Mastering & Recording Over IP
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An Online Mastering Session with German band 'Weiter' from Munich was held successfully with the QonnexONE Online Mastering Compare Function from Düsseldorf. Three days of continous Online Mastering at highest sample rates!
The World, a Village
QonnexONE Collaboration System by Fritz Fey, pictures: Qomtec AG
Once not long ago, the fax machine was the ultimate corporate status symbol--if your company didn't own one it was decidedly behind the times, if not a second class operation. For It seemed almost miraculous that you could put a piece of paper into a machine in one place, and then receive an exact reproduction somewhere else, whether just around the corner or far away. Our first fax machine cost 7,000 German marks, approximately 3,500 Euros, which was prohibitively expensive, and made it clear that not everyone was able to afford the luxury of belonging to the illustrious circle of fax owners who had the keys to an open world. From today's perspective, this scenario seems stone age, but it is clear even then that economic success had a lot to do with available means of communication. Today, the potential which the world of electronic communication has to offer seems unlimited, and for many studios, remote recording is part of their everyday routine. A classic example is voice recording. In previous years, a period which I too had the honor of experiencing, voice talent had to travel constantly, a nomadic community, going from studio to studio and from appointment to appointment. With the introduction of ISDN codecs, this problem solved itself virtually overnight and many speakers established small studios in order to serve their customers without having to set a foot out of the door, or, at most, only having to go to an ISDN studio nearby in order to make a recording. Still, the prevalent attitude regarding technical possibilities was more like the above described fax attitude: what? No ISDN? Helping those that had them to earn more money, to have better reputations, and to get bigger jobs, further away. The basic idea of the QonnexONE system, whose inventor Ralph McQuaye I interviewed a few years ago, involves a re-working of the remote-recording concept and bringing it to the next level, so that, musicians, producers, studios, and all involved in the production of sound and image, are brought together virtually at the highest possible quality, each working from the comfort of their own familiar work environment.
Some time ago I met up with Kai Blankenberg, owner of Skyline mastering studios, who told me of an ominous system with which he could share his mastering work (A/B or before/after) directly with customers over the internet in real time and in real audio quality--while they were in their own studios, somewhere else. Though he wasn't physically there, the customer felt that he was participating directly in the mastering session and communicated his thoughts and wishes to the engineer through a video/chat/talk-back system and an interface on his computer screen with a "before/after" button. This was something that I had never seen before, so I was surprised to find out from the developers of this system were to be found in the same house, who felt that endless driving and hotel expenses as quite unnecessary, only to meet up with the mastering engineer ideas about their own sound exchange. Since then, a few years have passed and the team has been working intensely on the development of the system, which is now officially called the QonnexONE System from Qomtec AG Company, based in Düsseldorf, Germany, getting it polished and market ready. I had not lost sight meanwhile, that there was a technical solution to transmitting lossless AES signals at high sample rates over the internet. At the last Musikmesse / Prolight + Sound, themusic trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, the QonnexONE had its debut. Now the system not only streams data in one direction for listening comparison, but it also records in two directions and then precisely inserted with the correct sample accuracy in an open DAW project. Do you understand what this means? Studios, producers, musicians, arrangers, composers, and other interested parties can collaborate together on a live production in top audio quality and in real time, even when everyone is in a different location. Geographical boundaries become meaningless and you really have the feeling of being together and collaborating during a recording, mixing, or mastering session. Previously, you would have had to email large audio files, which then either leave comments or just more tracks were recorded. A rather tedious method, if you would not know it, the lack of any communication, intuitive and spontaneous component. A principle works. QonnexONE session integrates all aspects of team-work and gives the participants the feeling of being right there in the mastering studio next to the engineer. I would like to now explain how this in principle works.
QonnexONE can be broadly defined as an online workstation supporting all work processes that were previously only conceivable by physical presence in a recording studio. You can invite players or participants into your control room, where they can either listen live in their own familiar listening environment--their own home, office, or studio, for example--or actively participate in the recording, mixing, and mastering process. A software interface to the studio on the client side provides a virtual reunion of participants by video conference and audio or text chat, so that after logging into the system, external communication is totally unnecessary. Everyone can see and listen to all other participants of the online session and everyone is part of the action. Listening and recording are possible by the streaming of uncompressed AES signals in studio-quality samples.
