Look behind most home hi-fi set-ups and you'll find a barely-manageable tangle of cables linking the different components.
The tangles grow exponentially when connecting up live audio in massive venues such as concert halls and stadiums, where hundreds of so-called XLR or cannon connectors connect the microphones, mixers, amplifiers and other equipment. A single drum kit can have up to a dozen microphones, each of which has its own cable running back to the mixing desk.
Sydney-based start-up Audinate is hoping to bring order to chaos by scrapping traditional analog cabling in favour of the same TCP/IP-based networking technology used to hook up office computers.
According to chief technology officer Aidan Williams, it's not just as simple as just plugging the mikes, amplifiers and mixing desks into a networking switch, as IP networks were never intended for real-time transmission. While it doesn't really matter if an email gets delayed by a few milliseconds here and there, for audio and video signals, the disruption can be significant.
"We are talking latency that is 20 times less than is acceptable in Voice over IP," Williams says. "When I talk to you, you don't mind if there is 10, 20 or 200 milliseconds worth of round trip. But if you were singing, or a drummer, that would freak you out. Or if you had a bunch of speakers in a stadium and they weren't properly time-aligned, the sound would be really muddy."
Converting an analog signal into a digital one suitable for transmission over an IP network takes time — albeit a very small amount — and keeping those signals synchronised across dozens of different inputs and outputs has been one of the problems that Audinate has solved.
Often analog signals are converted to digital anyway for modern mixing equipment, and then reconverted back to analog again, adding noise and delays. Audinate ensures that digital translation takes place only once.
Audinate's IP technology, dubbed DANTE, means one cat-5 networking cable can do the job of 500 analog connectors, removing tonnes of cabling from large installations. Williams says the deployment of an IP network based on DANTE is a tenth of that of an analog network.
He says another goal of DANTE has been to ensure that it is easy to use. "IP networks are typically run by IT guys, and your average installer in the AV space is not usually an IT guy," Williams says. While DANTE currently operates on switched networks, the company is extending the technology to work across routers, meaning it could handle the audio requirements of an entire campus across a wide area network.
Audinate's DANTE has been in development since 2003, starting as a research project within NICTA before being spun out as a separate company. It has also received funding from venture capital firms Innovation Capital and Starfish Ventures.
The technology has already had a number of hefty work-outs, being used for distributing audio at the premiere of the latest Star Trek film at the Sydney Opera House, and for the various events for World Youth Day, including an address to 200,000 spectators at Randwick Racecourse.
While the technology is ideal for temporary installations, chief operating officer David Myers believes the bigger market is installation at new venues and refitting of old ones. He believes there are also opportunities in the broader construction industry, to carry public address systems and alarms on DANTE-based IP networks in shopping centres and office buildings, allowing telephony, data and audio to all be run over a single network.
The company has already signed an agreement with Yamaha to distribute its technology, and hopes to see manufacturers licence its designs to incorporate in their technology. It has already been incorporated into processors used by Dolby. In June the German company Bosch, which has a large slice of the public address systems market, announced that it had adopted DANTE as its strategic networking technology, with products to start coming out over the next year.
DANTE is a good example of how lateral thinking can see technology from one industry used to solve a problem within another. Audinate is not the first company to propose using high-performance IP in audio, but is the first to do so in a non-proprietary way.
Its biggest hurdle is to educate audio engineers to embrace IP networking, but the enthusiasm with which Yahama and Bosch have adopted it indicates that they see a strong potential market.
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