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It is Time to Adopt IP for Audio

The inevitable merging of computer networking technology and audio distribution has arrived. Now is a good time to re-examine the assumptions and concerns that are holding some professionals back from choosing audio over IP solutions, as decisions made today will affect their facilities and clients for years to come.

Introduction
Commercial and broadcast audio is at a crossroads. The inevitable merging of computer networking technology and audio distribution is here; networked audio has matured into robust and capable systems poised to rapidly eclipse what came before. The broadcast industry has been using IP for several years in its workflow for storage and post-production and is now recognizing the benefits to IP distribution for the audio for production. As such, it is a good time to re-examine the assumptions and concerns that are holding some professionals back from choosing audio over IP solutions, as decisions made today will affect their clients for years to come.

Available products
Whether you are dealing with a “green field” facility or retrofitting an existing studio or production truck, one of the challenges in the past was the availability of enough audio-network capable products in key product categories to fully realise the benefits of audio networking.

The product landscape has changed dramatically in the last 24 months, as there are now over 800 IP networked audio products available on the market, with Dante audio networking incorporated in more than 60% of these products. Dante is the only solution that is available in all product categories, allowing specification of complete end-to-end systems from microphones to loudspeakers across multiple brands with guaranteed interoperability.

Dante has rapidly become the global leader for audio over IP networked solutions adopted by over 235 manufacturers. A few of the Dante licensees in broadcast segment include intercom manufacturers from BoschRTS or Delec, consoles from companies like CalrecStuderYamahaSolid State LogicSalzbrennerRolandDan Dugan, Allen & Heath, DiGiCo, and AEQ, matrix routers and MADI I/O convertors from FocusriteStagetecSSLNTP Technology, Digital Audio Denmark, GhielmettiEvertz, DHD-Audio and Jünger Audio, microphones from SennheiserShure and AKG, recording solutions from Sound DevicesAaton Digital, and NewTek, or IFB and commentary units from Studio Technologies and Glensound.

Manufacturers have also risen to the challenge of integrating Dante with existing systems, so older equipment can remain a vital part of modern broadcast facilities. Many mixers, routers, intercom systems and amplifiers support multiple interface cards, allowing them to bridge older digital protocols such as MADI or CobraNet to a Dante network, and dedicated convertors are available for nearly any format. This permits audio flows to remain entirely in the digital domain, avoiding signal-degradation from intermediate A/D and D/A conversions. Software solutions also play a role - Audinate’s upcoming Dante Via connects local USB devices and computer applications to audio networks directly and cost-effectively using only PCs.

According to a recent whitepaper from RH Consulting, Dante has become the de facto standard in IP audio networking, with the greatest adoption rate and highest end user satisfaction. Dante also supports the AES67 interoperability standard, allowing diverse IP networking solutions to establish audio connections with one another in mixed protocol environments.

Flexibility and Ease of use
Legacy audio over IP solutions were criticised for being difficult to understand and use, relying upon arcane methods that bore little resemblance to computer networks. This was an inevitable early stage of development, but has it changed?

Dante takes full advantage of modern networking standards and hardware to deliver a seamless plug-and-play experience that supports automatic discovery, plain language labels for audio sources and destinations, and easy software-based routing, management and diagnostics. Changing audio routes no longer means disrupting a facility with continuous reconfiguring of router connections and interruption of production activities across the workflow – a mouse click gets the job done. A Dante audio network can scale up to hundreds of endpoints, and changes now happen with the click of a mouse from anywhere in the facility, or even remotely. Dante Controller software allows clients to adjust their systems as they choose from any connected Mac or Windows PC, with an easy, intuitive interface that allows integrators to deliver preset configurations for clients.

"The setups and teardowns for various sessions that used to take hours - a thing of the past. Permanent installations of hundreds of audio cables - again, a thing of the past." – John Ball, Systems Engineer, Microsoft Production Studios, commenting upon their new Dante installation.

Deep knowledge of IT is not required to use Dante. The intelligence built into Dante-enabled products makes them truly “plug and play” right out of the box for most setups. And when help is needed for an advanced or mixed-use network, no special training is necessary, as Dante conforms to standard IP network traffic behavior.

Improved Audio Quality
Early audio over IP solutions (Voice over IP, or VoIP) were plagued with dropouts, pops and clicks, with most devices limited to a paltry 10Mbps bandwidth. Some thought that IP packets were never going to be fast enough to deliver real time audio. Is this still a problem for solutions like Dante?

Network speed is no longer a practical limiting factor. Gigabit speeds and modern switching technology ensure virtually zero packet loss under real life conditions in copper or fiber optic networks, while providing ample bandwidth for hundreds of channels of audio and other data at each node. Switched networks isolate traffic at each port, permitting thousands of channels to exist without conflict on a single network without dropouts or errors.

The high latency that plagued early audio-over-IP is also a thing of the past. For most studios and installations, Dante can easily deliver a fixed 1-millisecond latency value with plenty of room to spare, with all devices time synchronized to 1-microsecond. On small networks with only one switch hop, latency can be set as low as 150 microseconds. These values are significantly smaller than nearly any digital processing that might be in use, and are unaffected by the number of connected devices.

The transition to gigabit has made IP networking indispensable as the best way to transmit bit-perfect audio between as many devices as needed, with low latency and tight synchronization. Dante is prevalent in the most demanding live and recording productions. To highlight how far things have come, Dante now powers major live music tours from artists such as Foo Fighters, Maroon 5, and Kenny Chesney, and is used by recording legends Chris Lord Alge and four-time Academy Award nominated sound engineer Dennis Sands.

Expanding Metadata in Broadcast
Broadcast media increasingly demands that content metadata be delivered alongside audio and video streams. Legacy systems designed to transport only media data - audio or video - are challenged to provide this capability, resulting in complex and costly solutions that leave many unsure about how to invest in appropriate technology.

IP-based systems have successfully demonstrated solutions to this problem, acting as general-purpose data transport mechanisms that seamlessly and simultaneously deliver multiple data types to users, as witnessed daily by consumers of streaming services. Dante networking inherits all of these abilities, making it possible to transmit copious metadata alongside audio streams while easily tracking all audio subscriptions as unique objects. IP networking provides an open and well-understood platform for development of metadata delivery systems in a way that non-networked approaches cannot match, making investments in IP networks a logical and forward-thinking choice for both media content and general data.

Lower Cost of Ownership
When digital audio transport first arrived, supported products were almost always more expensive than analog alternatives, but this is changing. Not only has the price of Dante-enabled products come down as they have become more ubiquitous, but the cost savings in cabling and labor make it a much more cost-effective solution overall.

Changes to audio routes, room distributions and customer use cases can be made with software instead of laying new cable. Heavy snakes running through walls and ceilings are replaced with thin, lightweight Cat5e/6 Ethernet cable, which means more audio destinations at lower cost.

Dante does not require any centralized control or management, and does not require reconfiguration between power cycles. Once a PC has been used to setup a network, it may be removed. All Dante devices store configuration settings and will automatically restore channel subscriptions by name when reconnected, even if the network topology and switches are changed. This translates into faster setup times, a lower risk of failure and easy replacement of equipment.

Audio networking brings solid benefits today, and lays the groundwork for the future of your clients by leveraging IP technology. As media continues to advance, customers expect their AV systems to be capable of delivering refined and flexible experiences. Unlike analog and legacy digital installations, a Dante-powered audio over IP network will be relevant and easily upgradable for years to come.

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