Software for audio networking control

As audio migrates to the network, software development is offering new ways of configuring, managing, monitoring and using systems. It’s also changing who’s in control.

As the AV market becomes more software centric the industry is seeing R&D budgets refocussed and rapid changes to how systems are set up, configured, managed and maintained. The resulting impact on control has allowed more powerful commands - encompassing larger deployments – from simpler interfaces. 

And, as audio increasingly migrates to the network, this software trend is helping widen access to an area often seen as the preserve of specialists. In addition, people’s expectations of how they can control the technology within a room are also changing with intuitive and seamless operation topping the list of demands.  And it’s here where software is also coming into play.

Tom Harrold, marketing manager EMEA at Audio-Technica, says: “User-friendly software design and simple to understand hardware have made it possible for users with very basic training to take responsibility.”

“In the past, software has been the secondary component to hardware but that’s changing.”

“People are used to controlling things in their home in a different manner and that’s moving toward professional systems,” notes Zach Snook, audio product manager at Biamp. “I think in the past, software has been the secondary component to hardware but that’s changing. Software is becoming more feature-full and there is a growing request for it.

“We expect to do more but for things to become easier to operate and maintain. Software will be a very important part of any business model that meets those needs.”
Shayne Thomas, head of global marketing at Peavey, believes: “Systems are more capable than ever before and perform tasks via software control that were never before possible. Take fault tolerance for example, it is now possible to build two systems which share resources and communicate with each other to avert outages from equipment or human failures.” 

TJ Adams, director of installed systems product management at QSC, agrees that software has changed digital audio installations and says it is “taking over”. 

“Soon we will be talking about software integration, not just hardware or control integration,” he says. “For example, integration with Microsoft Exchange using LDAP and other techniques, is a very different concept for AV folks.”

Vicent Perales, a product manager at d&b audiotechnik, says: “As audio networking becomes more common and audio shares networks with video and data; IT departments are increasingly taking care of AV systems in installations. This requires AV integrators to be aware of the needs of IT departments… and the other way round.”
That dialogue between the two parties is greatly helped when they both speak the same language. 

“Biamp uses AVB/TSN, which is a standardised AV connection to the network,” says Snook. “It can offer control as well as audio and video transfer. It’s an IEEE standard so it really bridges that gap between IT and AV.”

Perales says: “There are different audio networking solutions for different requirements, depending on application type, functionality and scope of the installation project. From a control perspective, open protocols are potentially better for software control as manufacturers have more control over the software interfaces their products provide.”

An interesting development here is an open source project from the Avnu Alliance called Open AVB. The resource offers network building-block components — drivers, libraries, example applications and daemon source code — required to build an AVB/TSN system. 

Greg Schlechter, Avnu Alliance marketing workgroup chair, explains: “No one really wants to differentiate on these pieces but everybody needs them.”

With audio networking the market is opened to allow third party manufacturers and independent programmers to deliver overarching control systems. However, notes Thomas “[Third-party programmers] are a great asset and typically have many more hours of training and on-the-job experience than installers. For large projects however, third-party programming companies may not have enough resources and the responsibility typically falls to the manufacturers.”

Specialists still required

Complexity is being reduced but most manufacturers agree the role of the audio specialist is still vital. 

Crestron came to the market with its first DSPs this June when it unveiled Avia at InfoComm 2016 in Las Vegas. Dennis Fink, the company’s technology manager for audio products, said Crestron was aware of an increasingly IT centric approach to AV deployments and will be “looking to the future with that in mind”.
Hands of developer working on computer in the dark
“It’s Crestron’s aim to make it easier for an IT centric person to manage the audio side,” he says. “Before launching Avia we looked at the market and noted that many products were hard to program. We have come up with a drag and drop method that employs (what we call) ‘channel strips’. A lot of our customers are integrating large numbers of rooms. They want to be able to install, commission and check all of these rooms quickly. We’ve payed a lot of attention to workflow and time required to carry out these tasks and worked to simplify the process.

“Soon we will be talking about software integration, not just hardware or control integration.”
He does however add: “There are always audio issues that occur that are best solved by audio specialists. Specifically those tasks such as tuning the acoustics of a room after everything is set up and IT [personnel] have got everything on the network and in the room. 

“There are more audio centric requirements for tuning DSPs and creating signal processing capabilities,” he continues. “That’s where I think there will continue to be an audio input in installing and even maintaining a system. But interconnecting the system, placing it on the network: that’s moving more to the IT side of things.”

Darryl Bryans, product line manager of DSP at Bose, also believes that specialist skills will still be required. “There are some institutions (higher education for example) where there is some interest in taking over responsibility,” he says. “Our control apps are geared towards end-users of course but our design and configuration software is geared towards integrators and has a rather steep learning curve.

“However, we are working on new software that will show up in new products coming soon that specifically is aimed at end-user configuration and management, at least for the network settings,” he adds.

“The use of Ethernet-based systems for network audio brings advantages of much simpler installation and configuration/reconfiguration than traditional analogue solutions in many cases,” argues Harrold. “But there’s a critical need for AV integrators to be involved in the specification and design of many systems.  

AV integrators still play a key role but the industry has changed.

Snook explains: “AV control or even programming has historically been carried out by the AV technician but the process has evolved. It used to be that the integrator worked with a proprietary system, it didn’t touch the network and IT wasn’t involved. That’s changing. Now everything rides on a common core network so the IT staff are expecting to have some sort of control available to them. They want to look at a system and to know that it’s functioning.”

Where’s the money?

As more effort goes into creating software how does an industry that’s often given software away on the back of hardware sales recoup that investment and continue to develop and innovate?

“If you look at the way IT monetises software and hardware, installation and integration, it’s very different to AV,” adds Schlechter. “How that is going to work out is an interesting aspect of convergence.”

Martin Barbour, product manager for QSC Systems, says: “In our industry we are very lucky because there are many adjacent markets that have already solved this issue that we can learn from. We are now well acclimatised to pay for software whether that be productivity suites on our PCs or apps on our smartphones.”

But Patrick Prothe, Avnu Alliance pro AV segment chair, says: “I think the AV industry has a big hurdle in monetising software because it’s going to require a complete mind shift.”

How that process plays out could be of concern to the established distribution channel.
Thomas says:  “From a manufacturer’s perspective, it seems attractive to go the way of computing (take Microsoft’s Office 365 as an example) and offer direct managed services to the end users for a monthly subscription.”

However, he reassures: “As these methodologies continue to enter the AV industry, Peavey will continue to value, empower and protect our integration partners as we always have. We believe there are many more opportunities on the horizon.”

“With digital audio, networking and high-performance general purpose processors, it is clear that our industry is becoming more software-centric,” confirms Wolfgang  Schulz,  product  manager  at  d&b audiotechnik. “Manufacturers can provide general interconnectivity solutions, but every installation has unique requirements, and this is where the integrators come into play. They must ensure the system is working as expected by the user, and whether their solutions are hardware or software based, or a combination of both, they will need to monetise their offerings accordingly.”

The way manufacturers will cost their software offerings may not yet be completely clear. But, when it comes to revenue generation for installers, software does have the advantage of paving the way for the provision of extra services.

“This paves the way for integrators to offer monitoring and remote management,” says Snook.

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