What is CoolPlay? A Coldplay tribute band? Well, yes it is – but it’s also a piece of Windows audio play out software written for BBC News between 2000 and 2010.
At its simplest, it allows you to load audio (in MP3, MP2 or WAV format) into a playlist and play it out at the press of a button. “So what?” you may cry, “loads of programs do that.” Well, yes there are loads of audio players for all kinds of platforms, but almost all of them have a problem when it comes to playing audio out on the radio or in the theatre: when they get to the end of a track, they almost always play the next track immediately afterwards. This is not something you normally want on the wireless – you want to be able to talk in between the pre-recorded items or music.
I’ve long mused that it would be cool if there were a Mac (or Linux – but that’s another story) version of CoolPlay, and for some reason it took until today for me to try running CoolPlay in WINE on an Mac. Actually, I may have tried it before and it didn’t work – but today it did.
I installed the WINE / WINE Bottler combo on my hackintosh netbook running OS X 10.6.8. WINE is a way of running Windows applications in other operating systems, and it requires an X86 processor to run, so I won’t be running CoolPlay on a RaspberryPi any time soon (though I’d love to have a go at writing my own simple version of it).
Anyway, by Jove it seems to work. I then packaged it up as a standalone OS X app and tested it on an iMac running 10.6.8 and a MacBook Air running 10.9.5. This also seems to work with a few wrinkles, outlined below. It also makes the file HUGE – it’s about 570MB as opposed to 1.7MB for the original WindowsXP EXE file. But it means you can run it without installing WINE first, which you may not want to, or be able to do.
I even got the ‘quick record’ function to work using Soundflower to route the iMac’s audio output to the input:
Bit of history: CoolPlay was written by Matt Hardiman, and you can still download the Windows version here. It was used widely in BBC network and World Service radio and beyond. I designed the splash screen for it, and I think I did some work on the .CHM help files, but it was a long time ago and I may be misremembering that. It has some features that may seem arcane now, as it grew to suit both Radio 4 and Five Live broadcast areas in TV Centre where D-CART was used for audio play out, and Bush House where World Service News used DAVE2000 and the rest of World Service used Radioman. It’s only when you start thinking about how you’d emulate its functionality, that you realise how incredibly sophisticated it is – easy to use but damned clever. And it has plenty of features that are still immensely useful today:
- You can re-order a playlist while an item is playing.
- It tells you at what clock time an item will finish playing.
- You can preview the end of a track.
- It deliberately makes it hard to stop playing your audio – the spacebar is play, but to stop a track you have to use the numeric keypad or press S. Trust me, this is a good idea. Especially if you’ve ever played out a half hour feature and pressed STOP by accident.
- You can segue individual tracks together if you need to.
- It puts audio in a local cache, so if you loaded audio off a server and lose your network connection, you can still keep on air.
- It saves playlists in the common M3U format, readable by other software.
- It even enables playlists to be edited remotely, say in a production area, and it will update the playlist in the studio automatically.
So what are the wrinkles?
Generally it seems to work pretty well, but I’d need to ‘soak test’ it a bit more before recommending using it in anger on anything broadcast-critical. One big problem is that re-ordering tracks by dragging and dropping items in a playlist is very hard, as the cursor and highlight vanishes. You can get round this, however, by using CTRL and the up and down arrows (though in OS X Mavericks I had to turn off some Mission Control keyboard shortcuts that clash in System Preferences).
It takes quite a long time to open on first run, you get an error message about serial remotes and it may be hidden behind other apps, but it opens swiftly on subsequent runs. The file system in WINE is a bit bonkers, but you can set the application preferences in CoolPlay so it will by default look somewhere sensible for new audio and playlists.
There’s no INSert key on a Mac, which is awkward as that’s the keyboard shortcut for inserting new audio or playlists. SonB discovered, though, that F3 (or Fn+F3) does the same thing – how or why I have no idea this works, and it may be the cause of some randomly weird flickering menu behaviour I’ve seen a few times, so there may be a better solution involving using some OS X key-mapping shenanigans.
The playlist also gets a bit messy around the ‘NEXT’ labels which show the next track to be played – they don’t get cleared when you cursor up and down the playlist. This can be tidied up by pressing F5 (or Fn+F5) which redraws the playlist.
If you wanted to use this in a more formal broadcast environment, you could use a MakeyMakey to wire up fader starts and real chunky push buttons to CoolPlay to allow you to play, stop and navigate a playlist.
As I hinted at before, I’d love to write something like CoolPlay for a RaspberryPi. Imagine a really good radio play out system costing less than £50? That’d be great for school, student and community radio stations. No idea where to begin though… something web-based? Python code with a GUI wrapper controlling MPC? Ideas… ideas…