WheatNews Jan 2020

WHEAT:NEWS JANUARY 2020  Volume 11, Number 1

What We Learned On Our Way to 2020

The year 2019 saw the backside of ISDN, the rise of SIP, and some interesting new sound technology and studio spaces. Wheatstone was there through it all. Here’s a quick look back at 2019 before we hit the play button on 2020. Thanks to all our customers, technology partners and friends who made this a banner year for Wheatstone.

BREAKING NEWS - JANUARY 2020: INTRODUCING AUDIOARTS DMX AND WHEATSTONE L-16

We're off to a great start in 2020, having introduced the Audioarts DMX AoIP Console - a WheatNet-IP compatible mixing control surface along with its Razor I/O devices (also WheatNet-IP compatible).  And we also added the L-16 to our L-Series line of control surfaces, along with an optional module for all L-Series consoles to add EQ.

DMX: 

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L-16:

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Over the Top

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February 2019: After more than a year of planning, WTOP cut over to our most complex WheatNet-IP networked facility to date. Hubbard’s new facility for the nation’s top billing station is 30,000 square feet of pure tech. We built it, staged it and tested it all in our factory in New Bern before shipping out the system in its entirety to WTOP. 

READ: Over The Top – WTOP On The Phone

WTOP PhoneBladeIMAGEThe telephone is talk radio’s best friend, so it is most fitting that one of the first WheatNet-IP audio network SIP appliances would go to WTOP’s new studios in Friendship Heights, Maryland.

The nation’s top-billing news/talk station moved to a totally WheatNet-IP audio networked facility earlier this year and installed SwitchBlade to get calls in and out of six on-air and production studios, seven edit studios and 41 news and sports positions. The 24-line unit connects into WTOP’s SIP PBX phone system on one end and its WheatNet-IP audio network on the other, providing studios and news/sports positions with simultaneous access to multiple lines at once.

The lines show up as sources/destinations in the WheatNet-IP NAVIGATOR software and are available to every one of the 54 WheatNet-IP surfaces and interfaces in the large facility. Indication of each line is available throughout the WheatNet-IP audio network and answer/hangup can be done by direct software logic (SLIO) control. The two on-air studios’ LXE consoles, for example, have SS-8 Smart Switch panels dropped into their frames for recording, profanity delay dump, answer next, hold, busy all, and drop call functions.

The built-in bus minus functionality on every console channel returns a clean feed to the caller without the need for a telephone hybrid.

SwitchBlade is a multi-purpose appliance for the WheatNet-IP audio network that was demonstrated at NAB 2019 booth N6806 along with PhoneBlade, a similar appliance designed specifically for talkshow applications.

READ: Over The Top – WTOP Cutover

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Click above image for a photo gallery

After more than a year of planning, WTOP, the nation’s top-billing station three years in a row, signed on from its new all-Wheat facility. 

Just before 10 pm on Saturday, Feb.2, WTOP anchor Sarah Jacobs gave the final temperature check from the old studios on 3400 Idaho Ave, signaling the cutover to WTOP’s new Star Trek-like space on Wisconsin Ave. 

Unique to the facility is a new Glass Enclosed Nerve Center that is laid out similar to a starship’s bridge, with a ring of 35 news workstations featuring virtual audio mixers designed by RadioDNA using ScreenBuilder development tools. 

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At the helm is a Wheatstone LXE mixing console, which WTOP reporter and anchor Mike Murillo says “will be able to bring the audience interviews from near and far, and allow us to bring listeners the most extensive coverage of live breaking news in the D.C. region and beyond.” From the LXE, anchors can access live audio from any of the 47 editing stations throughout the facility and control WTOP’s broadcast in real-time by changing volume levels, toggling dozens of audio feeds and playing prerecorded ads or news reports. 

WTOP’s new facility is 30,000 square feet of pure tech, right down to the office café and the digital reporting and web development sections that feature workstations with WheatNet-IP audio networked virtual mixers. 

Co-location Catches a Tailwind

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March 2019: Co-location technology picked up a significant tailwind during the year and Wheatstone was in the thick of it with a new AoIP appliance that combines AoIP logic control with SIP connectivity and codec bandwidth optimization. Broadcasters got to see it in action when we set up a multi-national WheatNet-IP system at the NAB show with part of the network in Ireland and part in North Carolina – all controlled from the show floor in Las Vegas through a number of control surfaces, courtesy of the SwitchBLADE appliance. 

SwitchBLADE won the Product of the Year Award in the Audio Production, Processing and Networking category at NAB 2019.

READ: Co-location Catches a Tailwind

By Dee McVicker

Something is clearly missing between the IP at your studio and the IP out in the wild. 

On the one end, IP is crisscrossing the globe and touching smart houses, smartphones and everything in modern life. On the other end, IP is also coursing through your studios. In its own AoIP way, it too is routing audio, switching controls, and making things happen.   

And in between? A huge disconnect in terms of full, seamless studio operation between two or more locations. 

We can talk all we want about virtual in a cloud or centralizing operations for several stations scattered across a region. But until we can connect up those two worlds, none of that is going to happen. It all comes down to solving that missing link, or more accurately, several missing links. 

Let’s start with the IP audio networked studio as we know it. Here, you can move programming around via audio drivers and control various elements throughout using software and hardware logic controllers built into the IP audio network. You can trigger mics on or off, set their levels, and in the case of WheatNet-IP, sum, split, EQ and control audio from anywhere in the network and in all the ways that are unique and important to a broadcast operation. 

