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The Whole House iPod (Revisited)

About a year ago, we wrote about an incredible new whole-house audio system that is priced (literally) tens of thousands of dollars below the cost of a comparable "turnkey" system that you typically would purchase from a home audio consultant. You can read the rest of the (initial) story toward the end of today’s article. We decided to revisit the World of Sonos because there have been some incredible developments in the last 14 months, and today the company announced a new partnership with Sirius satellite radio. So here’s an update.

For those that are new to Sonos, you basically buy a little $500 Wi-Fi box for each room in your home or office where you want to play music. You plug in a pair of speakers and connect to your NAS-savvy music library. We recommend dLink’s DNS-323 which provides RAID1 mirrored SATA drives in any size you desire (about $180 delivered from NewEgg plus SATA drives). Be sure the drives you pick are on dLink’s compatibility list! If you happen to use Comcast for your broadband service, you also receive a free Rhapsody subscription which can be played (through a Windows PC) on every Sonos system in your house for free. For the rest of you, the Sonos system also supports streaming audio from more than 300 Internet radio stations, also free. And last but not least, beginning today, you can add all of the Sirius radio stations on the planet (80+ channels) to every room in your house for just $2.99 a month assuming you already have Sirius playing away in your car. If not, it’s still only $12.99 a month.

There are few companies in the world (much less the United States) that provide flawless hardware and software, free software updates (that always work), and regular updates that consistently add value to your initial purchase. Sonos is at the top of that very, very short list. Run, don’t walk, to add this system to your home or office. You’ll thank us for years to come. Enjoy!

And, our original article last year went something like this…

We thought we’d digress today and tell you about an incredible whole house audio system. Yes, there’s the iPod for private listening and there are some streaming audio solutions for those that want music in one or two rooms of a home or office. But what if you want music (different music) available in every room of your home. Well, until now, you could look at spending $20,000 to $50,000 for a very proprietary solution such as Elan’s Home Systems. It’s no accident that you won’t find any pricing on their web site.

As luck would have it, we just moved into a new home that was prewired for audio and video in eight rooms including recessed ceiling speakers in all the rooms. While this is an expensive proposition when retrofitting an older home, it’s fairly reasonable during new construction, and many builders now include it as part of the cost of a new house. The gotcha, however, is adding the multi-room amplifier, the audio devices to produce the music, and the touchpanel control units in each room. Can you spell outrageously expensive! In round numbers, you’re looking at $5,000 for installation of a suitable amplifier, $1,500 to $2,500 for each ultra-proprietary touchpanel display, and another $10,000 or more for the audio sources. These include CD jukeboxes, iPods with infrared remote access, a multi-channel XM radio receiver to the tune of $1,500 plus XM radio fees of nearly $30 a month (for three channels) forever, and loads of consulting fees at $100+ an hour. Each of the touchpanels or keypads is manually configured to match the audio components you purchase so that you can switch audio sources, adjust volume, and skip songs in each room. The double-gotcha is that despite having spent tens of thousands of dollars on this system, you have no ability to adjust anything down the road without another $100 an hour service call from the installer. So just pray they’re still around, or you’re basically stuck with your initial setup forever. A $500 magic box is used to configure the touchpanels and keypads, and, NO, you can’t buy one. It’s not sold to consumers, just dealers. Ouch!

You should be getting the picture of why we went shopping for an alternative with a bit more flexibility. That’s when we stumbled upon an incredible product called the Sonos Digital Music System. In a nutshell, you have a self-contained system unit in each room where you want music. It includes an optional amp for connection to a pair of speakers, wired and wireless networking, and a user and streaming audio interface that is as good or better than the iPod. Then you add as many touchpanel control units to select music and music sources as your budget can afford. There are also PC and Mac versions of the touchpanel which won’t cost you a dime. Each touchpanel can control every zone (aka room) in your home. What you don’t need with this system is a house prewired for audio because each unit lets you connect directly to a set of speakers or an external amplifier if desired. You also don’t need a wired network throughout your home. Only one of the Sonos units needs to be connected to a wired network. The rest of the devices automatically configure themselves to communicate wirelessly with the other system units and controllers scattered throughout your home. If you buy the starter pack with two system units including amps and one controller unit, you’re looking at $1,200 which works out to roughly $500 per system unit and about $200 for the controller. That’s roughly one tenth the cost of a functionally similar controller unit from Elan except you can configure the Sonos controller while a dealer has to configure the Elan unit … at $100 an hour.

