Manufacturers Weigh in on Networked DSP

The manufacturers contacted for this article have each taken different approaches to the implementation of the various current—as well as evolving new—DSP networking and audio transport protocols in their products.

“There are two traditional models of networked audio systems,” observed Graeme Harrison, EVP of marketing at Biamp. “One is the model where you have all of your processing in the middle, like the original MediaMatrix. You have break in and break out boxes. That’s easy, because you know where your processing is.

“There’s another model, followed by BSS and Symetrix, which is a decentralized model, where you have the processing individually in each unit and you choose to bus the audio between the units.”

Situations can arise where one unit is at full capacity but another is at only 20 percent, yet there is no way to access that additional capacity. That problem is solved with Biamp’s Audia system, he said, which shares resources over the network.

“For example, an Audia has six SHARC processors, so 10 Audias have 60. As far as we’re concerned, that’s a resource; they can be used by any of the Audias. That allowed Audia to become the preeminent product in the market, even though we weren’t the first to market,” said Harrison.

CobraNet is the backbone of the network, he continued: “We use it like no other manufacturer.” It’s also central to the company’s Vocia life safety and paging system, which locates its DSP at the system’s end points.

“It’s a radically different way to use CobraNet,” he explained, noting that the CobraNet bundles are completely dynamic. “You’ll hear that CobraNet is relatively old technology and has relatively few channels. People start to question its future. But in the Vocia it’s not an issue, we’re not tying up any CobraNet bundles permanently.

“If I send a page to 17 of 100 zones, say, it’s dynamically addressing a CobraNet bundle and then every other device looks at that and says, is this for me or not? That arbitration is all going on in real time.”

Tesira takes yet another approach, introducing the idea of partitions. “What we see as the future is the ability to have facility-wide networked media systems. We’re doing more and more very large jobs and an AV solution should be an holistic solution capable of doing anything that building might want it to do: paging, distance conferencing, sound reinforcement, video distribution, digital signage, whatever they want to do. That is best done by a system that is totally integrated throughout the facility.”

The problem there, said Harrison, is how to update the system. For example, if you want to make a change in the way the routing in one terminal of an airport is done, you have to mute the whole system in order to make a change that only affects that part of the system.

“With partitions we can have one big system separated into different partitions. In a convention center, if I want to take one hall down, whatever is going on in the other halls goes on independently.

“The way you would do that currently is have different systems for each hall. But if you’re using Crestron or AMX or a building management system you have to have hooks into each of those systems. If you have a PC controlling it you’ve got to have different windows open with each of the halls. It makes a lot more sense to have one system, one point of control, one window, but the ability to partially update the system.”

As for the bigger picture, said Harrison, whose job is to think about broad industry trends, “We’re constantly trying to move the game forward with the ultimate aim of giving the end user the most transparent technology solution.”

CobraNet is an industry standard for professional installed audio, he pointed out. AVB is a standard designed for professional, consumer, and automotive audio-video.

“So immediately it becomes much wider usage. If you look at the AVnu Alliance members, it might lead you to believe that AVB will be native in your computer. Apple computers use Broadcom chips and could natively bring in AVB. I just saw a demo at ISE of that.

“So, AVB is beginning to come natively into computers using no specialist boxes. Think out five years. Think about what QSC are doing, using Intel processors; that also is the future. Then think, if AVB is coming into your computer and your Intel i7 processor could process multichannel audio, why do you need an Audia or a Q-Sys or a Soundweb?”

That’s exactly what happened in the recording and film industries, he noted, where a load of Mac computers are running Pro Tools. “The IP resides in the software, the plug-ins and the break in and out boxes. That same thing will happen in our industry.” Eventually, there will be generic hardware with the IP residing more and more in the software domain, he said.

That software has three layers, he continued. “It has an interface layer at the top, and a media layer, which might be AVB, at the bottom. In between is the control layer—how you interface, negotiate, arbitrate.”

That interface layer is the most interesting to think about in this new paradigm, he said. “You get to ask the interesting questions. What is the right way to interact with an AV system? Those are far-reaching, highly creative questions.”

Kevin Ivey, general manager at Peavey Commercial Audio, commented, “We have, over the last couple of years, introduced a raft of new control products. That has little to do with audio networking but has everything to do with being able to build highly flexible and highly scalable systems and extend that control capability over the network.”

The nControl platform, for example, is a processor that operates as an adjunct to NION to expand both the storage and control capabilities of a MediaMatrix system. “The nControl can be outfitted with multiple serial cards to expand control interfaces well beyond the capacity of the NION. It can also be outfitted with up to four TB of RAID 1 storage if you want to use it as a media server," said Ivey.