The only potential barrier to trouble-free streaming is the requisite DSL connection. VDSL is necessary for a proper functioning of the system and the streaming of uncompressed audio in both directions. A standard DSL connection of 16 Mbit/s is sufficient, however, when simply listening in on a mastering track or a mix. The QonnexONE system consists of the following hardware: a rack-server with the Windows 7 operating system, a RAID disk with two 1-terabyte hard drives, a AES-32 (8 x stereo I/O) RME sound card, and, optionally, a video card in case HD or SD video signals are to be transmitted. This last item has nothing to do with the video conferencing capacity of the system, but with a later stage of the QonnexONE system which will deal with video and image streaming. Qomtec's maintenance support has remote access to the machine, so that help is always available. Also included in the hardware package, is an additional computer, with the Windows 7 operating system, which controls the server software. This 23-inch touch screen all-in-one pc comes with built-in speakers, a microphone, and camera. Finally, rounding out the QonnexOne system hardware package, is a network router with special port releases. Customers with no VDSL availability, can alternatively fall back on less expensive high speed cable connections, but to properly experience the QonnexONE system, and its user interface with all it has to offer, the higher bandwidth is needed. In terms of the QonnexOne system packages offered, there is a mastering version (MX) and Studio version (RMX), with other versions (AV and POST, for example) following in the near future. The server software runs on Windows 7 and provides the communication with the sound card (and with the video card too, when available). The rack server stores project work and recorded audio data. The actual production work, however, remains stored by the existing studio DAW, which is also connected to the rack via the network. The communication components, such as video conferencing and chat channels, are initialized automatically at system startup.
The studio audio hardware is all that is necessary to take full advantage of the QonnexOne system, while session participants need only a standard web browser to join an online session. The QonnexONE system puts your studio in charge, making your studio the ringleader who controls who joins what when--be it a recording, mixing, or mastering session. If you imagine the internet connection as a collection of digital channels within a studio complex, then you start to very quickly understand how the system works. The user interface is divided into several functional windows whose name simultaneously explains the function: channel, chat, notes, people, tracks, project management and the record button. The QonnexOne system is either initiated when a master studio (one owning and operating the QonnexONE system) starts the system or a client accepts an invitation from the master studio, at which point software (server, control computer, client JNLPs--Java Network Launching Protocol) is obtained from a cloud server. This ensures that all participant software is ready and up-to-date. Updates must therefore do not have to be undertaken, as the software program is not on the rack server, but is reloaded each time.
To get a feel for how it might be to work with the QonnexONE system, consider the following two typical scenarios: compare mode (mastering), and sync-recording (recording in a remote studio or a studio-like environment). To begin a session, the master studio sends an email invitation with a link that the customer or musician can click on to open his or her default web browser, beginning the automatic process of downloading the client software from the cloud server. After the download process is finished, the software is installed with the help of Java 6 which comes pre-installed on most computers--no further installation is necessary on the client side. The software is compatible with Windows and Apple OS 10.6.3 on, and it can be used with almost any browser: Internet Explorer 6 to 9, Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera. Upon start of the Java application, the client software activates a search for any sound cards, audio interface, webcams, and headsets which are installed on the computer, and provides these in the user interface for selection to activate. Audio drivers can be Java Audio, ASIO and Core Audio. At this point, the user chooses his channel from the audio interface selection and the audio connection to the master studio stands, which in turn has made the necessary audio connections. Meanwhile the webcam, microphone, headphones, and chat portion of the software is loaded. When these connections are up and running, the client-side studio is fully connected to the master studio through the director window, through the virtual talk-back (chat) system, and, more importantly, through the audio lines. From this point on, the studio engineer can work as if the musicians are right next door in a recording room, or as if a client were sitting next to the engineer re-working a mastering project in the sound studio. With the QonnexONE system, up to eight different client computers may be simultaneously connected during a mastering or recording session.
Up and Running
In a mastering session, the mastering engineer begins his work by sending two streams to all session participants: the original stream and the master stream. The participants can switch between the two signals to compare the mastering result with the original mix. The voice talent, the band, the mixing engineer, the producer, or the client can see and hear what the engineer is doing in real time and in real quality, as if they were all present in the mastering studio listening in and participating in the work. Anyone can offer up suggestions and opinions directly, saying "can you give it a little more of this?" or, "a little more of that. Because there are no MP3 files to be sent by email, only uncompressed AES signals in near-real time, it is as if you had one AES line in the respective studios; everything happens live and direct, though no one has left his house! Isn't that amazing?
The stream and sync recording situation is even more exciting. The remotely located recording room is coupled to the master control room so that it is as if it were next door. Stream recording is a recording procedure similar to an ISDN recording in that a track is recorded and copied manually into a project at a desired location, like, for example, a voice recording placed in a commercial. Sync-recording corresponds to the traditional overdub process. The track is recorded in sync to playback and then placed precisely at the proper marker, a "cursor" in the DAW project. To prevent lag-time or other issues with syncing, there is a "beep" on a separate track at which the desired starting point is set, not only to mark the start of the recorded track but also to define a punch-in point (also for multiple recorded tracks). The recording is now in a dedicated folder in the rack server, and the track can be copied from the track list into the DAW project. With the cursor acting as the time reference, the track can be accurately placed into the project.
