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Collaboration Versus Competition: Can We Just Learn to Get Along with Each Other?

Returning to my theme from the opening day of the 2003 NAB Convention, if I have learned one important thing from this year’s gathering, it is that the so-called digital revolution coursing through our industry is going to be a salutatory experience. The pros are obvious: enhanced audio quality with unlimited data file transfer and signal processing capabilities, plus dramatic operational flexibility through full assignability of control surfaces. The cons: getting our heads around the dazzling options offered by integrated data transfer and storage. Because, lest we miss the strikingly obvious, manipulating digitized audio involves not only in-progress bit streams but also the massive amounts of stored data that our new digital-radio and DTV infrastructures will be generating.

I contrast to analog technologies, where were reluctant to record anything simply because what we get back will be a degraded version of what we committed to the storage media, digitized data is immune from such indignities. But it’s not totally all good news, simply because — to use a much-quoted allegory — the digitized data files lack the simple equivalent of a tape box, the label of which comprises a human-readable indication of the material contained within. How are we to determine what exactly the digitized file is meant to represent if we lack any knowledge about its original or intended purpose? With increased sharing of data files via SANs and related topologies, is it any wonder that implementations of a fully integrated digital asset management scheme continue to cause a great deal of sleepless nights.

Of course, this is precisely the role to be played by metadata. But who or what is going to generate the necessary standardized descriptors that we need to identify unambiguously the precise nature of the constituent data files? Cutting to the chase, I will admit that the most productive two hours I spent at this year’s convention was in the Professional MPEG Forum/AAF Association’s “Interoperability Center” in the South Hall. Here were gathered representatives from a dozen or so software developers and hardware manufacturers demonstrating practical realizations of Material Exchange Format (MXF) and the exciting capabilities of Advanced Authoring Format. MXF offers real promise as the digital equivalent of our familiar tape box — structural metadata and descriptive metadata that handles identification of component audio, video and multimedia files — while AAF extends the basic MXF structure with the inclusion of work-in-progress project data.

From what I saw, MXF is reaching critical mass in terms of its offering a simple yet feature-rich scheme for interchange of audio-visual material with associated metadata for editing, server-to-server transfers over LAN or WAN systems, archiving, content distribution and asset management.

Jazzed by my newly extended knowledge, I returned to the exhibit floor seeking out real world examples of AAF to enable projects to be exchanged between digital audio workstations, a capability that would enable a sound designer to use Application “A” to develop textured soundtrack elements, and then return them to the supervising sound editor, who might favor the creative functionality of Application “B.” (As the AAF Association states in its various white papers, “AAF simplifies project management, saves time and preserves valuable metadata that in the past was typically lost when transferring program material between applications.”)

Unfortunately, in terms of practical reality, it would seem that AAF is still not yet ready for prime time. I came away from this fact-finding mission mildly disappointed. While market leader Digidesign is planning to offer AAF import/import for the Pro Tools 6.1 digital audio workstation via its DigiTranslator option, few other DAW manufacturers appear to be as focused in their pursuit of a universal Digital Rosetta Stone. (For the record, a new DV Toolkit utility for Pro Tools LE also enables AAF exchange with other applications, including Avid Xpress DV.)

So good news from Pro Tools users working in a collaborative broadcast of post environment, but the competition needs to come to the party. With good reason we should be cautious of monopolies. Yet something tells me that the next half-year will see a high level of catch up — and it did not go unnoticed that earlier this week that Apple Corp. confirmed its ongoing commitment to AAF and all of its implications.

Mel Lambert heads up Media&Marketing, a full-service consulting service for pro-audio firms and facilities: