Archive for the ‘Hi-Fi & Music’ Category

TapThe Record Industry is Hurting

16 Nov 2009 13:33 by Rick

When you hear the frequent reports in the last few years about how file sharing has killed the music industry it all looks rather grim for the artists. This is particularly noticeable when major artists like Metallica and Lily Allen make the case rather than just the industry associations bleating about it. But are they mistaken and just puppets of the record companies; certainly in the early days of their contract their position must seemed rather precarious, subject to the whims of the promoter and woe betide them if they stepped out of line.

On the other hand there have been many critics of the record industry, such as Roger McGuinn, who have said that it is an unfair game often leaving the artists with nothing at all or in debt. As Lily points out, it is the band that pays for the studio, production, video, marketing and promotion and they have to refund this back to the record company out of their 15% of the royalties (if they are lucky). The advance they get is just to keep them alive.

This recent analysis by Times Labs shows that the majority of income for an artist is live performance (and I think it applies for the smaller venues as well as the stadium shows) and that has been steadily increasing even over the period supposedly hit by illegal downloading. As you will have seen from the Lily Allen article, some major artists believe that downloads often serve as tasters—samplers for the artist’s work—and that real income comes from later business. I don’t begrudge the artists any of this. An artist on tour works incredibly hard often at the cost of their health and relationships. I’m still glad I turned down the offer to do it some years ago.

I am not condoning pirating, particularly not wholesale music file sharing, but for sampling it does no more harm than a radio show. That it why I am very pleased that services like LastFM and Spotify allow it to be done legitimately. I have had reasonable success with my efforts to “Go Straight” which I did because I felt that I had rather overstayed my sampler welcome, by nearly 40 years in some cases, and the records I had recorded were often the best ones even though I had made some amends by buying follow up albums. Of course, by now, my efforts are more often benefiting the charity shops as they are mostly out of production.

I would certainly be sad if CDs disappeared off the shelves and everything went to iTunes and other commercial downloads, as I like something tangible for my money and convertable to other formats but I can see that the whole industry needs a shake up even if the record companies can’t.

TapCD Singles

30 Sep 2009 16:19 by Rick

Yesterday I bought a CD Single. Fortunately is was from a charity shop and I paid 50p for it. I would have been a bit miffed if I had paid £4.89 as it contained ONE TRACK of 3 minutes 54 seconds. So that got me thinking about who buys CD singles now if they are such poor value and what makes up the UK Singles Chart that is published every week. I went to the Official UK Charts Company to investigate the last question and it seems, not unreasonably, that downloads are now included in the sales figures. I could have bought the same track as a download from Amazon for 69p. But it is still not clear what counts as a single because I can go to one of the download sites such as Amazon or iTunes and download any song from any album. Does that then automatically count as a single and could it potentially make the charts. This seems very democratic putting the control on what tracks are taken from albums to make singles firmly in the hands of the consumer though, no doubt, heavily influenced by the radio station play lists.

TapUI Fail

30 Jul 2009 13:19 by Rick

I have been puzzled why the battery on my MP3 player is sometimes inexplicably flat and at other times goes on for ages without a recharge. Now I have solved it.

The Samsung YP-T10 doesn’t have a off switch; it times out after a certain period of inactivity which is adjustable in the system preferences. When playing music files, I stop (actually pause) the song using the centre touch button and that counts as inactivity. However, when using the FM radio, the centre button is a MUTE—so I have been leaving it on for days at a time, hence it is flat when I come back to it. The only way to stop the radio is to back up to the root menu using the top left touch button. This activity doesn’t stop ordinary music playing at all.

TapAudio Routing in MacOS X 10.5 (Leopard)

26 Jul 2009 22:08 by Rick

This is a short tutorial on how the audio system works in MacOS X and how to get the best out of it.

