An Analog Solution in a Digital Age

Here a Casa Design-By-Gravity we have a fair number of computers that are part of, or make use of, the network; seven off the top of my head, not counting the TiVo, the Wii, and the soon-to-be-acquired computer for Number Two Daughter. The computers are a hard-bitten crew, from nice late-model Dell and HP laptops to continually upgraded desktops whose cases date back fifteen years (my desktop tower is enormous; it barely fits under my desk).

About three years ago I got my wife an iPod for Christmas; she was skeptical, then hooked (a pattern repeated from the previous summer with her first GPS). Quickly, however, she wanted to get access to all of the CD’s we owned. What’s a geek to do? Build a computer for that, of course.

I build a hybrid file server/automatic MP3 ripper/tagger. I use old ‘found’ linux box (my home office is a wonder of old parts). Not a lot of power. Some big drives. Nothing special. Headless. VNC/XFCE available in a pinch. Debian.

I hand rolled an automatic CD ripper/tagger daemon around some Python scripting and ABCDE, then wrote a Java daemon to sit and process MP3 files dropped in the incoming directory to massage file names and tag info very vanilla sizes and strings (iTunes is very finicky). It is baroque and weird, but also well-documented and understood by me.

Then I teach the kids how to feed CD’s to the machine, and put them in the correct Rubbermaid Keeper when done. After about a month, all of the CDs we own are ripped and available via Samba & NFS on the internal network. My wife points iTunes at it and is happy. Cool. Number One Daughter and I use Media Monkey with non-Apple MP3 players, and that works a treat as well. Later I get an iPhone and have to use iTunes. I’ll talk about that another day…

Next, my wife asks how we can access the music repository during a party. As in, queue up a couple hundred songs, mash the green button, and have it play all through the house. Hmmm. Bald-head-scratching ensues.

I spend a bunch of time looking into how to synchronize a MP3 decode-and-playback with little computers strung through the house. This is a harder problem than it looks, because little timing differences would really annoy the ear as you go from kitchen to living room. Sonos works hard to solve this problem, but that meant buying more hardware. Lots of hardware. Blech.

I come across this cool piece of software: Ampache. Web server based jukebox/media player for Apache. Easy install and configuration. Thriving community, good lead developer. Now, from any machine in the house I can access playlists and stream audio to the browser. Nifty. More interestingly, it lets you play your music locally on the host media machine. Would that be useful?

Well, when you add this to the machine, it becomes really useful. The FM30 is a really nice FM transmitter; I got mine wired & tested off Ebay. I used Radio Locator to find a dead spot, set the frequency to 94.3, connect the media server’s audio to the transmitter, and Boom! I can use Ampache to play a playlist locally, and then walk around the house, turning on stereo receivers and radios to 94.3.

And the house comes alive with the sound of music!

My kids think it is magic. My wife loves me. My inner geek rolls a d20 for happiness.

Suddenly lots of possibilities present. When my kids and their friends want to have a dance party on the lawn with the water slide, no problem. All you need is a boombox and you have a never ending source of Hannah Montana and High School Musical. (Shudder.)

Stacking firewood outside for the winter, and need some Floyd to get you through? Done.

Steely Dan for my wife so the weeding goes faster? Easy.

Woodworking in the garage while the Yankees are on? MLB Gameday Audio plus Firefox + VNC means I don’t miss the game.

Yes, you can only have one stream playing at a time, but that has yet to really be a problem.

Sometimes, you just need to go analog, even in our digital age.

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