Networked Audio Goes Live in Sports Venues

By: Dan Daley, Audio Editor, Sports Video Group

You won’t see it and you won’t hear it, but a major change is taking place with live sound in sports venues. It’s the shift to networked digital audio, which is transitioning the sound in stadiums and arenas to an IT-based environment, and converging it with other digital elements, such as IPTV and control data. The sound that fills the bowls will be the same, but how it gets to the mixing consoles, amplifiers and ultimately the speakers is going to be very different, in ways that offer stadium ownership and management some tangible benefits even as it creates new challenges for those who design and install these systems.

“If there’s a problem with the sound on game night, the stadium’s own IT department will be able to address it, instead of having to wait for the sound system provider to get someone over there,” says Tim Habedank, a systems specialist with Parson’s Electric, which has worked on audio systems for the North Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium, the Twins’ Target Field in Minneapolis, and the Barclays Arena in Brooklyn. “But for us, moving to the IT side has come with challenges.”

First and foremost among those is the end of the AV integrator having full control over a system’s elements. “We’ll have to rely on the IT department to configure the LAN that the sound will use,” says Habedank. Another challenge is that presented by hybrid networks, where some of the audio signal path moves between different digital lanes. An example of that is the use of Audinate’s Dante networking platform for much of the audio signal path at Baylor University’s McClane Stadium, including sending sound to the venue’s VIP and hospitality areas. But within a critical node on the system, between the two or three DSP units in each of those areas, audio is routed through BSS Audio’s BLU Link network, which uses the Harman Pro Audio Group’s HiQNet control-data network, which will manage the audio at that particular juncture in the system. “We’re using hybrid digital networks like that in about half of our projects now,” Habedank estimates.

That configuration of multiple networks underscores the complexity of networked audio systems. There will be converged networks within which the bowl audio will share the stadium’s LAN with other elements, such as IPTV, and there will also be an array of network platforms to choose from. Habedank notes that the sound system at the Barclays Arena uses QCS’s Q-SYS platform atop its Q-LAN network, which he says performs very well on its own dedicated VLAN but becomes more challenging to operate on shared LANs. “It’s a very different world with networked audio than we’ve been used to in the past,” he says.

Lots Of Choices

There are a number of network platforms available to choose from, and AV systems integrators are using them. The Dante platform has garnered the greatest market share so far, with over 200 equipment manufacturers having licensed its software for products ranging from consoles to DSP systems. CobraNet, developed in 1996, is ancient by the standards of digital technology and has limited channel-count capability, but is still called on for certain installed-sound applications; Ravenna, championed by audio manufacturers like Lawo, has gotten significant traction at venues in Europe and the EMEA region; QSC’s Q-LAN is finding favor with some integrators here.

“We’ve used them all and will continue to,” says Bobby Taylor, vice president of All Pro Sound, a Pensacola-based sound-system designer and integrator whose portfolio includes the University of Alabama’s Bryant Denny Stadium and the New Orleans Superdome. “Each one has its own advantages. For instance, CobraNet has its limitations but it’s a very stable platform and a good choice if all you need to do is push audio around point to point and where latency isn’t a concern. The fact is, networked audio of one sort or another is here to stay. We’ve retrained our techs and they now have IT certifications. It’s not the future — it’s the present.”

Taylor likes the idea that PA-system audio can be distributed easily to other points in a stadium or arena venue, such as into the luxury boxes, where thick glass might otherwise keep the live sound out. Those kinds of extensions of the live sound can be executed well after the sound system integrator has left, by the venue’s IT department, simply by adding a network switch. The significant increase in channel count is the feature most users point to first when it comes to networked audio, but it also offers other useful functionality. Paul Murdick, vice president of AV at TSI Global, notes how the Q-SYS system they recently installed at the University of St. Louis’ Chaifetz Arena training facility lets system managers listen in to the digital audio at any node in the signal chain through a laptop. “This makes monitoring and troubleshooting much easier, and it can be done from anywhere,” he says.

It looks increasingly like sports venues will be pulling broadcast deeper into networked audio. Pete O’Neil, director of AV engineering for the western region at Diversified Systems, which put together much of the AV infrastructure for control rooms at NBC Sports new headquarters in Stamford, CT says all of the new venues his company has been involved in in recent years have implemented networked audio on fiber cabling. “I can’t imagine doing a new sports venue without that, for the live sound and other audio in the venue,” he says. The plant side is still heavily reliant on MADI, as are the remote trucks, says O’Neil, but the broadcast interface between the truck and the venue is a logical place for the transitions to start. “You have to build the interface to accommodate legacy technology on the trucks, but were also including fiber and switches as part of the broadcast docks at stadiums now,” he explains. O’Neil adds that MADI-to-Ethernet converters, such as the Yamaha RMio 64-D Dante-to-MADI converter, are facilitating the transition.

Ultimately, though, says O’Neil, the transition will be driven by the lower costs offered by network audio-signal transport. “There is some natural reluctance to make the shift,” he says, “but once you see how less expensive fiber is versus cable, how you reduce the D/A and A/D transitions, it’s a pretty compelling use case for broadcasters.”

As quickly as audio networking has infused venue sound-system design, however, it’s already converging with video signal distribution there, too. For instance, QSC’s Q-SYS platform now works with SVSi’s digital video distribution solution and can decouple the audio from AV media streams from the Cisco StadiumVision product so that those audio channels can be sent and controlled directly within Q-SYS to sports boxes and other sections of the complex. Another example of this kind of direct connection of partner video products is Q-SYS’ integration with SVSi where the Q-SYS platform can receive up to eight channels of network audio directly from SVSi encoders and then send them back out as processed audio streams to SVSi decoders.

“This combined technology saves the end customer hardware costs and the integrator lots of time and analog wiring in these venues,” explains TJ Adams, QSC’s install DSP product manager.

Dante’s developers have intimated that that platform may address video at some point in the future. As the broadcast industry moves deeper into networked media, it’s becoming clearer that audio may soon no longer be its own island in the stream.