April 18, 2018
by Chris Randall
A month or so ago, I got turned on to the concept of Dante, which is an audio-over-Ethernet protocol used primarily by big production houses and live sound reinforcement. (I imagine it was invented by someone that had to run a 48-channel snake from the stage to the front-of-house every night, and got sick of being covered in spilled-beer-and-shoe-dirt slime.) In the simplest terms, think of a network, but instead of files and web sites, it serves digital audio. You use normal IT shit like switches and CAT 6 cable, but your goal is shunting massive channel counts of digital audio at ludicrously low latencies instead.
I had known about it for years (you can't help but see the references if you're looking at high-end AD/DA converters, since the usual suspects in that world all have Dante capability). I didn't really think about the ramifications until a friend beat me over the head with the concept. My ultimate goal in my home studio/office is simplicity. The fewer cables I have run, and the fewer conversions I have to deal with, the happier I am. It is especially attractive to me because I run multiple computers of different flavors, and having their I/O talk to each other in more-or-less real time would be excessively handy.
Once I was tipped to the potential, the full OCD Experience kicked in, and I started thinking about replacing my current rat's nest of I/O and monitor controlling. The main attraction to me is ultra-low-latency computer-to-computer connections. I've always thought it is dumb to convert to AES or SPDIF to do a digital computer-to-computer audio interaction, and so do the Dante people. Nominally, a computer-to-computer connection in Dante would be the same as any old-fashioned way, with expensive converter boxes in the way. But Audinate (the company that invented Dante and is the Keeper Of The Holy Scriptures regarding the format) got that sorted in a big way, with three pieces of software that make Dante in a home studio an attractive option.
The first is Dante Controller, which is essentially a virtual patchbay that lets you connect Dante sources and destinations. Dante gear all has a Gigabit Ethernet port, and you basically just run everything to a normal Gigabit Ethernet switch in a star fashion. Dante Controller sees everything on the network, and lets you set clock masters and routings and shit. Controller is free.
The second piece of software is the Dante Virtual Soundcard. This is an ASIO and CoreAudio/WDM driver that works like any other sound card driver; it has 64 ins and outs (which is mildly comical in something like Live. Did you know the I/O panel scrolls? Neither did I) and ludicrously low latency. Any computer running the Virtual Soundcard and connected to the Ethernet rig throws its I/O to the network, and shows up in the Dante Controller patchbay. The driver is US$29 per computer.
The third piece of software is the one that seems like magic to me, and which is useful whether or not you have a Dante system. I only assume it isn't more well-known is because Audinate's business model doesn't lend itself to marketing to hobbyists and home studio folks. It is called Dante Via, and basically lets you route _any_ audio source in your computer to any other. Think of it as Soundflower or Audio Hijack, but on pharmacutical-grade methamphetamines. You can run either this or the Virtual Soundcard. It shows up as an ASIO destination in software that supports that, or a WDM/CoreAudio destination elsewhere. Instead of 64 I/O, you get 8 channels, but otherwise, it is more or less the same, as far as how the DAW works. You just drag-and-drop your sources to your destinations, and you can mix-and-match anything as you see fit and turn any piece of software or I/O in to a sender/receiver. Dante Via is US$49 per computer (which is incredibly cheap considering what you get) or US$59 for a combo of the Virtual Soundcard and Via. There is a 15-day demo of Via on the site.
I purchased a Focusrite RedNet X2P to be my main monitor controller. It comes with a pair of Focusrite's high-end mic pres (their good stuff, not the prosumer Scarlett series). This can be powered off a POE Ethernet switch, so it's just one CAT6 cable to the switch and that's that. It is built like a god damn main battle tank, and is one of those Just Plug It In And Go Because It's Really Well Made For People That Don't Want To Dick Around kind of things. My Adam nearfields go from that, and my desk situation is sorted. I connected the Skull Canyon NUC and my main computer to the switch via their Gigabit Ethernet ports, and with the former running the Virtual Soundcard and the latter running Via (I also use the computer for games, and would like to hear YouTube videos and shit), I have VCV Rack running on the NUC, with multi-channel audio at no noticeable latency running in to Live, with Live Link providing wireless sync over my home wi-fi network. (Note that the X2P comes with a license for the Virtual Sound Card, as well as some Focusrite plugins I'll probably never use, but never say never, right?)
It is early days for Dante in a small studio right now, and many of the I/O solutions that are promised aren't quite here yet. I can easily just plug in a high-end convertor or mic pre rack to the system and it'll just show up. Audinate is releasing a 2-channel class-compliant USB dongle so you can plug in iOS or visiting laptops to the network with ease, and there are several 2-channel AES, SPDIF, and analog solutions to bring legacy gear in to the fold. ProCo and Radial also have similar small-and-cheap solutions either already released or in the works. I've only had this rig working for a day, so I can't really speak to its robustness, but it performed flawlessly with the above VCV-on-another-computer situation, as well as an hour or so with World Of Warcraft and a brief writing session in Live. I gave the mic pres on the X2P a quick check to make sure they worked, but I can't really speak for their all-around applications at this point. I'll put up another post with further thoughts after a month or so with this system.