Control Across the Distance

That kind of intelligent studio operation currently extends only so far, however. To reach across the ether, you have had to leave some of that control behind. 

Although we have a multitude of very effective ways to port audio across many different platforms using a number of standards and protocols – AES67 and MADI, for example -- we haven’t found an easy way to send along all the AoIP operating logic to go with it. Without that logic, you can’t do the most basic of studio functions at a distance, such as turn on a mic or press a play button from 1,000 miles away. You can’t send and receive router commands, automation control, or set fader levels across two locations. You certainly can’t connect two facilities from city to city. Without being able to transfer control logic, it’s impossible to switch audio locally from a regional studio on the other side of the continent or even in the next town over.  

AoIP manufacturers have tried to solve this problem in various ways in the past. One promising new solution is an AoIP appliance for the WheatNet-IP audio network that includes ACI control interface along with two other key technologies. 

SwitchBlade is the first product of its kind to combine AoIP logic control with SIP connectivity and codec bandwidth optimization for transporting both high-quality programming and the control logic critical for full studio operation between sites. It includes WheatNet-IP’s Application Control Interface (ACI) for remotely triggering events and elements in the WheatNet-IP environment, such as turning mics on or off, setting levels and adjusting EQ dynamics through software logic (SLIO) control. ACI is unique to WheatNet-IP and is used by more than 60 technology brand partners to seamlessly integrate automation, monitoring and clocking systems into the WheatNet-IP audio network environment.

With SwitchBlade, WheatNet-IP networked studios can extend full, seamless studio operation across the public Internet. Operators can remotely control a console, mic or automation system from a sister facility in the next state or from a Network Operation Center halfway across the globe.  

Codecs Needed 

Along with control logic, bridging the distance between locations requires being able to transfer high-quality programming. With bandwidth demand in the megabits per second range (1.4 megabits every second for typical stereo music) and available bandwidth over public and private IP links typically in the kilobits per second range (96 Kbps, 256 Kbps), we need really good codecs to give us the means to fit high-quality programming down those pipes and have it come out the other end sounding like broadcast quality. 

We’ve been using and perfecting codecs for a number of years and for a number of purposes, such as downloading music to our phones, sending audio to the transmitter, even for HD radio. In broadcasting, different codecs serve different applications, which is why broadcast equipment manufacturers offer a number of different codecs for distribution and remote products. SwitchBlade, for example, includes 256 Kbps stereo Opus, G.711, G.722 and a half-dozen other codecs. In fact, the number of uses and types of codecs available today is staggering, which brings us to SIP. SwitchBlade uses SIP to simplify that codec selection. It has two network connections: one to connect directly into the WheatNet-IP audio network and the other for connecting to a SIP server. 

SIP, Too

SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol, is a complete messaging protocol for initiating and terminating multimedia communication sessions. When two devices are made aware of each other via SIP, they are able to talk back and forth about bandwidth, whether audio is stereo or mono, how they will communicate with each other and the type of codec to be used to encode the audio in transit.

SIP is an important protocol used in VoIP communications for establishing audio connections over IP paths. As such, it can take the pain out of getting audio paths automatically hooked up at the best possible quality. For example, with 24 simultaneous connections available, one SwitchBlade appliance at the studio can send the same program content to six different transmitter sites, each using different SIP-compatible codec brands and settings and still have 18 more in reserve. In this way, it becomes possible for broadcasters to replace two, four, six or more encoders with one box at the studio and hang onto existing codec units at transmitter sites. 

At its more advanced level, SIP-based connectivity makes it possible to transport high-quality programming to or from just about anywhere -- to affiliates, from stadiums, between regional studios and across the Internet to a Network Operation Center. SIP negotiates the connection as well as the method for compressing high quality streams, freeing the broadcaster to transport programming without regard to the tedious details of routing and transport mechanisms used on the other end. 

In summary, to move full AoIP studio operation across the chasm to a site in a separate location, we’ll need the three technologies in SwitchBlade: AoIP control logic, bandwidth optimization and interoperability with the codecs found at large.  

From the Analog Files

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April 2019: We have arrived at a point in broadcast history when analog consoles look and feel like digital boards, instead of the other way around. Contract engineer Bob VanProyen explains why he recommended analog Audioarts Lightning consoles for one AM/FM combo. 

READ: From The Analog Files

We have arrived at a point in broadcast history when we no longer talk about digital consoles that look and feel like analog boards. Ironically, we find ourselves talking about analog consoles that look and feel like digital boards. 

We had one of those conversations recently with Bob VanProyen, a contract engineer with RSVP Audio in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area who purchased a couple of analog Audioarts Lightning consoles.  

We called him up because we wondered what he could possibly be doing with a couple of consoles if not connecting them up in an IP audio network.   

Right off, he told us that one of the on-air personalities asked him a similar question. They wanted to know if he had purchased digital consoles. “I said ‘sort of,’” he commented, which was entirely true. Our Audioarts Lightning is a modernized analog board with patchable AES input for connecting a digital source to any fader and built in A/D conversion for the main program output, not to mention USB and Bluetooth connectivity.  

