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#19: Not So Mysterious: Defining The Basics Of Digital Audio Networking

Part 1 of a series explaining key terms and terminology and laying the groundwork for understanding the underlying technologies and foundations of networking.

Editors Note: There are three additional articles available in this series, including Models, Layers & Protocols (Part 2), Virtual Local Area Networks, a.k.a., VLANs (Part 3), and IP Addresses, Subnet Masks, & Default Gateways (Part 4).

When I first started learning audio, everything was analog. Instead of layers on a console, we had a physical channel strip for each input. We didn’t have computer screens with plugins, just some really heavy racks of gear wired up into console inserts. If a signal wasn’t working, troubleshooting was usually as simple as following the signal path to find the problem. Signal flow made so much sense to me.

But then digital equipment started becoming more mainstream, and pretty soon there was audio networking in the middle of our systems! My understanding of essential aspects like signal flow took a hit. Luckily, equipment manufacturers made it easier to learn how to connect all this gear together.

However, I still didn’t know how any of this stuff really worked. The network seemed like a cloud-shaped blob on the signal flow chart that was beyond my comprehension.

A bit later I found myself working in the IT department at a large church in the midst of building a new sanctuary. An IT director friend invited me down to help out with a few things, and pretty soon I figured out that networked audio systems were not only the future, but one that was already well underway.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who saw networks as a big fuzzy blob of the unknown; that was typical of most AV folks I encountered. Likewise, many IT people didn’t understand the intricacies of AV systems. That’s when I started becoming fascinated with the blending of networking and AV.

The Big Picture

Before diving in too far to the nitty-gritty details of it all, let’s look at the bigger picture. Networking may be fairly new to most of the audio world, but it’s been around for quite a while and is a great foundation for transferring almost any kind of data.

As new technologies are developed for audio, there are a lot of exciting possibilities. It’s pretty common these days to have a network carrying live audio signal between consoles, snakes, amplifiers, digital processors, loudspeakers, and more.

Likewise, transmitting live video to the internet for streaming, and connecting iPads for remote control all rely on networking. Nearly every part of a worship service can be touched and improved upon with the help of AV networking. You can even set up projectors to email you when their lamps are due for replacement. It’s an interesting world, and the possibilities are almost endless.

This can be very technical information, so it’s necessary to spend time focusing on the basics. There’s a lot of great documentation available from different companies on how to configure the network settings of their equipment, which is super helpful and absolutely worth reading and understanding. However, learning how the underlying technology works comes in handy when it’s time to troubleshoot, upgrade, or expand our systems.

In my work, we often talk about the difference between being a cook and a chef. Cooks follow the recipe for chocolate chip cookies, and if they follow the instructions correctly, they’ll get the exact cookies that the recipe was designed to make. On the other hand, being a chef means understanding how browning the butter first brings balance to the sweetness, and how dissolving sugars before baking helps them caramelize better and create a richer flavor.

Similarly, learning how things work in networking – rather than just following the steps – helps in truly understanding what’s going on and how to approach problems and get the desired outcomes.

But, Why?

Networking lets us send immense amounts of signal through one set of cabling. No longer do we need to run hundreds of pounds of copper around a sanctuary – a single network cable can run tens, and in some cases, hundreds of channels of audio completely transparently and at the speed of light.

Networking helps in lessening the need for big, heavy and often costly analog snakes.

Perhaps you’ve heard of or used a digital snake. If you haven’t had the pleasure, digital snakes are boxes that sit on stage with the musicians. Plug all of the microphones and instruments into this box as usual (with XLR) and then run a single cable out from that box and to the mixing console using network technologies. This provides total access to all these same inputs – it’s a gamechanger!

Wireless systems are part of the game as well. If your church uses more than a handful of wireless systems, I suspect you could (or will soon be able to) benefit from connecting them to a network. Every year we see more and more wireless gear (and other equipment for that matter) add network functionality at a lower cost not only to transfer audio signals to the console, but (via computer or other devices) to help manage frequency coordination and other configurations and view the data such as battery, signal strength and levels.

Networking doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming. In many cases, networks can be cheaper than running all the cabling they replace, while adding flexibility for upgrades and expansion. Quality network equipment continues to decrease in price while increasing in features and options, which is a big benefit for folks like us. While networking can become complicated in certain applications, there continues to be more and more information available on how to configure and use it in our unique situations. After learning some of the underlying concepts, best practices, and tips and tricks, you’ll be able to efficiently design and configure networks optimized for your specific systems.

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