Interoperability: Is Radio Ahead of the Game?

Interoperability: Is Radio Ahead of the Game?

By Andy Calvanese, Vice President / Engineering of Wheatstone Corporation

Andy-Calvanese-2011As the original electronic media, radio and TV have been providing content services for their customers longer than most anybody. And, as all of us in the business can attest, it has been a highly competitive and dynamic process, constantly evolving from the earliest table radios to more recent digital HD sub channels, satellite radio, mobile apps, and the internet streaming of today. The business models have evolved as fast as the equipment, with format changes in the blink of an eye and remote feeds from half a world away.

Throughout all these changes the broadcast physical plant has had to evolve in step. Originally, all you needed was a transmitter, a couple of mics and some talented people. Then along came the Victrolas, the turntables, the cart machines, the tape recorders, the CD players, and finally the mini discs, not to mention the automation PCs, codecs, satellite links and everything else we have today, including the consoles to connect and control it all. This requires a very flexible infrastructure and interoperability among many different pieces of equipment.

1 PUNCHBLOCK-WALLIn the pre-digital age, the necessary flexibility of the broadcasting plant came at the cost of an expensive infrastructure of patch bays, cable harnesses, punch blocks, distribution amplifiers, and breakout boxes, plus the engineers to manage it all.

If you had to do a remote broadcast from a game or convention, you brought your portable mixer and a punch-down tool. You ordered a POTS line and patched it all together for the show. When the game was over, you took it all apart and went back to the station. The point is, even then, the physical plant had to be constructed and staffed to allow for frequent and sometimes unexpected routing and connection changes.

The headaches involved in all of this (those of you who worked in this era can attest to way too many hours spent on your backs tracing wiring in dark places) led to the introduction of analog audio routers into the facility. While they really only replaced the functionality of patch bays, their ability to make multiple connection changes quickly was met with enthusiasm by the larger-market broadcasters who could afford them.

Digital Comes Along

Then along came digital. With the advent of digital technology, audio could be transmitted around the plant without degradation. What was even more impactful was that multiple channels of audio could be sent over the same cable at the same time. Now we’re talking. This technology provided the structure for the TDM based audio routing systems developed by Klotz, SAS, Wheatstone, and others. For the first time broadcasters could have any audio signal delivered anywhere in their plant over simple inexpensive cables without all the punch blocks and patch bays of the past.

3 BRIDGE-OPEN-RJ45As these systems began to proliferate, it became apparent that simply routing audio wasn’t enough, Broadcasters wanted to control the audio. They wanted to put the audio where it was needed when it was needed, controlled by someone pushing a button somewhere or a computer scheduling a commercial or a recording. They wanted this to happen automatically, perhaps dependent on some other conditions. And they wanted all of this to happen anytime, without engineers having to hang around the studio 24/7 to do it. In other words they wanted a complete control system, with the emphasis on system. Audio was just the payload.

And they got it, as can be seen in the numerous TDM audio systems installed and working well today. This technology is flexible and very robust. Broadcasters who installed such systems quickly took advantage of these new capabilities and reveled in the power of centralized system control. As these systems matured, more functions became available for integration into the common system. Control surfaces and mixers were added, intercoms were integrated and audio processing was incorporated, and so forth. All under centralized control.

4 TDM-SYSFLOW-v2

 

A Typical TDM System Flow Diagram

 

 

 

 

Shifting from Proprietary to Interoperable

Life was good. But not perfect. There was still room for improvement. The problem was the cost of interoperability. TDM audio networking required very specific proprietary hardware circuits in every audio device to join the TDM network. Unfortunately, the broadcast studio device market was so miniscule compared to the audio device market as a whole, no device manufacturer had any interest in developing and installing these circuits in their devices. And there were no other markets that had a need to network devices together as broadcasters did. The end result was that the TDM system suppliers had to provide external mechanisms to integrate all the audio devices together. This meant I/O translation cards for audio, GPIO cards for logic, and sound cards for PCs that cost more than the PC. And lots of device wiring for the broadcast engineers. It was a lot less than the old days but still more than anyone wanted.

But something else was happening at the same time that would provide the ultimate solution. The same rush of digital technology that spawned the TDM audio networking systems also affected the audio device manufacturers in their switchover to digital. Every device got a computer inside it. And once you have a computer it’s a very short and logical step for that computer to have a network connection. Just think, while it didn’t make any sense to put a computer connection on your old Walkman analog cassette player, what good would your iPod be without it? So in the early 2000′s, recognizing the trend in digital devices, a few broadcast manufacturers began working on adapting standard Ethernet connections and IP protocols for use in audio networking systems. We recognized that we had to use standard protocols because the device manufacturers would have no incentive for specialized proprietary circuits or protocols. The results are the AoIP systems we have today. By utilizing these standards, nearly any device can join an AoIP network without the need of unique specialized hardware circuits. And because these AoIP systems have evolved from the TDM systems that proved centralized command and control so valuable, they have maintained and expanded that functionality.
We have interoperability in place today. Broadcasters have been using AoIP longer than just about anybody, except perhaps the telecoms, and doing more with it. We’re the first to connect I/O boxes, consoles, and PC software all together and have them all operate as a single system. In the broadcasting world it’s not about getting audio out of a box and onto a network. It’s about the network as a unit and what it can do for me. Because of this we’ve been forced to make these all interoperable. We’ve already built the drivers, interfaces, and libraries that make it possible for practically any device to join our networks.

WNIP CHART_2013ver4

 

 

 

WheatNet-IP System Flow Infographic

 

 

 

While the rest of the industry is just waking up to this idea of passing audio over an IP network, we have complete interoperable systems today. Broadcasters understand that it is not whether an individual device can stream AoIP, but rather the point is the integrated system itself. Can I route audio where I need it? Can I control it so it plays when I want, how I want? Can I make rapid and substantial changes in the system layout and flow without rewiring or re-patching everything? Can I organize and control my system from one centralized application that manages all the routing, streaming, mixing, logic, and control? With today’s latest generation broadcast AoIP system, you can. In that regard, broadcasters are way ahead of the interoperability game.

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