Taking Spotify for a spin

I finally discovered that Spotify has a Billboard Hot 100 playlist and I’m liking it a lot. (I’ve been looking for this for years btw!) It seems to update every Thursday. I hate the commercials and inane talking on Top-40 radio, so this gets me the latest tunes without the crap. Missing from the Billboard playlist are things like last week’s position, weeks on chart, etc. which would be nice, but now I’m just being greedy ;-)

So now I can pick out new stuff, add it to my favorites playlist and automatically sync them to my iPhone and iPad. Quick and simple, and only $10 a month. Note that you can try the premium service for free for 30 days. Of course, you can use the free service, but it’s a pretty limited service on mobile devices. I’m a long-time user of Rhapsody, but I’m always game to try something new.

I do wish that one of these subscription services would do a DJ-hosted stream where the DJ actually talks about the music and artists. That would be awesome, especially commercial free!

Tunelink Auto, a great Bluetooth FM broadcaster auto adapter (Update: FAIL!)

Tunelink Auto from New Potato Technologies is a very cool device. Basically, it allows you to connect an iOS device via Bluetooth and broadcasts the audio to an FM station. The entire device plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter plug.

The station you use to broadcast can be set using a free app that you download from the Apple App Store. Your mileage will vary greatly depending on whether or not your area has a lot of FM stations. In San Antonio, TX, there are a few open frequencies which work fine. In Los Angeles, it’s difficult to find an open one. The app, has a feature called Speed Tune that uses your location and suggests frequencies to use.

Of course, the audio quality isn’t very good. For better quality, the device also has an 1/8″ stereo output plug so you can also connect to an Aux In or a cassette adapter, if you have one of those. It even has a USB connector so you can use it to charge your iOS device too. It comes with a 30-pin connector USB cable. The Apple Lighting adapter works fine if you’ve got an iPhone 5.

What I really like about this device is that you can set it up so that it automatically connects my iPhone to the device when I start the car and starts playing music from where I left off. When you shut off the car, the player also stops. It’s wonderful! It also plays nice with my car’s built-in Bluetooth phone connection.

I will have to say that my initial experience was less than satisfactory. Most of the time it wouldn’t connect to my iPhone and when it did, it would usually not stay connected. I also couldn’t get it to use any station other than 88.5. I contacted techsupport and they sent me another after I mailed them my old one. This one worked perfectly.

Well, my replacement unit from Jan started to get flakey with symptoms like not staying connected, difficulty pairing, etc. I sent it back and got another unit. This one is flakey too. I’m giving up. Based on the review on Amazon I am not alone. It’s got barely over 2 stars and 160 reviews! I’m going to try the Belkin Bluetooth Car Hands-Free Kit (4 stars and 677 reviews). The Griffin Technology BlueTrip also looks interesting. Look for a hands-on review soon. Wish me luck!

Over-the-top punk ragers…

Wow, I didn’t know my band was “over-the-top punk ragers”…hmmm spastic punk mess and sloppy maybe. HAHA!

14. Mind Games, “Sorry About That Chief!” (1981) 

One of the most over-the-top punk ragers, culled from the Staring Down the Barrel compilation and originally issued in an edition of only 100 copies, Mind Games are a spastic punk mess that pays homage to Get Smart in the sloppiest, most perfect, barf-pile of a song.


AirPlay emulator for Windows!

Just installed shairport4w which is an AirTunes emulator for Windows. It basically allows you to wirelessly stream music to your PC from your iPod/iPad/iPhone/iTunes by making your Windows PC “look” like an AirPlay device.

So what I’m doing is kinda interesting. I’ve got a Subsonic server running on one PC that is streaming music to my iPad via the iSub app. The iSub app sends the music to another PC that is running shairport4w! Seems to work perfectly. Very cool!