I feel a little like the guy selling the Ginsu knives on television: "but there’s more." Boy, is there! Not only is the sound of the systems downright incredible (depending upon your speakers, of course), but the variety of available music sources is going to make you want some of these in the morning. Each system unit can stream audio from almost any music source imaginable. This includes MP3’s stored on your PC, Mac, or our latest discovery, a $150 network-attached storage (NAS) device. You also can play Shoutcast streams, either your own or those available for free over the Internet. Another option is to map a file share from a Sonos unit to a Mac or PC. It takes about 10 seconds. Sonos units also can play music from Rhapsody. And, if you’re lucky enough to be a Comcast broadband subscriber like us, a Rhapsody streaming audio subscription with about 50 music channels is yours for free! Just login to your Comcast account and download the Comcast Rhapsody software to any Windows PC. Rhapsody Stations are every bit as good as XM or Sirius channels with one important difference. There’s no additional monthly charge to Comcast customers for as many simultaneous streams as you care to play. That’s quite a contrast from Elan’s three XM streams solution which means three rooms with XM radio and no more … for $30 a month … once you buy your $1,500 Elan XM receiver. With Rhapsody, you won’t need a receiver at all, just an old clunker PC sitting in the corner with the Rhapsody application running. It can be used for other tasks as well. At the moment, we have my daughter’s game PC running Rhapsody with four simultaneous streams playing in seven zones of the house. You can double up zones with the click of a button using any Sonos controller. In addition to all these music sources, you also can connect an old-fashioned analog audio device (like a CD jukebox or an iPod) to each system unit. Music from these sources can be streamed to any combination of rooms you choose, just like traditional Shoutcast streams or Rhapsody stations. The only thing missing with analog device streams is the album art, but it still sounds great.

There are some other reviews of the Sonos system which are worth a look. Check out David Pogue’s article in the New York Times, the Home Theater View, Audioholics, Playlist Magazine, and PC Magazine. Then you’ll want to run, don’t walk, to buy at least one for yourself! You can purchase units from Sonos and most of their dealers with a 30-day money-back guarantee. We installed eight systems with four remotes in just over two hours. We haven’t quit listening since. Now you know why we’re running a little behind on the Asterisk® and TrixBox articles. Enjoy!

Some Recent Nerd Vittles Articles of Interest…

Hacker’s Dream Machine: Introducing the Best Gadget of the Year And It’s Not From Apple

Attention Toy Junkies and Hackers: Imagine a 14 ounce device the size of a five pound bag of sugar with a self-contained Wi-Fi server, web server, streaming audio player, MP3 player, RSS Feed fetcher, email reader, voice recognition, built-in RFID proximity detection, text-to-speech and speech-to-text capabilities and... wiggly ears, a VoIP belly button, a speaker, and blinking lights all over the place. It's a bird, it's a plane. No, it's a Nabaztag/tag. With a name like that, you know it has to be good. Nabaztag actually is the Armenian word for rabbit. And the Nabaztag/tag is the second generation of Violet's infamous WiFi Bunny... from France no less.

For those of you thinking about one of these fine critters as a Valentine's gift, let me just offer up a quote from someone near and dear to me: "If you'd gotten me one of those stupid bunnies for Valentine's, you'd be sleeping in your car." Yes, much to the chagrin of the Little Mrs., we've spent an entire week playing with Pat the Nerd. And, with the help of a number of similarly misguided souls from around the world, we've managed to turn this rabbit, uh, on its ear. Or is it the other way around? You see Pat costs $179 at ThinkGeek. But there's more to it. Violet, the bunny's proud inventor, is also proud of their connection service. Beginning Valentine's Day, Violet has a special surprise for bunny lovers. They'd like every bunny owner to pony up $6.95 a month (forever) to keep your bunny hopping. No more animal jokes, we promise! There still will be some free services such as time and weather information. And Violet will still let your bunny receive a whopping 14 15 messages a month. That's almost a whole 30-second message every couple of days! But, after that, it's Pay Per View time. Believe it or not, there already are hundreds of thousands of Nabaztags in the homes of our European friends. But the bunny lovers of the world are in for a little surprise in a couple weeks. Happy Valentines! Heh, heh.

