How Avid S3L and Ethernet AVB Create the Most Robust and Configurable Audio Network in Live Sound

By in Live Sound, Music Creation, Tech Talk

The following is the third of a seven-part blog series from Al McKinna, Principal Product Manager, Avid Live Systems & Consoles, that will provide a look inside the design of Avid S3L.


Picture the scene:

You are 12 years old. You are in school sitting in mathematics class. Now if you’re a musician, live engineer, studio engineer or roadie, then like me, you were probably sitting at the back of the classroom scrawling Metallica logos over your textbook. The teacher leaves the room. She tells everybody to behave themselves and she’ll be back in five minutes. The moment she is out the door, as usual, on cue a riot breaks out. Everyone in the class starts shouting. The noise is literally deafening.

This is an audio network.

Unlike in my mathematics class growing up, in an audio network, everyone can hear each other perfectly. In an audio network, everyone knows each other’s names, who they are and what they do. In an audio network, like my mathematics class, everyone in the room is shouting; however, unlike my class, every word from every shouter is heard perfectly by every listener. As long as everyone is shouting in the same language, everyone can communicate just fine.

With Avid S3L, the language we are talking about is Ethernet AVB, or Audio Video Bridging, if you are not a fan of TLA’s. AVB is an Ethernet-based networking protocol for the connection of real-time media devices and is one of many such languages that exist in the live sound world. There are of course a number of differentiators between AVB and the other networking protocols used for live sound applications, but perhaps one of the most prominent attributes that makes you cast an eye in its direction is how AVB emerged.

Revert your mind back to the turn of the Century. A few years ago, most audio connections in a live sound system were analog, one-way, and point-to-point. In applications with high-channel counts, this point-to-point serialized connection model resulted in crazy spaghetti-like cable jungles closely resembling a roadie’s bad hair day.

At the same point in time, Ethernet and Wi-Fi were fast becoming the most dominant networking technologies on the planet. Evolution in this technology has been driven by monumental changes in social behavior, the consumption of digital media, and social networking, while mobile technology enabled huge leaps in speed, resulting in Ethernet currently being clocked somewhere around the 100Gbps mark.

You would imagine that with this progress in Ethernet technology, it would fast become adopted as an audio transfer protocol by the live sound industry, removing costly analog cabling and drastically simplifying connectivity. This, however, was not the case, as its widespread adoption was blocked primarily by the cost-per-node expense and the technical expertise required to deploy a networked system. This is until Ethernet AVB emerged onto the scene.

So what is Ethernet AVB?

Well, Ethernet AVB is an open, standards-based networking protocol for the connection of real-time media devices. When I say open, I mean truly open, like MIDI is truly open. AVB is not owned by one vendor or technology provider, which means manufactures do not have to pay a license fee to use it and do not have to pass that cost to you as a customer. AVB is built literally into the fabric of Ethernet networks, making them “media-aware” for the reliable, low latency transmission of audio and video. Essentially, it is a suite of open standards defined by the IEEE, yes that’s the same IEEE that defined the original Ethernet standards in the first place. All of the standards comprising Ethernet AVB are fully ratified, and manufacturers are deploying AVB-capable products.

The AVnu Alliance features major players from the professional A/V, consumer electronics and automotive industries.

What’s interesting is where it’s being deployed. AVB is targeted for widespread adoption across multiple markets, beyond that of live sound. Avid is a member of the AVnu Alliance, the industry forum committed to the adoption and advancement of Ethernet AVB. The AVnu Alliance is made up of major players across the professional A/V, consumer electronics and automotive industries. I’ll leave that one to sit with you—it’s exciting stuff.

What’s interesting is where it’s being deployed. AVB is targeted for widespread adoption across multiple markets, beyond that of live sound. Avid is a member of the AVnu Alliance, the industry forum committed to the adoption and advancement of Ethernet AVB. The AVnu Alliance is made up of major players across the professional A/V, consumer electronics and automotive industries. I’ll leave that one to sit with you—it’s exciting stuff.

