Most of our Mac mini projects, which also work fine on any other Mac running Mac OS X v10.3, have focused on open source solutions at no cost. The reason was not so much because the technology was free (although that’s obviously a big plus for many of us) but because the open source software was the best in its class. The landscape is a little different in the streaming audio world. You can build a streaming audio server on a Mac with free tools, but they are not open source. While the quality is certainly still there, the system’s usability leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s why. There are usually three components in a streaming audio system: a player, a broadcaster, and a streaming server. The broadcaster sends MP3 files to the streaming server which handles compression for streaming and distribution of the stream to the players. Players and a streaming server are readily available on the Mac platform; however, the broadcaster component (which is open source) is limited in its functionality so we’ll propose another approach for the Mac platform.
We’re going to break down the process into its parts to simplify things for those just getting started. Today we’ll be addressing streaming audio players. Then, in Part II of our series, we’ll talk about a broadcaster and streaming audio server for your Mac mini. We’re also going to focus primarily on products which are Shoutcast-compatible since it is the free standard for streaming audio. For your own requirements, other solutions may work as well or better, and we’ll mention a couple. The bottom line is you can’t go wrong with a Shoutcast-compatible streaming audio solution, and you won’t have to worry about someone pulling the rug out from under your music project down the road (we hope).
Shoutcast is the invention of the good folks at Nullsoft that brought the world WinAmp. Nullsoft is now a subsidiary of AOL which now is part of the Time Warner empire. After joining AOL, the Nullsoft team created gnutella. AOL management shut down the gnutella project, and virtually all of the Nullsoft developers resigned. That history lesson is intended to explain the “we hope” reference in the previous paragraph. Thus far, Nullsoft’s Shoutcast streaming server remains free for the taking, and there are many open source broadcaster products which have evolved that all rely upon the Shoutcast server for streaming content distribution. Just keep in mind that both AOL and Time Warner are content aggregators, and you can rest assured that Big Brother will never let Little Brother interfere with their primary goal: making money. For another perspective on the incestuous relationship between Nullsoft and AOL, read this. Before you shed too many tears for the Nullsoft developers, keep in mind that they walked away from the table with a cool $100 million for a company whose major income producer is the WinAmp music player, the deluxe version of which sells for $14.95. And then there’s the WinAmp competition: Microsoft’s free (bundled) Windows Media Player and MusicMatch (almost free and bundled with virtually every new PC on the planet). And folks wonder why the Internet bubble burst. Do the math! So much for the politics, let’s get back to the technology.
Streaming Audio Defined. As the name implies, streaming audio means you can play a digital audio stream almost instantaneously on some type of player without waiting for an entire song to first download into the player. If you want to learn more about streaming technology, here’s a link that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know. So the first two prerequisites to make all of this work are some type of player that can handle streaming audio and a local network or Internet connection with acceptable bandwidth to the streaming audio source. In terms of quality and versatility for home use, there is no finer hardware-based player than Turtle Beach’s AudioTron. The AudioTron’s distinguishing characteristic from most other players is that it can play a collection of songs directly from a network hard disk without reliance upon any streaming audio server. It can also play Shoutcast streaming audio. And, as luck would have it, Turtle Beach has inexplicably killed the product just when streaming audio has finally hit its stride. The good news is that Turtle Beach and a throng of dedicated users still support the product with a broad range of add-on’s. And there are usually some units available on eBay if you want one.
Streaming Audio Players. There are many of other streaming audio players that can double as a server as well. Not the least of these is your trusty Mac running iTunes or a PC running WinAmp or Windows Media Player. One advantage of WinAmp is that it can also serve as a broadcaster in addition to being a great streaming audio player. In fact, if you are fortunate enough to have both a Mac and a Windows XP machine and you also have an XM Radio or a Sirius Radio with a line out jack, you can actually use WinAmp to broadcast your satellite radio content to your Shoutcast server by adding the free Shoutcast broadcasting plug-in to WinAmp. And, until last week, you could add the Output Stacker plug-in to capture Napster To Go streams to disk. Big Brother deleted out_disk.dll from the Shoutcast site but, with a bit of Googling on the file name, you can probably still find it if you are so inclined. See what we mean about the content aggregator mentality. This is basically the same technology and quality as a tape recorder from forty years ago, and now the content providers want to outlaw it. So much for fair use. Another worthy contender in the all-in-one category is the Blackbird Digital Music Player. Also in the home audio component player category are the Squeezebox which uses its own server software for your Mac and Netgear’s MP101.