Well, that was last week. Several projects have been underway for months on SourceForge to unearth the bunny's innermost secrets. They quickly discovered that the first generation bunnies had a severe limitation because of an extremely proprietary sound chip. The second gen Nabaztag/tag resolves that by supporting playback of industry-standard sound files. The other problem with the SourceForge projects was the Hobson's Choice of an either-or bunny. You could either connect to Violet's servers and enjoy their offerings, or you could venture out on your own by creating your own applications using your own server. Thanks to Olivier Azeau, you now can have your cake and eat it, too. In addition to being an adept PHP programmer, Olivier also happens to like bunnies. So he began the OpenNab project on SourceForge to build a PHP-driven Nabaztag/tag proxy. Just as the name implies, it transforms the WiFi Rabbit into an open source platform while maintaining your existing connection to the Mother Ship. Stated another way, by using the OpenNab proxy, you don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Instead, you get the best of both worlds: all of the free Nabaztag services from Violet plus all of the free open source apps that the rest of us can dream up. And, if you want to subscribe to Violet's monthly service plan, you can do that as well. It also opens the door for competitive server platforms to support the Nabaztag/tag for those that have no interest in building and supporting a server just to trick out your dumb bunny.

That, of course, is where a TrixBox Asterisk® server comes into play. In addition to getting a first-rate (free) PBX that will run on Linux, a Mac, or Windows (download links at top of the page), you now have the perfect platform for the OpenNab proxy. For our non-Asterisk readers, you don't have to use a TrixBox server to make all of this work... if you don't mind wrestling with Linux. Or, for the Windows platform, you might want to try WAMP5. The beauty of installing one of our TrixBox servers for the Mac or Windows platform is that you don't have to have a dedicated Linux server. You can run the TrixBox server in a window on your desktop, and you never need to touch the PBX if you don't want to. In short, a TrixBox server is an ideal development platform for projects such as this because all of the tools you'll need are already integrated into a turnkey appliance. In addition to a fairly complete Linux toolkit, it also includes an Apache web server with PHP and a voice synthesizer called Flite right out of the box so there's nothing to install... except OpenNab. We'll walk you through that installation, and we'll provide a couple of our reworked open source applications for your OpenNab-energized Bunny to get you started: weather reports for every U.S. city and a Yahoo Headline News Feed Reader. Then you can rip into our code and contribute some applications of your own to the cause. A few have already been contributed, and we'll post those on our new Wabbit Vittles web site in the next few days.

OpenNab Prerequisites. As mentioned, you'll need a server platform that includes a web server with PHP 4.4.3 or later and CURL, a text-to-speech voice synthesizer such as Flite (free) or Cepstral ($30), and an encoding utility in order to get much use out of the OpenNab proxy. The free TrixBox appliances include everything you'll need to get started.

Downloading OpenNab. Once you have your web server with PHP and CURL running, you're ready to install OpenNab. Start by downloading the OpenNab Proxy application from SourceForge. Unzip the file, and you'll have a folder named opennab with a version number. We're assuming it's 0.04, or some of the fixes below may not be necessary. There are several tricks to getting OpenNab installed and working reliably. We're going to walk through the TrixBox installation scenario. It's also possible to run this on a dedicated Linux machine or through a Linux hosting provider site, but it's considerably more complex to get all the pieces working as you'll quickly discover if you decide to try it. We've put up a demo system through our hosting provider, BlueHost, just to show it's possible. BlueHost incidentally happens to be the best AND the cheapest hosting provider on the planet if you ever have a need. Regardless of which route you take or even if you roll your own server, be aware that the two folders (vl and broad) both have to be copied into the root directory of your web server.

OpenNab Installation and Setup. In the case of a TrixBox installation, copy the vl and broad folders into var/www/html which is the web server's home directory. If you're using a hosting provider, copy the two directories into your root web folder, usually www or public_html with cPanel systems. Instead of Apache redirect commands, OpenNab uses ErrorDocument redirection to reroute traffic from Violet's servers to your OpenNab Proxy. So, if they don't already exist, create a .htaccess file in both the vl and broad folders: nano -w .htaccess after logging into your server as root (for TrixBox) or your accountname (for hosted servers) and changing to the proper directory.

In the vl folder, make sure you have the following line in a .htaccess file. This was missing in version 0.02 :

ErrorDocument 404 /vl/bc.php

In the broad folder, the following line should appear in .htaccess:

ErrorDocument 404 /vl/media.php

Next we need to modify the Apache config file on your TrixBox server so that it allows .htaccess commands to override Apache defaults at the directory level. This isn't required on most hosted systems since they already allow directory-level overrides. While still logged in as root on your TrixBox server, edit the Apache config file: nano -w /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf. Press Ctrl-W and search for AllowOverride None. Press Enter to execute the search. Leave this entry alone. Now press Ctrl-W and Enter again. Change this entry to AllowOverride All. What this does is allow .htaccess overrides on the /var/www/html directory and its subdirectories which is what we want since that's the root directory for the web server. Save your changes: Ctrl-X, Y, then Enter. Then restart Apache: apachectl restart.