If you are a basic user of sound, such as listening to iTunes, streamed music from the internet and perhaps the Skype telephone system then you will have found that it all works straight out of the box. What you will be using can be shown like this…

Simple Audio Routing

This shows the program in the centre and on each side are the audio selectors for default input and output shown as rotary switches to indicate that only one can be selected at a time. Simple programs always take input from ‘Default In’ and send output to ‘Default Out’. Obviously playback-only programs will only use the output side but others, like Skype, may use an input microphone as well. Depending on the model of your Mac you will have different inputs and outputs available. My experience is with a Mac Pro and I have on the input side ‘Line In’ (Analogue) and ‘Digital In’ (I don’t seem to have a Mic socket which I always thought was a bit odd). On the Output side I have ‘Line Out’ (Analogue), ‘Digital Out’, ‘Internal Speakers’ and ‘Headphones’. I have bought a USB desk microphone so that adds to the input options.

The selector switches allow you to control what channel is assigned to the default input and output and this is done using the Sound panel in System Preferences as you would expect. On some devices (the analogue ones) you also have a volume control and a mute which are shown as variable pots and the analogue stereo output ones will have pan controls. Digital channels have fixed volumes and pan.

So, if for example, you have connected your desktop speakers to the ‘Line Out’ socket then you would switch ‘Default Output” to “Line Out’ and everything will be fine. Quite honestly, I find the Preferences panel confusing, especially the volume controls. If you are regularly switching things around then a useful accessory to get is SoundSource from Rogue Amoeba. This puts a control up on the menu bar which does the same as the System Preferences (and more) in a more convenient and intuitive form. For instance you can assign ‘System Sounds’ such as the bings and bonks issued by programs to a separate output—I send mine to the ‘Internal Speakers’ out of the way.

[Edit 20 Apr 2013] N.B. For those reading this and trying it on later versions of Mac OS. Lion (10.7) requires the latest version (v2.5.1) however this doesn’t work on Mountain Lion (10.8). Perversely the previous version (v2.5) does, so hunt around the internet for that. You need to run it manually the first time and some people have reported that it can affect the keyboard volume controls (which doesn’t bother me).

In all of this, ‘Headphones’ is a special case. They don’t appear in the System Preferences until you plug them in. What can be convenient is that when you plug them in they mute the other outputs—this is controllable in SoundSource but not anywhere else that I know of.


Moving on to more sophisticated programs, some like to control their input and output sources for themselves and bypass the ‘Default Input’ and ‘Default Output’. Skype is like this and allows you to select which microphone you would like to use (if you have more than one). Another little gadget I find useful is LineIn also by Rogue Amoeba. This is a very simple applications, best run automatically at login time, which simply routes input through to output with no modification except a mute button. Not only is this handy for monitoring the input sources if your recorder doesn’t do this, but is also useful just for listening to an external source on your Mac speakers.


Now if you want to record audio on your mac there are a number of applications that will do it. There is the quite sophisticated Garage Band from Apple and also the freeware Audacity which offers a lot of facilities and plugins. Using the diagram below you can see how to take an input signal, monitor it, record it and subsequently play it back. I use a Windows application called WaveCorrector which has state of the art click removal facilities. To get it to work here I run it under Crossover for Mac which works really well. The Crossover Windows interface only provides basic default input and output channels so I use SoundSource for routing. It does come with a monitoring facility but I prefer to use LineIn because it is there before I start setting up the recorder.

Audio Routing with LineIn for Monitoring

But what if what you want to record is sound that is generated on the computer itself—for instance a streaming radio station via the web browser? There is no way to get the output of, say, Safari, to the input of your recorder. Here another little gadget comes to the rescue…


This little application from Cycling74, despite its daft name, does just what is required: but this is where it starts getting a little tricky to remember how to set it up. We will only be using the 2ch option—I think if you are into multi track recording then you are probably beyond this tutorial. Let’s start with a diagram…

Audio Routing with SoundFlower

Tracking it through from the top you can see that the browser outputs to ‘Default Output”. We have routed this through to SoundFlower using SoundSource. Now SoundFlower does its magic and sends it around to the front again. We set the ‘Default Input” to SoundFlower using SoundSource again and there it is ready to go into the recorder. No sound comes out of the speakers because we have intercepted it so we could use LineIn as before to do the monitoring but SoundFlower comes with its own tool called SoundFlowerBed. This is another application which you run at Login (it can be found in /Applications/Soundflower/Soundflowerbed) and sits on the menu bar as a little flower. You use this (shown as SFB on the diagram) to say where (else) you would like to route the SoundFlower signal to, so we set it to ‘Line Out’ so we can listen to it on the speakers.

