Study Hall

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Awaiting the Digital Audio Network Standard

Engineers debate the proposed standards, employers dream of becoming digital audio Macrosofts, and the industry plods along minus the boost a digital audio networking standard could provide.

Digigram brought their solution to the show. It’s called EtherSpeaker, a one-way 32 channel speaker wire replacement that uses the same “physical layer” (Cat 5 twisted pair copper and RJ45 connectors) as CobraNet (and SoundWeb and Ethernet, for that matter). Per-node cost is significantly lower, because EtherSpeaker just does basic signal routing chores: no control, no bidirectional communication, just multi-channel digital audio.

BSS SoundWeb has about the same number of installed nodes as CobraNet, but it’s a proprietary closed system. Although BSS is the latest CobraNet licensee, the company representative I spoke with claimed that SoundWeb is too far ahead of CobraNet in some key areas to allow a bridge between the two most widely used digital audio networks (which would create critical mass by joining two islands to form a continent). I’d have to guess that BSS wants CobraNet ports on next-generation OmniDrive product, at least as an option, and acquired the license as insurance against CobraNet’s reaching critical mass and becoming the de facto standard. At this point, SoundWeb is out of the network standard race, whatever its technical merits may be: BSS has no licensing programfor the technology.

Yamaha’s mLAN is slow out of the gate, but could accelerate quickly. mLAN is an “audio layer” on IEEE1394, aka FireWire. FireWire is only 6 years old, was invented by Apple Computer specifically for multimedia, and won a Technical Emmy last year. It’s already revolutionized the video production industry by hot-plugging digital video cameras into desktop computers running video editing software. To date, only four companies have announced mLAN licenses: Yamaha, Otari, Korg and Swissonics. To those who cite FireWire’s distance limitations and clock jitter problems, I say “go jump in the Pacific.” Try leaping off the pier at Redondo Beach, CA, where the performing arts center is shipping 88 audio channels around the building on an mLAN network. mLAN is available as a royalty-free license, and a 32-channel 400 MB/s chip is due next year from Otari and Yamaha. Four of those could be connected to a single FireWire “link layer” chip, for up to 128 channels of audio, plus MIDI, video, computer control protocols like RS232, etc.

Close behind mLAN is Gibson’s MaGIC (Media Accelerated Global Information Carrier). MaGIC is a high-bandwidth, low-latency protocol that exists on the IEEE802.3b physical layer (Cat 5 cable and RJ45 connectors) just like SoundWeb, CobraNet (or at least QSC’s CobraNet-based RAVE network hardware) and EtherSpeaker. Like FireWire, MaGIC is ready to handle a range of digital media plus control signals (although MIDI is currently the only defined control protocol). The network does not have a built-in IP layer, but does utilize the hardware-specific MAC address protocol, and reserves space for TCP/IP headers if desired. MaGIC plans to exhibit at CES and NSCA, but will not be sharing booth space with Gibson Les Pauls, L-5s and J-200s at NAMM. Like mLAN, MaGIC is a royalty-free license.

Gibson plans to have a $20 chip available sometime in 2002.

At the moment, none of the visible network standards are close to critical mass. CobraNet’s early lead is substantial, but could evaporate quickly under the right circumstances. Meanwhile, engineers continue to debate the merits of one standard or another, their employers continue to dream of becoming digital audio Macrosofts, and the industry plods along without the rocket boost a digital audio networking standard could provide.

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