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Networks, AoIP Flourish in Festival Audio

The proliferation of digitally-networked audio rigs and an increased acceptance of the latest AoIP (audio over internet protocol) pro audio technologies in live sound have made the modern music festival setting more comprehensively digital than ever before.

The proliferation of digitally-networked audio rigs and an increased acceptance of the latest AoIP (audio over internet protocol) pro audio technologies in live sound have made the modern music festival setting more comprehensively digital than ever before. While nearly all large-scale festivals currently rely upon digital networks that are either Dante or AES3 (a.k.a. AES/EBU) protocol-based, new needs for digital audio distribution are emerging all the time.

According to worldwide audio systems provider Eighth Day Sound’s Tristan Johnson—a Sydney, Australia-based touring systems technician—post-mixer audio distro is his name in the game. “What we do is create a network that drives the PA, first and foremost,” confirms Johnson. “We don’t link all the other traveling engineers into that network. That [system] can run AES or Dante; we tend to run one or the other with an analog backup. Out front, the needs are not so much about [whether it’s] Dante or AES, it’s more about word clock—making sure everything is synced up properly in the network—so that the front end of our drive system isn’t freaked out by all the different clocks and signals that it sees.”

When is it AES3, and when is it Dante? “It’s about what the system tech knows, availability and capacity,” continues Johnson. “We did the [hip-hop] Hot 97 festival in New Jersey this summer, which was an Adamson rig, all run Dante, and the capacity needed to be more lines, more zones and more control. Then we did Bonnaroo—which is more bands, rock ‘n’ roll, left and right PA—and we ran AES. It’s about fitting the application.”

While it’s generally all console-forward signal that is on the digital network in festivals at the moment, Johnson is seeing innovations pointing to a completely digital signal flow, which makes sense for many reasons in a festival setting. “Things all keep progressing,” he confirms. “I think you’ll soon see networks that control more and more of the sound distribution, recording [needs] as well. But I see that changing as more [large format live] desks progress and offer more options than just AES or analog.”

Meanwhile, tour-proven console manufacturers such as Yamaha are developing complex modular systems that can be digital from preamp to speaker. Marc Lopez, marketing manager at Yamaha Commercial Audio Systems, comments on his company’s developmental efforts within complete AoIP audio systems and how they can specifically benefit festival sound. “There are many benefits and efficiencies gained with a networked audio system, ranging from the physical infrastructure to the almost-limitless virtual-patching ability,” offers Lopez on the benefits of distributing signal across the often far-flung ranges involved in festival audio. “Cat 5e/6 cable is inexpensive and capable of carrying hundreds of audio channels along with mixed control, monitoring data; complete mic preamp to power amp networks can [all] be connected. Compared to analog snakes, this reduces truck pack and weight, and even eliminates the need for analog splits. Because the cost of Cat 5e is so inexpensive, it is even left behind in some cases rather than spending time and labor on load-out to gather it up.”

Yamaha is committed to building Dante networking technologies into its festival-ready mixers, man y of which are expected to feed recording rigs on site. “Yamaha utilizes built-in Dante networking in our CL and QL Series [products] along with the R-Series of analog and digital remote I/O. [Our] analog Rio units have a Gain Compensation function that allows two or more consoles (or even recording computers) to receive consistent-level signals even if the analog gain is adjusted. Control data also runs on the same network, so computers running the editor software—including iPads running StageMix, amp and wireless mic monitoring—can [all] co-exist without additional infrastructure. Version 4 CL and QL Series mixing software now includes control and monitoring of Shure’s ULX-D mics directly on the console display, creating further convenience. The RSio64-D can operate as console switcher with its ability to accept any of the many Yamaha MY-cards along with sample-rate conversion to simplify clocking when mixing various digital systems.”

End-user demand and interest, says Lopez, have resulted in several new features and products in the Yamaha live mixer line, which are of particular interest to festival-oriented users. “Port-to-Port patching was added in the Yamaha QL digital console, allowing local inputs built into the console to be patched directly to the network, bypassing the mixer,” boasts Lopez. “The control and monitoring of Shure ULX-D [systems] was born from customer requests. And, the RSio64-D ‘bento box’ was built as a demand for additional access to the popular MY-cards. Also, to help simplify network switch setups, we introduced SWP1, our own original technology, Dante-ready Ethernet switch; SWP1 is purpose-built for pro audio networking applications with instant Dante configuration via a single DIP-switch, a sub -1 minute boot-up time, fanless design and locking connectors.”