The nTouch 180, a seven-inch diagonal touch screen controller, also has a processor onboard and can host MediaMatrix projects. “A designer or integrator can build a custom user touch screen interface with the nWare software. NWare allows the designer to import custom graphics or photos and place touch controls from NWare’s palette of graphical user interface elements. It’s a very powerful tool for building custom control systems without having to go to a third party control.”

The touch screen pages for the new, smaller nTouch 60 are programmed in nWare and served out to the nTouch 60 from an nTouch 180 or nControl platform. “It’s powered over ethernet so all you need to do is one network run, plug it in,” added Ivey.

The most recent expansion of control options involves iOS devices. With the NWare Mobile app, said Ivey, “You build pages in the very same manner you might create them for the nTouch interface. Once those pagesare created in your project, you apply a wireless network. When NWare Mobile is launched, it will find the project on the network and serve those pages out to your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch.”

As for audio transport, the CAB8, introduced last year and now shipping, is available as a CobraNet device and is also power over ethernet. Its eight individually addressable channels can be set up as mic in, line in, or line out. “It’s one half-rack width, so you can fit 16 channels into a single rack space,” noted Ivey. The company is working on a Dante version, he revealed.

QSC Audio very recently introduced two lower-cost products in the Q-Sys line. “Initially when we came out with [Q-Sys] products we offered a very high channel count and they were up there in pricing,” said Gerry Tschetter, VP of marketing at QSC Audio. “They were appropriate for mega projects; I think we’ve got a disproportionate share of the stadium market.”

But with the new Core 500i and 250i, he continued, “We integrated the slots for our input and output cards directly into the frame, so they will accommodate eight of our cards directly plus some number of external channels on the network. They bring the capabilities of Q-Sys within reach of systems where the system integrator would otherwise be considering maybe two or three standalone boxes from competitors.”

Since QSC’s team in Boulder, CO is basically the group that originally developed CobraNet, an adaptor for that protocol is an option on the company’s products, which utilize a proprietary protocol as standard. As Q-Sys was being developed, he said, “In order to make this work on the network we had a number of criteria. There was really nothing on the market that achieved what we wanted to achieve, so we developed our own protocol for networking.”

Going forward, QSC has no real reason to adopt AVB, added Tschetter, who noted, “There are a lot more systems out there using our protocol than AVB.”

Rane has thought outside the box—pun intended—with its products, which are not networkable but instead offer bussing via Firewire. The company has taken “a left turn,” according to Steve Macatee, director of product development and training at Rane Corporation, focusing instead on making their equipment installer-friendly.

The company’s HAL product is intended for auditoriums, theaters, and churches, said Macatee, but “our biggest target is the ballroom combine—hotel—world.” Rane, a company known for its sense of humor, named the device in honor of the computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which ended up killing the astronauts. Rane’s acronym actually stands for Heuristic Audio Lab, he said.

“We wanted to be able let the designer design the configuration file in software, let nine months go by, then let the design file be loaded into the DSP box and have that configuration file and the architecture of the product work together to help the installer to install it the way the designer intended,” he explained.

Many DSP systems offer slots for I/O cards; Rane’s products do too, he said. But the company also offers separate devices, such as the RAD (Remote Audio Device) A-to-D and D-to-A converters, which are boxes for installation where the wall jack typically goes. “From an infrastructure point of view, that tends to be friendlier to a new install versus an older install.”

The idea is that the contractor powers up the HAL system then starts installing the wall boxes. Four LEDs indicate the status of the system as it is being installed.

“If the lights are red and flashing, that tells you that the Cat-5 cable is crimped correctly. If they’re red and flashing that means that you haven’t yet told the head end rack device that this is the device that is supposed to be plugged in. If they turn green then that means they have indeed plugged this into the right place,” elaborated Macatee.

HAL will eventually support a CobraNet transport, and down the road probably an AVB transport, he said. But the concept is more about locating HAL in the equipment room then installing its expansion devices and audio I/O with one home run, shielded Cat-5 everywhere.

The idea to include the ability in HAL for the system to recognize the firmware version required for any attached device and to update it accordingly in a few brief seconds, whether to a newer or older version, came as a result of receiving so many service calls on the topic, Macatee continued. “The actual problem is that the IT department has not allowed the protocol or the port on the network to allow the firmware to be updated. Now the audio contractor is stuck with the problem of going and finding the IT guy or finding the closet where the equipment is and gaining access to it. It’s weird that the audio contractor is tasked so much with working with the IT guy that he can’t even get his audio system working.”

Steve Harvey ( is editor-at-large for Pro Sound News and also contributes to TV Technology, MIX, and other Future titles. He has worked in the pro audio industry since November 1980.