Audio Networking Explained

Computer networks have been used for decades to interconnect multiple computers and other digital equipment. A network provides an economical and efficient way for devices to share data and for users to communicate and share the same piece of equipment (such as a printer or multiple network-capable storage and backup devices).
In the audio world, as channel counts have grown, digital audio systems have taken the dominant role, and various control and storage possibilities have emerged. Audio networking, also known as “audio over IP,” has become a big deal. Just as the scale of computer networks can range from a laptop computer and TV streaming device connected to the Internet in a home all the way up to massive corporate systems with hundreds of interconnected computers and other devices spread across a “campus” covering several city blocks, audio networking is also scalable and appropriate for scenarios ranging from personal home studios to multi-room post-production facilities, from small churches to large arenas, and from club gigs to major concert productions. In all these cases, audio networking can minimize setup time, reduce the number and size of cables required, provide the means for interconnecting different locations and hardware, and tie together the elements of audio production — recorded or live — in a simple, efficient way.
Let’s take a look at several scenarios, examine how networking can be used in each, identify the components of audio networking, and then discuss the technical aspects of the leading audio networking protocols.
Why Use an Audio Network?
Analog audio distribution and routing is certainly a tried-and-true technological approach. But analog suffers from limitations that can become more apparent as systems are scaled up. These restrictions include signal degradation during transmission (displayed by loss of highs, noise/hum pickup, and signal level drop), distance limitations, and the requirement of a dedicated cable and connection for each channel in each direction of signal flow. However, with a digital audio network, cabling requirements are dramatically reduced, and signal degradation is eliminated. High channel counts are also possible with significantly less cable required, and system configuration is much more flexible. In addition, outputs can be seamlessly routed to multiple destinations without loss, and without a doubt even more benefits accompany a digital network.
Is Audio Networking Complex?
A common concern among musicians and recording or live sound engineers is that they will have to become IT experts to use an audio network. In fact, the technologies are streamlined and ergonomic and do not require specialized knowledge to use. In many cases, assembling a network is nearly plug-and-play simple. There is no more learning curve than when connecting, say, an audio interface, installing drivers, and configuring audio software for recording. In most cases, audio network devices automatically recognize one another and automatically configure clocks and routings for optimal operation. There’s no doubt that what is going on under the hood is complex high technology, but for the user, the experience is familiar and intuitive.