AVB and Audinate's Dante: An Update After Infocomm 2015

Update June 30, 2019: Latest thoughts here.

Update June 25 2018: Latest thoughts here

Update June 25, 2016: I have a followup here.

In recent years, Infocomm has become the go-to show for the convergence of Audio, Video, Networking, and Control (all the areas I follow most closely), and this year was yet another great show.  My primary focus in my audio work and teaching is live sound, and walking the audio areas of the floor the hottest topic of conversation amongst my live sound-focused friends was Audinate's proprietary Dante audio network transmission system, and of course IEEE's open Audio Video Bridging (AVB) standard.  

Work on AVB started back in 2005, and I first saw a demo of it at Infocomm 2009 (my initial writeup with an introduction to the technology here).  It seemed like a great idea, and I was a big proponent of it.  However, by 2013 I was concerned that the AVB development was dragging behind the needs of the live sound market, and after Infocomm in June of that year I was thinking that it might succeed if it could be integrated with Dante, who by then was well established with major players in our market like Yamaha and Shure. Later that summer, I visited the AVnu testing lab in New Hampshire, and was still somewhat hopeful about AVB's prospects, but after AES in November of 2013, after the release of the AES-67 inter-operability standard, I peered into my crystal ball and wrote, "Audinate's Dante has won the race, while AVB is still being tweaked by the mechanics over in the pit lane. ".  That was further reinforced by what I my visit to Infocomm last year, and even more so this year.  Here's the products on the AVB/AVnu Alliance stand:

And somewhat telling in that exhibit was the Yamaha console:

That Pivitec expansion card apparently gets 16 channels of AVB in and out of the console (this 16 channel limitation, of course, is due to Yamaha's ancient MY card architecture--not AVB), but notice that the Dante support for a virtually unlimited number of channels is built in. Unless you wanted to interface with a Pivitec monitor system, which apparently uses AVB, why would you buy this expansion card?  And I write "apparently" here because looking at the Pivitec product page for that card, it doesn't even mention AVB:

Dante was in so many places on the trade show floor that Audinate was running a scavenger hunt promotion and were giving away T-shirts to people who could find a certain number of products. You can see the Dante booth in the photo at the top of this post, and here's just some of the several racks of Dante gear available today they had on display.

While there is still one big player in our live sound market--Meyer--holding onto AVB, it seems almost all the other big live sound market players have jumped onto the Dante bandwagon.  And this includes Avid, with their upcoming S6-L mixer; this is particularly interesting development since Avid was one of the few companies selling an AVB-based mixer system. [Update July 9--Avid's system is based on AVB but they now have a Dante interface card, see comment below]. And it seems that Harman (JBL, etc) is heading towards Dante as well.  

At the show, I asked an old friend at Meyer who would know the company strategy about connecting to Dante, and he wouldn't say anything. But it seems to me they have to come up with a way to at least interface with it.  Why? Back in May I co-designed and aligned a large, complex all-Meyer speaker sound system for the Youtube Brandcast at the Madison Square Garden theater.  

This is how we got signal out of our Yamaha CL-5 FOH and Monitor consoles (black Dante I/O boxes) and into Meyer's Galileo output signal processing system (blue boxes):

Fortunately this system was buzz-free and clean due to the excellence of our crew, but this mess could be replaced with a few Cat 5 cables if Meyer added support for Dante to their Galileo product line (to be fair, those Galileo boxes don't even yet have AVB--only analog and AES). Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Meyer fan, but when everyone else is using something different, and your users need to connect, we can't stay analog forever. And its just not likely the rest of the world will go Meyer's way and suddenly switch to AVB tomorrow.

At the show, I also saw that some other live sound stalwarts are also now supporting Dante. Digico have long been basing systems on MADI, and at the show they had an Dante bridge (sorry for the photo quality):

SSL also was showing something similar:

And I like the redundancy--Focusrite also now has its Rednet Dante I/O boxes with redundant power supplies.

And I didn't even mention Dante's Via, which Audinate was pushing at the show and introducing soon.  It's pretty cool and has a lot of theatre sound-style applications.