Regardless of your server type, we need to create a few new folders to make sure OpenNab can successfully pass its startup tests. Just issue the following commands while logged in as root:

cd /var/www/html/vl/plugins/files_simpleplay (NOTE: Version 0.03 and 0.02 stored these files in /var/www/html/broad)
mkdir 0
cd 0
mkdir 1
cd 1
mkdir 2
cd 2
mkdir 3
cd 3
touch 4.mp3

If you're using a hosting provider, you can ignore this step. On TrixBox servers, the web service runs as user asterisk unlike other Linux systems. We need to adjust the permissions on the folders we installed to be sure this user can read, write, and execute in these directory trees. So issue the following commands while logged in as root:

cd /var/www/html
chown -R asterisk:root vl
chown -R asterisk:root broad

Finally, regardless of your server type, there was a little bug in version 0.02 that occurred if you happened to enter the MAC address of your bunny in upper case letters. This is fixed in version 0.03 and 0.04, but if you have the 0.02 version here's the patch:

cd /var/www/html/vl/includes
nano -w burrow.php

Once the editor opens, cursor down to line 45 and add the strtolower function to the existing line so that the new line looks like this:

$this->fileName = 'burrows/'.strtolower($serialNumber);

Save your change: Ctrl-X, Y, then Enter.

Securing OpenNab. We highly recommend using a TrixBox server or some other Linux server behind a firewall for this project. Running OpenNab on the public Internet with or without a hosting provider adds all sorts of security implications. At a minimum, there are some changes we recommend you make to lessen the opportunity for abuse from outsiders. Insert index.php documents in the folders that don't already have such a document. Here's what each index.php document should look like:

echo " ";

The second tip is don't activate the logging feature in vl/config.php because it will compromise the MAC addresses of every rabbit that connects through your server... unless you password protect the vl/logs directory. Finally, remove the phpinfo.php file from vl/tests once you complete your testing as this reveals all sorts of information to someone that may be attempting to break into your server.

Testing Your Nabaztag/tag. There are two tests you need to perform to make sure your Apache server, PHP, and CURL are operating properly. Using a web browser, go to the following links using the IP address or fully qualified domain name of your OpenNab Proxy:

http://my.domain.com/vl/foobar should return: ERROR 404 from OpenNab
http://my.domain.com/vl/tests/ should return: 48 passes, 0 fails and 0 exceptions with a Green Bar

Configuring Your Nabaztag/tag to Use OpenNab. Once you've passed the testing with flying colors, it's time to activate the OpenNab Proxy. Step 1: Get your tag/tag functioning reliably with Violet's server first. If you need help, here's a link. Before connecting through OpenNab, you'll also need to write down either the IP address of your TrixBox server on your internal LAN or a fully-qualified domain name that points to your web site on the Internet if you're using a hosting provider. So the syntax for the entry you're about to make should look like one of the following using your correct IP address or domain name:
wabbitvittles.com/vl (This one actually works if you'd just like to try things out without installing any software.)

Once you have your entry in hand, unplug your rabbit. Press and hold down the top button and reconnect power to your rabbit. As soon as all four front lights turn blue, release the button. This usually occurs in less than one second if you have an Internet connection. If you hold the button down too long after the lights turn blue, you'll need to start over. Now count slowly to twenty. From a wireless PC or Mac on the same subnet as your rabbit, open the Wireless Networking window and select Nabaztagnn as your WiFi host. The nn will match the last two numbers of the MAC address on the bottom of your rabbit. Count to twenty again and then open the following page with a web browser: Click on Click Here to Start link. When the next page displays, click Advanced Configuration. You shouldn't have to change anything except the very bottom entry on the form which reads r.nabaztag.com/vl. Replace that entry with the entry you wrote down above and Save your change. This will reboot your bunny, disconnect you from the wireless connection, and restart your bunny using the OpenNab Proxy. Now is a good time to reconnect your PC or Mac to a functioning wireless network! The lights on your bunny will start out orange and then should turn green and go away after the bunny wiggles his ears. When properly connected, you'll have the glowing purple light on the bottom of the bunny and no other lights lit... just as you had when connected directly to Violet's server. Congratulations! You now have an operational OpenNab Proxy.

But What Can It Do? If you'd like to try all of this through our OpenNab Proxy first, then go through the configuration step above using wabbitvittles.com/vl as your proxy address. Once your bunny springs to life, here's a simple test to make sure everything's working. Write down the MAC address of your bunny. Then open a web browser and go to the following link substituting the MAC address of your bunny for the string of zeros, of course. You can also pick any other city and state in the United States... as long as they really exist. This demo system uses Cepstral's Diane 8kHz English voice. There are many others available. You can try them out here.