I tried streaming to some speakers via Bluetooth, but what I don’t like about that method is that *all* audio goes to the BT speakers. So if the speakers aren’t on, you’ll hear nothing and just have to remember to turn off BT or disconnect the device. Using AirPlay you generally get to choose from the app what the target speaker device is.

Slacker needs New Release station

I’ve been playing with Slacker a lot recently due to their free one-month Premium service. I blogged about it here. I am really liking the iPhone and iPad apps a lot, and I also like their playlists. However, with the introduction of their On Demand feature, where you can play specific songs, they *REALLY* need a New Release station. Something that will play the new albums released each week. Since this would be an album-based playlist as opposed to song-based, I suppose it doesn’t fit their “radio station” metaphor, but c’mon! don’t they want to promote that fact that you can listen to the latest album by so and so on their service? Pretty big omission IMHO. Rhapsody has this btw.

Free Slacker Premium! Cloud music already here…

It’s probably a preemptive strike with all of the cloud music services popping up and Apple’s entrance into this space almost assured, but Slacker is running a promotion for a free one-month subscription to their premium service. I’ve looked at Slacker before, but they’ve added some awesome features worth a revisit.

Subscription Music vs Cloud

Amazon, Google, and probably Apple’s “cloud” music services appear to be geared toward moving your existing library to their servers. This is inherently different than pure music subscription services like Rhapsody, Napster and MOG, where you rent music. Both give you access to music from the cloud, but the beauty of subscription is being able to instantly play something that is not in your library: a song, artist or album you want to hear on the spur of the moment.

There is a third type of online music service, although the lines are started to blur: Slacker and Pandora. These are the digital equivalent of FM radio. With FM radio, you don’t have direct control over what is played, but you can pick from a handful of stations that cater to your tastes, like Top 40, classic rock, country, etc. Think of Slacker/Pandora as radio with thousands of “stations.”

Cache is King

I believe that, most, if not all, of the online services also allow you to cache songs to your device so you don’t have to stream over the air. Not only does this save valuable data bandwidth, but it also makes these services useful on devices that only have WiFi, like an iPod Touch.

Slacker vs Pandora

Both Slacker and Pandora let you create an artist or song station; however, there is a big difference. Slacker “song” stations are actually artist-based. Pandora, by comparison, will try to play songs similar to the particular song. So if you pick a slow song from an artist that normally plays upbeat music, Slacker will likely play upbeat songs from similar artists. Pandora will play similar slow songs. In this respect, Pandora is superior.

On the other hand, Slacker appears to have a much larger catalog of music. (The website says 6 times more than their top competitor, who I assume is Pandora.) Slacker also features professionally programmed “genre stations.” According to the Slacker website, “Each station features a deep selection of music; hand-picked by Slacker DJs and includes breaking hits and top singles along with the very best deep tracks and more! Personalize them by rating the music you love, banning the songs and artists you don’t or use the Fine Tune settings to make them your own.”

I’ve always felt that the weakness of services like Rhapsody/Napster was their playlists, which is the strength of Slacker/Pandora. I’ve always thought that it would be great if Rhapsody or Napster acquired Slacker or Pandora, or vice versa. I guess Slacker with the Premium service is close to that.

Actually, I’ve always wondered why Billboard or American Top 40 has never partnered with one of the online services. Seems like a natural. Most of the songs on the top charts would be available. I’m sure it’s been explored and just is a matter of dollars and (no) sense.

Free vs Paid Service

Slacker/Pandora’s free service has some ads and you are limited to how many times you can skip a song. If you want unlimited skips and no ads, there is a Slacker Plus service that is only $3.99/month. Pandora has similar thing for $36/yr called Pandora One. If you want to play specific songs/artists–Pandora doesn’t do this–, you have to pony up for the Slacker Premium service for $9.99/month. This makes Slacker more like Rhapsody/Napster and is very exciting.

Fine Tuning Stations

The feature in Slacker that has really got me excited is the way you can fine tune the stations. There is an Artist Discovery setting where you can tailor how much you want other similar artists to play.

