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Digital vs Analogue: A Life Changing Experience - by Robin Johnson

Digital vs Analogue: A Life Changing Experience - by Robin Johnson

Two weeks ago, Christoph Haertwig wrote about how the transition from analogue to digital audio has affected the professional recording industry. This time, I hope to complement those words with the view from the amateur audio world…

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Audio network security: introducing Dante Domain Manager

Audio network security: introducing Dante Domain Manager

Audio networking has brought many improvements to the world of professional audio: virtually limitless channel counts, minimal and easy cabling, simple redundancy - just to name a few. It has also brought us new functionality that didn’t exist before, such as the separation of functional and physical connections (the network as a patch panel), storing and recalling patches in memory, monitoring the status of individual inputs / outputs and sharing the same infrastructure for other functionality, such as user interfaces, lighting and video.

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Digital vs Analogue: Greener Grass Grows On Both Sides - by Christoph Haertwig.

Digital vs Analogue: Greener Grass Grows On Both Sides - by Christoph Haertwig.

When I started as a recording engineer in the 1990s, analogue audio was already on the verge of being replaced by digital technology and a Hamburg based programmer named Charlie Steinberg was just about to break through with his (later patented) Virtual Studio Technology (VST). The idea of putting everything that used to live in racks and machine rooms into the computer sounded like a great idea. We anticipated every single piece of development news, as we were fed up cutting tape, adjusting the machines, living with breaking external devices and not being able to quickly recall settings.

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Yamaha history: personal computers

Yamaha history: personal computers

When the microprocessor chip was introduced to the world in the 1970s by Intel, Motorola, Zilog, MOS technology and others, alongside the emerging ‘personal computer’ industry, the innovative musical instrument market was among the first adopters of this new technology. A few decades later, there’s hardly any electronic music equipment on sale that doesn’t include a microprocessor.

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The custom configurable UI for live mixing

The custom configurable UI for live mixing

In the previous micro tutorial, two changes in the workflow of live sound engineers were highlighted - the division of ‘basic’ and ‘sound’ processing and trouble-free infrastructure. A third change has now become an important part of the live sound marketplace: the transition of manufacturer-designed user interfaces to custom-configurable ones.

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The two changes in live mixing workflow.

The two changes in live mixing workflow.

Compared with 10 years ago, many innovations changed the way we use mixing systems. For example: increased DSP power and i/o infrastructure removed virtually all of the constraints we had got used to in the past, making the workflow processes and procedures to cope with these constraints redundant. Instead, new workflow concepts emerged to support system designers and operators to manage the huge size, power and complexity available in contemporary mixing systems. This blog presents two workflow concepts.

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Classification of networked mixing systems: power and i/o scope.

Classification of networked mixing systems: power and i/o scope.

Thanks to the innovations in digital mixing and gigabit networking - together constituting ‘networked mixing systems’ - audio productions have evolved to unprecedented sizes and quality. This raises the issue of selecting a networked mixing system with enough capacity and functionality to fit a planned audio production. Brochures of mixing system manufacturers often boast of high channel counts and powerful DSP, but not always in a consistent way. To facilitate meaningful assessments, this micro tutorial proposes a classification method to obtain a rough ‘system scope’ assessment based on two properties: processing power scope and i/o scope. These properties are simplified, modelled representations of a system’s capabilities, intended for a rudimentary classification only. Once it comes to details, the manufacturer’s specifications have to be studied, of course.

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Technology innovations in live sound.

Technology innovations in live sound.

‘Senior’ sound engineers - let’s say those older then 40 - remember when the multicore cable that connects the Front Of House (FOH) mixing console and the stage was a clunky ‘snake’, several centimetres thick, which comprised multiple pairs of conductors. The longer the multicore and the more channel pairs it had, the heavier it became, requiring several people to carry it around and roll it out. We learned to cope with the down sides of analogue cabling; longer cable lengths caused the signal’s high frequencies to be suppressed and required heavy per-pair shielding to prevent crosstalk.