ThePledgeLogoVanProyen explained that his customer, WPNW-AM/WJQK-FM of Grand Rapids, one of the few remaining AM/FM owner operated combos today, didn’t need or have the budget for an IP audio routed facility. “They don’t really do a lot of routing and all that. For the most part, they sit in front of the board, and they expect the first channel to be their mic and they go,” he said.  

They also expect consoles to hold up to heavy use. Talk station WPNW-AM and Christian Contemporary WJQK-FM, owned locally and operated by Les Lanser and his son Brad, air two live morning shows, a live afternoon show and live news reporting and coverage the rest of the day. “After the morning shows, a lot of the studios in Grand Rapids are empty; there’s nobody there. But this place is hopping. There are people doing shows, voicetracking and recording news, and the studios are always busy. This stuff gets a lot of use,” explained VanProyen.   

WJQK LOGOThe Audioarts Lightning boards will be used in both on-air rooms, replacing 30-year-old analog Wheatstone boards – both still in good working condition. For studio routing, VanProyen is creating a simple router and will use the NexGen automation system to share some programming between the Lightning consoles in the two identical AM and FM on air studios. He will use three of the four program busses in the Lightning consoles for the usual purposes (to send to phone, to record, and to air). The fourth program bus can be used to send programming to the Lightning next door in the AM or FM on-air studio if needed. 

In addition to four stereo program busses (with built-in A/D conversion for digital or analog out), Lightning has two auto mix-minuses, four mic preamps, and A/B source selection on 12 or 16 faders. Bluetooth and USB in/out connectivity provides access to MP3 players, web streams, and other modern sources.

“It’s not digital versus analog. It’s just simply that it has to be durable,” commented VanProyen. 

Still, he said, “This is the first analog console I’ve purchased in I don’t know how many years.” 

Editor’s note: We introduced the Audioarts Lightning console last year at the NAB show, and since then this little analog board has been flying out the door.

Real Estate Squeeze

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Click above video to see Drew Pinkney explain the changes at WBAL.

May 2019: While some were reveling in a real estate boom, broadcasters were having to figure out ways to put more radio into a smaller space. We were there with the WheatNet-IP in markets small and large to help bring in more streaming, more data, more radio overall. Here we are in Boston at the studio of Hearst station WBAL-AM. 

READ: Real Estate Squeeze

What do you do when you can’t possibly squeeze another studio into your current real estate? It seems counterintuitive but the answer, at least for Hearst’s WBAL AM, is to knock down a wall.

As you’ll see in the video above, removing the wall separating WBAL’s AM on-air studio from the control room opened it up to one big space that accommodates a six-position table. Think about it: how else could they fit a table large enough for the afternoon host to prep off of while the morning host and any number of guests are on the air? 

Industry observer Scott Fybush takes us through the new studio, where WBAL previously had two smaller studios, neither of which could hold the cameras, monitors and people needed for today’s news/talk/sports broadcast operation. Not enough room often meant that the afternoon host had to wait for breaks in the morning show in order to rush in to the on-air studio and prep for his or her show.  

We know what you’re thinking. What about studio sounds spilling into the broadcast? We’ll get to that. But first, here are a few things we noticed about WBAL’s new AM news, sports and talk studio. 

    • Incredible attention to sight lines, right down to the use of inconspicuous branding labels on the mics instead of the large mic flags WBAL used to have that obstructed views. WBAL-AM/98 Rock CE Drew Pinkney did an amazing job here, especially because this small studio has a lot going on. 

    • Lots of video screens. We were told that the studio has 14 television monitors and 28 computer monitors. The board op alone has 15 monitors for all the different functions he interacts with (he’s seated at an LXE console surface networked to a WheatNet-IP audio studio system, which is tightly integrated to Multicam camera and WideOrbit automation systems). In addition to terrestrial signals, there’s the www.wbal.com stream and live cam stream with four-camera, automated switching system based on whether a mic is on and if the position is potted up. This two-point system (courtesy of Multicam and WheatNet-IP) cuts down the likelihood of video rolling on an empty chair. 

    • Chair rails, or small bumper bars, along the wall save the soundproofing should someone get up quickly from their chair. 

    • Rubberized hooks for hanging headphones under the table so hosts and guests don’t have to break their kneecaps sitting down to the mic. 

    • Monitors to the outside. WBAL-AM takes live feeds from two tower cams, which is great for weather reports and the occasional breaking news event. (Recently, the downtown cam captured a news event live, as it unfolded).

    • WBAL-AM uses several MADI Blades to exchange 192 stereo feeds between a TDM system in the television studio and its WheatNet-IP audio network in the radio studio. Proof, once again, that TDM routing doesn’t have to go away just because you’re adding IP audio networking.

  • What about the potential for studio noise in one big room? Not a problem, according to Pinkney. The secret is to separate activities like listener call-ins on one end away from the host/guests on the other end of the studio. 

WBAL-AM and sister station WIYY-FM “98 Rock” are licensed to Baltimore, Maryland, and are the only two radio stations owned by Hearst Television. Both are located in the same building along with WBAL-TV. 

VoxPro on Jury Duty

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October 2019: On a lighter note for the year, our VoxPro audio recorder/editor spent some time at the San Mateo county courthouse along with the afternoon host at 99.7 NOW, San Francisco. 

READ: VoxPro On Jury Duty

KMVQ/San Francisco’s St. John grabs his VoxPro and heads out to the San Mateo county courthouse for jury duty every morning.