So where are we today?  I no longer need my crystal ball--Dante is currently the defacto audio networking solution for the live sound industry. And don't take my word for it, take some actual data from an excellent white paper from Roland Hemming's consulting firm (and funded by Audinate).  Mr. Hemming kicked off Audinate's AV Networking World sessions with a very bold slide:

Again, sorry for the terrible camera phone quality, but what the slide says is:

  • Protocols are products

  • Protocols are ecosystems

  • Protocols should not be standards

  • Protocols should use standards as building blocks to allow interoperability

Hmm, "protocols should not be standards" That one got me, because I've long advocated for open standards. But I think he's right at least in the case of audio networking. Dante is doing--and doing well--everything we need today, it's affordable, and as flexible and inter-operable as Audinate wants it to be (and it seems they want to connect it to anything that makes sense). And they were able to get into that position because they were able to be agile and innovative (and no one who knows anything about the standards-making process would use either of those words). Mr. Hemming went onto make a substantive case as to why Dante has come to this position--and much more thoroughly (and with real data) made the case I've been making here on the blog for the last six years.

So where does that leave AVB? I talked to a guy from Extreme Networks at the show, and it seems they are still the only company making AVnu certified switches, and the ability to carry AVB is still an option that costs about $400 per switch.  Biamp is often mentioned as an AVB success story, and they had an enormous booth on the floor, but don't really have much presence in my world. And while I heard from a few people at the show "more cool AVB stuff is on the way real soon", I'm afraid I've heard that too long--I just can't even imagine what the product or solution would be that would make everyone drop Dante and go to AVB. For example, we've been using Dante for distribution of audio on our Gravesend Inn haunted hotel for four years successfully.  Why would we throw out tens of thousands of dollars of stuff to switch to AVB now?

But AVB still has a potential (and fascinating) future: As I wrote back in January of this year, It seems that AVB and the AVnu alliance has shifted to offer a solution for Time Sensitive Networking (TSN), and this was reinforced on the show floor with an AVB/TSN graphic, which listed only a handful of live sound companies and Audinate itself, who list some of same companies as licencees:

Also the automotive market is apparently very interested in AVB/TSN as well--using special connectors and AVB they can use Ethernet to save lots of weight in cars, which is a big deal.

And so I'll be interested to see what the next year brings, but I'm willing to bet anyone a significant donation to a charity of their choice that Dante will be available in more live audio products on the floor of Infocomm 2016 than any other audio networking solution (beyond that, who knows). And in the end, as I've been saying for a while (and Mr. Hemming substantiates in his paper, which you should read), that's all users who actually buy this stuff really care about.  Anyone want to take that bet?

Update July 25:

After the comments closed, Kevin Gross, key developer of Cobranet and now a leader in AES-67 development, wrote in with this:

Although Dante clearly has critical mass in many classes of audio products, the same could have been said about CobraNet 10 or so years ago. Proprietary technology is dependent on its owners to sustain adoption (against the headwind of the license fees they must charge), for maintenance and support and to keep the technology current with respect to market and technological advancement. Over the long term, it is simply not safe to assume that an individual technology owner will be able to negotiate the business and technical changes required to sustain their creation. Although Dante is the current leader in this ongoing horserace, realistically, based on recent history, we have to expect there to be a new contender before the end of the decade.

While a succession of proprietary technologies may move AV technology forward, technology based on open standards offers a more robust alternative. Standards already exist for audio networking in VoIP, ACIP, AVB and AES67. Standards exist and are under development for professional video over IP. Audinate has recognized the importance of standards-based interoperability by implementing AES67. Based on how things play out in IT, it is hard to imagine a future where the means of network audio interconnect is not open standards based. The only question is how long it will take to get there.

Kevin Gross - AVA Networks

A New Direction for AVB: Time Sensitive Networking (TSN) for Industrial Control

Update June 25 2018: Latest thoughts here

Update June 25, 2016: I have a followup here.

For many years, I've been following and have written a lot about IEEE Audio Video Bridging (AVB), an open standard way of transmitting audio and video over Ethernet using special network switches. It's a fascinating standard, but in the live show audio market, it seems to me that AVB has been eclipsed by Audinate's proprietary Dante technology, which has been meeting our needs for some time (at CityTech, for example, we've been distributing audio for our Gravesend Inn haunted attraction using Dante since 2011.)  More on that subject in my post-Infocomm writeup here.

