Wireless Ties Built for Speed

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By David Weiss


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“High-speed networking” ceased to be a buzz phrase sometime during the end of the last millennium, but its significance in pro audio is growing. There is an increasing need for recording studios, mastering suites, post houses and DVD producers to securely move media at speeds faster than DSL, T1 or old-fashioned FedEx — and still keep costs down. Fortunately, viable solutions to quickly move huge, uncompressed audio and video files are emerging in the form of wireless broadband networks, opening up new business models in the process.

At Masterdisk (New York City), the difficulties to achieve sufficient bandwidth were typical: Broadband solutions like DSL and T1 are too slow, and no direct fiber connection is coming to their building anytime soon. “So much of our work is the kind that can't be done fast enough at any price,” mastering engineer Andy VanDette says. “On the production side, all of the major labels have electronic delivery and there are lots of international clients who are using that instead of courier or FedEx to send me masters.”

Masterdisk had experienced the delays in trying to upload a typical 600MB CD master or 11.5GB DVD project to a remote server via T1, with throughput taking several hours. Several years ago, the expected solution was fiber's huge bandwidth capacity, but the logistics and costs of digging up streets to connect buildings and businesses to the main fiber pipeline (the dreaded “last mile”) proved prohibitive in most cases.

After a recent experimental collaboration with Rainbow Broadband (www.rainbowbroadband.com), a new networking venture led by audio pioneer Russ Hamm, Masterdisk may have found an answer with a wireless broadband network based on radio frequency (RF) transmission. “I've seen networking as the next thing for quite a while,” Hamm comments. “But it wasn't until a year ago, when Pro Tools|HD came in, tape started to really disappear and people like Andy got into posting files to servers with FTP [file-transfer protocol] that I thought the industry would actually be able to interact over networks.”

To set up the test, Hamm needed another building in Manhattan with a fiber connection and a clear line of sight between that building and Masterdisk to establish the broadband wireless connection between the Motorola Canopy RF transceivers set up at both locations. Hamm found his fiber connection at One Penn Plaza, 12 blocks and four avenues away from Masterdisk, and set his gear up on the 56th floor. Operating in the license-free U-NII (Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure) and ISM (Industrial Scientific and Medial) bands at 2.4, 5.2 and 5.7 GHz, Hamm encrypted his “Air-LinQ” signal with SSL (Secure Socket Layer) for security and began beaming data from an antenna at One Penn Plaza direct to another antenna that was connected to a laptop and placed in the window of an office at Masterdisk.

The result was exactly what Rainbow expected and Masterdisk had hoped for: a true broadband wireless connection that took hours, not months, to set up and no messy construction. “Streaming video is the ultimate test, and here we downloaded a DVD MPEG-2 file from One Penn Plaza and watched it live on a Windows Media 9 player,” says Hamm. “We also did FTP transfers across the network. An uncompressed .WAV file of a four-minute Aretha Franklin song came across in under 60 seconds.”

With the fiber on the One Penn Plaza side connected to core networks like AT&T's, the mastered music or DVD files that Masterdisk FTPs for client approval can be posted in a “digital workspace” behind a secure firewall, where the data is far less susceptible to loss or theft than if it was on physical media. “The radio link is extremely secure,” Hamm notes. “The issue of security is really a psychological one. Many A&R people who are concerned about it use online banking every day and don't think twice about that.”

In addition to being able to send finished, uncompressed projects to existing clients at extreme speeds, Masterdisk believes that when this true high-speed networking is available (it is in the testing phase now), it will become a new business paradigm for their facilities that they call Remote Ears. By quickly retrieving large audio files, VanDette can listen to a producer's posted file in his mastering suite and give immediate feedback. “With Cubase guys not going to major studios as much, mastering is more important than ever,” he explains. “For a lot of my clients, the bass player in the band is producing the record and they're open to suggestions. They just send me the uncompressed audio, and that saves them the FedEx cost for delivery. It allows me to sell more studio time by charging my client to collaborate with him much sooner, and it pays for whatever broadband service I would need.

“And whereas major labels used to order a separate master for every territory where they're doing record production, they've learned that they can distribute the digital file set as needed. This is saving money on both sides.”

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