He’s the host of St. John’s Playhouse (afternoons on 99.7NOW) broadcasting out of San Francisco, and for the past three weeks, he’s been performing his show from the courthouse while also performing his civic duty.

VoxPro audio recorder/editor on jury duty? We were curious, so we asked St. John to explain it to us on his drive into the courthouse one morning.

He told us that jury hours happen to overlap with his afternoon show, which airs on Bonneville’s Top 40/CHR station KMVQ-FM from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. So, he’s been setting up his “lunchbox” with Sennheiser mic and processor along with his trusty VoxPro in a courthouse conference room during his hour-and-a-half lunch break. From there he records his usual show banter and exports the edited results as WAV or MP3 files and sends them as an email Dropbox link for his producer to insert into the show later. “I’m doing them on the fly, like I typically do, but only ahead of time in the courthouse conference room,” he said.

“Sometimes I’m in there yelling into the mic and people probably think I’ve lost my mind,” he added.

It takes all of four minutes to set up − just a USB jump from the VoxPro controller to his laptop. The VoxPro controller acts as a sort of stand-in for the console, with access to hotkeys for quick recall of music clips, FX macros for adding effects, and plenty of tools for normalizing, muting, changing pitch or doing whatever needs to be done during a typical St. John show. He uploads around 30 WAV files to Dropbox each day for the producer to drop into the show. 

His listeners have no idea he’s sitting in a courthouse recording and editing his show for later stop sets between the music. The only thing missing is the banter that takes place in the studio between his listener and him – which is, of course, the original purpose for VoxPro. “I do a lot of interactive contests, a lot of phones, and that’s where VoxPro usually comes it,” he said, adding, “Bonneville is really invested in what goes in between the music. Otherwise we might as well be Spotify.” 

St. John is what we’d call a VoxPro power user. He does a fair amount of voiceovers from his home studio, which also has a VoxPro controller, so he knows his way around all the controls. “I’m sure part of it is that I’ve used it for some time but having the controller and having the stability of Vox on a PC here at the courthouse makes it so much easier to do this,” he commented.

When we talked to St. John, the jury was still out on the case and it could be a few more days or week before he can pack up his lunchbox and head back to the studio to do his show as usual. As for the case at the courthouse, he wasn’t allowed to talk about it, but he did say “it’s definitely a pretty heavy one.”

Virtual UI Trend Up

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November 2019: AoIP ended the decade with some interesting UIs hanging off the network. Some are standalone virtual consoles, others are tap-through screens on a tablet, and still others are physical consoles with soft buttons that can be changed as easily as any virtual UI. Wheatstone offered them all by the end of 2019, and what we don’t have in the world of virtual UIs, broadcasters can build themselves using our ScreenBuilder app. 

READ: Find out what’s trending in consoles leading up to 2020.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune observed that spending the morning with a certain radio host is “like watching someone with ADD fly an airplane – there are so many levels and buttons – callers, movie quotes, interviews.”

That much hasn’t changed since Wheatstone built its first console in the 1970s. The console is still very much at the center of radio, a tactile interface to listeners that is universal and yet personal at the same time.

What has changed is that the console is now attached to the AoIP network. IP audio systems such as the WheatNet-IP audio network have made sweeping changes in the studio operation, and that has bubbled up to the surface in some interesting and unexpected ways.

The most visible is the morphing between virtual and physical. We have virtual consoles such as Glass LXE that can be used as standalone consoles and virtual companions such as Remote LXE that can be networked to a physical LXE console, all with the familiar layout, faders and buttons personalities have come to know. The beauty of the virtual world is that you can tap through multiple screens from one small, thin tablet. You no longer have to load everything onto a large console frame or even on a single touchscreen. You can build separate custom screens for monitoring signal flow, gathering news, and whatever else you can dream up, thanks to scripting and development tools like ScreenBuilder.

With mixing, sourcing and controlling audio now spread across the WheatNet-IP audio network, physical consoles also have become more versatile.

There are more shapes, sizes and varieties overall, from mini-mixers in a turret like our Talent Stations and rackmount consoles such as our Sideboards on up to multi-frame LXEs with touchscreens that let you pinch, click and tap functions.

Software is a much more integral part of the console today, and that can be extremely useful to broadcasters. In the case of our LXE console surface, all the controls and buttons are programmable through a web UI. You can write your own custom scripts similar to those you might write for a virtual UI, only now you can create new functions for your physical LXE board that are unique to your studio, even adding your own graphics, logos and images. What’s more, one button can do a myriad of things. It can change color when it changes state to another function, for example.

Blurring the lines between what’s physically in the studio and what’s virtual on the network has far-reaching implications. WheatNet-IP audio networking gives consoles the flexibility to extend to many different studios, some in different parts of the world. As the AoIP network expands with appliances such as PhoneBLADE, StreamBLADE, and SwitchBLADE, so too does the console’s footprint and therefore the usability of that console. 

READ: Wheatstone's Console Solutions

 WheatNet-IP is an AES67 compatible IP audio network. It is a complete ecosystem of consoles, talent stations, I/O units, accessories and virtual tools that includes online mixing and processing, scripting tools, audio drivers, and appliances. Hundreds of software or hardware elements make up the WheatNet-IP audio network as well as an additional 60-plus third-party add-ons, any or all of which can be connected together for any sized operation or purpose. LXE LH3QTR FAR 2560px

Adaptable. Practical. Reliable. 