As a result of writing these pieces, last Fall I met Greg Schlecter, Technology Marketing Strategist of Intel, who told me about new developments in a fascinating new direction for AVB, for another industry that needs precise, timely delivery of data: industrial control. This work has been under way for some time; as part of the effort, in 2012, the IEEE Audio Video Bridging standards task group was renamed to the "Time Sensitive Networking" (TSN) task group to reflect the new, larger focus of the group. And late last year, the AVB trade association AVnu Allance released more information; you can read more here on their site, in their press release here, and in a 30 minute Youtube video here.

This effort is fascinating to me since in addition to being a live sound guy, it just so happens that I wrote a book about live show applications of industrial control technologies. But what does audio have to do with industrial control, which is used in factory automation, medical devices, elevators, oil refineries and to control all kinds of machinery? AVB was originally designed to transport audio over standard Ethernet networks; to do so, it has to be able to work to a very high degree of time precision. Pro audio, for example, often uses a sample rate of 48,000 samples per second, and the precise synchronization of those samples for playback is critical for digital audio to work properly. In addition, on live shows we often have to send signals far and wide around a facility, but typically not over the internet (unless it's streamed, which is typically a different specialty). Modern Ethernet is well suited for both of those needs.

Industrial control has similar needs. For example, a factory may have large machines spread out over a facility, which also need tight synchronization. For example, if the parts of a Twinkie manufacturing facility aren't precisely synchronized, there could be a gooey mess on the floor:

Note: That footage has no audio; if you want to see a peculiar mash up of Twinkie manufacturing footage with Van Halen music, click here.

I wrote in my book about the limitations of standards, the process of standards development and adoption (excerpt here); one fascinating thing that we often see is the unintended directions standards can take after they are released into the wild. MIDI Show Control, for example, was developed to control all kinds of things on a show, but these days mostly is found connecting lighting desks.  DMX was designed for dimmers, but now controls things like video servers. And while the live show industry share of the industrial control market is tiny, sophisticated stage machinery is finding an ever-larger home in live shows, and we often use controls equipment from large industrial controls manufacturers. Big companies like Intel and GE are involved in the TSN effort, so it's possible that this will gain traction in the controls market soon, and it's possible that AVB will still end up backstage as a backbone for scenic automation systems.  Let me know if you see TSN showing up on your stage.

AVB and Audinate's Dante: An Update After Infocomm 2014

Update June 25 2018: Latest thoughts here

Update June 25, 2016: I have a followup here.

One of the things I like most about the Infocomm show is that I always unexpectedly run into friends, and also invariably see something new. In 2009, that something new was Audio-Video Bridging (AVB), an IEEE open standard for transmitting time-synchronized audio and video over Ethernet, using special network switches. I've long been a supporter of open standards, and I was a big supporter of AVB. But after the 2013 AES convention, four years after that very public roll out, it seemed to me that AVB had been too slow out of the gate, and that Audinate's proprietary Dante audio networking technology had already won dominance in the live sound market (and I wrote about all that in a blog entry, which, amazingly to me, has had nearly 5,000 views). Everything I saw at this year's Infocomm further supports that conclusion.  

These pictures (sorry for the cameraphone quality, I wasn't lugging my heavy DSLR around the show) sum up the situation for me. Here's the display by the AVNU Alliance (the AVB Trade association--I wrote a lot about them here after a visit to their testing lab last summer):

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There's actually less on display this year than last year. There was the (very nice) AVB-based Avid S3L console, some interfaces, and switches from Extreme Networks, who, as of now, are the only company to get AVNU-certified switches onto the market. The Extreme switches seem very nice, but when I priced them recently I was surprised to learn that the AVB option costs over $300+ extra per switch. With so little AVB product available for our industry, what does that $300 get me?  (BTW, recently there was a very cool "Brick and Bullet" AVB I/O Kickstarter that unfortunately did not reach its funding goal--they are vowing to go forward anyway).

Contrast that to the demo area at Audinate's A/V Networking World (AVNW) the day before Infocomm:

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Here, there was lots of stuff from popular pro audio manufacturers that you can buy today, all connected together using standard switches and patched with a consistent interface. And in this all-day Dante love fest, they showed real world, completed installations, and lots of new, working stuff.  My friend Jamie Anderson from Rational Acoustics presented on a recent SMAART class he taught where he replaced his old analog signal distribution system with Dante, saying it saved him several hours on the class because it "just worked":'

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Another old friend, Michael Cusick from SAVI, explained the massive Dante network his company recently installed in a big renovation at the Planet Hollywood showroom in Vegas.