On an iPhone, to get to the Fine Tuning settings you have to be on a station page. Tap Menu, Edit Station, and finally Fine Tune. Now you can adjust how much you want other artists to play using the Artist Discovery setting. I also like the ability to set how popular a song has to be. You can also set the age of songs using the Year setting.

NOTE: It’s not obvious how to create a station from just a song. To do so, just play the song and when it’s done, it will be created automatically. If you can’t wait for it to end, tap the Next Track icon. To create an artist station, just search for the artist and tap the play button. The station is created immediately. However, as I stated earlier, with Slacker, there is really no musical difference between a song station and an artist station.

I’m still exploring the features of the Slacker player, but finding it more and more compelling. I find the extensive artist bios and album reviews really interesting. Lyrics are available for many songs.

One Month Free

For a limited time, Slacker is offering free access for a month to their premium service. All you have to do is go to their Facebook Fan page and sign up; no credit card required. Then go to Slacker.com/gift and use the gift code you will be given. Even if you miss the promotion, Slacker is absolutely worth $10 just to try out the premium features for a month.

What To Do?

Will I be dumping my Rhapsody account? Not yet. Rhapsody seems to have a bigger catalog and also allows me to download songs to my laptop and play music without Internet access–Slacker surprisingly doesn’t support PCs, only mobile devices.

I really like Pandora’s song-based stations and for just $36/year to be ad-free, it’s a no-brainer. I’m on the fence with Slacker since it is somewhat redundant with Rhapsody. I could possibly get away with the less expensive Slacker Plus service, but you need Premium to create custom playlists because that requires on-demand access to songs. I guess I’ll play with it for my free month and then see if I miss it. That will be the acid test.

Rhapsody, Napster or MOG…Subscription Music is awesome!

I’ve always been a fan of subscription music and started years ago with Rhapsody using their service to fill my Creative Zen MP3 players. I switched to Napster a few years ago because I preferred their use of WMA files as opposed to Rhapsody’s real file format (Rhapsody now does WMA too :-). Napster (now owned by Best Buy) has recently abandoned the DRM’d device support (via Microsoft’s PlaysForSure) for new accounts. Now, you can stream all the music you want and are allowed to download a certain number of MP3s depending on the plan you sign up for.

For some reason, it’s hard to find their pricing on the site, but Napster has monthly ($7), 3-month ($15) and annual plans ($60). The monthly gives you credit for 5 songs, the 3-month gives 15 and the annual 60. Why go for the annual with no apparent price advantage? Well, the credits are only good during the plan period, so with the 3-month plan, after 3 months you lose any unused song credits and start over with 15. With the annual, you get a whole year to use the credit for 60 songs. Keep in mind that the songs are unDRM’d MP3s so you can keep them even if you stop using the service.

Rhapsody is $10 per month with no credits, but you can download songs, albeit DRM’d, to multiple devices, like the iPhone or a PC. MOG has no downloading features and costs $10/mo. Downloading is nice because you can play the songs without being connected to the Internet. (FYI, to download to an iPhone using Rhapsody you must create a playlist first.)

I recently tried the 4-day trial of MOG.com, but hate the way it’s implemented. Napster and Rhapsody both have the concept of a personal Library. You load your library up with all your favorite music. This is nice because you can quickly select from just the music you like. MOG makes you browse through everything to choose what to play. Sure, there are playlists and suggestions, but I can’t remember all the artists I like. This analogy should put it in perspective: With Rhapsody and Napster, it’s like searching through your CDs or MP3 collection to find something to listen to. You can always go the “store” and add things to your collection or just listen to stuff at the “store.” With MOG, you generally have to select from the entire “store’s” inventory.

Another thing that irritated me with MOG is that it has no ability to treat an album as a single unit, so to add an entire album to, say, a playlist, you have to add each individual song one at a time!

