Networking in the Studio

Can you really gain extra functionality by adding more computers to the mix?

Not long ago modular digital multitrack tape recorders forever changed the world of recording. But like the dinosaur, MDMs disappeared quickly, while music computer software and hardware technology leap-frogged beyond what many of us would have predicted possible just ten years ago. What once was achievable only with mounds of outboard gear is now possible with computer-based digital audio recording technology. It doesn’t take a psychic peering into the future to see the natural evolution of this “all-in-the-box” trend. More and more computers will be living in our studios. And not just sitting there isolated, each with a dedicated task. These computers will be interconnected for increased productivity. I’d bet that a number of you have already taken the first steps in networking two or more computers together in your studios.

This concept is gaining speed. Some manufacturers are rolling out clever schemes to gang any number of computers together for extra functionality. Steinberg’s VST System Link, for example, is a system for networking computers using VST software and ASIO hardware. It essentially lets you use the combined processing power of however many computers in the network to play software synths and process audio. But even if the software you use doesn’t support this kind of forward-thinking technology, there’s still plenty of extra power to be had by networking two or more computers.

I know what some of you may be thinking: The topic of computer networks isn’t exactly sexy. I agree. Some might find the idea even a little scary. Reality check: Networking is becoming a way of life for many engineers and musicians. It’s here, and it’s not going away, so the earlier you get on board, the better position you’ll be in to take advantage of emerging networking technologies.

Networking 101
Sending SMPTE from one computer used for recording audio to another computer used for MIDI sequencing could be considered networking. In addition, you could send MIDI to a dedicated “virtual instrument rack” computer, and pipe its digital audio output into your workstation. In a broad sense, these are examples of networked computers.

But the kind of networking I’m talking about here involves connecting together two or more computers via Ethernet for sharing files, printers, and Internet access.

Once the machines are connected, you need to launch or activate some sort of sharing function on at least one of the computers. This will allow other machines on the network to access the shared computer’s files. The computer with sharing activated is commonly referred to as a server, and the computer(s) that connect to it are called clients. To access the server, a client needs some sort of software component that can connect to the type of service available from the server. With Mac and WinXP/NT/2000 computers, software components are built into the operating systems to allow for typical sharing among other Mac OS or Windows machines, respectively. However, for cross-platform networking — that is, sharing between a Mac OS 9 (or earlier) and a Windows PC — special software is required for either the Mac or the PC, depending on how you want to share files. (Your local Comp USA or equivalent should stock a selection of cross-platform networking solutions.)

Notice I didn’t mention Mac OS X. That’s because cross-platform networking functionality is built into OS X. More on this later.

As you consider networking multiple computers, think about how you’d like to set up sharing. The roles of server and client(s) aren’t mutually exclusive; you can configure a small network (called a Local Area Network, or LAN) in your studio so files can be shared among all the machines — not just from a dedicated server. In fact, unless you have the budget to purchase and dedicate a separate computer to acting as a server, it makes sense to set up the network for sharing across all machines. That way you’ll be able to throw an audio file over to one machine where you might have special sound design tools, mutate and otherwise mangle the audio, then kick it back to your main workstation. But I’m getting ahead of myself. . . .

Why Network?
There are probably 50 ways in which the humble studio owner/operator can benefit from and use a small network setup. For some ideas, check out “Putting LAN to Work” on page 47 to learn how editor Mitch Gallagher takes advantage of networking. I’ll touch on some of the more common applications below.

Sharing session files. This can be as simple as taking a stereo mix of a song and moving it to another computer for additional work, say, adding more parts using software instruments specific to that machine.

Often when I work with a writing partner for TV commercials, one of us works on programming and locking loops to a common tempo, while the other person works out timing and compositional structure. We’re both on Macs and networked via AppleTalk — when he has a loop ready to go, he’ll bounce it as a stereo file and put it on my computer where I’ll bring it into the session and continue to work.

Maybe all you want is quick access to session logs and your contact database for calling up session players — having this info available from the network is ideal. Sure, you could just keep everything on one machine, but do you really want your main workstation doing double duty for record keeping?

Archiving and backup. You’ve got an older computer lying around. Why not network it, install a CD/DVD burner (if the machine doesn’t already have one) and use it to store and back up session files? Along these lines, it could do the job of making rough-mix CDs for band members while you keep working away at AutoTuning and comping vocal tracks.

Shared Web connection. These days it’s necessary to have Internet access for updating our software, not to mention the convenience of being able to grab and post files to and from other external servers — this will require an external modem (DSL, dial-up, cable, etc.). If you don’t like the idea of having your main music computer connected to the Internet, you can use another machine for surfing and downloading updates, then share these files with your main system.

I don’t mind having all of my computers (three Macs, a PC, and counting), and for the bulk of my projects it has been a huge time and money saver. For all of the TV commercial work I’ve done in the last six months I haven’t once sent or received a work tape or CD-ROM. Instead, clients post a QuickTime movie and VO/temp music tracks online. I download them, do my thing, and then post the results for them to hear.