Transient

I had to miss the afternoon presentations.  But Dante had a booth on the floor showing many of their OEM partners:

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The booth also featured Audio Technica's ATND971, "the first wired microphone that transmits audio and control data together over the Dante network protocol":

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So, it seems the prediction I made after peering into my crystal ball back in November still holds up: "... Audinate's Dante has won the race, while AVB is still being tweaked by the mechanics over in the pit lane."   

You can see all my AVB/Dante postings here, and pictures of random stuff I found interesting at this year's Infocomm here.  I also have a writeup of our 2014 show control geekout here.

Update June 24, 1pm: Here's a video from Audinate from Infocomm explaining the above and some things I missed at the show:

AVB, Audinate Dante, and AES-67: Peering into My Crystal Ball

Update June 25 2018: Latest thoughts here

June 24, 2014: Note, an update to this entry is posted here.

July 2, 2015: Note an even-more current update to this blog entry is posted here.  I would suggest reading it first.

Update June 25, 2016: I have yet another followup here.

Several events before and during the AES convention last month here in NYC indicated for me a future for the world of audio networking for the live sound industry.  Before I reveal what I saw in my crystal ball, let’s review some recent developments.

AVB

I first really became aware of the IEEE 802.1 standards effort for Audio-Video Bridging (AVB) back at a demo on the floor of the Infocomm show in Vegas in 2009 (my writeup and photos here). AVB’s goal was to create an open, free to use network for low-latency, high quality audio and video distribution natively over Ethernet. Seeing working devices on the Infocomm floor in 2009, I thought this cool new technology might come on the market soon afterwards.  I was wrong.  Instead, AVB languished through the glacial IEEE standards-making process; every time I asked, everyone I knew who was involved said “oh we’re just waiting on this one last thing" (that one last, final thing just came out a couple months ago). At Infocomm in June of this year, there were a few encouraging signs (my writeup herethat we might finally, officially get AVB out into the world in real product. But then in July, a month after Infocomm, on my way back from a photo workshop in Maine, I stopped in to check out the AVB testing program sponsored by the AVNU Alliance (the trade association created to promote AVB) at the Interoperability Lab (IOL) of the University of New Hampshire.  It’s an impressive lab (my writeup and some photos here), but I’m afraid AVB might be too late to the live sound party (and I voiced this concern to the lab director during my visit).  In July, they were—more than four years after I first saw working prototype AVB equipment at Infocomm 2009 in Vegas—just testing new, AVB-capable Ethernet switches to join the few already on the market. The problem this causes is that AVB requires those special AVB-capable switches to function properly, so without a wide array of these on the market the standard is effectively stalled out from the user's perspective. And worse, the rumor I heard from several people at AES was that Cisco--the 800 pound gorilla of the networking world--was not going to implement AVB in their switches any time soon, despite being a founding member of the AVNU alliance.

In the Meantime: Dante

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During these four years, of course, the market did not stand still; Audinate’s proprietary Dante audio network solution basically took over the live sound market. The turning point for me was when Yamaha announced at Infocomm in 2012 that their CL series live sound consoles would be based completely around Dante.  And around the time of my IOL visit, an article came out from Audinate talking about the situation (linked from my writeup here), which basically said that while they supported AVB, they—and the pro sound market—were not able to wait forever for affordable AVB-capable switches.  They also speculated that AVB switches didn't offer compelling value to our market, at least in the near term with high costs and limited availability. The only viable possible path forward they saw was that AVB “…may gradually diffuse throughout the industry and become available in a wide variety of network equipment.”   As I wrote then, “After watching this market for 25 years, I've found it rare for technologies like this to gradually 'diffuse' through the industry.”

I tweeted my July blog entry at Audinate, and US-based director of Audinate, Lee Ellison, contacted me, saying he would be in NYC for AES and would like to get together. I of course said yes and took advantage of this opportunity to ask that he talk to my sound engineering students, and he gave us a great presentation.  He is a very smart guy who understands way more about the technology than I would expect of the director of a company, and he clearly gets the market and the role of standards in industry.

