SF Conservatory of Music Uses Networked Audio to Overcome Pandemic Challenges

A student working in Bowes Lab at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, featuring Focusrite RedNet X2P 2x2 Dante audio interface
(Image credit: Focusrite)

San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was faced with a unique challenge that kept them from gathering during the pandemic. While the school’s violinists were able to play together while wearing masks, woodwind and brass instruments and vocalists could not. 

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To unite the musicians virtually, the school installed a Dante network that runs throughout the facility, into classrooms, offices, practice rooms, and studio spaces, with Focusrite RedNet X2P 2x2 Dante audio interfaces serving as the system’s endpoints. The network was designed and installed by Emeryville, CA-based integration firm Advanced Systems Group (ASG). 

The project took shape last August, and RedNet X2P audio interfaces (32 in total) were the keystone components in the system. “The advantage of the RedNet X2P is that it’s an audio interface plus a headphone amp, so the musicians don't have to have monitors in the rooms,” said Michael Groh, sales engineer with ASG. “They could communicate with each other, with the orchestra leader who’s down on the stage, and with the audio mixer. The Focusrite RedNet X2P is just a perfect solution for this.”

Groh worked closely with Jason O’Connell, SFCM director of recording services, who has helped guide the school deeper into pro audio during the 13 years he’s worked there. These efforts have included the implementation of the Technology and Applied Composition program, which focuses on using technology to compose for video games and for mixed media, a curriculum that has attracted more students to the school’s programs. Last March, as the pandemic-driven shutdown descended on the country, he quickly realized its implications for music education. “Basically, anything to do with a singer, a woodwind player, a brass player—they can’t play in a room together during this pandemic,” said O’Connell, who studied audio at McGill University under renowned producer/engineer/educator George Massenburg.   

As the school’s leadership sought ways to reopen teaching, O’Connell looked for solutions. At first, they tried using standard videoconferencing to connect everyone, but the sonic quality and latency were a major problem from the start. “We struggled for a couple of months with that,” he said. Analog tie lines were another option, but running enough copper cabling to connect even a fraction of the school’s 400-plus students dispersed across more than a dozen performance spaces was daunting. Then, it occurred to O’Connell that a Dante network would solve the connectivity challenge, and a call to Groh brought the Focusrite RedNet X2P audio interfaces into the picture. Two RedNet X2P units arrived and were set up on the school’s VLAN as a proof of concept. 

Saxophone performer working in a classroom space at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, featuring Focusrite RedNet X2P 2x2 Dante audio interface

Saxophone performer working in a classroom space at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, featuring Focusrite RedNet X2P 2x2 Dante audio interface (Image credit: Focusrite)

“We brought some musicians in and had them play together, and they were amazed at how fluidly they went from getting the microphone and headphone levels, and then all of a sudden they were having a lesson, talking about phrasing, and talking about tone,” he said. “You just can’t hear these nuances on a standard videoconference. When they finished, they ended up asking to stay for a whole hour to do their entire lesson. They were just so happy to have been able to play with each other, and they were just so excited. At that point I was like, ‘Okay, this is the way that we need to move forward.’”  

And they did, in time for the fall semester. With Dante as the backbone of the project and using RME TotalMix FX software for routing and mixing, the school installed 32 RedNet X2P units (acquired thought Focusrite's educational program) in various classrooms and other spaces, creating a 64-channel stereo network, with a network latency of less than 5 milliseconds. The system is supplemented by Audio-Technica ATH-M50x and ATH-M40x headphones and an assortment of studio-grade microphones. 

“Basically, we've been supporting every single ensemble rehearsal, but also lessons, including one-on-one lessons between students and instructors,” said O’Connell, who added that RedNet features such as remote control of microphone preamps and levels further make it a perfect fit for networked application like the school. “Being able to remotely control all these boxes is super helpful for us and allows us to be much more efficient in our support of the lessons and rehearsals,” he said. Without the system, “Probably a third of our student body would probably be not able to be here and take classes as effectively.”  

“Over the past year of playing over Dante with Focusrite RedNet, all of our students have become more familiar and comfortable with essential recording studio technology such as audio interfaces, microphones, and monitors,” said Taurin Barrera, executive director, Technology and Applied Composition at SFCM. “Our students have been able to discover the fantastic possibilities enabled by state-of-the-art music technology and professional-grade recording equipment. Now that our entire campus can function as a giant modular recording studio, I’m really looking forward to seeing what new types of network-based music projects, collaborations, and performances we can develop in the future." 

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