The word ‘network’ has a long history; it was first recorded in the mid-sixteenth century, but its Germanic roots hint that it may well have been in use much earlier than that. Like much of modern English, it has gone through a variety of ever more abstracted meanings, starting as a simple description of a physical object and developing to cover more figurative, intangible concepts.
What began as a way of describing an invention for catching fish was later applied to similarly interconnected physical systems, including those of canals, railways, telephone wires – and eventually computers.
By the early 20th century, the word had come to refer to systems of related entities that were no longer physically connected, as with radio and TV transmitters belonging to a single broadcaster, or groups of business colleagues. In the last few years, we’ve had ‘wireless networks’ (which medieval speakers of English might have regarded as an oxymoron) and social networks composed of users that ‘connect’ solely via data transmissions over the Internet; itself a network of physically disconnected, but nonetheless linked computers.
Within broadcast technology, a similar process of abstraction has been taking place in recent years, transforming the hard-wired, localised studios of the past into more flexible, networked systems accessible from anywhere. Forty years ago, television studios consisted of cameras and microphones hard-wired into discrete hardware vision mixers, patchbays and audio mixing consoles which routed to specific video tape machines in one location. In such systems, a separate physical connection is required for each audio channel, whether from a microphone, mixing console, or recording device. Modern networked broadcast systems offer more flexibility; all of the hardware is permanently connected to a data network, and the precise nature of the interconnections between the equipment can be redefined and/or reassigned at any time under software control, remotely if required.
Such ideas are not new, and small-scale proprietary networks of this type have existed in broadcasting for many years. But over the past decade, the declining complexity and improving cost-to-benefit ratio of implementing large-scale networked broadcast systems, and the ever-widening scope and capabilities of the technology, control protocols and equipment designed to work with such systems, has tempted more and more of the world’s forward-thinking broadcasters to move to networked systems.
At the same time, mixing equipment used in broadcast studios has undergone massive changes, becoming less the crucial nodes through which all signal paths are routed and processed, and more assignable control surfaces connected to associated processing and routing units elsewhere on the network — a further example of abstraction that offers many benefits for broadcasters, as we shall see.
Every Wednesday over the coming weeks we’ll be looking in more detail at how this technology works, different industry approaches to networking and controlling audio, and what the benefits of a networked approach are in terms of flexibility and control. Following on from our popular Audio Primer these posts are aimed at the broadcast engineer who has never had any formal training in network structures or associated terminology.
We strongly encourage those who are very experienced and well versed in these subjects to comment on the articles and share your techniques to help those who are developing in the industry.
See you here next week!