Streaming Audio to Cellphones. One of the really cool uses of streaming audio is to play tunes on your cellphone from your home music collection. The Treo 650 running PocketTunes with an Internet connection such as Sprint’s PCS Vision is the perfect fit. For this to work, you obviously will have to open port 8000 on your home firewall and map the port to the IP address of your Mac. You’ll also have to enable port 8000 in your Mac’s firewall. We’ve covered all of this before if you need a refresher course. Just substitute 8000 for 80 in the discussion and follow the steps.
But, is it legal? Well, as a lawyer, I’m obliged to first tell you that this article is not a legal opinion, but a technology discussion. You’ll need to consult with your favorite lawyer to get a legal opinion. As a layman, I’d predict that your guess is about as good as mine. Building a shoutcast server certainly appears to be legal since there is a process in place to pay astronomical license fees. But. if you are shoutcasting only to listen to your own music collection yourself, it’s difficult to fathom how this differs from playing your purchased music directly on your CD player or iPod or Mac or PC. If you can legally carry your CD music collection from your home to your car to play it, then it seems reasonable to assume you could beam an album you’ve paid for from your home to your car or your cellphone. That is essentially what Apple does with its Airport Express. Of course, once you start sharing your music collection, all bets are off. A law professor would probably ask what happens when someone walks in your house and listens to your music. Are you now a music pirate? And what if they bring a tape recorder? Isn’t law school fun? Here’s an article and another one that cover a lot of the issues if you’re interested.
Having grown up in an era when kids were afraid to touch someone else’s mailbox out of fear of committing a felony, it’s more than a little disconcerting to look at today’s music landscape in the United States where the RIAA in collusion with the United States Congress has managed to turn almost half the country into felons for their music collections. My own view is that the Digital Millenium Copyright Act was enacted out of spite to prove Mark Twain was wrong when he said, “There’s no distinctively native American criminal class, except [perhaps for] Congress.” And then there’s Microsoft’s illustrious CEO, Steve Ballmer, who put it so eloquently: “The most common format of music on an iPod is stolen.” For a company that made its fortune on a product with more than a few “similarities” to the Mac (to which Microsoft had something akin to a source code license at the time), one might reasonably conclude that Mr. Ballmer certainly knows his subject matter. Finally, it’s worth recalling that no music was subject to federal copyright until 1971, long after the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Elton John had made their millions. Ask yourself this question: “Was there more music piracy in 1970 or today?” So we’re not quite sure all the legislating has really accomplished a lot … other than criminalizing the American public and lining the pockets of congressmen and recording industry moguls. Wink, Wink: They call them campaign contributions.
If Congress and the RIAA are serious about ending piracy, then a fresh, common sense approach seems long overdue. The new Napster To Go leasing model suggests that the RIAA is perfectly comfortable with a fee of $15 a month for an unlimited music collection. If we can all agree (1) that iPods and other music players only last for three or four years, (2) that you have to have a music player to play music, and (3) that less than one in a thousand listeners actually uses today’s Napster system, then it shouldn’t take a mathematics genius to figure out that some “Artists’ Fee” in the neighborhood of $100 could be added to the cost of every music player and, once such a player was purchased, the end user would be licensed to play any music the end user could get his or her hands on at no additional cost for as long as the music player would play. Why $100 and not $700 (the four-year cost of a Napster subscription)? If $700 is profitable for the RIAA and Napster with virtually no market share, then the basic laws of supply and demand suggest that increasing market share 1,000-fold should result in a cost reduction of at least 80% particularly where there are zero production and distribution costs in the pricing and sales model. And finally, limit payments from the Artists’ Fee fund to only those artists who distribute their music in unencrypted formats. Just my 2¢ worth.