TECH TALK: What is Audio Networking?

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Many think that audio networking is simply using Ethernet cables to carry digital audio from place to place. This idea misses the mark.

Instead, audio networking (also known as Audio over IP, or AoIP) is a combination of software, hardware and network protocols used to deliver uncompressed, multi-channel and low-latency digital audio over a standard Ethernet network.

AoIP transports audio between devices in real time by using standard IP technology and it has a variety of advantages and benefits relative to the older, analog method of connecting devices.

Audio networking replaces the idea of connecting all devices “point-to-point” using dedicated cables with a fundamentally different paradigm: all devices are connected via a common fabric and all audio routes are simply messages that go from one named device to another. Audio networks, therefore, are essentially the same as the computer networks we use every day for email, file transfers and more, and the two are compatible with each other.

Since audio networks are the same as computer networks, integrating computers into the audio workflow is a natural fit.

Software replaces hardware interfaces, and a simple network connection allows audio to be captured, processed, recorded and played out using common audio tools, like DAWs and media players.

This idea is tremendously powerful, as physical infrastructure no longer dictates how a system works. Instead, software running on a common PC controls all signal paths and entire systems can be reconfigured without moving a single wire, or recovered just by loading a file. And, while networking is built upon standards, this robust audio solution is much more than that.

Any high-quality audio networking solution includes wide industry support, a well-designed environment for product development and first-rate software tools for end users.

Why audio networking is important
Networking changes the way a system is connected and how that system is installed and maintained.

Networks use thin, lightweight CAT5/6 Ethernet cables to carry hundreds of audio channels going to any number of devices. Gone are the analog systems requiring separate cables for each signal or legacy point-to-point digital connectors.

A networking infrastructure is very beneficial, as there are far fewer and far less expensive cables and the infrastructure is often already present on a site.

Standard Ethernet can accommodate up to 300 feet (100 meters) per leg, and this distance can be easily increased with the use of multiple switch hops or fiber optic cable.

System integration is made far easier with a network. All connections are made using only one type of cable and one type of jack. Once in place, the system can be endlessly reconfigured without having to get into walls or ceilings to move cables, using software running on a common PC.

By choosing to install readily-available gigabit networking equipment, an installation is effectively future-proofed for many years to come.

Benefits of Audio Networking
While audio networking has helped most areas of sound, live sound was one of the first areas to directly see the benefits. Heavy, expensive and difficult-to-repair analog cable snakes were replaced by a single, small cable carrying pristine, interference-free digital audio.

Large strides in network speed, switch design and improved standards now mean that even large networks operate in perfect sync, with system-side fixed latencies of 1 millisecond or less.

And, audio networking supports redundancy, meaning live shows can run two parallel networks for glitch-free recovery from disaster. Recording has also been positively affected by audio networking by providing a purely digital path without conversions, allowing for the noise-free transport of uncompressed PCM content at sample rates from
44.1 kHz to 192 kHz.

Computers natively “speak network,” so simple software allows a network-connected PC to be a full participant in the audio system for recording, signal processing and more.

Users find this software-driven approach easy and affordable. Integrators are adopting audio networking, improving customer satisfaction and bottom lines. Networked systems are quick and easy to install, with lightweight CAT5/6 cables and no ground issues.

Users do not need to access cables buried in walls to make changes. Instead, routing is done with software, decreasing maintenance cost and increasing speed. Audio networking is a natural fit for computer-driven installations, providing direct connectivity to computer-based control panels, audio sources and audio processing. In many settings, existing network infrastructure is used.

Audio Networking Solutions
Audio networking solutions like CobraNet, RedNet and AVB are available. However, Dante by Audinate is the leading solution, with over 1,600 products available from more than 400 manufacturers covering nearly any type of audio device.

No matter the vendor, Dante-enabled devices freely and easily connect to each other. Dante transports uncompressed, multi-channel audio over a standard IP network.

Using common gigabit switches, Dante supports devices up to 512 channels each. Latency is deterministic in Dante and is typically set to be 1 millisecond or less – even with many devices in a large system.

Most importantly, Dante is truly a mature solution that does not require users to engage in arcane procedures to setup, use or modify. Once connected, all Dante devices automatically discover one another and are immediately available for control and routing using the Dante Controller software.

Dante devices also “remember” their settings, so systems can be torn down and rebuilt with no changes to the audio pathways.

When using Dante, there is no need for special IP addressing schemes or “magic numbers” as used in some earlier systems. Dante Controller includes diagnostic tools to monitor network health and behavior, as well. Dante Virtual Soundcard is popular software that allows any Windows or Mac PC to receive and transmit up to 64 channels of audio on any Dante network, while Dante Via lets users connect discrete USB devices and audio software applications to any Dante network.

With Dante, the ability to route uncompressed, 24-bit audio directly to and from computers with no additional hardware saves costs, reduces sources of trouble and makes integration with digital content easy.

Dante is innately flexible, and the ability to route audio to any device with the click of a mouse means that a single network can serve many different roles and purposes with minimal effort or risk.

As computers and networking continue their path toward ubiquity along many fronts, legacy non-networked audio products run the very real risk of obsolescence. An  investment in network infrastructure is a sure way to avoid that dilemma for customers and end users of audio systems, smartly “future-proofing” installations.

Steering customers and end users toward networking prepares them and their facilities for a world of new possibilities, stretching for many years to come.

This article was submitted by Brad Price, Senior Product Manager at Audinate. 

Brad has an extensive background in audioengineering, music performance, and software product development. He works with the development team to create software for Dante Audio Networking that brings value to audio professionals across a wide range of industry categories.

SI Asia thanks Brad and the Audinate team for their contribution.