Putting it all together

My main audio activities on the Mac are

  1. Listening to external source (LineIn)
  2. Recording them (add in WaveCorrector)
  3. Listening to Internet sources (Native)
  4. Recording them (add in SoundFlower)

To achieve this conveniently the settings I use are

Default Output = SoundFlower.
System Output = ‘Internal Speakers’
LineIn input = ‘Line In’ (actually ‘Digital In because my feed is digital)
LineIn output = ‘Line Out’
SoundFlowerBed = ‘Line Out’

This copes with 1. (output goes via LineIn) and 3. (Output goes to SoundFlower then ‘Line Out’ via SoundFlowerBed), Skype ringing goes to the internal speakers.

For recording I set “Default Input’ to ‘Line in’ (actually ‘Digital In’ in my case) for external sources (2.) and SoundFlower for internal sources (4.). Just one switch to change!

Finally a few cautions. I have found that some recording programs, including mine, like to have the routing set up before you start them up. They ignore any changes afterwards. Secondly be very careful with monitoring options. If used rashly then you can set up a feedback loop and make horrible loud noises. Lastly, if you want to record vinyl records via the ‘Line In’ socket then you will need a device called a “Phono Pre-Amplifier” to boost the signal and also provide some tonal correction. Even though there is this extra complication, a good old fashioned turntable gives much better quality than the USB-ready plastic turntables you can buy these days.


13 Apr 2009 08:12 by Rick

Some friends are raving about Spotify which is a bit like, a streaming music service, but with more choice and control at the expense of the occasional audio advertisement or a subscription.

It is rumours only at the moment but it looks like Sonos my provide a Spotify linkup. If that happens than I stand a better chance of using it as that is where all my music listening happens now days. Dave is even trying to persuade me to put one in the bathroom!

On the downside, the critics rightly say that we have seen it all before and a free music service is not viable business plan. We have seen Pandora come and went, Sirius/XM and are struggling and Napster go subscription only. Perhaps Sonos should let it pass and concentrate on something more tangible.

TapiTunes-DRM=(not quite) freedom

14 Jan 2009 10:43 by Rick

When Apple announced that it was no longer going to include Digital Rights Management on songs downloaded from the iTunes store, it all looked rosy—but there is a hidden catch. The AAC (.m4a) files still have your iTunes account id embedded in them so it can still be determined who bought them. That is unless you can find a way to edit the file to remove this information. Mediamonkey says it can edit AAC tags but I don’t know if it includes this one.

TapAnalogue vs. Analogue

27 Nov 2008 12:30 by Rick

It looked like there was an interesting article in The Economist a short while ago. In their Science and Technology department the (unnamed) correspondent asks Which is better: analogue or digital?. It is full of good technical stuff like hysteresis and second harmonic distortion. Unfortunately it is apparent in the first paragraph that he has no idea what he is talking about.

…do audio amplifiers and microphones with old-fashioned thermionic valves (“vacuum tubes” to Americans) inherently produce a sound more natural and satisfying than those with transistors and other solid-state devices?

This is not Analogue vs. Digital but Valve vs. Transistor, a completely different and unrelated beast.

TapParsing XML with PHP

17 Nov 2008 19:55 by Rick

Following on from the saga described earlier, I went on to look at the method user.GetWeeklyAlbumChart which requires accessing user.GetWeeklyChartList first.