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Loudspeaker Power specifications.

Loudspeaker Power specifications.

Loudspeaker drivers convert electrical power into acoustic power by means of an electro-magnetic process: a coil hovers in a magnetic field, generated by a fixed magnet, and an electric alternating current through the coil makes it move up and down. For low-power loudspeaker drivers, ‘ferro-magnetic’ materials are used for the magnet; for more powerful loudspeakers, scarcer - and therefore more expensive - Neodymium magnets are used. In both cases, the moving coil is attached to a cone made of paper or plastic, which transmits pressure waves into the air. A wooden or plastic cabinet is built around the driver to optimise the electric to acoustic power conversion process and to shape the response in frequency range and dispersion.

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Line arrays

Line arrays

Sound reinforcement systems use components that radiate air pressure waves to the audience, components which we know as ‘loudspeakers’. Most applications use the so called ‘point source’ type; loudspeakers constituting one or more drivers mounted in a cabinet that radiates - or disperses - waves as much as possible to the front of the cabinet. In practice however, the dispersion pattern is usually broad for low frequencies, narrowing towards high frequencies. This dispersion behaviour is not ideal, having three disadvantages:

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ISM wireless microphones

ISM wireless microphones

Most audio connections in live sound applications and use cables to carry audio signals - analogue, digital or networked - from sound sources to stage boxes, from stage boxes to mixers and from mixers to power amplifiers. However, one category of sound source is often connected through radio waves: microphones. Although a cable is the most secure way to connect a microphone, with the highest audio quality, there’s a practical reason to use radio: freedom of movement of the performer. This also goes for worn musical instruments, such as guitars.

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Networked Audio

Networked Audio

Modern audio network protocols are often based on gigabit Ethernet technology, supporting channel counts that we couldn’t dream of 20 years ago. Even a small-scale network is capable of transporting thousands of channels. Because of the full addressing that is inherent to the Ethernet protocol, the bonus is that the network acts as a routing matrix with millions of patch points. There are multiple protocols available, all supporting 24-bit audio streams, some even 32 bits, and high resolution sample rates - so audio quality is not an issue. Timing is assured as all Ethernet protocols use the Precision Time and Quality of Service Protocols, while software and hardware phase-locked loop (PLL) technology has evolved to reduce transport jitter to inaudible levels.

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Ethernet

Ethernet

Back in the seventies the Palo Alto Research Center in California, USA (www.parc.com) developed some nifty computer technology such as the mouse, the laser printer and computer networks. From the first versions of networks such as Aloha-Net and ARPA-Net the Internet has evolved. Robert Metcalfe, first working at PARC and later founding his own company 3COM, developed a practical networking standard for use in offices called Ethernet. More than 40 years later the whole world is using this standard to build information systems, and all personal computers, smart phones, tablets and also many professional audio products sold today have some form of Ethernet port built in. The Ethernet protocol is standardized as 802.3 by the IEEE standards organization.

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The benefit of standards in the audio industry

The benefit of standards in the audio industry

Standards have been part of our civilisation ever since human life evolved on Earth. One of the most obvious examples is language; the fact that a group of human beings can exchange information with each other relies completely on the concept that all individuals within the group share the same language. Countries worldwide institutionalised their languages in their educational systems, maintaining standards on syntax and vocabulary, teaching students in schools. Often, languages of neighbouring countries are also included in the school curriculum to ensure cross-country compatibility of communication.

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The six rules of audio network troubleshooting

The six rules of audio network troubleshooting

Manufacturers of audio networking equipment often promise a ‘plug and play’, hassle-free user experience, with a ‘sky’s the limit’ channel capacity. If you keep things simple, in most cases it’s true. Of course, once you start to make things more complex - for example by combining multiple brands and product types in a large distributed system - things start to get more complicated. Still, when systems are designed with care and enough forethought, it’s entirely possible to make things work - but the paradigm changes from ‘plug and play’ to ‘think, plug and play’.

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