Radio Skonto serves the Riga, Latvia market in northern Europe, on the Baltic Sea across from Stockholm, Sweden. Their new studios, powered with Axia Livewire technology, were installed in May, 2004. Steve Church spoke with Valdis Melderis, Program Director and morning show host, and with Chief Engineer Ivo Bankavs.
East Meets West (With Ethernet)
Steve Church: Most readers will not know much about Riga or Latvia. Can you fill us in?
Valdis: Yeah, we’re not so well-known here, I understand. Perhaps I can do a small part to advance people’s awareness of us. Our country has just joined NATO and the European Union, so there is a lot of obvious change in the air these days. Actually, change has been a constant for the last years. In the decade since we achieved independence, Riga has been transformed into a stylish center of art, fashion, and nightlife. It is also a technology-rich area with mobile phones and DSL internet connections a routine part of daily life. Riga was famous for technology during the Soviet days, with a huge radio and consumer electronics company being based here, as well as a major telephone equipment and semi-conductor manufacturer, so I guess we have interest for the latest tech things in our blood.
Tell me a little about your station.
We are owned partly by MetroMedia in the US, so we operate pretty much like an American station. We are live 24-hours-a-day. Our main programming is music, but we have an active morning show, and a local news department. Riga is a major market with a population over 1 million and has a very competitive radio situation, so we are focusing on a specific segment with our mix of international and local music. I guess we would be called “soft rock” in the USA.
What about the technical side?
That’s pretty typical American-style, as well. Our first studios were done a few years ago by our engineers along with Phil Harris, a MetroMedia guy from the US, so we were built with equipment your American readers probably know: Wheatstone consoles, Denon CD players, Mosely STL, EV mics, etc. One thing unique to us and the other MetroMedia stations in the region is that we use a PC delivery system invented by one of our own people.
Has your studio system served you well?
Sure, no complaints, really. But we were ready for an upgrade.
We are starting to use the phones a lot more, and our old console was not phone-friendly; recording a call for later air was a big hassle. I run the board myself and try to keep my mind on the program at the same time; even being sure that the phone feed had not been switched off for live calls was taking attention that I needed to give to the program. The old phone hybrid (Ed: an analog one) was not very good, and audio quality was usually poor, with my voice distorted when calls were aired. The new Telos One cleaned all that up, and because the SmartSurface handles phones automatically, things are a lot smoother now. We hooked up the hybrid so that the console controls the taking of the phone call. It’s a one-button operation now! I really like that.
In fact, you gave us an idea that we used to change how the Surface works…
Yes. What I wanted was some way to take a call using the SmartSurface without putting it on the air. (Ed: They have a single hybrid without a multi-line controller.) The ON button could do that, but I was always nervous that maybe the fader would be up and the call would go on the air. We came up with the idea to use the Preview button also to activate the hybrid. You guys made that change fast, and it works as we expected.
Was learning the new console a problem?
Not really. Of course, the first day everyone had to get used to the position of the faders and how the buttons worked and such, but after that, no problem. As a good tool should, it doesn’t take much attention and kind of fades into the background after some time using it.
Anything else you notice in particular?
The faders and buttons feel a lot smoother than the old console. It’s not a big deal, I guess, but it does give you the sense that you are working with a serious professional instrument. And it’s much more impressive looking than the other one.
Was the idea of using Ethernet for audio a concern?
Ether-what? I don’t know anything about that. All I care is that the stuff works everyday and lets me do my program. You need to ask Ivo about the technical part.
(Turning to Ivo, Radio Skonto’s Chief Engineer)
Steve Church: Ivo, were you concerned about using Ethernet for audio, then?
Ivo: No. I had seen the demonstrations and asked a lot of questions. Your answers convinced me that it would work. And I figured you guys wouldn’t be offering it if there was a problem.
And has it been OK? What can you say now after a few months on the air?
We’ve had no failure or downtime of any kind since we installed it, so there’s your answer. You guys did warn us that this is all very new and that we would be among the first to use it, so we were ready for start-up bugs. But we’ve been happy that there have been none.
Well, there was one, sort-of. The SmartSurface clock was running fast and we had to re-set it every day to keep it in sync. When we asked the guys from the University about this (Ed: University of Riga, our European development partners), they explained about using the NTP Server to get the time over the network. Now we have a bit of software running in our delivery computer that serves NTP time over the Ethernet. The Surface picks this up and is now always in perfect sync to the delivery PC.
The operators had some ideas about how some of the features should work differently, as Valdis explained, but these were not serious problems.
How was the installation?
Very smooth, and much simpler than the old analog set-up was. There are lot fewer cables, which we prepared in advance. That took a couple of days. Actually the RJ-45s went fast, but we had a few GPIOs to wire up and that took some time to match up the right connector pins, make sure the polarity was right, get the wires soldered on, etc. Then, one day at midnight, we patched our delivery PC directly into the audio processor to stay on the air, and moved all the old stuff out and the new equipment in. Four hours later, we were on the air with it.
Do you see any advantage or disadvantage to using Ethernet to connect the equipment together?
It’s a lot different with regard to the deep technology, but it’s pretty much the same as analog from an installation and user perspective - you plug this to that and it works. The RJs were a lot faster to install than analog plugs and there are not so many cables, so things are generally simpler and the wiring neater. For example, there’s only one cable from the SmartSurface; we had a lot of them going to our old console! We’re a smaller station, so we’re not taking so much advantage of the routing functions in the Ethernet switch, but I can see how that aspect would be really nice for bigger stations.
Some potential clients have said they are nervous that they can’t check if an audio line is working by connecting a pair of headphones…
Well, we’ve never had to troubleshoot anything because it worked from the start. But you can’t hook up headphones to AES either, and that was the alternative for digital audio before you guys came along with this idea. The LEDs on the switch and network cards, along with the meters on the terminals seem like enough to find and fix most problems. And there are meters on the web browser remote, too, right? I guess that would be useful, but we haven’t had to do anything like that. We only used the browser interface the night we installed everything for configuration and haven’t needed it since then.
What about interfacing to your PC delivery system?
At first, we were using a sound card in the PC to feed the Livewire terminal, and that was OK. But when our software guru came back from holiday, we changed to the Windows IP-Audio driver, so now we’re direct digital into the network. Since the driver looks like a sound card to the computer, it was pretty straightforward. There was some usual Windows strangeness with the installation, but it was resolved. We kept the soundcard installed for backup; it would be easy to re-direct the player to the card if we need to.
Do you have any other comments for us?
You were asking a lot about the Ethernet; seems you think potential customers will be worried by that? I can say only that it works just fine and that your clients shouldn’t care too much about that. Someone looking for new studio equipment should have a look at SmartSurface and decide if it fits their needs and make a decision based on that. The Ethernet tech makes wiring a lot simpler, so that’s a plus, and I like the direct PC connection – but the thing that really matters is how well the system serves operators. For us, it’s what we need and has been an improvement over the old set-up. The operators are happy, and so am I.
No problem. Want to go for a beer?