Audio networking, or the use of standard computer networks to transport and distribute digital audio between devices, has been rapidly growing in importance for the AV industry during the past 10 or so years. For example, AV-over-IP has become ubiquitous in larger, more complex installations, with it also having found a home in thousands of smaller systems.
Audio networking uses common, cost-effective, generic networking hardware that is easily obtained around the world.
The reasons are clear enough. Audio networking provides clean, purely digital transport that is utterly free of noise and interference.
With the benefit of audio networking, purely digital transport can traverse long distances with no degradation of signal whatsoever, and achieve extremely low, predictable latencies, well below the threshold of human perception. It replaces bulky, expensive multicore cables with lightweight Cat5/6 Ethernet cabling, and yet can still easily handle hundreds of channels of audio at each port.
Audio networking uses common, cost-effective, generic networking hardware that is easily obtained around the world. Most importantly, audio networking replaces the concept of “point-to-point” wiring, with software-controlled routing.
No longer must routing changes involve physically moving cables and connectors from device to device, sometimes at great expense or difficulty. With networking, any changes can simply be made with a mouse click, using a PC or Mac.
This kind of control is the great strength of networking - all devices are always present on the network, making any combination of channel connections possible, without needing to touch a wire.
Controlling an audio network
Unlike custom legacy audio connectors that generally carried only one type of signal between two devices, networks can carry thousands of different signals at the same time. This means that any audio networking system requires some kind of intelligent control, as connections are no longer represented simply by cables between devices. Instead, connections are made using software, tasked to tell devices which channels to send to other devices, etc.
Control software for an audio network resides on a standard computer, such as a Mac or Windows PC, and is able to “see” the audio connections and traffic as distinct from the other types of network traffic.
Changes can be made by people using the software, which in turn instructs software on the devices to transmit or receive different channels with different settings. Without all this software, there would be no way to tell devices what they needed to do.
What is Dante Controller?
Among the control software options available, Dante Controller is the default control software for Dante AV-over-IP systems. It is available for free as a download from Audinate and runs on MacOS and Windows.
Dante devices are automatically discovered by Dante Controller, and so no work is required to get started beyond connecting all devices (and the computer) to a common network switch.
Dante Controller starts with a Routing interface, which displays a spreadsheet-like grid, showing all the devices located on a Dante network. Each device is shown with both Transmit and Receive channels (if both are present) on horizontal and vertical axes. To create a connection (called a subscription in Dante systems), a user simply clicks at the intersection of desired transmit and receive channels. That’s it. Clicking again removes the subscription.
Dante Controller doesn’t store settings and does not need to be running continuously for a Dante system to work. Dante Controller shows what it finds on the network and allows a user to make changes to those settings. Once changes are made, Dante Controller may be closed. All settings and subscriptions are stored in the Dante devices themselves.
Dante Controller is designed to handle the wide variety of Dante-enabled devices that are on the market, which vary from single-channel microphones to 512-channel behemoth audio mixing consoles. There is no limit to the number of devices that Dante Controller is able to handle, though as a practical matter, most single-subnet Dante networks are limited to several hundred devices.
What is Dante Domain Manager?
Dante Domain Manager is a powerful tool that allows Dante networks to be subdivided into secure domains (akin to zones), with full control over user access. Dante Domain Manager doesn’t replace Dante Controller at all - rather, it enhances the way Dante Controller works on a network where Dante Domain Manager is present.
Houses of worship are frequently dependent upon volunteers to operate AV systems, and so AV managers in this space are keenly aware of the mishaps that can and do occur. Dante Domain Manager provides a way to control who can as users access the system, and what they can do on the system. It also provides a complete log of activities, so problems can be traced and corrected.
When Dante Domain Manager is installed, it runs continuously as a service, usually on a server. When users open Dante Controller on the network, they are presented with a login screen and must authenticate to Dante Domain Manager in order to use the system. They are then shown only the devices for which they have permission to use or change.
For larger and more secure installations, Dante Domain Manager performs one more key function - it allows Dante AV traffic to be routed across subnets for a complete Layer-3 solution. This can be a valuable feature when deploying a Dante network over a larger campus that is comprised of multiple spaces that are being controlled by the system.
Dante Domain Manager is available from Audinate resellers in three tiers to accommodate different sizes of installation.
The benefits of software-driven AV are significant and multifaceted.
Audio installations no longer require trips to crawl spaces to make change, and heavy custom cables are replaced with lightweight, multipurpose Ethernet Cat5/8. Once the devices are in place, any arrangement of connections can be made with a few mouse clicks, allowing AV managers to rearrange systems in moments, instead of hours.
Total cost of ownership, or TCO, for networked audio is far lower than legacy systems over time, as both installation and changes are much easier to do.
Software-based control is not optional in an AV-over-IP system, but is an essential element of their design and use.
Because AV devices are increasingly computational in nature, moving to an architecture that is native to computers is both natural and efficient, and that means that we’ll be seeing a lot more screens for a long time to come.