Tech Focus: Audio Consoles, Part 1 — At-Home Production, IP Transport Are Key Trends

Basic console functionality will change as the technologies are increasingly linked

Two trends of potentially tectonic significance are affecting the evolution of the broadcast-audio console. The shift to so-called at-home, or REMI (remote integration), production is largely a case in which economics is driving workflow, in the process asking the mix console to do its job from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. At the same time, the entire broadcast industry has been migrating toward IP for signal transport, with audio, video, and control signals increasingly intertwined on networks. Manufacturers are adapting to both trends at varying paces, but all agree that basic console functionality will be altered.

Calrec, which continues to dominate remote-production market at the major-broadcast-network level, has recently accelerated its activities in both at-home production and IP. At NAB 2017 in April, the company showcased four new networking products: AES67/RAVENNA and AVB interfaces, a modular I/O Dante card with AES67 compatibility, and a SMPTE 2022-6 video interface. Calrec also introduced the RP1 remote-production engine, a 2RU core with integrated FPGA-based DSP enabling a console surface at another facility to control all mixing functionality, including IFB routing and remote-monitor mixes.

At-home production carries risks for the remote-production sector in general, potentially decreasing the need for the expensive, sophisticated trucks used for major sports productions. Given its market position, Calrec saw this as the right time to introduce the RP1, according to VP, Sales, Dave Letson.

“There is risk since it’s such a major change in workflow, but we also see it as an opportunity, as there will also be a need for more content,” he explains, adding that that can come from a wider range of sports productions created for distribution on a broader array of consumer devices. “There’s tremendous potential there, although, as an industry, we’re not quite there yet.”

Letson notes that Calrec has a dozen RP1 units in the field, including with Sky Sports, doing proof-of-concept demos. “Lately, [remote-production techniques and technology] have been the first thing that customers want to talk about.”

As for IP signal transport, Calrec has embraced the entire array of major solutions available, using the Alliance for IP Media Solutions (AIMS) “roadmap” as a guide. “It’s been several years of competing standards, and we still can’t see any one winning, so we decided a year and a half ago to support multiple standards,” Letson explains. “The long-term strategy is to keep the console at the center of the process, as the hub.”

Chris Fichera, VP, audio, Group One Ltd., which distributes Calrec and DiGiCo consoles in North America (Calrec, DiGiCo, and Allen & Heath collaborate through a joint venture), cites the new SD12 console and new Orange Box interface as examples of how the company is adapting to IP signal distribution: slowly and from the bottom up.

DiGiCo SD12 mixing console

“We’re seeing activity in terms of trucks being designed around IP transport, from NEP and Game Creek, though those aren’t being used for major events yet, and Notre Dame is building an entire IP infrastructure,” he says. “But, as an industry, we’re not there yet. We haven’t crossed the barrier yet, and we’re about five years away from that.”

Fichera says the major networks are understandably cautious about jumping into the deep end with IP as the primary signal-transport modality: “You go live and something happens to a packet, how fast can you get that taken care of? No one really knows yet.” He cites reported interruptions with the live stream of the latest Super Bowl by Fox Sports and Comcast as reasons that the major networks are eyeing IP warily: “We’re still in the fiber game when it comes to connectivity, but we’re watching IP closely.”

The Two Trends Converge
Lawo has arguably been the most assertive when it comes to remote-production deployment. At EURO 2016, in what the company speculates may have been the largest-scale IP sports-broadcast deployment to date, its V_remote4 technology was used for the video and audio from 10 venues to the IBC in Paris, all based on a fully IP-based backbone. Other Lawo IP-based systems have reportedly been used by NBC Sports for Formula 1 races in Austin, TX, and by Fox Sports for the Americas Cup.

According to Head of Sales/Americas Jeffrey Ströessner, Lawo sees IP signal transport (audio, video, and control signals) and at-home workflows as deeply intertwined. “That is where the at-home–production scenario becomes most efficient, when paired with IP.” he explains. “Some of the workflows that make production efficient by centralizing production are not even possible without the utilization of IP technology.”

Although broadcast sports is a perfect candidate for rapid adoption of these converged trends, Ströessner acknowledges that it could take two or three years for sports to reach the level of implementation seen in other areas of media production, such as ingest, replay, and archiving. That’s due to the industry’s historic and implicit caution about adopting new platforms.

“I’ve done a few Olympics now,” he says, “and, once you’ve watched an Opening Ceremony being watched live by millions of people, you realize why broadcasters are not to eager for trial and error on that.”

However, he adds, broadcast’s economics makes IP’s uptake inevitable: “It will be used more and more at lower levels, at college and amateur sports [shows], and that will prove that it’s reliable as well as efficient.”

Wheatstone is using its WheatNet-IP audio network BLADE to touch on both IP distribution and at-home production. For example, the company’s literature suggests, the M4IP-USB networked microphone processor ingests up to four channels of audio and is also an I/O BLADE device on the WheatNet-IP audio network, allowing mic-processing adjustments locally at the venue or remotely from the IP audio console at home. I/O BLADEs, or access units, make up the WheatNet-IP and include audio resources that enable operators to manage almost any audio function from the network. Included in each I/O BLADE are two stereo 8×2 utility mixers and audio-processing tools to mix various sources from the network and process the resultant mixes. Because BLADEs also provide crosspoint control for the entire signal matrix, zero-latency IFB feeds can be created and controlled at any location.

“Audio routing, control, mixing, and processing are all done over the WAN through Wheatstone’s WheatNet-IP network of virtual-audio services,” a company spokesperson explains.

More Products Coming Faster
Studer by Harman has introduced two platforms to address the IP and at-home trends. At NAB 2017, the company introduced DIOS, I/O-routing–automation software designed to manage and simplify complex routing matrices within broadcast workflows. And it has repurposed an existing product line for the burgeoning at-home market: the Studer Micro Series compact, integrated digital audio broadcast and production mixing system was originally developed as an affordable radio-production solution.

“Essentially, DIOS enables you to bring different standards and APIs together into one ecosystem and connect third-party equipment that previously operated independently,” explains Mark Hosking, global sales director, Studer. “This opens up an entirely new world of options and significantly expands your routing capabilities. And a major benefit of the Studer Micro Series in REMI productions is the ability to put DSP on the ground at remote locations. This allows a greater range and degree of control from the central production point, and, with VPN control of the Micro from the studio, the mix engineer can control it remotely, and the latency is eliminated by having the DSP onsite. Combined with improved quality of service from the network ISP, it’s a very powerful combination for REMI production.”

Development of the console-product side of the IP and at-home equations is likely to accelerate. Now that intercompatibility formats are widely accepted, the only thing holding back product development will be imagination and budgets.

Click here for Tech Focus: Audio Consoles, Part 2 — Products for Remote Mixing

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