Rhapsody has a great iPhone app that will play music in the background. It’s nice because your Library and playlists are automatically synced between your devices. The MOG app doesn’t do background playing and Napster doesn’t even have an app.

Now, no subscription service will have every single artist, album or song you want, but I’d say they hit 99%. Now and then there’s that aggravating one song that is not streamable or downloadable. Of course, with Napster you’ve got the ability to your your credits which is pretty cool. The real benefit of these services in my opinion is the older stuff you wouldn’t normally have on your MP3 player. You know, you hear a snippet or some oddball song just comes to mind. More often than not, it’s right at my finger tips. You never know when you’ll get the itch to hear “Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo!

There are definitely significant differences between these three services. I’d recommend testing them out. All have free trials, although MOG is the only one that doesn’t require a credit card.

Anyways, right now I have both Napster and Rhapsody. I let my daughter use Napster and I use Rhapsody. It’s nice having separate accounts because we can have separate libraries.

UPDATE  2010-07-22:
I just discovered that the new Napster plans do not let you download DRM’d songs to your PC. For this you need the old Napster to Go plan which is $15 per month. They don’t seem to be pushing this plan very hard and it’s not even listed when you try to sign up. Now the benefit is that you can download DRM’d songs to a PlaysForSure mobile device–assuming you could find one. They used to have a $10 plan that only allowed you to download to a PC, but not a mobile device, but apparently that doesn’t exist anymore. Anyways, I may switch my daughter to Rhapsody to save $5 a month since I no longer use any PlaysForSure devices. This is crazy!

Streaming MP3s to iPod Touch with Orb

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Orb for many years. Basically, Orb allows you to stream media off your PC over the Internet to other PCs or mobile devices. It uses the server/client model where you run the server software on your PC with the media (music, video, and photos) and the client can be a web page or iPhone app.

It’s free to use and you’ll only need to shell out money if you want the iPhone app which costs $10. (Note that there is a freebie version you can use to try it out.) If you just use the a web browser to access, it’s free.

It always *kinda* worked for me, but the one problem that always made me turn in off was that it would often grab 100% of my CPU for seemingly no reason. For years, the Orb developers seem to totally disregard this showstopping bug until now. I noticed that one of the recent builds mentioned CPU usage in the change log, so I decided to install the latest version and try it for Nth time, but this time I’m happy I did.

I’m really using this for MP3s, but I checked out a few videos and they seemed to work fine as did the photos. It still seems to have some issues with not updating playlists, but so far no CPU hogging, so I’m very happy with it and I did buy the iPhone app as well.

It’s pretty simple to install and its only gets semi-complicated if you want to stream outside your home. To do that you’ll need your external IP address and know how to open ports on your router.

I had been using Logitech’s Squeezebox, but it’s limitation is that it requires a secondary player, either hardware or software. That set up just doesn’t really work on an iPod Touch or iPhone. It’s ok in a PC environment, although things can easily get out of sync.

I’ll be putting it through it’s paces over the next few weeks and will report back if I find anything worth mentioning.

Going back to Slimserver aka SqueezeCenter…dumping Orb

I was a long-time user of the open-source app Slimserver for streaming music over the Internet, but updates were slow and the interface was getting a little dated and clunky. After Logitech acquired it, I didn’t hold out much hope for positive change. I switched to Orb a few years ago. However, for whatever reason Orb is just a memory hog and randomly gets out of control. The problem never seems to get addressed and fixed. I’ve had it hit 1GB of RAM use! I looked around and ended up back with a much improved Slimserver which has been renamed SqueezeCenter. Logitech uses it to feed their line of SqueezeBox music devices. However, the streaming software can still be used stand-alone without the Logitech hardware.

The UI is certainly not as nice and refined as Orb, but memory use is much more reasonable, holding firm at about 160k. I had to re-remember all of it’s quirks though and it took me a bit to figure it out again. Hopefully, the information in this post will help you out if you want to try SqueezeCenter, which is still open-source and free!

