SportTech 2015: Audio consoles and the evolution of OB facility design

IP-based networks for video production was a major theme at SportTech 2015, but audio production is already taking the IP route — although the way ahead is not yet clear. Some of those asking for IP “don’t understand that integration of audio over IP is not so simple,” said Peter Glaettli, Director of Engineering/R&D, Studer and Soundcraft, and it is still very much in development. “We have to live with heterogeneous systems,” using varied technologies.

“There is a widespread awareness of [AoIP and AES67], but there isn’t a very deep knowledge,” agreed Patrick Warrington, Technical Director, Calrec Audio. “People are interested, and quite excited by some of the possibilities […], but the prevailing opinion is one of caution.”

While he believes that the people involved with AES67 “have done a wonderful job”, it is not a complete solution. “It really just deals with the transport level of AoIP. It just defines a way in which a number of AoIP standards can interoperate. What is missing is the definition of a mandatory discovery, enumeration, connection management and control mechanism (DECC). Without this, it is perfectly possible that someone can take two perfectly legitimate AES67 devices and put them on a network and they’ll just remain completely oblivious to one another,” requiring users to manually make the connection.

“If you’ve got any kind of dynamic routing need in your operation, and if you’re running an OB truck it is absolutely dynamic […], then that kind of manual management of the system is probably not practical, and what’s needed is some globally understood management mechanism” that uses a single application to manage all the end points on a network. “That is needed before we can say AES67 is a complete solution.”

Lawo International Sales head Rainer Kunzi disagreed. At the AES67 Plugfest recently he said that devices from different manufacturers were all working together (even if a few tweaks were needed). “We have a standard. Let’s do it. Let’s sit together. Let’s fix it. Let’s get it done, so that things can plug and work. We just need to have the guts to follow the route we have been given,” he said. It doesn’t have the final functionality, “but I can get it working, and I’m not technical.”

However, Glaettli insisted that “the management of the essence is step number one, and this we’ve kind of achieved, but without the metadata the value is nothing,” and he feels that the development of AES67 is similar to that of MXF, which took 15 years. He believes that the “big savings for broadcasters will come from combining workflows.”

“The main thing is to get the standard operational between all the different products,” said Kunzi. “If we are on that level, we will get acceptance.” When MADI was introduced there were versions from different manufacturers, but once they came together it was possible to make them all interoperate. “Just get the standards implemented, get native products out with it, and not with gateways,” he insisted.

MADI is still in widespread use, and will also have to co-exist with IP for several years, according to Warrington, as there “will be a gradual uptake for AoIP.”

He wants the industry to either add DECC to AES67, or adopt “the perfectly credible DECC portion of the Ravenna protocol stack or the Audinate protocol stack.” But even if this happens, he still sees problems for broadcasters in getting the IP infrastructure right. While a small network is relatively simple, “it is a different matter to build an IT infrastructure that carries hundreds or thousands of audio streams, some of which are live to air, and possibly carry video as well, and synchronisation, and maybe cope with offline file transfers,” etc. “That requires very careful planning and training before anybody should attempt that.”

One of the problems Glaettli is seeing with Soundcraft on tour is that there isn’t enough experience in setting up the IP session on stage, so if something isn’t working it is difficult to find out what it is. Where, previously, it was relatively simple to check out the audio chain from microphone to fader to spot what was wrong, there aren’t yet the simple tools to do the same for an IP-based system. “You don’t want to have IP specialists on tour or for broadcast,” he said.

State of the market

Broadcasters are asking for more, for less. “Investments per console have dropped over the last few years, but more consoles are being made,” said Kunzi. At the high end of OB production, where users need to produce extra content for red button services, IP streaming or for second screens, “all this requires more channels and output busses, and bigger and more powerful consoles”, said Warrington.

But, at the low end, “there is a very strong downward pressure on production costs. They simply can’t afford to buy a huge Lawo, Calrec or Studer console. But, they still want to buy something with broadcast specific features.” Glaettli added: “In small broadcast vans, they don’t even specify broadcast consoles. A little mixer does the job. There are no broadcast features required anymore.”

Like the rest of the OB business, the level of investment fluctuates regularly, with more spent coming up to the Olympics and World Cups, he said, so this is a down year.

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