Houses of worship may understandably feel a close connection to distant parts of the universe, but their physical plants are also hoping that connectivity on signal and control networks are proving beneficial in the long run, too. But networking their audio and video is taking them deeper than ever into a complex realm that resembles IT more than A/V.
Networking is a means of distributing digital audio or video signals across a wide area — from within a single structure to across entire campuses and multiple locations — by means of structured cabling, such as Cat-5, Cat-6 and fiber optic, over an Ethernet network such as a local area network (LAN).
Audio is the most common networked signal in use now. The most basic networked audio systems use Ethernet to create telephone systems, also known as voice-over-IP (VoIP). However, full-range audio such as music requires high-fidelity, low-latency distribution systems that do not employ data compression.
Those seeking to network audio for their facilities face a bewildering array of choices, most of them incompatible with each other, which creates understandable concerns about investing in specific solutions. Networking solutions can be divided by the various protocols that establish their operational capabilities:
Layer 1: uses Ethernet wiring and signaling components but does not use the Ethernet frame structure. Layer 1 protocols often use their own media access controls (i.e., proprietary MACs) rather than the one native to Ethernet, which generally creates compatibility issues. Proprietary networks that use Layer 1 protocols include Aviom’s A-Net and RockNet from Riedel Communications.
Layer 2: encapsulates audio data in standard Ethernet packets. Most can make use of standard Ethernet hubs and switches though some require that the network (or at least a VLAN) be dedicated to the audio distribution application. Examples of Layer-2 protocols include CobraNet, AVB (the AVnu Alliance, AVB’s certification body, plans to roll out its switch certification in July, with comprehensive Pro Audio certification expected in early 2013) and EtherSound by Digigram.
Layer 3: encapsulates audio data in standard IP packets (usually UDP/IP or RTP/UDP/IP). The use of the IP protocol improves interoperability with standard computing platforms and in some cases, improves scalability of the audio distribution system. The Layer-3 audio-over-Ethernet protocols are not designed to traverse the Internet. Examples include Audinate’s DANTE, Q-LAN from QSC and Ravenna.
Different churches approach audio networking from a variety of directions. “Our approach has been to build out our infrastructure to allow for our existing network needs as well as future needs, which would include A/V,” explains Kurt Foreman, director of Operations at Cathedral of Faith in San Jose, CA. “Currently, our campus has a single- and multi-mode fiber ring around campus that primarily carries our data file. However, these data files include sending large video files. Also, our Internet connection comes through this as well.
“We have not yet taken the step to go to an IP phone system given that we haven’t seen the benefit and the cost of retrofitting the cable within our older buildings,” he continues, referring to the church’s view on the costs of networking. “Our approach for upgrading here at the church is based upon benefit/need and balancing that with the cost. How many people will benefit and is the benefit worth it?” He says they’re still assessing that.
Greg Klimetz, production manager at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola, FL says his church is still in the process of determining their long-range networking plans, with wireless control over certain A/V systems being the first step.
“We use Aerohive wireless access points and have had amazing success with them,” he explains. Klimetz uses the access point in the church’s worship center almost every week to remotely control the Venue FOH console and other production computers in the main worship building on an iPad via a [Video LAN client (VLC)] app. “I’m in the very beginning steps of researching A/V over network platforms. I’ve briefly read a few articles on CobraNet and HiQNet systems. We let our IT tech recommend and install networking solutions based off current and future needs. We also utilize a local company called Technologies for Tomorrow to help assist our IT tech with troubleshooting and system maintenance. Streaming has been our priority right now.”
However, says Klimetz, networked A/V is the long-term goal, and streaming will constitute some of its primary content. “We definitely are headed toward A/V over network for signage, services, special events, and overflow situations,” he says. “We would like to be able to simulcast the main worship center anywhere on campus, and our network would allow us to do this. Furthermore, we would like to have the ability to simulcast any of our four main venues all over the campus if desired. This is a bigger dream as it would require camera systems in three of our four main campus venues. Currently we only have cameras in our main worship facility.” Klimetz adds that the church has already begun budgeting for networking, including the hiring of a full-time IT technician.
Adam Holladay, the market manager for the system development and integration group at Harman Professional, acknowledges that house-of-worship technical managers face a complex landscape when it comes to networking. “There are a lot of options out there, almost too many,” he observes, ticking off pros and cons of various solutions: “It’s not a good idea to put networked audio on the same LAN you’re using for voice and data, but we understand that there are cost considerations that churches have to keep in mind; that’s what AVB [audio video bridging] is designed to take care of but it won’t be fully available for some time yet,” he says. CobraNet is here and simple to use but audio is restricted to bundles of eight channels and it doesn’t support Gigabit operation, he adds. Holladay points to Audinate’s DANTE network product, which has become a de facto standard at the high end of the market, but one that requires substantial knowledge of switch management and other IT-centric issues.
“I think the most fundamental question you have to ask before getting into networking is centered around how confident you feel about operating and maintaining a network,” Holladay concludes.
Networking is complex, even at its most basic levels, although making product choices as manufacturers jockey to position their proprietary solutions in an increasingly crowded marketplace make it even more complicated. The best investment you can likely make when it comes to audio networking is in IT knowledge, in the form of a consultant, or via your pro audio retailer, many of whom are adding this to their own knowledgebase.