First off, you need to forward ports 9000 and 3483 to the PC running the server software. Download and install the SqueezeBox software. The software is written in Perl, and will run on Linux, Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, BSD platforms. The UI is web-based so after it is running, browse to http://localhost:9000. The SqueezeCenter will appear.

SqueezeBox uses a server-client set up and although the initial SqueezeCenter interface appears to have a player (ie, client) on the right, it doesn’t work like you might think. SqueezeCenter is where you point to your music files and set up other configuration settings. You’ll also use the SqueezeCenter to choose what is streamed. You need a separate player (ie, client), which we’ll get to later, to play what is streamed.

Click on the Settings button in the lower-right of SqueezeCenter. You really only need to change a few settings. On the Basic Settings tab, set your Music and Playlists folders–yes, only one for each, but music can be in subfolders beneath. The only other setting I recommend is on the Advanced tab. Select Security from the pop-up menu there. Turn on password protection and set a username and password. This will help prevent unauthorized people from using the server. Once you do all this, SqueezeCenter will start scanning your music and build its library. Click Apply after changing settings on any tab. When done, close the window.

Now the client side. You can use most any mediaplayer that can load a URL using http://localhost.org:9000/stream.mp3, but the SoftSqueeze client software, also free, is nice and works more in concert with SqueezeCenter. If you Do NOT use SoftSqueeze, you can’t use the transport/volume controls on the SqueezeCenter web UI. Also, if you DO use SoftSqueeze, you can keep the player minimized and just control stuff using the web UI. Get the jre version if you need to install the Java runtime files.

(Note that if you want to access the server from outside your local network, you either need to know your external IP address (or point a domain to your home, like with dyndns.org). Use that instead of localhost.)

The default SoftSqueeze player skin is very confusing. Don’t bother clicking any buttons until you have everything all set up. To bring up the preference settings, click the tiny button above the top-left corner of the player. It’s the second from the left and looks like three exclamation points on their sides.

The only setting you must set is on the Basic tab. There you must enter the host name. Just enter your external IP address (e.g., or domain name (myname.dyndns.org). Don’t add http:// or anything after, including the port number. Click OK and close the window.

If you want to go back into the SoftSqueeze preferences to try different skins, go ahead. I’ll warn you though that it is often difficult to find the preferences button, but it’s there if you look hard enough. Also, if your are using one of the skins with a remote, you can move it independently by holding Ctrl while dragging. How intuitive, huh? I like the Excession skin with thin display style.

Now go back to the SqueezeCenter settings and click the Player tab. You should see the SoftSqueeze player settings. (If not, you may need to click the Forget Player link near the bottom of that tab.) Click Apply and Close. Now find some music to play in SqueezeCenter. Click the right-facing arrowhead to send the music to the playlist. Make sure SoftSqueeze is selected in the pop-up on the upper-right side of SqueezeCenter, above the playlist. You can use the transport controls to change what is being streamed. You can also use SoftSqueeze to do the same type of things. Hopefully, everything is working for you. If not, try closing SoftSqueeze and running it again. Be patient.

Once you get it working, it’s pretty solid. The confusing part is that the music selection is totally separated from the music playing app. Playing music is a two-step process. First, run SoftSqueeze to connect it to the server. Second, open SqueezeCenter and start streaming the music. I like to keep SoftSqueeze minimized to the SystemTray and control the music from SqueezeCenter. It just seems more natural.

I tried to touch on the confusing parts and the above information should help you get the Squeezebox software going. It is still a relatively advanced installation process even with this info. Good luck!

Another confusing thing is that you can stream different things to different clients simultaneously. It is all determined by what player is selected in the top-right of the SqueezeCenter(SC). If you’ve made multiple connections to SC, it can get confusing. Even browsing to  the stream.mp3 can set up a “player” entry.

UPDATE  2010-02-17:
Giving Orb another try. They’ve seem to have fixed the CPU hogging bug!