As audio and video media migrates from analog to digital means of creation and production, the tools used to deliver AV content have evolved from bespoke cables and technologies to something quite universal in the IT and computing world: IP networking.
The rapid expansion of networked AV technologies means that IT and AV departments are inevitably moving closer to one another, sharing a common infrastructure in order to accomplish their goals.
This shared infrastructure points to a real need for both groups to become familiar with the needs, practices and standards of one another. IT and AV professionals must understand each other’s unique POV and pain points, be aware of the technology advances in each industry, and work together to create secure, efficient, and productive IP-based AV networks.
Ready or not, this need is here today. IT departments are increasingly being held responsible for AV equipment, including video conferencing systems and campus-wide audio.
While thoroughly versed in computers and general networking, these professionals are not necessarily familiar with the demands and parameters of AV gear, nor of the performance differences and capabilities of XLR, HDMI, and other common AV connections that are being replaced.
They are charged with mapping the functionality that these legacy technologies offered onto their systems without a complete understanding of the performance requirements, tradeoffs and desired end user experience.
Similarly, many AV professionals are now using IP-based technology without the benefit of an extensive background in networking. When working alongside an IT department, they may lack the vocabulary and understanding necessary to communicate the impacts that AV may have on an existing system, or the requirements for a new network design.
When each side is unfamiliar with the needs and practices of the other, clear communication becomes critical to bridge the gap. AV managers must to be able to explain their goals with a basic understanding of the impact upon network configuration and performance, while IT managers must learn more about how AV works and is used in order to grasp the impact it has upon their organisation.
An AV professional needn’t be a networking expert, but must understand enough about the system to understand when to recommend the use of QoS, or when multicast audio is a better choice than unicast.
Conversely, the IT manager must be sufficiently comfortable with AV networking technology and use cases in order to identify potential issues and to help design a system that is coherent with the rest of the network for a seamless, high-quality user experience.
At work in the studio
Microsoft Production Studios is a 65,000-square-foot facility, with 17 video edit rooms, three sound stages, two insert stages, two production control rooms, and five audio rooms.
Microsoft Production Studios handles all of Microsoft’s corporate communications (close to 2,800 projects a year), including any project that includes streaming, live-streaming to the Xbox and live-streaming for internal and external consumption. Other than television commercials, anything that’s video/audio related for Microsoft is produced at Microsoft Production Studios.
At Microsoft Production Studios, the AV team works closely with the IT group to design, deploy and scale the AV network. These teams have now been working together for several years, learning much about each other in the process. Several members or the AV team are working upon obtaining their Cisco Network Certification to better advance their AV careers.
IP-based audio and video equipment allows teams to work on productions anywhere on the extensive campus, even while the physical gear remains in the Microsoft Production Studios facility.
Editors and producers can connect to the IP network and immediately route audio and video signals to and from the equipment for mixing, editing or switching. The results are then live-broadcast to wherever they need to go: internal, external, to Xbox or anywhere else. At Microsoft Production Studios, video engineers, audio engineers and IT engineers are all on the same team.
Digital media networking
It will surprise no one to learn that Microsoft Production Studios facility is connected to the rest of the Microsoft campus via an extensive, incredibly capable high-speed IP network. For the past three years, Dante audio networking has been used to handle all transport for high-end audio production over this existing network.
Two Cisco Nexus 7000 switches in a redundant Dante configuration are at the heart of the system. Additional pairs of switches are deployed throughout the facility on stages, staging rooms, audio rooms, video control rooms, and editing suites. Dante redundancy ensures that even if an equipment or cable failure takes out a switch, audio and control will continue to be available with no audio artifacts whatsoever.
Once the system was in place, Microsoft Production Studios could utilise the entire network for audio devices without having to rewire the facility, and now runs many multiple VLANs (Virtual LAN) in order to handle the different styles of networks needed. Over 5000 audio channels are simultaneously available.
Benefits of the digital workflow
Live streaming of real-time content is a key component of Xbox Live, and Microsoft Production Studios handles these tasks using their networked AV system. Award shows are among the most popular programs, and Microsoft often makes major game announcements that are broadcast through Xbox Live in conjunction with Spike TV.
Content is provided in several alternate languages for worldwide distribution, often including French, Chinese, Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, all translated in real-time.
The earlier, non-network workflow for these award shows took about two days — a day to set up, a day to do the translations, and then teardown. Network technologies have allowed the production team to reduce this workflow only 30 minutes of setup alone – a dramatic change.
Instead of having to configure and connect the analog devices, cabling, mixers, microphones, monitors, and surrounding equipment, production techs now use edit rooms that each have a router that provides satellite video feeds.
From there, techs connect an interface to an existing network jack, plug in microphones and headphones, and everything is easily connected back to the audio processors in the Studio. The cost savings in manpower, setup, and production time has been significant.
Extensive use is made of PoE (Power over Ethernet) switches. These switches allow low-current draw devices to derive power directly over Cat5E cable, eliminating the need for separate power supplies and keeping the number of cables to a minimum.
Technology and talent, converged
From conference rooms and remote workspaces, to presentation theatres, large-scale broadcast studios and production facilities, the convergence of audio/video technologies and IT networks has become the new norm — and advancements are being made at an incredible pace.
Professional Audio/Video is moving to IP-based systems for many good reasons – cost, manageability, quality and ease of use. It is critical that IT managers understand the impact of bringing AV onto the network, and incorporate AV considerations when designing or refitting a network. This will mean jettisoning a few outdated assumptions, and is part of the process of convergence.
Similarly, AV managers can no longer remain separate from network concerns. As they design and deploy new systems, a better understanding of the IT manager’s world will help to coordinate best practices and customs that will ultimately benefit all parties.
In this environment, AV and IT professionals must work to expand their partnerships and knowledge base to leverage the technologies and best practices from both segments.
By sharing technical expertise, experience, and best practices, they can deliver the high-performance, cost-effective, networked audio performance that their clients and companies demand.