VOA to end HF broadcasting

Several places have reported that The Voice of America will sunset it’s shortwave broadcasts in the not too distant future. Boing Boing reported yesterday, based on a paper titled “Broadcast Board of Governors 2010-2012 BBG Technology Strategic Plan and BBG Technology Update – 2009” received via FOIA last January.

The 2009 study notes that the weekly audience for radio is 101.9 million listeners, TV is 81.5 million and the Internet 2.4 million weekly listeners.  I don’t know how much that has changed in the last two years, but I’d imagine some shift towards the internet has taken place in light of recent shortwave transmitter site closings.

There are several interesting aspects of this report, notably the disparity between what is termed “Classic Engineering” and “Classic IT” fields.  This is the concept that radio engineers toil on RF and transmitters, while the IT guys work with computers.

As the dependence on shortwave continues to wane and the distribution focus shifts to third party operations, satellite and other direct-to-consumer methodologies, the skill sets of some engineering personnel become less and less relevant to the agency.

This issue is further compounded by the relatively difficult transition from a traditional RF, antenna, transmitter design, and maintenance knowledge base to the technologies involved in digital satellite and IP-based networking systems.

Perhaps that is how it is done in government circles, but I have found in private sector, most radio engineers know at least the computer automation systems that run the stations.  Of course, everyone has preferences and we tend to gravitate toward things we like to do, especially in a field as diverse as broadcast engineering.  When I was in the military, somebody posted the “Eleven Rules of Success.”  The only one that I can remember now is this: “Pick the thing that you hate and become proficient at it.”

In order to stay relevant, broadcast engineers have to keep up with the technology while remaining proficient with RF and audio skills.  Computers and automation programs are not terribly hard to understand, but each one is different and operates differently.  Most, if not all automation companies offer some type of training, which is fine.  Nothing can beat hands on installation and trouble shooting for learning the important details, however.

The report also mentions that morale is an issue for several reasons.  First, it is noted that:

Despite several recent high profile station closings, the organization continues to employ shortwave as the most important transmission mechanism to many of the target areas around the globe. Often surge activities are enabled byvadditional shortwave transmissions that end up as an integral part of the ongoing schedule. Effectively, this diminution of transmission resources accompanied by no reduction or even an increase of reliance on this transmission methodology creates overburdened schedules and often the deployment of less than optimal assets for transmission into target areas.

This additional operational burden likely extends to other disciplines within the agency where programming staff must expend substantial additional effort to produce or adapt content for a multiplicity of transmission methods.

In essence, the decision process for station closing does not appear to follow an overt decision and stated plan to reduce shortwave usage.

That is known as the “more with less” paradox.  In the private sector, more with less has been going great guns since the first loosening of the FCC’s ownership rules in 1994.  For those that are used to working in optimum conditions, anything less is a shock to the system.

The issue of low morale is palpable and often present in conversations that address historical perspectives on a particular station closing, transfer of technologies around the network and any other such topics. Precipitated by the long periods of employment that are relatively standard in the Engineering area and perfectly understandable, this grieving process is a natural consequence of the pride involved in creating a state-of-the-art technical facility only to see it being dissected piece by piece as technology continues its relentless creative destruction.

An interesting statement and it shines a light on several things heretofore unsaid in broadcast engineering.  We love our transmitters, as strange as that may seem.  We love our towers and antennas.  Parting with something that has become an integral part of our working environment is difficult to say the least.  Watching something be signed off for the last time and then hauled to the scrap heap is very disheartening, especially if there is no replacement.

On the IT side, things are not so good either.  The main concern is the infrastructure of the IT backbone.  Several deficiencies are noted in the cabling and router; the cabling is in serious disarray and there is only one router for the facility.  There is also other problems noted with personnel and lack of project management experience and/or IT department goals.

Overall, moving into new media fields makes sense.  There are, however, many places where new media is unknown or at best, mostly unavailable.  Moving content delivery from over the air broadcast to IP based distribution may be far less expensive to operate, that is true.  It is also far more susceptible to being disrupted by accident or design.  In those areas where the internet is spotty, shortwave radios are abundant and relied upon.  If the VOA is not on the air, then some other station will be.