All buttons and controls on the LXE console surface can be customized using a simple web UI and linked to WheatNet-IP BLADE logic for controlling devices and triggering events. Full color OLEDs reflect your programming, and touchscreen UIs let you interact with your audio in fresh, new ways to do everything from pinching and dragging EQ to setting up router crosspoints in the network. Adaptable as a tabletop or flush mount, single or split frame, LXE modules can be grouped into bays and connected through the network. 
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 Full LXE Under Glass

This multi-touch virtual console is studio-ready as a standalone UI into the WheatNet-IP audio network. Glass LXE is similar in function, feel and layout to the physical LXE console surface – but with multiple channel assigns and virtually unlimited profiles at the press of a button.

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Virtual Companion to a Physical LXE Board 

This multi-touch virtual console mirrors the physical LXE console surface for an independent, yet shared user experience during fast-paced, multi-operator productions. Remote LXE features real-time fader tracking and live synchronization of controls between the virtual surface and the physical LXE board. 

 
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BYO Virtual Development Toolkit 

Create your own touchscreens for monitoring signals, controlling devices or mixing audio. ScreenBuilder has knobs, faders, timers and other widgets that tie into elements in the WheatNet-IP audio network and can be controlled using a scripting wizard for designing user interfaces ranging from simple codec selectors to complete news workstations. 

 
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The BLADE I/O access units that make up the WheatNet-IP audio network each have a toolbox that extends the functionality of all consoles and control surfaces on the network. Built-in utility mixers, processing, logic, SNMP, AES67, silence detection, automation control, and much more give each console reach across the entire network. 


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WheatNet-IP audio networked console surfaces vary, from mixers in a rack to all the controls talent needs in a small turret or surface-mount
StreamBlade

StreamBLADE is an AoIP appliance with selectable Opus, AAC and MP3 encoders as well as AGC, peak limiter and other audio processing designed to optimize the performance of encoded audio content. Cloud-ready and compatible with standard CDN and streaming platforms, StreamBlade accepts eight input steams of native WheatNet-IP audio, each capable of four outputs for a total of 32 total output streams. 


SWITCHBLADE FRONT VIEW FULRES

SwitchBLADE combines WheatNet-IP native audio and logic control with SIP and codec bandwidth optimization to transport both high-quality programming and the control logic critical for full studio operation between sites.  

 
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PC OVERHEAD v3

 

PhoneBLADE is made specifically for connecting VoIP phone systems directly into the WheatNet-IP audio network without telephone hybrids or other interfaces.

 

 

ISDN is Out, Really

Switchblade Chart for AoIP Book

August 2019: ISDN has been on the way out for years. But we actually saw the backside of ISDN in early 2019 as iHeartMedia began deploying SwitchBLADEs as an integrated AoIP alternative. By the end of the year, iHeartMedia stations nationwide were up and running with this new WheatNet-IP audio network appliance, making it possible for them to finally quit ISDN and to standardize on the Opus codec while using SIP to initiate the connection for existing codecs in the field.

READ: ISDN Is Out. Really.

Telecoms are shuttering ISDN services and we all know what that means. 

Something new will inevitably come along to take its place. 

That something for iHeartMedia is SwitchBlade.This new appliance for our WheatNet-IP audio network combines audio codecs controlled by SIP, transporting Wheatstone SLIO and ACI controls as well as serial data for this and other purposes.

Widespread deployment of SwitchBlade across iHeartMedia stations began earlier this year, allowing the group to migrate from ISDN to an integrated AoIP alternative that standardizes on the Opus codec and uses SIP for initiating the connection for many different existing codecs in the field.

Previously, the group had been searching for an ISDN replacement that could take full advantage of AoIP. The problem was that even though AoIP has moved studios into the IP realm, converting that IP audio into a routable codec solution had been, in the words of Steve George, Senior VP of Engineering / Upper Midwest, iHeartMedia Engineering, “a clunky bolt-on solution.” In many cases, broadcasters had to resort to running separate codecs or software on computers in the studio with soundcards wired directly into the console. 

“We were looking for a way to take WheatNet-IP audio in our studio facilities and seamlessly integrate bi-directional codec functionality into the architecture. The ideal solution would operate natively in both environments – presenting fully-connected AoIP channels on the studio audio side and functioning as fully-featured AoIP SIP/Opus (VoIP) codec for audio connectivity outside the studio facility,” explained George. 

With VoIP making an impact in corporate telecommunications and SIP being implemented by all the major codec equipment manufacturers, an AoIP appliance with SIP enabled codecs held promise as a reasonable replacement for ISDN distribution.

SwitchBlade is an entirely new concept to come out of Wheatstone’s partnership with Radiomation, an Irish company that had already been doing pioneering work linking Wheatstone equipment to existing ISDN and POTS telecommunications equipment. SwitchBlade combines SIP, codecs and WheatNet-IP control and logic into a 1 RU appliance. It provides 24 remote AoIP connections with 24 separate software codecs directly into the WheatNet-IP audio network; each can be routed to any source or destination on the network.

With WheatNet-IP control and logic included, SwitchBlade offers other benefits, too. “Among the many unique qualities of this appliance is its ability to dynamically assign and pass any of 78 GPIO closures and have serial network cues associated with satellite-delivered program travel with the program audio, arriving at the remote end still perfectly synchronized with the content,” said George. SwitchBlade achieves this by embedding the signals directly into the audio stream so that signals and content are always perfectly synchronized regardless of any delays to the signal path. 

