Software developments are transforming audio technologies and how they’re deployed. Paul Mac investigates the rise and rise of software in audio install.Software is, in some ways, a strange catch-all for an incredibly diverse and well-developed subset of disciplines and specialisms that are being reinvented and redefined at an alarming rate. It’s an expertise driven by the very smallest, intricate ideas around detail and efficiency at code level, and the very biggest ideas around structure, method, and the way we go about our day-to-day lives. It affects almost everything that we touch, and it certainly has a word or two to say about how an audio install looks now, and how it will look in the future.
Manufacturers cannot ignore the trends. Are you agile? Do you fail fast? Can you afford AI and ML teams to keep up with the competition? Are you prepared to invest in UX and data analytics specialists? Is all this really necessary? Maybe… Maybe not. However, there is no doubt that audio cannot live independently of the interconnectedness of all things that is the post-Covid workplace, and it looks like it cannot be anything but more and more integrated as customer expectations accelerates skyward and the integrators sprint to evolve with them.
Adam Shulman, product lead at Bose Professional, is well aware of the challenges posed by a clued-up clientele: “End users are expecting a smoother experience, underpinned by more integration, because it is what they are seeing in the consumer space. Systems at home – such as the Google or Apple ecosystems – are well-integrated across many different functions. So, it is reasonable to expect that, at their much greater cost and complexity, systems in commercial spaces can and should be as well.”
Might as well quit, if you don’t have it
At the frontline, integrators who want to stay afloat are thinking differently and meeting these new expectations head-on. The thing is, it’s embarrassingly difficult to talk about the state of or the development of integration these days without saying ‘IT’ repeatedly, so it’s worth stopping to define that in our terms. Possibly the first thing to come to mind is networked systems, and that has certainly been talked up as one of the biggest shifts in expertise – though many might argue that a network and its satisfactory operation is not actually as big a leap as maybe product integration , control, and remote monitoring are; and maybe that’s a useful, wider definition of IT.
Shulman says: “Integrators have a role to play in providing consistency and continuity across a wider range of systems. Solutions can no longer be developed room-by-room; demands for system-level management and a consistent UI mean that solutions must be developed at the organizational level.”
Davide Quarto is the solutions engineering team leader at Powersoft – a company heavily invested in interconnectedness, and the advantages of remote monitoring and control: “Customers requests are always oriented to simplicity,” he says. “They don’t want to lose their mind in lots of advanced configuration pages where there are parameters that they don’t know either the name’s meaning or what they do… Just push a button and everything is set and working without problems….that’s what they look for.”
Joe Andrulis, executive vice president of corporate development at Biamp, agrees: “Equipment that is easy to install, configure, and use, with the option of customization via automation, will continue to gain share at the expense of complex, hard-to- use solutions. In short, mass customization is the new commodity, often executed through a simple touch of a button backed by AI and other built-in automated tools. This equates to happier clients, more business opportunities, and better margins for integrators.”
Trent Wagner works for Q-SYS as a senior product manager, platform. Q-SYS is the very definition of software, as it is a software-based audio, video and control platform based on an IT architecture that encompasses a range of native solutions plus an ecosystem of third-party integration options. “Q-SYS, at its center is software. We’ve demonstrated that time and time again with the ability to add new features, purely through software, to existing hardware and to, more recently, virtualize Q-SYS, which allows users to deploy the Q-SYS control engine on user-provided PC/computer devices. “For Q-SYS, we don’t need to make the distinction between IT vs ‘traditional AV’ vs ‘control’ – it’s one unified platform that combines everything with one design and deployment package.”
I’ll be back
A key piece in this new, emerging equation where audio technology is self-aware, knows its space, and has scanned its customer, is that emphasis also shifts to the user experience offered to the integrator, not the consumer. Afterall, if what the client wants is more intelligence and fewer buttons, then UX for the integrator is where it’s at, right? Remote control, remote monitoring, and web-based services mean less time on site, more efficient installation phase, easier upkeep and maintenance, and a shift to a workable economic model that might even fuel a swing back to talking about things like quality, intelligibility , clever acoustics, and great audio as an asset.
Shulman: “It is definitely moving towards user interface (UI) design that is more standardized and less audio centric. This is especially important when it comes to the UI that the end user engages with for operation and management. “This takes two forms – firstly, being aware of the UI itself and respecting software conventions from outside the AV industry. But it’s also about choosing UI mediums that are more familiar and approachable. For example, at Bose Professional, we chose to do without a specific application for our Commercial Sound Processor CSP-428 and CSP-1248. Previous iterations required the application to be downloaded and installed, but we now deliver everything through a web UI that can be accessed via any web browser.”
