Field Report: Rivendell automation

September 1, 2007

When it comes to radio, automation systems tend to be one of the more expensive line items in the budget. The cost of computers, audio cards, GPIO cards, custom conversion boxes to integrate with RDS and routing switchers, the application software, and custom adaptations to import logs from the station's traffic system or push playlists to a website can add up extremely quickly, and that's before factoring the monthly maintenance cost.

Wouldn't it be nice if the radio industry had alternatives to high-priced proprietary software? Rivendell is such an alternative for all your automation system needs.

Rivendell Automation

Formerly a product of Salem Radio Labs (a division of Salem Communications), Rivendell is now available to the general public under the GNU General Public License. Roughly speaking, this means the software is available free of charge, you can do anything you want with it and the source code must be made available to anyone using the program. This also means there isn't formal support for it.

The Rivendell software is available as precompiled binaries for numerous releases of SuSE linux, or as source code for those who wish to build it themselves to run on a different flavor of Linux, such as Fedora. As of this writing, the 0.9.80 version is available on the Rivendell website. For testing we'll be running it on a Dell machine running a newly installed version of SuSE 10.2, with an Audio Science ASI6044 card installed. Rivendell strongly recommends the use of the Audio Science cards for production use, but installations running with JACK and ALSA are know to function as well.

Setting up

Installation was very straightforward, with little time spent solving dependency issues. The user should spend a few extra minutes tracking down precompiled binaries to satisfy dependencies rather than building software themselves. In the long run, more time will be spent building than searching for a pre-built one. Once installed, Rivendell consists of a few separate components: RD Admin, RD Library, RD Catch, RD Airplay, RD Logedit and RD Log Manager, plus some utilities for monitoring, batch importing audio with metadata and changing which user is currently logged into the software.

As you've probably guessed, RD Admin is the utility used to set up and configure the other programs. From here, one can create users, give or revoke permissions, manage “services” that Rivendell will run (such as Production, Streaming, FM, AM, etc.), create templates for reporting (including the ASCAP/BMI Electronic Music Report), configure the import of music and traffic data from either a Windows or Linux machine, and manage groups of carts and machine parameters (audio ports, serial ports, GPIO, switchers, etc). It also provides a means of backing up or restoring the Rivendell database.

Performance at a glance
Supports PCM16 Linear, FLAC, MPEG2, MP3, Ogg formats
AudioScience cards recommended, but not strictly required
Play while record (and record while play)
GPIO support
Supports many audio switchers
Source code available for alterations as needed

Much like Linux, where everything is treated as a file, Rivendell treats everything as a cart. A cart can contain single or multiple pieces of audio, macros or any combination thereof.

The RD Library is where you'll find the production audio interface, containing all carts (audio and macro). Provisions exist to add, edit and delete carts, complete with a built-in recorder for new cuts, and an audio editor which allows you to set various markers on a cut of audio, such as cue, segue, and trim starts and ends. Simple editing is accomplished by dragging the appropriate marker to the appropriate area. You'll also notice the built-in ability to rip an entire CD or a single track to carts.

Other features

The basic scheduler is known as RD Catch, which allows events of almost any kind to be executed as needed. Recordings with hard start times, or GPIO starts within a time window are possible, as well as autotrim and auto normalize functions. Basic playout can occur in a similar way, though it is expected that a stations' playout would be generated via the traffic log. Downloads and uploads can also be scheduled, so no more waiting around until something gets posted on a website before being able to grab it for use, and since Rivendell can export as an MP3 (or Real Audio if the encoder is also installed), automating podcast uploads has never been simpler.

RD Airplay is possibly the most important element of the Rivendell suite. This on-air playout application has all the features you'd expect to find in an expensive automation system. The screen is split in two, with the left side always displaying the next seven carts to be played. All the basics are provided for each cart, such as the title, artist, time played/remaining, etc. The right screen is user swappable to many different options, such as the soundpanel (25 button instant fire audio screen). The number of pages is completely user configurable. Additionally, the running log file may be viewed, modified, etc., as well as two Aux log files (which presumably are running other audio streams from the same hardware).

To create basic air logs without the use of a traffic program, RD Logedit is available. It enables you to create new log files and events, firing off carts as required. When assigning a new cart to play, you even get options as to what to do if the previous cart is still playing (start immediately, make next item — but wait only up to XX minutes before playing anyway), as well as what to do if the previous cart has stopped (play next, segue to next, stop completely). Finally, when your log is created and saved, you can click the Check Log for Errors button to see what problems it anticipates, as well as any carts that are missing.

RD Log Manager goes a few steps further, allowing you to automatically generate new logs as needed, based on templates you create. Events (carts) are contained in one-hour clocks, assigned to a grid — basically a one hour block of time on a given day of the week. Log files are then created based on this master template in perpetuity until such time as the template is altered.

Benefits and hitches

Rivendell Open Source Radio Automation is a very complete, well-thought-out, free alternative to many commercial automation systems. It will happily run on older, slower machines (P3 800MHz with 256meg ram are the minimum specs), and the price can't be beat.


There are, however, drawbacks: Audio Science cards are exceedingly expensive; often times the user interface is inconsistent (with one screen allowing keyboard shortcuts and the next not); the program can be less than intuitive (users need to click within an empty cart in the appropriate place before clicking the button to add audio.); the final configuration may be too much for some users to deal with (although anyone who's installed an automation system in the past should have some idea of what to expect); and it needs to run on Linux, preferably SuSE, so if that's a deal breaker, don't bother.

For the brave or just curious, Rivendell now has a downloadable Demo CD available. Pop it into any machine and reboot to get an idea of what the system is capable of without building a Linux machine of any kind.

Harrison is a radio broadcast engineer at WETA-FM, Washington, DC

Editor's note: Field Reports are an exclusive Radio magazine feature for radio broadcasters. Each report is prepared by well-qualified staff at a radio station, production facility or consulting company.

These reports are performed by the industry, for the industry. Manufacturer support is limited to providing loan equipment and to aiding the author if requested.

It is the responsibility of Radio magazine to publish the results of any device tested, positive or negative. No report should be considered an endorsement or disapproval by Radio magazine.

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