These key benefits are the reason that Avid is fully committed to the development and utilization of Ethernet AVB networking technology. When the Stage 48 remote I/O unit was released as an accompaniment to the SC48 console, Avid became the first manufacturer in the world to incorporate Ethernet AVB into an audio console. Subsequently, Avid S3L is the first console in the world to be designed from the ground up utilizing AVB as its audio transfer protocol. The implementation of this networking functionality in the product is highly compelling.

An Avid S3L system is made up of an S3 control surface, an E3 engine, up to four Stage 16 remote I/O boxes, and if you want all the innovative record and playback functionality, a computer running Pro Tools. The E3 engine is the central point of processing of the system, connecting to the other S3L devices with Cat5e cables transmitting audio data via Ethernet AVB.

A fully expanded S3L system provides 64 inputs and 48 outputs on stage, 8 analog inputs and outputs locally at the mix position, 8 digital inputs and outputs also locally, and 64 tracks of record and playback all connected via an Ethernet AVB network and available to be processed by the E3 engine. In addition to this, all the EUCON control data and VENUE Link metadata messages from the S3 control surface and VENUE software are flying down the same Ethernet pipe as the audio. Now that’s no small amount of data to pump down a cable. If you were crazy enough to try to replicate that in analog connections, you would need to start putting a loom together with at least 270 XLR cables.

This level of functionality is fantastic, but as we discussed in my first blog entry, Avid does not want you to have to go away and get a degree in network engineering before you can get some audio coming up on your S3L system. Plug a Stage 16 into any port on an E3 engine and the two will connect, handshake, and talk automatically. Navigate to the OPTIONS > Devices page of the VENUE software and you’ll see that Stage 16 box sitting there ready to be assigned for use, unless of course your E3 has communicated with it previously, in which case you’ll find that Stage 16 assigned for you already.

The Devices page of the VENUE software is the central point of configuration for networked S3L devices.

There are no DIP switches, ID switches, or network settings of any kind that need to be played with when hooking up your S3L system. You do not need to tell the system how devices will be connected, connect devices in predefined ways, set a system latency, or even know the Mac or IP addresses of the units. Plug S3L devices into any available AVB network ports and the E3 engine will organize them for you automatically.

The E3 engine will always maintain the last state of connectivity you left it in, connecting to the devices on the network that you used last and presenting that environment to you. This connectivity state is stored on the E3 unit itself, not in your Show file. This is essential in any scenario where S3L will be used by multiple guest engineers. When S3L is being used as the front of house console at a festival, for example, a guest engineer can walk up to the system with a USB key containing a show file, load all the mix settings, patching, and everything else, and not accidentally change the devices the E3 engine is connected to currently.

But how reliable is all this AVB networking stuff with S3L? We have already discussed the precise, guaranteed low-latency delivery of media this protocol provides, but for that additional piece of mind, S3L gives you redundancy, too. Daisy-chain your Stage 16 boxes in a loop with the E3 engine and the system will automatically give you network redundancy for these devices. This redundancy is not inherently provided by the AVB network, it’s actually facilitated by the implementation of the advanced ring network topology designed specifically for S3L by Avid engineering. Think of it as two simultaneous bi-directional connections for the daisy-chained units. Should any connection fail between devices, the E3 engine engages a glitch-free redundant switch over with no loss of audio. Should this happen, the VENUE software will pop up an alert to inform you this switchover has occurred and that the system is still passing audio.

Even though the networking functionality that S3L provides is progressive and highly compelling, it represents only the tip of the iceberg of where Avid and the industry can go with this proven and trusted, revolutionary technology.

So there you have it, a small study of the simple, reliable, plug-and-play network environment facilitated by open Ethernet-AVB and implemented in Avid S3L—an implementation that has resulted in the most robust and easiest to configure audio network of any live sound console available today. But don’t take my word for it, try it out for yourself. Avid S3L is now shipping and available worldwide. Call your Avid dealer and schedule a demo, and as always, let us know what you think.

In my next blog, we will take a closer look at the S3 Control Surface workflows for live sound applications.

As Director of Product Management for Live Systems and Consoles at Avid, I am one of the luckiest guys I know. Every day I wake up, go to work and design live sound consoles for the most talented, creative and driven people in the world.