“Advances in audio automation software, such as Biamp Launch, are helping integrators customize AV setups but deploy those solutions as a mass commodity,” notes Andrulis. “Equipment that is easy to install, configure, and use, with the option of customization via automation, will continue to gain share at the expense of complex, hard-to-use solutions. In short, mass customization is the new commodity, often executed through a simple touch of a button backed by AI and other built-in automated tools. This equates to happier clients, more business opportunities, and better margins for integrators.”
He notes that AI might be a gateway to better, faster, more customer-friendly installation: “For the integrator, leveraging AI and other intelligent solutions will be critical to improving efficiency and standardization they will need to win in the marketplace. For example, by combining AI optimization and predictive analysis with existing signal processing algorithms, audio solutions can now assist in the actual installation process by configuring the equipment to satisfy end-users’ needs faster than ever before.
“AI can aid the integrator by speeding up basic installation tasks, which may include making audio deployments more consistent and predictable in duration. That could consist of smoothing out variances in tuning so that the integrator can consistently deliver superior sound performance in less time. The increased efficiency this type of software provides translates into better margins, more referrals, and repeat business.”
Wagner says: “We have an opportunity to make audio setup more intelligent and more automated. For example, we can remove some of the work related to gain staging, configuration, and tuning. Also, there’s potential to leverage AI which can make a space more intelligent and help to remove distractions and noise by reacting to the room talkers’ location, volume, etc.”
It seems as if audio’s enduring place in the multiverse installation is being defined right now. It’s being defined by how clever we can be with AI and bending that to the customer’s will. It’s being defined by how clever manufacturers can be with control and monitoring and making the integrator’s life a little less complex, and a whole lot greener. It might be defined by how sustainable the necessary investment in development and expertise will be. It’s also no secret that until very recently one job where the experts have been writing their own paychecks and T&Cs has been software development. It’s just possible that the release of talent onto the market from big-tech that suddenly can’t pay the bills might make it more readily available to medium-tech and therefore feed this market and many others in the same position.
And what of the other big software-dominant mechanics? Real-time (or near real-time) Cloud services were pushed on massively in broadcast, for instance, by Covid, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that installation might take better advantage of it at some point.
We might move to more SaaS (Software as a Service) as software continues to be the integrator’s plaything and clients demand as much dynamism from their audio installation as they do from every other software tool they now have at their disposal. “You can imagine how much we want to be always connected and even beyond that (if you think to the Metaverse and the ‘synthetic reality’),” comments Quarto. “So yes, being able to remote monitor your sites anywhere in the world, anytime is a powerful concept and who knows, maybe you will be able to check and do on-site operations just by connecting with some VR tools…so working on-site without being on-site.”
Andrulis says: “Cloud, SaaS, and integrated web services will absolutely play a future role in audio install systems. Most of the actual processing and optimization is currently happening ‘in-the-room.’ There’s no reason this shouldn’t move to the cloud down the road just like it has in other parts of the information technology value chain.”
“Q-SYS Reflect Enterprise Manager offers cloud-based remote control, deployment, and fleet management,” adds Wagner. “I think you’ll see many more examples of cloud-based asset monitoring and deployment as well as asset tracking – those pieces that are not required to be truly real-time and can be migrated to the cloud at a large scale.”
An interesting side effect of the rise of software is that it might not just be changing the integrators. It looks like it’s changing the customers as well. Whereas office managers, buildings and amenities staff, and maybe even the teams requesting the facilities have been the primary contacts in the past, new stakeholders share the clients’ keys to the contracts. “IT is playing an increasingly crucial role in the delivery of audio systems,” states Shulman. “But at the same time, it has become even more challenging. In terms of ownership, the IT function now manages both in-office and remote technology. The network, which must be secure and efficient, now spans the employee base wherever they are, not just the office buildings themselves. This means integrators need to be aware of and sensitive to this additional burden placed on IT managers.”
It makes sense then, that Q-SYS developed into what it is today. “We’re moving more towards the IT model and are in line with how the customer wants to manage their hardware. It’s really about meeting the customers’ expected topologies and deployment methods, using their own purchasing channels and toolchains when appropriate” says Wagner. So, it seems certain that integrators will spend more and more time negotiating with their clients’ InfoSec departments going forward. Whether that means they’ll spend less time discussing audio remains to be seen.
Possibly the trick, these days, is to step in line with the evolution of the client – to have demonstrable advantage in whatever you do. As agile working becomes more and more the language of business and economics, and analytics rule the meeting room, integrators that can help their clients prove value and efficiency to their bosses will win out. And that’s something that software is particularly good at. Audio systems can listen as well as play back… Just sayin’.
top pic: Shutterstock.com/Gorodenkoff