Moreover, each of SwitchBlade’s 24 modules can be individually controlled by custom console interfaces developed using ScreenBuilder – our virtual development application. Modules are integrated into iHeartMedia’s NexGen and other automation systems for automating the various remote AoIP connections for each show.

In addition to ISDN distribution, SwitchBlade has changed the thinking on everything from satellite program distribution and telephone contributions to inter-facility content distribution. 

Editor’s note: SwitchBlade won the “Product of the Year Award” in the Audio Production, Processing and Networking category at NAB 2019.

SNMP On the Brain

SNMP

September 2019: By mid-year, we all had SNMP on the brain as AoIP systems continued to get larger and more complicated. We spent some time talking with the pros at Armed Forces Network (AFN) about WheatNet-IP’s SNMP monitoring and alerting feature -- and how no one wants to have to tell AFN brass why a totally preventable problem brought down the main broadcast center feeding AFN’s global radio and television network. 

READ: SNMP On the Brain

They now know that the July 13 New York City power outage was due to a flawed equipment connection in one of the electrical substations. 

Had they known sooner that there was a problem between the sensors and protective relays at the 65th Street substation, the transformer fire that kept 70,000 New Yorkers in the dark for three hours could have been avoided.  

Which brings us to SNMP and our recent email exchange with Zachary Brockett, CSTE and CBNE with Taft Broadcasting Co., LLC, and a systems contractor for Armed Forces Network (AFN). 

By anyone’s definition, AFN is one of the world’s most distinguished broadcast operations with radio and television stations around the globe. No one wants to have to tell the AFN brass a flawed anything brought down AFN’s Broadcast Center/Defense Media Center in Riverside, Calif., from where global radio and television satellite feeds emanate. 

Enter SNMP, which Brockett uses as part of his toolkit to determine issues before they cause real problems down the line. “I tend to think of SNMP as a nice alert system before needing to delve in with the other tools I typically use,” he said. 

SNMP is a well-established set of standards for monitoring and managing data on servers, printers, hubs and switches. Transmitter manufacturers like Nautel and makers of remote-control gear like Burk provide SNMP monitoring in their products. So do AoIP manufacturers like Wheatstone. SNMP has been part of the WheatNet-IP audio network since we introduced the first version of our AoIP system in 2008. 

For example, the BLADE I/O access units that make up the WheatNet-IP network each have a unique MIB file of data points, and each BLADE has a unique object address in the network for SNMP monitoring and alerting purposes. 

MIB is short for Management Information Base and these files can tell you a lot about the operation of the network, such as bitrates and temperatures of devices or if a particular data stream running across the network is robust or not.

Brockett uses these files to monitor overall system health, starting at the WheatNet-IP audio network BLADEs in the AFN Broadcast Center where multicast streams originate. He monitors the delivery of streams into Cisco switches, and through a common SNMP command (TRAP), an alert is generated when the multicast streams fail to meet certain parameters over a short interval of time. By sending a TRAP message, a client device can alert the SNMP manager to a device that’s overheating, a router port that’s no longer responding, and conditions such as packets that are slowing down. 

SNMP also can be used to control anything with a contact closure or logic (like a BLADE), which makes it useful for preemptively changing a signal route if a connection is broken or there’s a problem upstream.  In the case of AFN, if packet rejects and drop counts start to rise above a set threshold, the source in question is automatically rerouted to an alternate path.

For overall network infrastructure monitoring, Brockett uses PRTG. This is a very powerful SNMP monitoring application that can visually recreate the network topology to monitor the health of network routers and switches, and keep track of management configurations, VLANs, subnets, and admin duties such as user access and login failure attempts. 

For troubleshooting and looking at the network on a more microscopic level, he uses Wireshark – which can also read SNMP commands and MIB files – along with NMAP, FFMPEG, NODE.js scripts and others.

In addition to WheatNet-IP devices and network servers, hubs and switches, the Evertz Dec32 servers in use at AFN (for bringing in multiple IP sources) also use SNMP for monitoring audio volume thresholds and also silence detection, as does the Evertz MVP Multiviewer that is used to monitor HD/SD video and audio feeds for the TV side of the house. 

Brockett would much rather manage a situation before it becomes a crisis downstream. 

TV Spectrum, An Inside Job

WLVTSmokestacks

September 2019: Television broadcasters began cashing in on some of that spectrum money to update their inside operation. Here’s an example of how one pubcaster in Bethlehem, Penn., was able to make its foray into IP audio and add new workflows as a result. 

READ: TV Spectrum, An Inside Job
WLVT GuyAudio Technologist Jonas Bowen, right, is always thinking up new AoIP workflows for WLVT-DTV’s facility, which happens to sit next to the only surviving steel blast furnace in the United States that still has triple pass stoves (shown, above, is the Bethlehem Steel blast furnace in the background)

Nothing like an FCC spectrum auction to brighten up a news facility.  

WLVT-DTV of Bethlehem, Penn., spent a portion of its spectrum proceeds on a new WheatNet-IP audio networked studio and Dimension Three Touch console surface and it’s been one shining example after another why IP audio makes so much sense today. 