Accessing sample libraries. If you do a lot of sound design work, you may have more samples than you have room for on your main computer. In which case, having a networked computer with all your sounds can be handy, especially if you need access to those sounds from more than one computer.
Hardware Essentials
Setting up a small computer network doesn’t require a lot of hardware or financial investment. In fact, if all you want to do is share files between two similar computers (two Macs or PCs, in other words), all you’ll need is a single “crossover” Ethernet cable, which you can pick up from Radio Shack for less than 20 bucks. (You may need to purchase an Ethernet card if your computer isn’t already equipped with an Ethernet port.)

For larger, more complex setups you might need the following:

Ethernet hub. A hub functions as a physical central connecting point for the computers in a network. They have a number of Ethernet ports into which you can connect computers and Ethernet-compatible peripherals such as a printer. (You’ll need one Ethernet cable for each computer.) Once connected to the hub, you’ll set up sharing at the software level on each computer in your system.

A hub can also split the connection coming from a high-speed modem, allowing you to access the Internet from all the computers on the network.

With a hub, network bandwidth is divided among all the ports, so with a 4-port 100 Mbps hub connected to four computers, each machine could only transfer at 25 Mbps. For this reason, among others, hubs aren’t ideal.

Switch. Similar to a hub; a switch allows you to connect multiple computers together. However, switches offer a couple of advantages: They allow for full-duplex operation, which means you can send and receive information across the network at the same time. This isn’t the case with a simple hub. Also, each port on a switch has its own dedicated bandwidth. This means that on a 10-port switch with 100 Mbps bandwidth, each port would get the full 100 Mbps. For small networks where there isn’t much traffic, a hub is probably fine. If you have multiple users, and your network is very active, a switch may be a better choice.

High-speed router. Allows multiple users to access the Internet or a Wide Area Network (WAN) from a single high-speed (i.e., cable or DSL) connection. A cable or DSL router is a good idea for smaller studios that need to send/receive files via FTP or external servers.

These days, there are a variety of combination router/hub/switching boxes to choose from. Many of these include FireWall protection, which means others outside your LAN are blocked from accessing your networked machines.

Wireless router/card. Wireless networking is becoming increasingly popular for one obvious reason — there’s no need to run a bunch of cables from each computer to a main hub, router, or switch. You’re free to put your computer(s) anywhere in your house or studio and you can still access the Internet and share files. Wireless networking works through walls, is easier to set up than a wired LAN, and, depending on the specific hardware, can connect computers 500 feet (or more) away from each other. How is all this possible? Radio frequency signals are used to transmit data among computers.

Currently, there are several technologies to choose from including Blue Tooth and 802.11. The latter is by far more popular and powerful; Blue Tooth is geared more toward short-distance connectivity, whereas 802.11-based technology is more robust and can be used for networking over great distances.

To take advantage of wireless networking, your computer must be equipped with hardware (usually an interface card) able to transmit and communicate with the type of technology in your system. As with “traditional” networks, a wireless network can be achieved using a wireless hub/router.

Wireless networks can perform as well as wired LANs, depending on a number of variables. Likewise, security from outside “invasion” may or may not be an issue.

KVM switcher. Short for keyboard/video/mouse switcher, these devices let you use a single keyboard, video monitor, and mouse to operate more than one computer at a time. If you have several computers, but not a lot of space to keep multiple QWERTY keyboards, monitors, and mice, a KVM switch is the way to go.

Additional MIDI/audio interfaces. If you use another computer as a virtual synth rack or extension to a digital audio workstation (DAW), you’ll need a way to synchronize playback between the two computers, as well as some way to route audio in/out both machines.

Putting LAN to Work
by Mitch Gallagher

I started fooling around with networking my computers around ten years ago. Since then, the network and my uses for it have grown — at this point, I couldn’t see not having my computers connected. I have Ethernet connections in every room, and am currently running four Macs and a PC, with one of the Macs being used as a central server.

I put the network to use in a lot of ways: An obvious one is Internet access from anywhere you happen to be — essential for staying up to date on software on all the computers. Another is transferring files around, particularly between the Mac and PC, as I favor different programs on the two platforms for different tasks. Just one example: I create looped tracks in Acid on the PC, then import the resulting audio files into Pro Tools on the Mac — I find the network more efficient than using “sneaker net” to manually move disks around.

But there are other benefits: If you can designate one computer as a “server” it can be used as a central backup location. I also have a large hard disk in my server loaded up with about 400 CDs I’ve backed up from my collection. Ethernet has plenty of bandwidth for carrying multiple streams of full-bandwidth (uncompressed) audio between computers. I open up an audio/MP3 player on whatever computer I’m working on, and have background or reference music at my disposal without having to move CDs or have multiple copies of the audio saved on each computer. Likewise, I store all my mixes on the server for instant referencing while I’m working.

In my setup, I have a 4-port router/switch as my central connection; it also contains a firewall and connects to my cable modem. My office computer and my server connect directly to the router, as does a 16-port hub that brings in Ethernet from other rooms. In my studio I have a 4-port hub that connects my main studio Mac, my PC, and any other Ethernet-compatible peripherals, such as my Control 24 control surface. The studio hub feeds into the router’s remaining open port.

The whole thing works like a dream, costs very little (as far as the network hardware), and gives me instant access to whatever computer I need, or to the Internet.

You’re hungry for more? You’ve got it! More networking in the studio.