In the Qomtec demo suite, the QonnexONE system is pre-installed and ready for demonstration. Selected studios have been beta-testing it to check and test the quality of the connections and compare streams, and the feedback has been very positive. In order to check out the quality of the product myself, I asked the chairman of the board of Qomtec, Sebastian Neuhaus, if he might show me the system, and to test stream an audio signal to a connected studio and to record it back again. If the original and the recorded signal really are identical, I assumed, both tracks would have to cancel each other out perfectly. The system passed this test quickly, and problem-free. There was absolutely no difference in the signals and no residual noise, suggesting that the QonnexONE really sends an AES signal via the broadband connection. The discussion regarding product quality was, for me, at this point finished. The user interface on the master and client side allows its users to experience a real studio situation, and one can likely forget that the other person is located somewhere else, sometimes very far off. The communication works well, and you can see yourself and the master studio, as well as any other session participants both virtual and really there. This is a very special and memorable experience. Because I don't want to go into the fine technically-detailed instructions, I can of course mention some of the the QonnexONE system's features only briefly, such as the extensive service area with licensed engineers and its' associated security system which assigns files and participants different access privileges, so that only certain areas are accessible which the client or registered engineer wishes others to see. Not to get bogged in too much detail and to continue focus on new possibilities the system allows for--the sensational potential it offers-- further more specific technical information is available on the Qomtec Web site at www.qomtec.com.
Straight to the point, the QonnexONE system turns a high-speed internet connection into a physical AES-line. When you think about the implications of this for a while, you start to realize some of this system's potential, and the many possibilities it might offer: live-mastering (sending MP3 and linear audio files is, by the way, not true e-mastering), stream- and sync-recording in a live studio atmosphere with all its' advantages, live voice-session-takes with real-time communication between client, voice talent, and agency in advertising, film, and television, live accompaniment of a mixing or recording session, demo and composing sessions, product presentation or machine demonstrations in highest quality audio between manufacturers and distributors, online sound discussions or remote use of devices that are not physically in the one studio or the other (can we try this track(s) run through your Fairchild compressor?), or even in the in-house connections over LAN and/or Internet of large production houses. You most certainly can think of other applications for which the QonnexONE system is the perfect fit might offer still even and quitecorrectly suspect that the ticket to this fantastic dimension of audio production has its legitimate price, so I'll give you two price examples: A MX system (Mastering-Compare version) with 8 x AES I / O, screen control computer with touch, routers, and software license included for future updates is 12,530 Euros (net), an RMX system the same features (Recording System) with recording and Mastering license is only slightly more expensive at 14,700 Euros (net). There are endless ways that such a system can pay for itself many times over. Mastering and production studios offering remote services will certainly be at a competitive advantage, saving the client both time and money. And for the QonnexONE studios themselves, the client-pool suddenly opens up, and customers as well as studio collaborators can come from or be anywhere in the world. Building an international clientele is no easy feat and indeed a challenge, but, without the help of the QonnexONE technology, virtually unimaginable. Imagine a mastering customer in New York being served by a euphoric studio in Rheda Wiedenbrück--the question being, of course, how a mastering studio located there would come into contact with said New York customer. If the quality of a studio's work makes it so reknown as to attract high-profile clients from around the world, shouldn't it not really matter where the studio is located geographically? The QonnexONE system, unfortunately, can't help a studio with this problem, but with everything else…
Copyright by permission of Studio Magazin, Oberhausen Report as PDF
So it has happened. The QonnexONE has been debuted at the online music fair in Frankfurt and succeeded wonderfully in wowing studio owners, producers, mastering engineers and the music industry press. Expectations were more than met - they were blown away by everything the QonnexONE could do.
"[The QonnexONE is] the coolest thing I've seen at the whole fair!" said Ray Williams of musicmarketing.ca
This was a typical response of many visitors to the Qomtec stand at the Frankfurt music trade show. The QonnexONE was very well received indeed.
Other news: Outfitted with Qomtec's QonnexONE, the skyline-tonfabrik mastering studio in Duesseldorf will soon have a counterpart in a large mastering studio near Munich.
We also have great interest in QonnexONE - MR, including an online recording function, from a large studio from Ibiza, Spain. Imagine how the Ibizan producers often spend more time waiting in airports trying to reach clients on the continent, than actually getting work done in the studio control room. The time and travel cost savings alone will offset the cost of the QonnexONE for the recording studio in no time at all!
Also, post-production studios expressed interest at the tradeshow in Frankfurt in a QonnexONE AV with auxiliary video image transmission capablities. Let it be known here and now that planning is already underway. Soon there will be more information on audio / video version.
Conclusion: Qomtec's QonnexONE had a successful start to the musikmesse of 21 - 24.03.2012 in Frankfurt!