Comparison: Over the air listening on FM vs. streaming audio on Android phone

I have had my HTC Android phone for just about a year now, which is enough time to learn the device’s strengths and weaknesses.  I have done a fair amount of listening to audio, watching youtube videos and playing .mp3’s to give me some idea of the technical quality and operational issues.  Like anything else, these are general observations.  Some radio station’s streams sound better than other due to the effort those stations put into audio quality.

The listening test was done with a set of Sony earbuds, which sound far better than the small speaker built into the phone.  For ease in streaming audio, I used the TuneIn Radio application for Android by TuneIn Inc.  For this test, I only listened to FM broadcast stations, both streaming and over the air.

The over the air tuner is the stock factory radio in my 1997 Jeep Cherokee.  I would rate the radio average in every way.  The actual tests were done driving around on interstate highways and other major roadways.  There were a few instances where I had to give up on the Android phone due to traffic and driving considerations.

My Android phone has an FM tuner installed in it, however, it is really useless.  I get only local stations, and then their audio is all hissy and for the most part unlistenable.  The HTC FM tuner uses the headphone wire for an antenna, which may be a part of the problem.

Here is a chart of my observations:

Category evaluated Analog FM radio Streaming via Android
Overall Station Selection Only those stations that can be received Any station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Varity of interesting programming Only those receivable signals which limits it to a few well programmed stations, the rest being garbage Almost unlimited, world wide*
Available formats Only those stations that can be received Any station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Ease of use Can press the preset or scan buttons on radio without taking eyes off the road* Requires squinting at a small screen and pressing several little boxes to get to the desired station
Annoying commercial avoidance See above on preset and scan buttons* Very difficult to change stations quickly
Quality of sound Good to excellent, depending on the station’s signal strength* Fair to good, depending on the bit rate and network congestion, some stations sound very good and some can sound very bad
Drop outs Occasional picket fencing with distant stations, otherwise, non-existent* Varies depending on location, can be quite annoying, especially in mobile environment.  App also occasionally locks up and needs to be restarted
Expense Free, radio came with the vehicle, no paid data service needed* Requires data plan with smart phone, some plans cap data amounts, can be fairly expensive
Overall enjoyment Good Good

*Wins category.

I am having a difficult time assigning the overall enjoyment as well as an over all winner.  One the one hand, it was very cool, driving down I-84 in Danbury, CT listening to Howlin’ Wolf on New Orleans’ non-commercial Jazz station, WWOZ.  On the other hand, it was a right pain in the ass to get to that point, in rush hour traffic.  By the way WWOZ’s web stream is excellent, audio wise.

From a safety and ease of use, the FM radio in the Jeep wins hands down, I just don’t know how many more times I can listen to the same Led Zeppelin song on i95 (that used to be I-95, frankly I thought Steve Jobs copyrighted the lower case i).

The drop outs were also a concern, mostly taking place in on the section of I-84 going through Putnam County, NY.  I don’t know if my cell carrier needs to beef up it’s data coverage in that area, or if there were just a great many users on the network checking their e-mail, etc.

If they could sort out the ease of operation problem and get rid of the drop outs, streaming audio over HTC Android would win hands down.

 

Sound Cards for Broadcast Use

Computer audio sound cards are the norm at nearly all radio stations. I often wonder, am I using the best audio quality sound card?  There are some trade offs on the quality vs. cost curve.  At the expensive end of the curve, one can spend a lot of money for an excellent sound card.  The question is, is it worth it?  The laws of diminishing returns states: No.  High quality reproduction audio can be obtained for a reasonable price.  The one possible exception to that rule would be production studios, especially where music mix downs occur.

I would establish the basic requirement for a professional sound card is balanced audio in and out, either analog, digital or preferably, both.  Almost all sound cards work on PCI buss architecture, some are available with PCMCIA (laptop) or USB.  For permanent installations, an internal PCI buss card is preferred.

Keeping an apples:apples comparison, this comparison it limited to PCI buss, stereo input/output, analog and digital balanced audio units for general use.  Manufactures of these cards often have other units with a higher number of input/output combinations if that is desired.   There are several cards to choose from:

The first and preferred general all around sound card that I use is the Digigram VX222HR series.   This is a mid price range PCI card, running about $525.00 per copy.