Meanwhile, manufacturers such as PreSonus have placed greater R&D emphasis on developing digital products for live sound and touring, recognizing the comprehensive audio demands in festival sound. Ray Tantzen, senior product manager, Product Development for PreSonus, explains how his company’s studio- and live-conducive mix systems are aimed at audio system providers facing an increased emphasis on festival audio production and its many idiosyncrasies.

“PreSonus StudioLive networked mixers and controllers offer a lot of flexibility to integrate into a larger ecosystem,” begins Tantzen. “The most recent example of this at festivals has been as a recording system for some of the largest festivals in the US. Using our Dante option card, multiple StudioLive RM mixers and a CS18AI control surface were able to be integrated with the front-of-house, monitor, and broadcast systems. This allowed for a completely autonomous recording system without the need for multiple, expensive analog splits and cabling. Another great use of AoIP we’ve seen at festivals has been distributing audio to delay stacks and VIP areas. With AoIP, you not only save valuable setup time, you also get better sound quality than you could with analog cables over such as long distance. This ultimately results in a better experience for the festival attendees.”

Tantzen sees a near future where “each microphone or DI just plugs into a network switch and we no longer need to worry about patching into the right input channel on a stage box,” he insists. “In fact, there would be no stage box; everything on the stage is just an endpoint on the network. The mixer knows which mic is the kick mic no matter where it’s plugged on the network.”

As the new generation of audio engineers become more A/V—and increasingly internet protocol over analog signal flow—savvy, manufacturers such as PreSonus are hearing more requests for audio networks to be easy to set up and use on those particular end users’ terms. That said, more traditionally-schooled audio engineers can be overwhelmed with an increasingly AoIP world. For that reason, says Tantzen, ease-of-use is paramount.

“We’ve been providing an easy-to-use integrated experience between our hardware and software for several years thanks to our early networking efforts,” Tantzen explains. “Now, as we’ve been adding audio transport to our already existing control and management network, we’ve worked to bring that same level of integration to our users. For example, if you’re using our StudioLive RM mixers in an AVB networked system as a stage box and monitor mixer for our StudioLive AI console mixers, we handle all the connection management for you. All you need to do is make the network connections and turn on ‘stage box mode.’ From there, we connect the mixers, route the audio, synchronize scenes, names and more. AoIP technology should allow audio systems to be setup easier and faster with more flexibility, and that’s what we strive to deliver for our users.”

Though it may have started with sophisticated digitally-networked systems in large-scale live sound, AoIP technology is available to audio providers today at nearly all ranks and for all size of live events. At PreSonus, confirms Tantzen, the company’s focus has been squarely on bringing AoIP benefits of the “big rigs” to the masses for quite some time. “[We do it] in a way everyone can understand and set up without complication,” he says. “As we’ve begun to introduce audio networking concepts to our users, we’ve seen a wide variety of knowledge and background when it comes to networking, but in general, most users are unfamiliar with the IT world. We’ve tried to introduce AoIP in small steps, partnering with network specialist like Netgear to help educate to our users with clinics, videos and other tutorials outlining the basics of networking. Some of the most basic concepts of networking, such as IP addresses and managed switches, are beyond anything many users have had to think about in the past. Nearly everyone can understand the benefits of AoIP in their audio systems. Our goal is to remove the veil from the unknown IT world and make it easier to use and understand.”

Rest assured, festival audio will become an even greater percentage of an audio provider’s business if recent trends continue. And that’s a likelihood as the headline acts—which traditionally and as a rule—preferred their untethered touring status until figuring out how to make a festival appearance their own thing.

“I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 10 years doing all of the Australian festivals,” concludes Johnson. “There were so many and they were so regular, the touring thing kind of dried up; [acts] didn’t need to take on the cost of traveling and production and lighting. They could just travel around bare bones—with backline, engineer and tour manager—and actually make some money. But I think you see that easy side for them, and, for us, a nice and easy side during the day; a couple of guys turn up, set up backline and we do their set. Where it’s changed [recently] is a lot of headliners seem to be treating the shows as their own show rather than a show at a festival. These headline acts are coming in with packages, seven or eight trucks, arriving with lighting, video and audio extras as they try to put their own unique touch on their performance at the show. So while some things are simplified, some things become more complicated. This is where new technologies [like AoIP] become more valuable.”