Innovation In Music

Held at the University of West London’s Ealing Campus, the most recent Innovation In Music conference pulled together a collection of researchers and professionals involved in shaping the future of the music industry to discuss topics including music production, performance and composition, studio technology innovation, and platforms for music sale, streaming and broadcast.

Among them, Dr Paul Ferguson, Associate Professor of Audio Engineering from Edinburgh Napier University, has been exploring the potential of long-distance creative collaboration over IP networks.

‘My area of research for several years has been in looking at remote music performance and production over high-speed networks,’ he clarifies. ‘We’re very fortunate that in the education world, we’re connected by high-speed networks for research purposes. At Napier, we use Dante to link studios and resources here on campus, but I always predicted that local and long-distance collaboration could come together.’

Together with Edinburgh Napier University co-researcher Dr Dave Hook, Ferguson arranged a performance involving eight musicians playing together yet located in different spaces around the University of West London and one in Edinburgh, Scotland, 400 miles away – all using Dante-enabled Focusrite RedNet interfaces.

‘As far as we know, this was the first time that Audinate’s Dante was used to connect performers over a conventional network of such a distance,’ Ferguson says. ‘This was a real game-changer because it demonstrates that studios, education establishments, and performers ultimately will be able to collaborate over a great distance and use Dante just as they are now in connecting resources locally.’

Paul Ferguson (Napier University, Edinburgh)The workflow demonstrated at the Innovation In Music conference has since been successfully repeated between Edinburgh and Berlin, a distance of more than 1,000 miles.

‘We’re very excited about this, especially in terms of what’s happening now with Covid-19, we’re all desperate to connect,’ Ferguson says. ‘With a Dante network and with Dante Domain Manager controlling the zones, we know we can now connect education establishments, and I’m sure studios and production houses will jump on this quickly. This is one of those things once you know it’s possible, then we’ll get loads of people doing it.’

Dante Domain Manager is network management software that enables user authentication, role-based security, and audit capabilities for Dante networks while allowing seamless expansion of Dante systems over any network infrastructure. Dante Domain Manager organises a network into zones called ‘domains’ that each have individual access requirements, making it clear and easy to know who can access any area of the system. All activity is logged, tagged, and date-stamped so problems can be quickly identified and solved.

‘We all know that Dante Domain Manager allows you to create and manage separate subnets – connecting various types of studios, workstations, and resources within a facility – but usually within the same building or campus, perhaps just a few miles away,’ said Ferguson. ‘But what happens if a studio needs to connect to a broadcaster that’s geography separated by a great distance? The problem, it turns out, was with clocking.’

Commercial streaming of audio over the internet is now common and works at long distances, but that type of audio is unsynchronised, compressed and generally very high latency due to the lack of reliable timing. Using a long-distance network, Dr. Ferguson realized that with two new Dante Domain Manager features – support for SMPTE 2110/AES67 compliant devices in Dante workflows, and support for GPS Synchronisation – would allow for a completely synchronized, lossless system that spanned hundreds of miles with incredibly low latency.

‘This was an excellent advance for network audio; basically, we can forget about clock issues. Now each network subnet can be locked to a GPS satellite clock in its immediate proximity,’ says Ferguson.

‘Those satellites are all linked and have a common shared time, so wherever you’re connected and clocked around the globe, it’s effectively the same world clock. This is a huge and immediate win for universities and education establishments around the world using Dante networks and Dante Domain Manager can now connect to and collaborate with other locations within their education system, or connect with other universities, such as we have.’

GPS synchronisation allows for each zone to be governed by its own master clock, keeping the devices at each site locked. With clock limitations overcome, a Dante network can perform over any distance, passing the full bi-directional channel count without a glitch.

Because Dante distributes uncompressed, multichannel digital audio with near-zero latency and tight synchronisation, users experience excellent audio quality with precise time alignment of all sources.

With Ferguson’s live performance demonstration, latency was undoubtedly a concern. Yet, even with a firewall to contend with, early tests revealed a 9.5ms round-trip time for data packets sent from London to Edinburgh and back. But with the nature of the university network being live, it meant that at peak times, the traffic would force this round-trip time to 15ms or more, with occasional peaks of up to 30ms.

‘There’s certainly a trade-off between acceptable latency for the musicians versus system performance,’ Ferguson says. ‘We erred on the side of caution and set the buffer on our interfaces to 20ms at each side for a total of 40ms overall, an absolutely usable threshold for the synth textures we were getting from Edinburgh.’

With the success of the demonstration, Ferguson predicts that long-distance collaboration within education will flourish, but also sees the capability having logical equivalents for commercial use. ‘Unfortunately, the Covid-19 virus has brought a new perspective to performing, and for gigging musicians, this GPS clock capability potentially allows musicians to safely connect and collaborate over hundreds of miles,’ he says. ‘What happens when artists want to do their next album or collaborate with others? Until our work lives return to normal, this presents an excellent, next-best-thing-to-being-there option. And even after the ban is lifted, this will be an economical and efficient way to bring creativity together over great distances.’

​Innovation in Music 2020 will be held at the Royal College of Music, Stockholm, Sweden in December, with the theme of Music Production: International Perspectives. The call for papers is presently open. 

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