Digigram VX222HR professional sound card
Digigram VX222HR professional sound card

These are the cards preferred by BE Audiovault, ENCO and others. I have found them to be easy to install with copious documentation and driver downloads available on line.  The VX series cards are available in 2, 4, 8, or 12 input/output configurations.  The HR suffix stands for “High Resolution,” which indicates 192 KHz sample rate.  This card is capable of generating baseband composite audio, including RDS and subcarriers, with a program like Breakaway Broadcast.

Quick Specs:

  • 2/2 balanced analog and digital AES/EBU I/Os
  • Comprehensive set of drivers: driver for the Digigram SDK, as well as low-latency WDM DirectSound, ASIO, and Wave drivers
  • 32-bit/66 MHz PCI Master mode, PCI and PCI-X compatible interface
  • 24-bit/192 kHz converters
  • LTC input and inter-board Sync
  • Windows 2003 server, 2008 server, Seven, Eight, Vista, XP (32 and 64 bit), ALSA (Linux)
  • Hardware SRC on AES input and separate AES sync input (available on special request)

Next is the Lynx L22-PCI.  This card comes with a rudimentary 16 channel mixer program.  I have found them to be durable and slightly more flexible than the Digigram cards.  They run about $670.00 each.  Again, capable of 192 KHz sample rate on the analog input/outputs.  Like Digigram, Lynx has several other sound cards with multiple input/outputs which are appropriate for broadcast applications.

Lynx L22-PCI professional sound card
Lynx L22-PCI professional sound card

Specifications:

  • 200kHz sample rate / 100kHz analog bandwidth (Supported with all drivers)
  • Two 24-bit balanced analog inputs and outputs
  • +4dBu or -10dBV line levels selectable per channel pair
  • 24-bit AES3 or S/PDIF I/O with full status and subcode support
  • Sample rate conversion on digital input
  • Non-audio digital I/O support for Dolby Digital® and HDCD
  • 32-channel / 32-bit digital mixer with 16 sub outputs
  • Multiple dither algorithms per channel
  • Word, 256 Word, 13.5MHz or 27MHz clock sync
  • Extremely low-jitter tunable sample clock generator
  • Dedicated clock frequency diagnostic hardware
  • Multiple-board audio data routing and sync
  • Two LStream™ ports support 8 additional I/O channels each
  • Compatible with LStream modules for ADAT and AES/EBU standards
  • Zero-wait state, 16-channel, scatter-gather DMA engine
  • Windows 2000/XP/XPx64/Seven/Eight/Vista/Vistax64: MME, ASIO 2.0, WDM, DirectSound, Direct Kernel Streaming and GSIF
  • Macintosh OSX: CoreAudio (10.4)
  • Linux, FreeBSD: OSS
  • RoHS Compliant
  • Optional LStream Expansion Module LS-ADAT: provides sixteen-channel 24-bit ADAT optical I/O (Internal)
  • Optional LStream Expansion Module LS-AES: provides eight-channel 24-bit/96kHz AES/EBU or S/PDIF digital I/O (Internal)

Audio Science makes several different sound cards, which are used in BSI and others in automation systems.  These cards run about $675 each.

Audio Science ASI 5020 professional sound card
Audio Science ASI 5020 professional sound card

Specifications:

  • 6 stereo streams of playback into 2 stereo outputs
  • 4 stereo streams of record from 2 stereo inputs
  • PCM format with sample rates to 192kHz
  • Balanced stereo analog I/O with levels to +24dBu
  • 24bit ADC and DAC with 110dB DNR and 0.0015% THD+N
  • SoundGuard™ transient voltage suppression on all I/O
  • Short length PCI format (6.6 inches/168mm)
  • Up to 4 cards in one system
  • Windows 2000, XP and Linux software drivers available.

There are several other cards and card manufactures which do not use balanced audio.  These cards can be used with caution, but it is not recommended in high RF environments like transmitter sites or studios located at transmitter sites.  Appropriate measures for converting audio from balanced to unbalanced must be observed.

Further, there are many ethersound systems coming into the product pipeline which convert audio directly to TCP/IP for routing over an ethernet 802.x based network.  These systems are coming down in price and are being looked at more favorably by broadcast groups.  This is the future of broadcast audio.