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Mr. Ellison was clear in the talk and at lunch afterwards: Audinate plans to continue support for AVB.  But, because Dante is both a proprietary transport technology and also a sort of “glue” that can tie together disparate transport standards, it seems to me that Audinate will not use AVB as their primary backbone (there’s so few AVB capable Ethernet switches available today it’s hard to do in any case), but instead offer AVB as an option to those who want it.  But Mr. Ellison also talked a lot about a new and potentially game changing standard: the then just ratified AES67-2013: AES standard for audio applications of networks - High-performance streaming audio-over-IP interoperability.

AES67

Back at an Infocomm AVNU alliance cocktail party in 2011, I ran into my old friend Kevin Gross, the primary inventor and developer of Cobranet, which until Dante came on the scene was the most widely used networking standard for transporting audio in the pro Audio market. I asked him if he was working on AVB, and he said he was instead working on a new Layer 3 audio transport protocol.  I didn't actually grasp the full significance of this standards effort until I heard the details at this year's AES convention, since AES67 was ratified and released this past September. Kevin guided the process to completion in about two years, which is an incredibly speedy time frame for the standards world (but what the market needs).

To understand the significance of AES67, you have to understand a little of the ISO layer stack (and if you have questions, I know a good book you can buy that explains it all). To summarize, though, AVB--as part of Ethernet--operates at Layer 2 only.  That means that special AVB-capable Ethernet switches can understand and transport it, but you can’t easily send AVB between networks (either local or over the internet), because today that’s done primarily using Layer 3, and the Internet Protocol (IP, as in IP addresses).  Dante and several other network systems operate at Layer 3. 

All this means that with AES67 we now have an open-standard, Layer 3, modern way of getting high quailty audio between networks (more technical details here).  So if someone creates a connection between an AVB product or system and AES67, then AES67 can also be used to get audio over to Dante or another network. And this is great news for us today, since peering into my crystal ball, this is how I see the live sound networking world in the near future:

ProAudioNetworks2014.PNG

All manufacturers listed in the graphic have, to the best of my knowledge, working, actual product on the market using those networking technologies as of this writing.  As you can see, the scales are tilted pretty far over towards the Dante side, with Meyer and a few other key live sound players on the AVB side.  But AES67 can provide the bridge between those worlds for the users.

It’s All About the Users

One thing that is often lost in thinking about these kind of situations and technology development is that end users—who actually buy and use the stuff, after all—drive the market.  And they are voting with their dollars. Sure, Audinate could switch over their entire Dante infrastructure to AVB, but why would they?  If they did so now, everyone who has a current installation would have to buy new AVB switches, and these are not cheap--a few months ago, I priced out some Extreme Networks switches and the AVB option cost hundreds of dollars extra per switch, and what does that get me?  Dante is doing everything I need right now on standard switch hardware, at layer 3.  It gives me an affordable multi-channel, high quality, self-clocking, easy-to-use transport system with incredible patch flexibility (including any PC or Mac using the Virtual Sound Card). Here's a setup I did the other day here at City Tech (where I teach) to test our new JoeCo Dante-enabled recorders.  It took me literally about two minutes to get this configured and running once I had it plugged up.

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Is Dante a panacea?  Of course not.  It's still new and I still have issues with it. We had all kinds of mysterious problems on our last show (turned out to be mostly Windows firewall issues) and getting the firmware upgraded required several calls to Yamaha tech support (who were great).  We've also had occasional word clock-style clicking/distortion problems, etc, and when those things happen it's typically not clear what the next troubleshooting step should be, so I hope Audinate will put more diagnostic capabilities into their control software. And for the future, I can easily foresee problems when you're connecting stuff from multiple manufacturers leading to finger pointing; but that would be the same case with AVB too (and possibly worse since there wouldn't be any common hardware).

Conclusion

I wrote back in June, “Will 2014 be the year of AVB, Dante, or AVB/Dante? ”  After AES, I think the answer is pretty clear—Audinate's Dante has won the race, while AVB is still being tweaked by the mechanics over in the pit lane. Those who have committed to AVB (like Meyer—and I’m a big Meyer fan and user) should provide AES67 inter-operability for their systems so we can use it to connect to my Yamaha mixer, Shure wireless mics, JoeCo live recorder, Aviom monitor mixers, SMAART analyzer (via virtual sound card), etc etc etc—all of which are running Dante today.