This is the pubcaster’s first foray into IP audio, and with it comes an IP routed console that has tentacles into its three main news studios. On a typical day, operators can track a news interview being recorded on the fly in Studio A, then jump to an event taking place in Studio B – complete with a presenter and PowerPoint with embedded videos going seamlessly over the house speakers. Then, from the same Dimension Three console, they can drop in feeds from local dignitaries seated in Studio C for a satellite shoot with CNN, FOX or MSNBC. 

The console brought new workflows for WLVT-DTV, also known as PBS39, which serves the Greater Lehigh Valley in Eastern Penn. and Western New Jersey. But the biggest game changer proved to be the I/O access and specialty units that make up the WheatNet-IP audio network known as BLADEs.  
WLVT Blades

Need a simple HD/SDI de-embedder or a routable mic processor? WLVT-DTV has a BLADE for that. Shown, a few I/O BLADEs racked up in WLVT-DTV’s rack room. 

Take the ArtsQuest complex next to the studios that has held many events over the years. In 2011, contractors set up an Ethernet pipe between the two buildings but had never connected both sides. “In May, we brought in a multi-channel Mic BLADE (MP4IP four-channel mic processor as part of the WheatNet-IP network) to the arts complex and finally connected the buildings. We used the fiber haul for the cameras and the Mic BLADE for the audio.  We were able to produce the Athlete-of-the-Year event, live, no audio delay, no problems,” said Jonas Bowen, WLVT-DTV ‘PBS39’ Audio Technologist. 

Another specialty BLADE, known as the HD/SDI de-embedder BLADE, effectively integrated de-embedding of the audio channel directly into the Dimension Three console. That alone eliminated extra wiring and the breakouts needed with the old AES de-embedder. 

WLVT D3

Small conveniences count for a lot too, like a USB input into the Dimension Three for playing newsclips and a 5.1 spill feature that makes it easy to isolate any of the eight SDI audio channels coming from the PBS satellite.  “’5.1 quality control in a button’ is what we like to call it,” said Bowen. 

Overall, he added, “We have gone from the routing cages and crossover cables of 2011, to one rack unit audio over IP control!”  

IT Streams

StreamBlade090819

September 2019: With new streaming incentives like smart speakers bringing music back into the home, broadcasters began looking for ways to play to the psychoacoustical characteristics of codecs. Our engineers retreated to the audio processing lab once again and developed the StreamBLADE AoIP appliance to get crisper highs, deeper bass and a fuller sound out of streamed content. 

READ: IT Streams

The pyramid of conflict says you can have good, cheap or fast, but not all three.

Streaming is a textbook case of this. We have seen data transfer rates rise and connectivity prices fall, which recently got us wondering about streamed music quality.

We wondered: Could we combine what we know about AoIP with what we know about on-air audio processing to improve the quality of streamed music? Could we give streamers a fuller sound and bring out those crisp highs, that deep bass like we’ve been able to capture with our new X5 FM/HD audio processor? And, could we then push all that through a codec whose job is to lose as many bits as the pipe can handle, often indiscriminate of which ones? 

We not only could, but we did. StreamBlade was introduced at IBC last year as a multi-stream appliance for our WheatNet-IP audio network that has selectable Opus, AAC and MP3 encoding and AGC, peak limiter and other processing tools specifically designed to optimize the sound quality of encoded audio content.

It turns out that with the right amount and type of audio processing, you can play to the psychoacoustical characteristics of lossy codecs to get that fuller sound, crisp highs and deep bass. Here are six things to keep in mind. 

1. Aggressive time constants can interfere with the codec. “Fast time constants (compression) adds intermod products which the codec has to spend bits on instead of the signals that are actually part of the program. That can be bad for any stream, but it’s especially bad for low bitrate streams that don’t have a lot of data bits to begin with,” said Jeff Keith, Senior Product Development Engineer for Wheatstone’s audio processing line.

Unlike the conventional approach of applying multiband gain control followed by fast compression to build uniform loudness and density from one music source to the next, StreamBlade uses RMS density calculations in its five-band AGC design to invisibly smooth out source transitions and to feed the encoder a steady diet of consistent audio levels. 

2. Overshoot is a problem. You’ll need a good limiter. The encoder will not accept any signal over 0 dBFS. You’re out of bits at that point. The best practice for most codecs is to not go over -3 dBFS on the input to the encoder. Even then, you’re going to run out of headroom on some peaks and that’s why a limiter is necessary, to make sure overshoots don’t ever get close to 0 dBFS. But be careful. Not any old limiter will do. According to Keith, aggressive limiting byproducts such as ‘pumping’ and intermod are never good, but they’re especially problematic for encoded audio because the codec can multiply their effect at the expense of regular programming content. 

StreamBlade uses a two-band final limiter developed specifically for streaming applications, or what Keith calls the “peak unsquashed final limiter.” “It’s not density control. It’s just peak control, so you have an input to a codec that is pretty darn friendly, even at low bitrates.”

3. Clipping. Nope. Just nope. “The problem with clipping as a peak control mechanism is that it creates harmonics that weren't in the original program and the encoder doesn’t know any better and throws bits at it,” said Keith. Not only is there not enough bit-budget for clipping byproducts, but those byproducts can sound much, much worse once the codec algorithm gets a hold of them. The good news is that streaming doesn’t come with the pre-emphasis can of worms that got broadcasters into heavy clipping to begin with, so clipping isn’t necessary to keep streamed overshoots in check.  A good limiter should suffice.  

