Digital vs. Analog? It's a matter of when.
It is not a matter of whether digital audio will replace analog audio in the systems integration market; it is a matter of when. It has been replacing for some time now. As with any technological shift, there have been growing pains and grumblings. Installing analog equipment and copper wiring is relatively straightforward. It may be time consuming, and it may require several runs of wire, but the gear and the associated procedures are well known.
Then there is digital audio. There are lots of new tools to learn, including setup menus, computer control applications, channel and routing assignments. Meanwhile there are fewer and fewer discrete cables, and even fewer knobs. Digital systems are allowing for larger installations using less cabling and fewer discrete processing devices. These systems can also be dynamically reconfigured, sometimes on an hourly basis, to track the changing needs of a venue throughout the business day. Huge amounts of signal processing, mixing, and routing are now done inside digital "black boxes," with high-channel-count digital audio networks providing tens or even hundreds of audio channels on Cat-5 or fiber optic cabling. In the near future, audio systems will remain digital from the microphone to the loudspeaker.
Why go digital?
This question needs to be asked of two separate groups: equipment designers/manufacturers and system integrators.
Digital From the Designer's Point Of View
The vast majority of audio products being designed today, and all those on which Lab X Technologies consults, are digital. Why are manufacturers focusing on digital and not analog products? They tell us that the main factors driving the shift to digital audio equipment design are flexibility and cost.
Digital technology platforms are more adaptable than analog platforms. Software and firmware can be rewritten and uploaded. The functionality of any analog audio system is hard-wired. A manufacturer's investment in a digital platform may result in a large family of products, each with very different capabilities and interfaces, for relatively small incremental costs. An analog "platform" may only yield a few closely related derivatives.
Digital control surfaces are separate from the chips that do the actual signal processing. At Lab X, we find that development projects can involve control surfaces and software, hardware, or both. The separation between "engine" and "cockpit" can reduce product cost if a laptop, PDA, or other external device becomes a "virtual" front panel. It can also allow remote access and monitoring of a digital system. Additionally, the user interface can be configured to meet the needs of the particular installation or integrator's preference.
The cost of the underlying processing is falling nearly as fast as that of the control surface. By utilizing digital technology, audio equipment manufacturers can leverage technology investments from larger industries such as automotive, cellular telephony, digital television, etc. Digital technology continues to deliver ever-increasing capabilities at ever decreasing costs, whereas analog technology advancements have, for the most part, plateaued.
Digital From The System Integrator's Point Of View
The issue most often raised by system integrators when discussing digital audio systems is their complexity. Digital systems have a large amount of flexibility and can result in faster installs, since there are fewer separate cables and components to install. But there is an up front cost.
Analog audio products have hard-wired functions and dedicated control surfaces. The dedicated functionality of the devices tends to make the analog units more intuitive; the product can almost teach the operator how it works. We've all done it: fiddle with the knob, button, fader, or switch and listen to what happens (prudently keeping one hand near a mute switch in case the twiddling causes ear-piercing feedback). Training, manuals, who needs them! Trial by fire, it's all pretty straightforward.
Debugging is also "intuitive." Analog audio is transmitted via discrete copper cabling. If you're not getting audio, jiggle the cable or swap it out. We've all debugged a bad cable.
The Digital Learning Curve
Since digital systems can have multiple functions, there is no longer a single, fixed function control surface. Again, the physical device may not even have a dedicated user interface, but instead an Ethernet jack and a controller application to be run on your PC.
In most cases, you often can't even start using a digital audio device without first reading the manual. This may also include installing some GUI control software and browsing the Help files.
By reducing the cost of the box, manufacturers have increased the cost of learning how to operate it. The steeper learning curve also means that the integrator's cost of switching from one digital product to another is quite high, even if both perform the same function. Manufacturers take note: it may not be enough to build a better mousetrap; you must also provide an easier way for the user to learn how to set your trap. Performance is only one part of the value equation: ease of learning and use are at least as important to the systems integrator trying to solve customer problems.
This is another area in which Lab X gets involved. We are familiar with the tradeoffs involved in the design of GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces). The simplest screens have only a few control functions on them. That implies that finding the particular function you need at a specific moment may require paging through lots of menu layers. As the number of layers is reduced, each screen must have more controls and information compacted on it. Careful design by the manufacturer can combine the familiarity of "analog interfaces" with the extra flexibility of a digital system.
NSCA, InfoComm, CEDIA and other industry associations are working towards addressing the training issue, but they must focus on general principles, not specific products. The burden of staff training regarding the installation of specific equipment still falls upon the integrator.
So Where's The Opportunity?
So where does the opportunity for the integrator lie in using digital audio systems? The key is to recognize that training your personnel on these digital systems builds expertise. Expertise and product knowledge are key assets of your company. Specialized expertise is your best defense against encroachment from electrical contractors and/or IT professionals. Pulling cable is a commodity, and very few people can make money selling commodities. Customers pay premiums for experts and specialists.
So, training is an expense, but it's also an investment. Like any asset in your business, your organization's knowledge can and must be managed. Hiring and retaining good people is the most important aspect of managing knowledge, because unlike physical equipment, expertise can walk across the street to a competitor.
Convert Implicit Knowledge Into Explicit Knowledge
Explicit knowledge is documented and can be accessed by anyone in the organization. Implicit knowledge resides in one employee's brain. It's undocumented, and as such that knowledge can walk out the door at any time. Of course, you can't have everyone in the company up to speed on every product you install. However, you can make sure that the training material and tools are easily accessible from a central location. You can also do "cross-training" so that no one person in your company is mission-critical. In order to make this work, you must have a company culture of trust and shared responsibility.
Additionally, digital systems allow your organization to develop templates for particular types of installs. Think of this analogy: It would take a little longer to setup a spreadsheet than to use a calculator to do "one off" calculations by hand. However, if you have to do a similar set of calculations, again, and again, the spreadsheet pays off big time. You've invested the time up front. Now it is much more time efficient and will quickly start saving you time and money.
Invest in specialized knowledge and creating system templates. Read the manuals. Set up prototype systems in the shop. Make sure several people know how different components/systems work via in house training sessions. Is it a cost? Sure. But, look at your return on this investment: Larger installations with less equipment, faster installations, generalized templates which require only a little tweaking, and offer more flexible features.
Digital vs. Analog? It's a matter of when.