I am using the plugin iLast.Fm from Leandro Alonso and the code he is using looks right but doesn’t seem to work. He uses curl to get the XML from the site. The XML you get is of the form

<lfm status="ok">
<weeklychartlist user="[username]">
<chart from="1225022400" to="1225627200"/>
<chart from="1225627200" to="1226232000"/>
<chart from="1226232000" to="1226836800"/>

He then parses it with simplexml_load_file() and puts it into an object called $chart. Then the code processes this as follows

$chartopt = sizeof($chart->weeklychartlist->chart) - 1;
$chart = $chart->weeklychartlist->chart[$chartopt];

and uses $chart['from'] and $chart['to'] in the call to user.GetWeeklyAlbumChart.

The problem is that $chartopt always has the value 0 which means that the sizeof() function is not working properly. There is a comment on the PHP documenattion page which says that foreach doesn’t work but reccomends count/sizeof() instead. What can be wrong?

Update: The answer seems to be here: SimpleXML is not so simple and it doesn’t behave correctly. It needs

$chartopt = -1;
foreach($chart->weeklychartlist->chart as $i) $chartopt++; API

12 Nov 2008 22:20 by Rick

Having tried some calls to the API, I am wondering if some of the calls are flawed or if there is something wrong with my account.

You access the data using the address and supplying certain parameters separated by &.

Two are required with all calls…
method=<the data table you want>
api_key=<a hex key which you sign up for>
and other parameters for the data table requested.

I am looking at the method user.getTopAlbums which requires…

This seems to work fine for period=overall returning a list of albums in descending order of number of tracks played but if I use, say, period=3month then I get a very short list of albums with a playcount of just 1. The same happens for the other periods and also user.getTopArtists.

I have only been signed up for a few weeks so I would have expected to get the same list—or is it that it doesn’t like so little data? Update: looking at the results carefully, I think it has got stuck at the first tracks I listened to on the system when I was trying it out. Could it be some sort of cache stuck somewhere? It can’t be on my system as it does the same from wherever I look.

What I would really like is user.getRecentAlbums but that one doesn’t exist. If I use user.getRecentTracks then, because we play whole albums at a time, the list gets flooded with tracks from the same album. You can probably see the effect towards the bottom of the sidebar, unless I have found a way to fix it.

TapLast resort

31 Oct 2008 09:13 by Rick play-listYesterday saw a fantastic (free) upgrade to the Sonos music system. They have significantly improved the internet radio support and added support for podcasts and, the first free music service for the UK.

I can say that now because I now know what is. But this rant is about what led up to my confidence. It is strange how so many internet services are so poor at drawing in new users. is a case in point. The upgrade to the Sonos system came in automatically with some brief notes and it said now available. So? What’s that? It looked like a web address so I typed it into Firefox. Try it! What do you get? I found something that looked like a record store or the Amazon front page. So I looked around for some sort of indication of what it was, how it worked and what you could use it for. Nothing. At the bottom is a list of links called “Learn about us” and, skipping the job adverts and media stuff there is the “About us” link. There I found some features but nothing really basic for a newcomer.

Now, to be fair, the release notes for the Sonos upgrade announced

More free music: is free on Sonos is a global music service that lets you play, share and discover new music. You can also create personal radio stations based on your musical tastes. With Sonos v2.7 you can play all your stations all over the house – free of charge and free of computers.

which told me roughly what I needed to know and I had come across Pandora before, but why couldn’t do that for itself.

My point is that we hear about all sorts of things in daily conversation and in the news—just passing references to things that the speaker assumes the listener understands. That is inevitable, but if I want to find out what it is all about and if I should take notice then I would expect to go to the supplier and find out. They are doing themselves a great disservice by not engaging with these potential new customers. The same is true of the social networking sites—if you didn’t know what they were about and you went to the front page of, say, facebook, would you really be any the wiser?

I subscribe to the feed of Daring Fireball (see, I have just done it to you if you don’t know what RSS feeds are) because John Gruber links to interesting new developments in the Apple world, but when you use the feed you don’t get his introductions. Some of them leave me completely puzzled about what they are or do. Try Cruz for example.

Eventually I found a description by Which? consumer magazine—now that is just what I always wanted (subtle reference to last night’s concert.)

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