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Networking: throwing the net wider than Soho

Audio networks are now part of every day life for post-production facilities and are not just a special requirement. Sohonet CTO Ben Roeder explains why sound is a major consideration and how this is only the beginning for networking technologies.

The broadcast and post-production markets can be big city-centric, which is understandable – if not completely forgivable – because the main players in these businesses have their headquarters in places like New York, Paris and London. Not only has England’s capital been accused of being especially inward looking but specific areas there seem think they are places unto themselves.

Soho is the most obvious example and today it is still a major focus for UK television and film production. But TV is a global market and digital technology has transcended distance and time zones to connect facilities at opposite sides and ends of the world. While its name might imply parochialism, connectivity and data management specialist Sohonet has played a part in connecting post-production houses on many levels: internally for studios within the same premises; locally between neighbouring buildings; and, increasingly, linking facilities in other parts of the UK or different countries.

Sohonet was founded in 1995 when several London post houses came together to create a private network with the aim of improving productivity through the use of simpler, faster production chains. As more companies signed up for its services Sohonet began to outgrow its roots, to the point in 2003 when it became a private company after a management buyout.

The audio post-production sector was an early adopter of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) in the early 1990s as a replacement for expensive telecom circuits. As facilities looked for new technologies to replace ISDN Sohonet installed the first VDSL (Very high-speed Digital Subscriber Line) network in the UK, at Pinewood Studios, in 2001. Since then it has offered a variety of WAN and LAN technologies; it is now promoting its privately managed high quality IP network as more post houses adopt Audio over Internet Protocol (AoIP).

Sohonet chief technology officer Ben Roeder (pictured) says this offers uncongested connectivity to the company’s clients, with the network now linking leading facilities in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. “This involves a lot of live sessions,” he comments, “but we’re also moving files around at high speed for audio description, subtitling and quality control, as well as multitrack mixes and commercials.”

With this as its foundation Sohonet has been building on its service offering. Last year it formed a partnership with software developer Signiant to add the Media Shuttle program to Sohonet Hub, giving customers further exchange tools in the form of Filerunner. On the storage side of its business Sohonet is now looking at Cloud-based Object technology, which Roeder sees as “the way forward”.

Sohonet routinely works with other technology providers, supplying the platform on which systems like Source-Connect, Digigram’s AoIP products and the T-VIPS (now merged with Nevion) JPEG 2000 system can be used. Roeder observes that in many respects audio takes precedence over video because of the large number of elements involved: “There are the six channels in a 5.1 Dolby mix and lots of channels in JPEG 2000 and SDI streams. In terms of all these formats we’re quite agnostic.”

Roeder adds that digital and file-based operations have given more scope and led to the proliferation of audio tracks that now need to be transferred between facilities. “Tapeless systems are allowing people to include audio description and other services, which couldn’t be done easily on tape,” he says. “It was getting to the point where two SDI XDCAM machines would have to be involved, one of them exclusively for the audio. But now people can have as many channels as they want.”

This in turn brings up the question of network capacity but developing technologies are appearing that offer companies like Sohonet the flexibility their clients need. “We’re testing 4Gb a second connections and there’s also the potential of Ethernet systems that can be built up in multiples of 25GHz channels,” explains Roeder. “All this will give more bandwidth and more services.”

Networking of this kind, Roeder says, suits any scale of application, from connecting studios and enabling machine rooms to be located in other buildings to providing a link for sessions between facilities on different continents. “Ultimately it’s about adding bandwidth that removes distances,” he concludes. “In terms of networking technologies this is only the beginning.”