Combining multiple systems together is an age-old problem in audio conferencing systems, where systems and equipment have evolved rapidly, yet must be compatible with legacy equipment. This is especially important when combining analog and digital components.
Digital vs. Analog:
Analog audio has certain advantages in sound reinforcement (live sound), as it works in “realtime,” with no perceptible delay between sound source and system output.
However, the advantages of digital audio are many. Being file-based makes reproduction trivial, with no generation loss. Thus, the content is extremely portable, with a vast array of digital signal processors available with relative immunity from interference from outside signals during transmission. In addition, once the audio is safely transformed to the digital domain, it can be routed across an IT network just like any other file-based content, with relative immunity to interference from outside signals during transmission.
Compatibility: Consumer vs. Pro Audio:
As the term suggests, pro audio equipment is typically found on stages and in studios, and in meeting and conference facilities where a high degree of reliability and flexibility is required. Consumer audio gear is designed for home use. There are historical reasons for this division, primarily relating to cable length, fidelity, reliability, and signal integrity.
In general, audio equipment is differentiated by output type, which can be either Mic Level (typically around 2 millivolts) or Line Level (roughly one volt). A Line Level signal will overload a Mic Level input, while a Mic Level signal will be barely audible when plugged into a Line Level device. It’s important to be aware of these differences when adding new equipment to a system. Another useful compatibility specification is impedance. Most pro audio gear is low impedance (called lo-Z), while consumer hardware operates at high impedance (hi-Z).
Getting different equipment to work well together typically happens at the mixer, which can often accommodate input sources with a variety of connector types andsignal levels, adjusting them so that they all work together.
Pro tip: Pro and consumer equipment tends to use different connectors, which is a good indicator when evaluating compatibility. Generally speaking, when the input and output connectors on two pieces of gear don’t match, proceed with caution.
Standalone vs. Networked Systems:
The primary goal of a sound reinforcement system is to provide high quality audio within a room. All that is required is the capture, manipulation, and delivery of sound. A dedicated, standalone system is often the best way to accomplish this. Adding the ability to interface with outside spaces is what defines a networked audio system. It is especially important for IT professionals to note that networked audio systems can be either analog or digital. Obviously, to distribute audio over a computer network requires the audio content to be digital.
Today, many conference systems are designed to interface with computer networks, either for remote monitoring and control, or for distribution of audio to multiple rooms. This is done by converting all audio to the digital domain and sending to its destination via a cable with anRJ45 plug –the same type used for Ethernet connections. (Always check your system for specific cable requirement.) Such systems are highly desirable, since most organizations are already wired with Ethernet connectivity.
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