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Everyone in television knows the old adage: "Audio is the bastard child of video." For years, GMs had thought of audio boards as nothing more than an expensive, if necessary, afterthought. Then came digital. The introduction of surround sound may have done more to make audio sexy than Marilyn Monroe's "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy, Barry White, and Madonna's Erotica album combined. Now those looking for the capability to mix live audio were exposed to the many benefits digital technology brought to surround sound. And the list of benefits keeps getting longer.

Most broadcasters are aware of the main advantages of digital audio technology: the ability to put more channels/faders in a smaller space, mix surround while still maintaining a stereo signal, improved reliability and redundancy, and, of course, cleaner, crisper sound. But the audio guys have even more tricks up their sleeves -- perfecting audio networking capabilities, improving display and ergonomics vastly, and offering truly affordable digital solutions to small and mid-size broadcasters.

Networking 101

With the advent of ones and zeros across every aspect of the broadcast industry, there has been a trend toward making the various operations in broadcast facilities "talk" to one another, a.k.a., "networking." At this year's AES show, Calrec introduced its Hydra, a gigabit Ethernet networking system. "Gigabit Ethernet networking provides broadcast facilities with a very cost-efficient and user-friendly infrastructure for sharing I/O resources across the station," said John Gluck, sales and marketing director for Calrec.

Euphonix's System 5-B shares I/O resources through its StudioHub digital audio router. Harrison's TVDSL can share I/O resources through networking as well.

Speaking of routers, most digital audio consoles can easily be connected to the main facility router. "Every digital console has a router," said Andrew Wild, vice president of marketing for Euphonix. "For us it's software and some hardware that allows that digital console router to hook into the main facility router. This allows each room to access all the mics and all the sources in all the different studios. Broadcasters also like the audio control room to be able to switch to any particular studio -- it makes their scheduling a lot easier --and having routers that all talk to each other makes it very easy because it means the console can pick up sources from any room in the facility."

Both of Euphonix's flagship digital audio consoles, the System 5-B and the Max Air, can be connected to the main facility router through the Integrated TDM Broadcast Audio Routing Frame, which was announced at this year's NAB show.

Wheatstone's D5.1 and D-9 digital consoles are both router-based. With them, it is possible to have a scenario where audio sources can be centralized at a central router "hub." These audio sources can be made available to any control surface connected to the router network. In addition, I/O distribution is possible: "Our platform provides for the ability of distributing I/O at various locations within a facility through satellite router cages.

The audio sources terminating in these satellite I/O cages can also be available globally throughout the facility or on a restricted basis as needed," said Brad Harrison, director of international sales for Wheatstone.

Lookin' Good

Digital has dramatically improved the display technology on audio consoles. Most live digital audio consoles now have some sort of LCD or other high-rez type of technology for information display. For example, Calrec's most recent digital console, the Zeta 100, features custom back-lit, bi-color LCD displays. Euphonix's Max Air has a 17-inch, high-resolution touch screen display and its System 5-B a TFT screen at the top of each channel.

Euphonix's Wild said broadcasters have responded well to the touchscreen at the center of the Max Air: "We've found that a lot of engineers find it easier to handle the touchscreen and we can add a lot of software features through it without having to replace knobs and switches," he said.

Solid State Logic's C100, its latest digital audio console, features TFT screens for all its displays. "Utilizing a TFT display gives us the capability of providing a tremendous amount of information on the screens for console operation," said Steve Zaretsky, vice president of broadcast for the U.S. and Canada, Solid State Logic. It also helps those looking to switch between stereo, mono, and/or 5.1 operations. "By providing an environment where the metering can be changeable on screen, then we have the opportunity to be able to adjust the metering displays the way the console is configured. So, if you're operating a mono channel, then you just see a mono meter. If you're operating a 5.1 channel, then that same physical space becomes a 5.1 display."

Harrison has taken the concept of high-rez display to a whole new level with the TVD SL, its main digital audio console. It has built-in high-rez display screens that can actually function as a monitor wall (the company has a patent pending on this type of display). There are several benefits to this. First, it eliminates the costly need for a monitor wall. Second, it allows the systems integrator to orient the console in any direction in the room. "Sometimes you have physical constraints that require you to turn the console 90 degrees to what everyone else is looking at, just to make it fit in the room. And that requires that the audio guy have his own monitor wall. That can be a $40K investment," said Tom Semmes, broadcast sales manager for Harrison. A third benefit is ergonomic: "Now the operator can focus his eyes and concentration in one plane, resulting in less errors and fatigue. If you have to constantly glance up at monitors that are 30 feet away, you have to refocus your eyes."

Affordability

Not too long ago, digital audio was the Rolls Royce of broadcasting -- a nice concept, but only for the boys with big budgets. Several of the major audio manufacturers—Calrec, Euphonix, and Solid State Logic especially -- are trying to change that perception with the introduction of more affordable boards. At this year's NAB, Calrec introduced the Zeta 100, which was manufactured specifically to meet the needs of smaller
broadcasters. It comes with 24, 32, or 48 faders and has DSP allocation for up to 56 channels (32 stereo and 24 mono). It is part of the company's family of three digital audio consoles (the other two are the Alpha 100 and the Sigma 100). "In common with the other consoles in the family, cards and panels are hot-pluggable with automatic redundancy on power supplies, DSP, and control processors. Operation is not dependent on the PC and the console boots from cold in less than 12 seconds. The Zeta 100 is designed to meet the needs of broadcasters who do not want to sacrifice these features just because they
require a smaller console," said Calrec's Gluck.

Similarly, Euphonix introduced the Max Air digital console at the end of 2002. It has essentially the same DSP core, input and output converters, and routing as the System 5-B, the large-scale digital console brought to market by the company in 2000, but with a smaller work surface. Whereas the System 5-B can be expanded to handle up to 300 channels, the Max Air can only handle 96. "The Max Air is a more cost-effective system than the System 5, but it doesn't have as cool a work surface," said Euphonix's Wild.

Solid State Logic's most recent contribution to live digital audio is the C100. It was designed especially with high-quality 5.1 mixing capabilities in mind. "A lot of the high-profile sports and entertainment and high-profile news environments want to be able to do 5.1 now," said Solid State Logic's Zaretsky. The C100 is also very compact in its footprint: "Most consoles have a relationship between the size of the control surface and the amount of channels that it can handle," he added. "Whereas in the C100, you can purchase the control surface in any size you choose in 8-fader increments."

Now that boards are cheaper than ever, it may be high time for your station to take advantage of all that digital audio technology has to offer. Who knows; you might even be able to make some money off it as well: Harrison's Semmes sees a real market for surround sound produced at the station level. "I think it can propel a station's ratings, with benefits right up to the front office. It's just like those stations in the ‘60s that were the first to provide color. Surround is marketable."

For more information...

www.calrec.com

www.euphonix.com

www.glw.com
(harrison)

www.solid-state-logic.com
www.wheatstone.com

Sarah Stanfield is the managing editor. She can be reached at sstanfield@uemedia.com.