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Are you ready for a wireless studio?

There are probably hundreds of meters of cable in a typical recording studio - kilometers in some. One day, will all these cables disappear, and equipment be entirely connector-free?

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There is no doubt that cables are the bane of the studio. Either you connect everything point-to-point, and continually struggle with adaptors, connections made incorrectly, unreliable connections, and the inevitable trip hazard. Or you spend days installing your studio professionally with a patchbay and all that entails (and the cost!).

So if there could be such as thing as a cable-free studio, that could only be a good thing.

Ultimately there is no doubt that things will go the wireless way. The question is how close are we now to this being practical?

Right now, the common wireless computing standard is 802.11g, which is generally known as Wi-Fi. The 802.11g specification is capable of data rates up to 54 Megabit/s. To put this in context, it would be sufficient for around 70 channels of CD-quality audio.

However, the actual data rate that is achieved is often nowhere near the 54 Megabit/s maximum. 20 Mb/s would be a good typical figure. Increasing the distance between Wi-Fi connected devices results in a worse radio frequency signal-to-noise ratio, hence more data errors, hence greater time spent correcting those errors.

Even so, 20 Mb/s ought to be good for around 25 or so channels of CD-quality audio.

So if the data rate is sufficient for a considerable number of channels, and remember that you would be unlikely to need to transmit so many channel simultaneously for most recordings, then we have to wonder why more progress is not being made towards a musical Wi-Fi standard?

The reason is probably that we, as musicians and recordists, are not really clued-up to networking. We are so used to point-to-point cables, and buses such as USB and FireWire, that we are largely unaware of the advantages of networks, even cabled networks.

The fact that mLAN - a local area network for music - has been around for some time but has not achieved mass attention is an indicator.

But networks could be very significant for music and recording. The main disadvantage of old-style MIDI was that the sequencer was the central hub issuing commands to connected sound modules, but it could never interrogate those modules and acquire data from them, not within the realms of practicality anyway.

A true bus system could have done that, but a network would be much better, so each piece of equipment in a studio setup could be a server, and the whole system interoperate like a mini-Internet. An 'audionet', if you like.

Probably the best plan is to skip wired networks for music and recording, and even skip Wi-Fi because really it is on the margin of sufficiency in terms of data rate. Possibly the emerging WiMax standard will be a candidate. Rather than transmitting on one frequency, it transmits on multiple frequencies, similar to the successful COFDM digital television standard used in many countries.

Although the bit rate of WiMax currently isn't that much higher than Wi-Fi, its greater robustness should allow transfers very much closer to the maximum rate much more often, and over greater distances.

Whichever technology proves successful in the long run, I predict we can eventually look forward to a world where equipment is completely free of connectors. There are no cables other than power cables, and any piece of equipment in the studio can communicate with any other, even the microphones and guitars.

Or am I dreaming?

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By David Mellor Monday January 2, 2006
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