DTV Audio Group’s Webinar: Sound Is Joining the Move to Production in the Cloud

Virtualization in live production is being driven by the COVID lockdown

A large and rotating cast over nearly 2½ hours during the DTV Audio Group’s “Next Steps in Production Virtualization” webinar underscored how quickly and comprehensively remote sports production has embraced the cloud and also illustrated how complex and uneven that uptake can be, particularly when it comes to audio. The online event, which took place on Aug. 19, was focused on the trend toward the virtualization of at-home live television production and how the coronavirus pandemic has served to accelerate this trend. The next logical step, according to many participants, is to move the entire production — including sound — into the cloud.

The webinar participants reflected the range of stakeholders in this migration. They included manufacturers Grass Valley, Telos Alliance, Dolby, Solid State Logic, and Lawo; services providers ranging from integrators (Advanced Systems Group) to cloud-services provider Amazon Web Services. From the content side were Activision Blizzard Sports and Starz/Lionsgate; from the operations side, PAC-12 Networks and Skywalker Sound.

The webcast was broken into three chapters: the Evolution of Complete Production Solutions in the Cloud, Realities of Working in the Cloud, and the Future of Audio Tools in the Cloud.

Audio Aims To Catch Up With Video

DTVAG Executive Director Roger Charlesworth established the tone of the event, stating that the industry had been surprised at how quickly video had moved into the cloud but that audio had been lagging in that same migration.

“We’re looking at what the implications are for audio in the cloud,” he stated, noting that video has seemed to integrate cloud-based operations sooner and more smoothly. “A lot of production under COVID has had to be virtualized, and how does that affect audio?”

Mark Stephens, lead, media and entertainment, global segment, Amazon Web Services, enumerated the cloud’s advantages, noting that virtualized functionality, from servers to routers, can be “spun up and spun down fast and as needed, and you’re not paying for [unused] capacity, while [remote-production] trucks are high-capex, often site-idle, and cannot handle ‘bursty’ workloads.”

Stephens also emphasized AWS’s Elemental MediaConnect, a high-quality, secure-stream, real-time transport service for live video and audio.

Mike Cronk, VP, core technology, Grass Valley, detailed the company’s recently launched GV Media Universe, an array of “elastic” virtual-world applications and microservices, such as replay decks and switchers, powered by the Agile Media Processing Platform (AMPP).

At DTVAG webinar on cloud production, Grass Valley’s Mike Cronk discusses GV Media Universe with Lawo’s Lucas Zwicker, Pac-12 Networks’ Glenn Stillwell, DTVAG’s Roger Charlesworth, Amazon Web Services’ Mark Stephens, and Advanced Systems Group’s Dave Van Hoy,

“In the physical world,” he said, “you have to ship and then rack and connect via a router. We can do all this in the cloud.”

However, Cronk also noted the chronic issues of latency and synch as audio moves back and forth between the cloud and endpoints during live productions, which shadows efforts to virtualize its handling, as well as current limitations on processing, such as audio compression.

“From an audio point of view, we’re still in the early stages,” he said, analogizing the present migration to the cloud to “how dedicated hardware migrated to computers. We’re still in that continuum, which is moving towards [software as a solution] and the cloud. We recognize that there’s a lot to solve, and it’s a bigger task than any one company can handle.”

Frames vs. Samples

Dave Van Hoy, president, Advanced Systems Group, an AV systems integrator, focused on the practical challenges as ASG has helped sports networks optimize remote operations under COVID lockdowns. Explaining the crucial difference between the two domains, he noted video’s frame-based form vs. audio’s sample-based format, the latter “not well-adapted” to cloud operations, he contended.

But, importantly, he said that, although the extreme and literal at-home nature of major networks’ remote production at the moment is a work-around, it could become a model for smaller operations. These would benefit from being able to access services and functionality via the cloud, instead of renting or investing in the hardware for it.

“We’re finding clients below the major-network level,” Van Hoy said, speaking over an image of ASG’s System Solution Diagram, a schematic of 17 virtual and hardware components that can be linked in a cloud environment. “They need routing and video switching and comms and ways to do graphics and to bring in [remote] contributors. Finding all the pieces that can work at a reliable level has been an interesting process.”

For audio, some of those pieces are Reaper multitrack audio software; Unity, a comms software solution designed for use in a cloud environment; and NewTek’s Network Device Interface (NDI), a royalty-free software video standard that is frame-accurate and suitable for switching in a live-production environment.

Glenn Stillwell, senior audio engineering and operations manager, Pac-12 Networks, outlined an example of a signal path for audio using a Behringer X32 mixer — the continued need for physical faders for audio was a recurring theme — and NDI as a basic transport in conjunction with vMix’s software-based video switcher and a Unity 4-wire comms system.

“We’re starting small; we’re not doing the Super Bowl right out of the box,” he said. “By doing a lot of events in the cloud, we’ll get a sense of what reliability and functionality is there. But it’ll take two or three years before we start ripping [hardware] out of the plant.”

It was a lot to take in, as broadcast audio peers over the precipice of transitioning to a cloud-based work environment. Audio’s relative complexity will compel A1s to adjust their style of working to accommodate at least some of a production mix’s taking place in the cloud, while the traditional tools for that evolve. Martin Dyster, VP, business development, Telos Alliance, suggested, for instance, that consoles might be able to be split between physical faders onsite and core mixing done in the cloud. But the notion of being able to “spin up” and “spin down” virtual production components within a cloud sounded attractive to most.

“The core technologies are different but not mind-bendingly new,” observed Tim Carroll, senior director, sound technology, Dolby Laboratories. “Imagine how agile this could make the idea of technology licensing.”