Tech Focus: Remote Audio Consoles, Part 1 — The Future Is in IT

For years, the audio console was the center of the universe in music recording. Individual rooms within large facilities would become tropes of the brand or model installed in them, differentiating the “Neve room” from the “9K room” regardless of the more prosaic “Studio A” or “Studio B” nomenclature most facilities defaulted to. For better or for worse, that has changed substantially, with distressed budgets moving music production from battleship consoles into the “box,” as the software-based virtual mix environment has come to be known.

What has changed in music, however, has not changed in broadcast: the mix desk remains the center of focus aboard remote trucks, its physicality truncated slightly by the inevitable transition to virtual layers but still offering the tactile real estate that A1s continue to demand.

Nonetheless, the audio console continues to evolve in broadcast, including in its relationship to everything around it. One major trend of the past year has been its becoming a node on larger networks, beyond the proprietary ecosystems that manufacturers have created to both streamline workflow and keep customers within it.

What has compelled this has been the arrival of new audio-networking propositions, such as Audinate’s Dante and the Ravenna platforms, as well as the AES67 standard that offers the promise of wider interoperability between products from different manufacturers.

“AES67 lets everything occupy common ground. It’s given [audio-over-]IP a huge boost,” says Calrec Marketing Manager Kevin Emmott. “Committing to a single format for networking is risky for customers, so we support them all, and AES67 gives us cross-format interoperability.”

He adds that, as a result, Calrec’s own networking system, Hydra2, is complementary to protocols like Dante and Ravenna, allowing communication with other manufacturers’ platforms but continuing to permit Hydra to offer such specifics as remote phantom power and signal-management control between the console and stage/field boxes.

Hydra2, a proprietary network, was launched in 2009, before development of the current crop of networking systems. The way Hydra2 interfaces with Dante, for instance, according to Emmott, is by creating a gateway to the Hydra2 network.

“Dante comes in via a Dante card in the Calrec modular I/O box and is converted to Hydra2,” he explains. “That way, it sits on the Hydra2 network and enjoys all the same benefits: low latency, determinism, capacity, port protection, alias files, virtual patch bays, access rights, and so on.”

The Sprinter Model Emerges
In an era that has seen the rise of the regional sports network and the proliferation of college sports networks, trucks are becoming both more numerous and smaller. Outfitted to carry a couple of cameras and scaled-down video and graphics equipment, so-called Sprinters — named for the midsize passenger/cargo van built by Mercedes-Benz — allow small networks to deploy powerful technology and big networks to put a basic production complement onsite and direct it from the plant, a strategy ESPN has been refining with its “at-home” approach.

This new generation of OB van requires powerful audio-mixing capability but in a compact form factor. That’s creating opportunities for console manufacturers to establish a presence in this growing broadcast niche, and both Yamaha and Soundcraft have been seen there.

But the more established players are also eyeing it. DiGiCo’s brand-new S21, introduced at the Prolight+Sound expo in Germany in March, meets the criteria: it uses a touchscreen user interface to layer up to 10 channel strips on each of its two screens, providing 24 mic line inputs and 21 touch-sensitive moving faders, for $7,000.

“The only way to address this new part of the market was with a new product,” says Chris Fichera, VP, audio, Group One, the North American distributor of DiGiCo (which now collaborates with Calrec and Allen & Heath through a joint venture announced last year).

According to Emmott, Calrec has been looking at how its recently introduced Summa desk can fit into this trend. Pac-12 Networks has acquired several of them for remote production of secondary sports, such as women’s water polo.

“As an industry, we’ll be seeing more of that,” he points out. “It won’t affect how they cover the big events, but smaller, more affordable consoles combined with networked remote-production techniques will let us see more and more minority sports on television.”

No SHARCS in These Waters?
Looking further into the audio console’s future, Studer Senior Sales Manager Mike Franklin expects the switch to a PC-type CPU-based architecture and away from the SHARC-based DSP model, as seen in the latest iterations of Studer’s Vista V and Vista X versions, to bring the console closer to convergence with IT management models. He says the shift, which allows multiple work surfaces to interact with multiple processing frame cores, is part and parcel of the parallel migration to networked signal transport.

“It’s another step in that convergence,” he says. “The thing is, even we can’t imagine all of the future uses for this model; they’re just beginning to reveal themselves. But it’s part of the process of migrating to an IT paradigm. It’s the process everyone is in the middle of right now.”

Click here for Tech Focus: Remote Audio Consoles, Part 2 — Product Wrap-Up

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