4. Stereo, not so much. Big swings in L-R can trick the codec into disproportionately applying too many bits to L-R data rather than listenable program content. Keeping stereo separation consistent and steady can give you the perception of stereo, but without setting off the encoder. For very low bitrates, monaural might be the best answer as the codec will spend most of its precious bits on listenable content instead of stereo data. Adding a slight boost in bass offers some depth to those monaural programs that are streamed at lower bitrates especially. 

StreamBlade has onboard a stereo width management section that eliminates the big swings in dynamic L-R that can skew the codec algorithm in favor of L-R over original content. It also offers bass boost and monaural bass features for optimizing low bitrate streams.

5. Don’t forget noise filters, EQ dynamics, and vocal correction. Streamed programming can often benefit from EQ adjustment, especially at low bitrates. And like broadcast audio, it will require some noise filtering and asymmetry correction on vocals to make the most of the listening experience.

StreamBlade has a two-stage phase rotator to correct voice asymmetry, selectable high- and low-pass filters for removing noise and hum, and four-band parametric equalizer with peak and shelf functions for streaming the best quality as possible on a variety of bitrates.

6. Native IP audio is good. The beauty of AoIP is that you can take music programming straight from the playout system on out to air (or stream) without stepping through A/D/A conversions. A bump in program quality is one of the more important benefits of installing an AoIP system, so why not extend that benefit to your streams as well?

As an AoIP appliance, StreamBlade accepts eight input sources of native WheatNet-IP audio directly from a soundcard or AoIP driver, each capable of four outputs for a total of 32 total output streams. 

With all that streaming in one box, it seems StreamBlade is also hitting on another of the three pyramids of conflict: affordability. 

Breaking the (Processing) Sound Barrier

ProcessingLab Jeff 2560

June 2019: Solving the limitations of FM clipping on pre-emphasized content has long been viewed as the pièce de résistance of FM audio processing. Wheatstone engineers have spent a lifetime experimenting with different FM clipper techniques that could break through a sound barrier to more dynamic, robust audio programming. In 2019, more stations than ever before were able to reap the benefits of that research and to break through a few sound barriers of their own with our X5 FM/HD audio processor. 

READ: Breaking The Sound Barrier

Let's Talk Clippers

Clipping can be like hot sauce. You want just enough to get the job done and not a smidge more. One of the main reasons why processors can’t push the clipper harder is because of the pre-emphasized higher end frequencies. At 15kHz, you have seven times the energy than at 400Hz, which clippers can turn into intermodulation distortion that comes out sounding “spitty” if pushed too hard. This is exacerbated by the limiting stage that precedes clipping. 

Solving the limitations of FM clipping on pre-emphasized content has long been viewed as the critical stage in the audio processor that can finally break through the “sound barrier”  or, that barrier to dynamic, robust audio programming (read clean and loud). We’ve spent a lot of time in our audio processing lab (and even more time in our home labs and in the field) experimenting with different FM clipper techniques, and each new processor we design gets progressively better. Our new X5 FM/HD audio processor effectively breaks that sound barrier with an innovative approach we call the LIMITLESS  Clipper, a high-frequency distortion canceling technology that passes the highs without the spit. Pass the hot sauce, please. 

This tip is brought to you from the Wheatstone Lab by Jeff Keith, CPBE, NCE, Senior Product Development Engineer and Mike Erickson, audio processing field engineer. The Wheatstone Lab has a wide range of music and program content sources that can be routed through more than 37 audio processors, ranging from early vintage 1970s models to the very latest FM audio processor (our X5), plus a half-dozen microphones, three transmitters, and audio display monitors of all types.

AES67 Gear Arrives

AES67

July 2019: AES67 continued to find its way into the studio via new gear. For ABC News 4 in Charleston, South Carolina, a new AES67 intercom meant they could stream native IP audio between their WheatNet-IP system and the intercom without all the conversion gymnastics. 

READ: AES67 Gear Arrives

Something wonderful happened to Justin Strauber on his way to getting a new intercom system for ABC News 4 in Charleston, South Carolina. 

AES67.

image001Rather than go the usual route of converting to analog out of the AoIP system and then converting back to digital audio for the intercom, the CE plans to use AES67 to transport IP audio from the WheatNet-IP audio network in the studio to the station’s new intercom system. 

When we spoke with him, he hadn’t yet settled on an intercom system - but he had plenty of choices. RTS, Clear-Com and a number of other IP intercoms now have AES67, the audio transport standard that is supported by SMTPE-2110 and included in all major AoIP systems, our WheatNet-IP audio network among them. 

With native IP audio streaming between WheatNet-IP to the intercom, AES67 opens up a gateway into the ABC News 4 studio for transporting voice communications as well as other data. 

ABC News 4 has an E-6 mixing surface with WheatNet-IP audio networking, which Strauber recently rebooted for the first time since installing the system almost two years ago. He rebooted the system to establish the PTP v2 master clock in preparation of AES67 and a new intercom system coming soon.  

With SMPTE 2110 and ATSC 3.0 moving in, he says, “There’s a big push to move away from analog, and AES67 is a good step in that direction.”

Then there was this...

APRIL 2019: ...We managed to introduce ten new ground-breaking products.

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Our 2020 Vision 

All of the above brings us here, at the start of a new year and a new decade of innovation, projects and friends.

Stay tuned.

 

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