(click thumbnail)There’s an old joke about a bear riding a bicycle. Whether he rides it well is not the point – just that he can do it at all is enough.
The same principle held true not long ago in streaming audio. Whatever system a station had in place was good enough. Streaming a single format at only one bit rate was still cutting-edge.
Optimal quality demanded
That is no longer the case. Now that we are well past the initial hysteria over online audio, the challenge is to develop systems that optimize sound and economize bandwidth. If these solutions are easy to install, configure and maintain, so much the better.
The Waves LTD MaxxStream line of products takes on the task of audio capture, conditioning and encoding with a single integrated solution running on the PC platform. The core building block is a soundcard with DSP capabilities.
Two versions are available. The entry-level MaxxStream LX ($1,000) is a basic version with onboard unbalanced analog and digital S/PDIF I/O and only essential audio processing capabilities.
The MaxxStream PCI ($2,000) ups the ante with a range of DSP power and the flexibility of breakout connectors on the card that allows unbalanced RCA analog or balanced XLR and digital connectors for either S/PDIF RCA or XLR AES/EBU.
The MaxxStream PCI and LX both are suitable for the standalone Webcaster or terrestrial broadcaster to deliver a range of bit rates and streaming formats to the online audience.
It is a scaleable solution. Multiple cards can be configured to handle multiple signals. A single PC can manage as many signals/Web stations as there are available PCI slots.
Waves incorporates the MaxxStream PCI into turnkey rackmount solutions. The models M100 and M200 can, depending on configuration, hold up to four cards. All are controlled by a core application that manages the audio processing modules then feeds it to multiple encoders running on the same box, e.g., Windows Media Encoder, RealProducer Plus and Sorenson Broadcaster.
The result is the ability to generate digital audio information in various formats and multiple bit rates simultaneously for distribution. The idea here is to create a “signature” sound for a stream while serving up a higher-quality audio with less bandwidth.
Product CapsuleThumbs Up
Terrific range of plug-ins
Simple, intuitive interface
Inherent delay in coding/decoding makes tweaking a lengthy ordeal
Price: LX version: $1,000; PCI version: $2,000; “M” models, which can hold up to four cards depending on configuration, range from $4,000 to $9,000
By maintaining quality at lower bit rates, MaxxStream can pay for itself in savings in bandwidth costs. Also, it serves the audience well by offering a variety of bit rates appropriate to their Internet connection.
The test PC used was a Pentium IV running at 1.8 MHz with 512 MB of RDRAM and Windows 2000 OS.
Installing the MaxxStream PCI into a PC was simple. After plugging it into an open slot, Windows identified new hardware. Running the “add new hardware” application to the proper directory on the CD-ROM, Windows installed the correct driver with no problem.
Loading the Maxxstream 3.0 software from the disc was nonproblematic. Windows Media Encoder 7 is included on the disc. For RealProducerPlus, the install utility includes a link to the RealNetwork Web site where the Real encoder can be ordered and downloads for $199.95.
Configuring MaxxStream 3.0 was easy. The Settings tab sets which inputs are enabled on the card(s) installed. Audio can also be drawn from most any Windows audio player. While the card’s I/O is intended to take an external feed off, say, an on-air automation system, an online-only Webcaster could just as well draw music off the hard drive with any of the many jukebox applications available to consumers.
With the source material properly routed, audio can be processed through the extensive variety of DSP plug-ins. Given that Waves LTD has built its business around developing such audio processing software, it is no surprise that the 20 bundled here is impressive.
Assemble your rack
The interface for creating an individual virtual audio rack is intuitive. Basically, you just snap in whichever module you like and adjust the settings accordingly.
A decent variety of presets are included covering a range of audio material covering music and talk formats at different bandwidths. So it is easy to start from scratch or use the presets as a starting point and customize.
With all this in place, I plugged in an external CD player through the unbalanced RCA jacks for my source material. For monitoring, I connected the RCA outs to a Behringer MX 602A mixing board and attached a pair of powered HHB Circle 3s.
Each plug-in has a real-time display of the signal. Adjustments immediately were apparent through the monitors. Unfortunately, the sound coming through was not very good.
Consulting the manual – included as an Acrobat document on the disc – I discovered that this is how it should be. The presets are geared to compensate for the artifacts/degradation created by the various streaming media codecs.
Monitoring off the card comes prior to encoding – a dubious proposition. It gives no clear indication of what the listener will actually hear. To properly tweak the sound, streaming the signal to another computer via Internet or LAN is recommended by Waves.
This still will not yield real-time monitoring in that there is an inevitable delay (10-plus seconds) between adjusting a setting and hearing it come through the full process. This is, however, inherent in the encoding-streaming-decoding process.
I managed a workaround in RealProducerPlus by saving the processed file then playing it back. This is reminiscent of the early days of digital audio editing where you had to render finished files before you could hear what they sounded like and make appropriate changes – an awkward and inefficient process.
Even so, the effort was justified by the payoff. I was particularly impressed by two of the Waves plug-ins. The UltraMaximizer normalizes the signal on-the-fly so that sound levels are consistent.
Little speakers, big bass
MaxxBass uses psychoacoustic modeling to create the impression of bass even through tinny, tiny computer speakers. Fortunately, no one is likely to make continual changes in their sound. Once you have made the effort, save the settings and leave them.
This process has to be repeated across all encoding formats, bit rates and streams. It is the only difficult aspect of this system, and Waves has gathered a number of third-party consultants/integrators, as well as offering assistance itself, to handle this if you find it is too much of a hassle.
Running the system full-bore with both RealProducerPlus and Windows Media Encoder was definitely a drain on the system resources. Most of that is devoted to the encoding – the audio processing is offloaded to the Motorola 56301 ONYX 400MIPS chip on the MaxxStream card.
I set the CD on continuous loop and let it run overnight. By morning, things were still going steady and strong. Given the stability of Windows 2000, it should run indefinitely. Because I only tested with a single card, I was not able to push the limits on the number of separate signals this could carry and test the impact of using a slower system.
Adding additional cards should multiply demand. With the single signal being crunched into both Windows Media and Real formats, a Windows Media utility indicated that CPU usage was up around 25 percent. It seems that a limit of four cards per PC is about right for a fast (Pentium IV) machine.
I also had a chance to examine a rackmount turnkey unit consisting of a Pentium III 800 with 256 MB of SDRAM. This 1 RU box was built to last with a rather loud cooling system. This beast is best tucked away out of earshot and connected with balanced connectors over a long cable run.
Dedicated system is best
Whatever hardware is used, expect that the box will be dedicated to this purpose. It is not feasible to cut corners and add this application to a general office machine running other tasks.
Aside from the monitoring issue, the MaxxStream makes good on the promise of making the most of today’s low-bandwidth streaming audio environment. Although Waves offers turnkey packages and has consultants ready in the wings to do the installation and integration, do-it-yourselfers with a modicum of PC skills should have no problem.
More to come
The basic concept here may make this a regular part of the radio engineer’s workday. While the current configurations are targeted for outputting via 10/100 NIC card for dissemination over streaming servers, the architecture is applicable to most digital formats.
Sirius Radio is using 15 of the four-card rackmount units to sweeten the sound for 60 of its channels. This would also adapt nicely to IBOC DAB. Obviously, settings would have to be adjusted to suit the differences between IBOC and the streaming codecs.
Whatever the possibilities, the Waves MaxxStream is ready to take today’s Webcasters beyond the “gee whiz” initial implementation into something more refined.