The Cepstral voices on our demo site are nice, but we don't find them to be appreciably better than the default voice installed with Flite. Flite also happens to be free and is bundled in the TrixBox servers we recommend. There's also the hassle of finding a conversion utility to get the text into a format that your bunny can decipher. All of these tools come preconfigured on the TrixBox systems. Hint!

OpenNab Applications. We're going to contribute several OpenNab applications to get you started today. Before you can use them, you'll need a TrixBox server or a garden-variety Linux server if you know what you're doing. If you roll your own, install Flite or Cepstral to handle text-to-speech conversion and a conversion tool to get the files into a format your bunny can decipher. You can look through the last couple dozen lines of code in the applications to figure out what you need.

Cepstral Installation. The only trick to installing Cepstral is choosing a good voice. We've had better luck with the "telephone voices" which are 8kHz, but you can try out all of them here. We'd recommend you begin by downloading the Diane-8kHz voice for Linux and get it working first. You don't have to buy it unless you like it! Once you download it, log into your TrixBox/Linux system as root, and issue the following commands using the voice name associated with your download:

mkdir /nerdvitt
mkdir /cepstral
cd /cepstral
[copy your download into the /cepstral folder now]
gunzip Cepstral_Diane-8kHz_i386-linux_4.1.4.tar.gz
tar xvsf Cep*
cd Cepstral_Diane-8kHz_i386-linux_4.1.4

When prompted for the installation path, use /nerdvitt. Just to make sure you have a link to the application in your path, execute the following command:

ln -s "/nerdvitt/bin/swift" /usr/local/bin/swift

When you decide to buy a license ($30), you'll get an activation key. You activate it by issuing the following command (while logged in as root!) and filling in the blanks using the same name you used when you purchased the license:

swift --reg-voice -n Diane-8kHz

Installing OpenNab Applications. First, you'll need to download the desired applications. Assuming you want all of them, just execute the following commands after logging into your TrixBox server as root:

cd /var/www/html/vl/api_demo
wget http://wabbitvittles.com/applications/weather-opennab.zip
wget http://wabbitvittles.com/applications/news-opennab.zip
unzip weather-opennab.zip
unzip news-opennab.zip

Once you've unzipped the files, you'll need to edit each .php file to configure it. For the weather, edit the following file: nano -w opennab-weather.php. The configuration changes begin at line 37:

if (strlen($city)==0) :
$city="Charleston, South Carolina";
endif ;
if (strlen($SN)==0) :
$SN = "000000000000";
endif ;
$UseCepstral=false ;
$voice="Diane-8kHz" ;

Choose a default city to replace Charleston, South Carolina, e.g. Atlanta,GA is fine for the syntax. Enter the serial number ($SN) of your rabbit to replace 000000000000. If you're using a TrixBox server, the $WebRoot and $BinRoot entries are fine. These are the root directory of your web server and the location of the Cepstral executable. Replace the $ProxyAddress entry of with the IP address fully-qualified domain name of your TrixBox/Linux server. If you plan to use Flite for speech synthesis, nothing else needs to be changed. If you're using Cepstral, change $UseCepstral=false to $UseCepstral=true. Don't delete the semicolon at the end of the line! If you're not using the Diane-8kHz voice with Cepstral, enter the file name of your voice surrounded by quotation marks. Save your changes: Ctrl-X, Y, then Enter.

Now edit the opennab-news.php file: nano -w opennab-news.php. Beginning at line 18, you'll find the configuration settings:

if (strlen($category)==0) :
endif ;
if (strlen($SN)==0) :
$SN = "000000000000";
endif ;
$UseCepstral=false ;
$voice="Diane-8kHz" ;

Choose a default news category to replace topstories. Available choices include: topstories, us, world, iraq, world, mideast, politics, business, health, science, technology, showbiz, mostviewed, mostemailed, mostblogged, highestrated, adventures, obits, hotzone, nasashuttle, sept11, oped, oddlyenough, and many others. Here's the complete list of Yahoo RSS Feeds. Enter the serial number ($SN) of your rabbit to replace 000000000000. If you're using a TrixBox server, the $WebRoot and $BinRoot entries are fine. These are the root directory of your web server and the location of the Cepstral executable. Replace the $ProxyAddress entry of with the IP address fully-qualified domain name of your TrixBox/Linux server. If you plan to use Flite for speech synthesis, nothing else needs to be changed. If you're using Cepstral, change $UseCepstral=false to $UseCepstral=true. Don't delete the semicolon at the end of the line! If you're not using the Diane-8kHz voice with Cepstral, enter the file name of your voice surrounded by quotation marks. Save your changes: Ctrl-X, Y, then Enter.

