Originally published in the January 1997 issue of:

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The Digital Future is Closer than You Think

by Barry McKinnon

of Mc2Systems Design Group

The one big step that was required to make it really worthwhile to connect audio widgets together with digital umbilical cords was the ability to run digital audio around on the same wire as the control signal.

Any contractor that has installed and maintained a computer network in their office has already had a fore-taste of what is to come.

Most of what we have come to understand as standards in the professional sound industry have come from the dim and murky tube-ridden past rooted in the telephone, broadcast and cinema fields. Everything from decibels, nominal operating levels and loudspeaker directivity came from work done in these areas over the last six decades. Get ready for the shake-up, familiar pro-audio acronyms such as; dB, CMR, NOM, PAG/NAG, and RASTI, are about to be joined by less familiar acronyms like; LAN, WAN, TCP/IP, MTU's, FDDI, and ATM. Familiar audio widgets and familiar system thinking are going to be nudged aside so that we have room to think about Hubs, Fast Ethernet, 100Base-T and network configuration as part of an audio system layout.

For the past couple of years the audio industry has seen the growth of computer control and software based systems for processing and routing audio. For many systems contractors, these have been viewed as NASA-budgeted, ultra high-end products with no everyday application -- products that may be of interest once the technology trickles down to a practical level. Depending upon the computer savvy of a given contractor, that day has been anticipated eagerly, or as an impending root-canal.

The one big step that was required to make it really worthwhile to connect audio widgets together with digital umbilical cords was the ability to run digital audio around on the same wire as the control signal. This would mean there may actually be some economy in connecting the widgets together digitally, with the enhanced flexibility in being able to do so, regardless of where the widgets were located. That hurdle appears to have been cleared with the recent introduction of CobraNet, a digital audio distribution system that uses off-the-shelf computer network technology and methodology to get the signals there. Even more surprising is that this hasn't entered the market at NASA level pricing, which means that all the systems contractors that have been fence-sitting, waiting for the right moment to get digitally clued-in, had better be getting off the fence right now.

As an industry, we've spent much time and money learning how to get analog audio signals around facilities with minimal losses in level or quality, working hard to reduce noise pickup, control ground problems, provide functional patching, switching and routing of signals at microphone level, line level and speaker level. We've been very concerned with the details, like common mode rejection in balanced audio lines, and maintaining gain structure through signal distribution chains with limited dynamic range. Digital audio networks are about to change the details we need to think about, and need to control.

For many systems contractors, this is going to be a leap into an area of technology that is completely foreign. There's a reason that there are thousands of people who make a living out of installing and maintaining computer networks, this is not going to be as simple as learning about the latest twist in audio hardware/software configuration. Even technology intensive companies are likely to either hire dedicated computer network maintenance people, or contract the work to firms that do this work. Any contractor that has installed and maintained a computer network in their office has already had a fore-taste of what is to come. It's not that it's alchemy, it's just as understandable as audio, but it is just as deep a technology.

To quote Dogbert ® from a recent Sunday Dilbert ® strip;"People are getting stupider everyday, relatively speaking. The complexity of the world is increasing geometrically, but your ability to learn is at the same slow trickle it has always been. Information is gushing toward your brain like a firehose aimed at a teacup. You're at a crossroads in history. Even the smartest among you has become functionally stupid'." Of course from there Dogbert goes on about his plan for world domination, whereas the systems contractor only has to deal with maintaining domination of the market. Dogbert is essentially correct though, the information that the contractor (or consultant for that matter) is required to know is increasingly geometrically, and it gets harder for a small contractor to have all the knowledge within one organization (or one head).

digital network image - 35.0 K

Out there on the other "net", the growth of applications and technology is zipping along in "net-years" which are roughly equivalent to "dog-years", or about a 7:1 ratio (today).

The MIS department in the big corporations may very well take over the large scale A/V requirements in the corporate world.

For the smaller systems contractors that don't have network people, or a relationship with network people or firms, now is the time to start thinking about it, because a digital audio distribution network is the thin end of a very big wedge. Out there on the other "net", the growth of applications and technology is zipping along in "net-years" which are roughly equivalent to "dog-years", or about a 7:1 ratio (today). I don't think I've updated any type of software as often as I have by Web Browsers. The whole web-browser feature explosion is only a little over a year old, and there's probably been 4 or 5 builds released in that time, and enough new features to make the consumer electronics business look stable and long-lived by comparison.

The Internet has been joined by it's less well-understood brother, the Intranet. The Intranet seems to be headed towards becoming the equivalent of the corporate A/V department, as well as the corporate mail department, the corporate communications department, the corporate meeting room, the corporate...well, you get the idea. Large corporations with many employees and many locations are looking at the Intranet as a method of moving information around through the organization, communicating throughout the organization and working collaboratively within the organization across large distances. Many of these functions were historically the responsibility of the A/V department (or corporate communications department, which always sounded a bit hipper than A/V department). While many of the Intranet applications are aimed at desktop delivery via a computer, there will still be some applications for display of and presentation to larger audiences.

