed on was its inherent flexibility. If there was an overriding theme, that was it.

Lots to do

Thankfully, Dolby Laboratories’ senior staff architect, James Cowdery, was on hand in the second part of the session to explain in a presentation how IP infrastructures are impacting the future of audio, and enabling elements of NGA such as personalisation that will add value for viewers in the future.

Intelligibility is still an issue in television, and there is a still a lack of choice for alternative audio services like dialogue enhancement for the hard of hearing and for neurodivergent viewers. Cowdery reminded the session that these are all user problems that NGA is set to address.

Combined with the development of Serial-ADM (S-ADM), the ST2110-41 standard for metadata – due to be published later this year – will evolve the listening experience for people at home, while technologies like ST2110, Dolby AC-4 and S-ADM are far more flexible so we should be able to use what we have already got today to solve any new challenges that arise. These flexible technologies are coming together to give us more options for the future.

Not enough

However, Cowdery added that not all is rosy, and that channel count raised its head once again. “For personalised and accessible use cases, that’s a lot of channels. We’ve been talking about stressing out legacy infrastructure and channel counts, but we need a description if we going to change things and get more flexibility in our audio format. I think it’s unlikely we’re ever going to see those extra 16 channels, so we’re stuck with the basic 16 and that’s really not good enough for NGA and you are soon hitting up against the limit.”

With things moving forward at such a rate, SSL’s Knowles noted: “In music, immersive formats have really gathered pace from a binaural end user perspective; like it or not, a lot of music and content is being consumed on headphones from a phone and binaural has become a major topic for music production. With binaural flagged as a component of S-ADM maybe what needs to happen is a multi-channel based approach of production that correctly feeds what a consumer might take on binaural so that we can plan authoring and encoding tools to fit those.”

Speak up

The session provided a good snapshot of where we are with IP, but crucially provided an insight into what needs to be done and maybe that the audio community could be a bit more vocal when it comes to demanding what it needs to fulfil its obligations to listeners.

“How many channels of audio do we actually need?,” asked chair Roger Charlesworth in conclusion. “When we’re planning to go forward, do audio people need to step up and say, “hey, by the way, I need more than 16 channels of audio”. Sixteen channels worked 20 years ago, but it doesn’t work now.”

Charlesworth concluded: “Do we need to standardise on a higher channel count for programming?”

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