Running the Weather Application. There are several ways to run each of these new applications. The weather application can be activated using a web browser using the IP address of your TrixBox/Linux server:,SC

The application also can be run from the Linux command line after logging into your server as root:

php /var/www/html/vl/api_demo/opennab-weather.php city=Charleston,SC

Using the command line syntax, you also can schedule the application to run automatically at various times of the day using a crontab entry. For example, the following entry could be added to /etc/crontab to kick off a weather bunny report at 29 minutes after the hour beginning at 6:29 a.m. until 8:29 p.m. every day:

29 6-20 * * * root /etc/weather.sh

For the /etc/weather.sh script, simply copy the above line to the script and make it executable:

echo php /var/www/html/vl/api_demo/opennab-weather.php city=Charleston,SC > /etc/weather.sh
chmod +x /etc/weather.sh

Running the News Application. The Yahoo News application can be run in much the same way. It could be activated using a web browser using the IP address of your TrixBox/Linux server:

The application also could be run from the Linux command line after logging into your server as root:

php /var/www/html/vl/api_demo/opennab-news.php category=topstories

Using the command line syntax, you also could schedule the application to run automatically at various times of the day using a crontab entry. For example, the following entry could be added to /etc/crontab to kick off a news bunny report at 1 minute after the hour beginning at 6:01 a.m. until 8:01 p.m. every day:

01 6-20 * * * root /etc/news.sh

For the /etc/news.sh script, simply copy the above line to the script and make it executable:

echo php /var/www/html/vl/api_demo/opennab-news.php category=topstories > /etc/news.sh
chmod +x /etc/news.sh

Finding the Latest Nabaztag Applications. Well, that should get you started with OpenNab. And we'll be adding more and more applications in the weeks ahead as others begin to contribute as well. It seemed a fitting time to dedicate a new web site to our non-furry friend so... Welcome to Wabbit Vittles. If you have a contribution to add, just send us a message, and we'll be glad to host it for you. You'll also want to check out the terrific new Nabaztalk Forums for late-breaking tips and tricks. Enjoy!

Adding an iTunes Telephone Controller to Your Asterisk PBX

If you're as lazy as the rest of us, then getting up to change what's playing on iTunes or to adjust the volume is just too much like work especially if you've installed one of our PBX-in-a-Flash™ Asterisk® systems on either a dedicated Linux machine or your Windows Desktop. For long-time readers of Nerd Vittles, you may recall that we covered how to build a streaming audio server using iTunes last year. So today we add the missing piece which will let you change songs, adjust the volume, and pause and restart iTunes using any touchtone phone connected to your Asterisk or TrixBox system. Special thanks to jpe for figuring all of this out and to Acme Technologies and to David Schlosnagle for their work on the iTunes Command Line Interface.

Overview. To get things working, there are just a few, easy steps. First, you'll need a Mac running the Panther or Tiger versions of Mac OS X. Next, you'll need to download and install the iTunes Command Line Interface. Then you'll need a rock-solid Asterisk system. We recommend TrixBox 1.2.3 which you can install using our tutorial and installation scripts above. Finally, we'll add a voice prompt and tweak the dialplan a bit using freePBX to handle the telephony interface to iTunes. And, presto, you're done.

Installing the iTunes CLI. We're assuming you've already got a Mac up and running with the required version of Mac OS X. If not, start there. Then download the iTunes Command Line Interface onto your Mac Desktop. Unless you've secured Safari, it will decompress the downloaded file automatically leaving you an iTunes Remote Control folder on your Desktop. If it doesn't automatically decompress the .sit file, then just double-click on it. Now open a Terminal window and switch to root access using your Mac password: sudo su. Then execute the following commands:

cd Desktop
cd "iTunes Remote Control"
cp itunes /bin/itunes
chmod +x /bin/itunes
itunes play
itunes play

The ifconfig command lets you decipher the private IP address of your Mac. Write down the inet address for the network interface you're using to connect your Mac to your private network (usually found in the listing for en0 or en1). To complete the installation on the Asterisk box, you'll also need to know a username and password for your Mac. If you don't know, you can find all your Mac usernames by changing to the /Users folder and typing ls. The last two commands should crank up iTunes on your Mac Desktop and begin playing whatever the last song or podcast you listened to. If everything's working, you can close the Terminal window on your Mac. We're done with the Mac part of the drill.