Many of the new streaming audio and streaming video compression software packages are aimed at this corporate Intranet market to allow training videos to be available to one or many people on demand, rather than having to schedule ten busy people to see one showing of a training video. For systems contractors that have had a share of this lucrative corporate communications market, one could expect to see some erosion of the market. That's market erosion, not market-share erosion. The new business will be going to the computer hardware/software vendor that will sell and install a monster video server computer package with a streaming audio/video server software package. This material is then available over the Local Area Network, or through some substantial T1 pipeline between major corporate centers. It is also available to their new sales rep in Juno, Alaska through a dial-up network connection.

The corporate video-conference market seems headed this way as well. Microsoft is giving away NetMeeting with their Internet Explorer web-browser. This supports the use of a tiny serial port camera for desktop to desktop video conference over corporate Intranet or Internet connections. For the contractors that have been installing $100,000+ video conference suites, this is not good news. While there is an indisputable difference in quality between the two, not all clients will demand that high video quality when the price and ease of setup is considered. And the new rep in Juno is able to participate in a video conference from his home, complete with a shared whiteboard, with only a few hundred dollars worth of hardware.

While the corporate A/V market has dealt primarily with big video projectors and a VCR or copystand, the new corporate multi-media market will deal with real-time MPEG compression hardware, streaming-video server configuration, non-linear digital video editing suites for conversion of taped video into AVI or Quicktime format for network distribution. Just so we're clear on this, I'm not talking about the ten year technology forecast, this is the technology the corprations will be implementing next week.

The MIS department in the big corporations may very well take over the large scale A/V requirements in the corporate world. This is likely someone who dreams in 1280x1024 true color resolution, with ActiveX enhanced interactivity, so this would be someone who will finally understand a conversation about control system programming and requirements. The unfortunate thing is that with more material being aimed at desktop source and delivery, all of the control functions will become Java, ActiveX or VBScript controls in the window of a web-browser. There won't be any local control system required in desktop video and conference applications.

The education market won't be that far behind the corporate market in adopting computer network technology (there is some sort of mandatory 7 year lag to the education system adopting technology, just to ensure that people are only exposed to technology that WAS current, I suspect it is part of the History department lobby that is responsible for this). The recent release of remarkably cheap set-top Web TV boxes will make all those existing 27" TV sets more useful to the education market (even though they are too small for more than about 15 people to watch). Expanded Telco infrastructure bandwidth plus video compression software and hardware will make the development of true WAN media distribution more of a practical reality. For school boards this will mean the ability to distribute multi-media lessons (video plus audio, text, and still photos) through wired networks and to dial-up student access.

The establishment of wide-area multi-media networks will bring their own headaches, of course. Now that there have been some studies of the performance of internet based webservers under actual operating conditions, some disturbing things come to light. Large files tend to choke servers, even when the pipeline is large, and the bandwidth huge. Even with T1 connections, moving the average file sizes up from 5kB to 80kB drops the server capacity by 94% or from 35 hits per second to 2 hits per second (from A Model of Webserver Performance by Dr. Louis Slothouber, StarNine Technologies, http://lovx.biap.com/white-papers/performance/overview.html). Steaming Video files are bigger yet, and will consume more of the server connection capacity. This is one of many areas that is not well understood by vendors of network servers, since little work has been done to study the performance of streaming multi-media systems under load. This puts the network vendors/installers in about the same position as the sound contracting markets were in the late sixties, where systems were actually sold and installed without an in-depth understanding of the behaviour of loudspeakers and rooms.

The whole multi-media network market is going to be stretched to the limits by the rapid market growth, and there will be lots of new players leaping in to get a slice of the market. If a system contractor is going to make any serious inroads into network based audio or video delivery technology, now is the time to start learning what is involved. It's too late when you're up to your armpits in an installation that is not going well and you need to hire someone to bail you out. The complexity of these systems, and the issues that will arise, are huge by comparison to analog audio or video systems. If you don't get an analog audio signal at the end of a wire, and you know it went into the wire, you can guess where the trouble is. If you lose an audio signal in a digital audio network, it could be lost anywhere for any number of reasons, and you're not going to find it with a butt end.

Stop waiting for the digital age, it's here already. Get networked to the network people. Unlike the Internet, you can't choose to ignore digital network based audio and video systems, because they will become more prevalent in your business. Think of it this way, it will be much easier to justify hiring a network manager for your office, if he can also help you design and install digital media networks.

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