ISDN is old technology. Yes, in this age of rapid-fire changes, 1980's technology qualifies as "ancient". But, like the dragonfly, evolution has yet to improve on its function, so it persists.

ISDN stands for "Integrated Services Digital Network", or sometimes as "Integrated Subscriber Digital Network"... although some might say it stands for: "I'm So Darn Networked" or "Innovations Subscribers Don't Need".

This telephonic standard for transmitting studio-quality audio over copper wire is such a stalwart in the business of voice acting that it's considered a must-have for the voice actor truly determined to crack into the upper-crust of best-paying voice jobs.

"Not true!" some might say. First of all, there's some mighty fine quality IP voice transmission mechanisms being offered now, and besides, plenty of voice actors have a lucrative business without ISDN. On both counts, those arguments are true. Yet ISDN persists as a higher-echelon epitome for those who aspire to the top-of-the-line voice opportunities.

Why? First of all, it's entrenched. It's entrenched in the finest audio studios around the world, and secondly, it's a proven, rock-solid paradigm that voice and sound professionals have come to accept as the de facto standard for studio-quality sound transmitted over long distances sans dropout.

You could argue that ISDN is a dinosaur, that it's disappearing from the audio landscape, that it's hard to work with, and that today's voice actor doesn't need it. Still... ISDN persists.

ISDN can be routed through your house or business much like a regular analog phone line on ordinary paired copper wires, but it allows digital transmission of voice and data through circuit-switched telephone networks that also provides access to packet-switched networks. It's much more complicated than that, but we're not here to give a technical treatise, and the bottom line is ISDN gives the user superior voice quality over distance, when compared to analog.

ISDN in the real world.

OK, that's all fine and let's face the reality of ISDN in real-world application. It's fringe. Even phone companies don't seem that familiar with it. When you call and ask the sales associate at your local phone company about ISDN, a typical answer is: " mean DSL?...". So part of the challenge of launching into ISDN is dealing with the lingo and finding someone (usually 'a' person) in the elusive department within the major telco's who actually understand what it is.

Those challenges are so daunting to many voice actors, that entire cottage industries have sprung up to hand-hold the neophyte through the process. You'll find two of them mentioned under Links in the sidebar of this article.

For the voice actor, tech-savvy or not, the basic set-up requires (in layman's terms):

  1. Installation of the paired copper lines to the studio
  2. Acquisition of an ISDN "box" or codec
  3. Connecting telephone wires and microphone in the proper configuration
  4. Lots of patience with the phone company.

Check please?

Cost? A hardware codec can range in price from $3,000 to $7,000. Installation can vary widely in price according to geographic area and the phone company that services that area. $150 is a ballpark. ISDN almost always involves a monthly subscription fee, much like your POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) system, and here, too, the costs seem to run the gamut: $50 - $150.

Evidence the headache and frustration typically experienced in getting all components to talk to each other AND the phone company, and you can see why not just every wayward voice actor is rushing forward with dollars in hand to get on the list of ISDN users. In fact, no one talks about it much, but ISDN is the threshold that separates the men from the boys in voice acting. It's tantamount to tech-snobbery. "Oh! You have ISDN?" (implied keys to the club).

Now, let's add the factor alluded to before about ISDN being "disappearing" technology. Does the budding voice actor at least aspire to buying ISDN at some point (much like they might plan to have an agent or join the union)? Or does the combination of cost, difficulty of configuration, and impending obsolescence argue against it?

Major studios offering the big-ticket voice job possibilities will often make ISDN a basic qualification for even auditioning with them.

To ISDN, or not to ISDN?

At this point, the decision quickly becomes a chicken-or-the egg proposition...even a Catch-22. Should Yossarian get ISDN because it will possibly bring him more high-paying jobs? Or should Yossarian wait until he's offered a high-paying job possibility before getting serious about acquiring ISDN?

The deep-pocketed but unaccomplished voice actor with ISDN may never get to use it. Conversely, the talented but financially-strapped voice actor may be missing opportunities to jump to the big league by not having ISDN.

This is where personal priorities, goals, practicality, and dollars collide. There is no pat answer.

Luckily, a technological solution has presented itself here as well. A British company will sell you an 'AudioTX Communicator' package of software that lets your computer handle all the heavy-lifting that a codec 'box' would normally perform. Cost of purchase and installation: about $1400. This is almost affordable for some who balked at the cost of a standard codec.

AudioTX Communicator still requires the installation of paired ISDN phone lines. The user will still have to wrangle with the phone company for that, and to negotiate the proper routing of those networked lines. You'll still have to pay for the installation of the lines and the monthly subscription. There is some other minor hardware esoterica involved, and some software configuration, but done right, AudioTX works darn good.

The next frontier.

A brief mention here, too, of IP solutions to transmission of studio quality audio signals. This seems to be the next-gen standard. ISDN codecs offer this as an option. So does AudioTX. In addition, a company called Source-Elements sells a software-based solution called 'Source-Connect' (for about $400) that requires no phone lines, no codec, no subscription and promises to deliver ISDN-like studio-quality audio over a broadband IP connection. I'll examine IP alternatives to ISDN in a future article.

Some services will "bridge" an IP signal into an ISDN signal for a fee. That means, they'll take an incoming IP audio source, translate it into an ISDN connection, and send it on to another ISDN codec. These seem a little more stable. If SKYPE ever gets good enough, it could verge into this market. Some voice actors and studios are using SKYPE now for 'scratch' recordings, not the final cut.

ISDN presents the ultimate technological challenge to today's voice actor. Some are up to it, some befuddled by it. But in today's brave new world that marries talent to technology for voice acting success, it's a challenge more are considering.