Password-Free SSH Access. As with our Proximity Detection System and Backup tutorials, we want to use SSH to communicate between the Asterisk system and iTunes on your Mac. As you know, SSH typically prompts for a password when you connect to a remote resource. So here's the trick if you haven't read our previous articles. Log into your Asterisk system as root. Because the Asterisk system will actually be the actual user connecting with SSH, we need to switch from the root user to the asterisk user account to get things set up correctly: su asterisk. Then, from the command prompt, issue the following command: ssh-keygen -t rsa. Press the enter key three times. You should see something similar to the following. The file name and location in bold below is the information we need:

Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/var/lib/asterisk/.ssh/id_rsa):
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in /var/lib/asterisk/.ssh/id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in /var/lib/asterisk/.ssh/id_rsa.pub.
The key fingerprint is:
1d:3c:14:23:d8:7b:57:d2:cd:18:70:80:0f:9b:b5:92 asterisk@asterisk1.local

Now we want to copy the public key file (in bold above) to your Mac from your Asterisk system using SCP. The command should look like the following (except use the private IP address of your Mac instead of and use your Mac username instead of the two instances of username below). Provide the Mac password for the username you've chosen when prompted to do so.

scp /var/lib/asterisk/.ssh/id_rsa.pub username@

Once the file has been copied, you now should be able to log into your Mac from your Asterisk system using SSH without being prompted for a password. Let's try it. Here's the command. Just substitute your username and the IP address of your Mac below:

ssh username@

You should be admitted without entering a password. Type exit twice to log out of your Asterisk system and to log out as user asterisk. If it didn't work, repeat the drill or read the complete article and find where you made a mistake.

Modifying Your Dialplan to Support the iTunes CLI. Now we're ready to cut and paste some code. Connect to your Asterisk system using your web browser by pointing to the internal IP address of your server: Choose System Administration and log in with username maint and your password. Now choose Config Edit and click on extensions-trixbox.conf in the list of config files. When the editor opens, add the following lines in the [from-internal-trixbox] context of the file:

exten => 673,1,Answer ; Dial MP3 to manage iTunes
exten => 673,2,Wait(1)
exten => 673,3,DigitTimeout(5)
exten => 673,4,ResponseTimeout(7)
exten => 673,5,Goto(itunes,s,1)

This will let you dial MP3 or 6-7-3 from any extension on your Asterisk system to manage iTunes on your Mac. While you're still editing extensions-trixbox.conf, scroll to the bottom of the file and add the following chunk of code:

exten => s,1,setvar(user=username)
exten => s,2,setvar(ituneshost=
exten => s,3,background(custom/itunes)
exten => s,4,background(beep)
exten => 1,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes mute)
exten => 1,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 2,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes pause)
exten => 2,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 3,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes unmute)
exten => 3,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 4,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes prev)
exten => 4,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 5,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes play)
exten => 5,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 6,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes next)
exten => 6,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 7,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes vol 25)
exten => 7,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 8,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes vol 50)
exten => 8,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 9,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes vol 100)
exten => 9,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 0,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes mute)
exten => 0,2,goto(99,1)
exten => *,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes vol down)
exten => *,2,goto(99,1)
exten => #,1,system(ssh ${user}@${ituneshost} /bin/itunes vol up)
exten => #,2,goto(99,1)
exten => 99,1,NoOp(${SYSTEMSTATUS})
exten => 99,2,GotoIf($["${SYSTEMSTATUS}" = "APPERROR"]?99,6)
exten => 99,3,background(num-was-successfully)
exten => 99,4,background(activated)
exten => 99,5,goto(s,4)
exten => 99,6,background(im-sorry)
exten => 99,7,background(an-error-has-occured)
exten => 99,8,wait(1)
exten => 99,9,background(goodbye)
exten => 99,10,Hangup
exten => t,1,goto(s,1)
exten => h,1,Hangup

Now move up to the first line of code (s,1) and change username to reflect the account name on your Mac that will be used to manage iTunes. It's got to be the same one that was used in the SSH keygen step above! Now move to the second line of code (s,2) and plug in the IP address of the Mac running iTunes. Save your changes by clicking the Update button. Close your browser, and don't worry about restarting Asterisk just yet because we have one final step to go.

Installing the iTunes CLI Voice Prompt. Just to give our new system a professional touch, let's add a custom voice prompt from Allison Smith to greet callers dialing MP3 on your system. Log into your Asterisk server as root and issue the following commands. The final one will restart Asterisk to load our dialplan updates from above.

cd /var/lib/asterisk/sounds/custom
wget http://nerdvittles.com/trixbox123/itunes.gsm
chown asterisk:asterisk itunes.gsm
amportal restart

Taking the iTunes Controller for a Spin. Now that the installation is complete, let's try it out. Make sure your Mac is turned on. Then pick up a telephone on your system and dial MP3. You'll be welcomed by Allison and prompted to enter a command. Using the commands shown on the adjacent keypad diagram, you can control virtually all aspects of iTunes. When you've finished entering commands, just hang up. It's that simple. If you happen to be streaming iTunes music to other desktops or your cellphone, then you'll really appreciate this addition to your Asterisk application software collection. Enjoy!

Nerd Vittles Demo Hot Line. You now can take a number of Nerd Vittles projects for a test drive... by phone! The current demos include NewsClips for Asterisk (latest news headlines in dozens of categories), MailCall for Asterisk with password 1111 (retrieve your email by phone), and Nerd Vittles Weather Forecasts by U.S. Airport Code. Just call our number (shown in the left margin) and take any or all of them for a spin. The sound quality may not be perfect due to performance limitations of our ancient Intel 386 demo machine. But the price is right.

Nerd Vittles Fan Club Map. Thanks for visiting! We hope you'll take a second and add yourself to our Frappr World Map compliments of Google. In making your entry, you can choose an icon: guy, gal, nerd, or geek. For those that don't know the difference in the last two, here's the best definition we've found: "a nerd is very similar to a geek, but with more RAM and a faster modem." We're always looking for the best BBQ joints on the planet. So, if you know of one, add it to the map while you're visiting as well.

Hosting Provider Special. Just an FYI that the Nerd Vittles hosting provider, BlueHost, has raised the bar again on hosting services. For $6.95 a month, you can host up to 6 domains with 50GB of disk storage and 999GB of monthly bandwidth. Free domain registration is included for as long as you have an account. That almost doubles last month's deal, and it really doesn't get any better than that. Their hosting services are flawless! We oughta know. We've tried the best of them. If you haven't tried a web hosting provider, there's never been a better time. Just use our link. You get a terrific hosting service, and we get a little lunch money.

Want More Projects? For a complete catalog of all our previous Asterisk projects, click here. For the most recent articles, click here and just scroll down the page.

Headline News for the Busy Executive and the Lazy Loafer. Get your Headline News the easy way: Planet Asterisk, Planet Gadget, Planet Mac, and Planet Daily. Quick read, no fluff.

Got a PDA or Web-Enabled Smartphone? Check out our new PDAweather.org site and get the latest weather updates and forecasts from the National Weather Service perfectly formatted for quick download and display on your favorite web-enabled PDA, cellphone, or Internet Tablet. And, of course, it's all FREE!

iTunes Bait and Switch: Say It Ain’t So, Steve

After selling over 400 million songs through the iTunes Music Store, Apple reportedly has pulled a fast one. The Bait: Remember the original iTunes promise? Songs purchased on iTunes could be copied to an unlimited number of iPods that you own and could be played on up to five Macs or PCs. And you could burn playlists to music CDs up to seven times. And you could burn individual songs to music CDs an unlimited number of times. Well, that was then and this is now according to a little blurb on VersionTracker this week. In announcing the latest release of Roxio’s award-winning CD and DVD burning software, Toast Titanium 6.1, which was supposed to fix some compatibility issues with Tiger, a not-so-subtle gotcha has been added. The Switch: "Following discussions with Apple, this version will no longer allow customers to create audio CDs, audio DVDs, or export audio to their hard drive using purchased iTunes music store content."

If true, Apple’s welching on the terms of their music license with end-users by strong-arming software developers into crippling their CD burning software may just earn them one of the biggest class-action lawsuits of the century … to the tune of 400 million already-purchased songs. Does Apple have the right to change the terms of their music license for future sales from iTunes? I suppose so. Do they have the right to change the rules for songs people have already purchased? Any first-year law student could answer that as could most folks with about an ounce of common sense. But you can still burn a CD using iTunes, you might be saying. And I would respond, "Yeah. This week." How many times in the past year has Apple made changes to iTunes that further restrict your use of music you lawfully purchased? Making iTunes the exclusive software for burning music CDs of music purchased from the iTunes Music Store will work just about as well as letting the Arab nations unilaterally set the price of oil. What’s coming next: music CDs that will only play on Apple CD players. Give us a break! Maybe it’s time for folks to take a look at allofmp3.com after all. It’s only 95¢ a song cheaper than iTunes. But we were all trying to be good citizens, except Apple apparently. If Apple can continually change the ground rules after the fact, then it’s hard to fault those who resort to tools such as PyMusique to protect their music investment.

The fundamental difference in what Roxio apparently was doing to reverse engineer the Apple encryption scheme and what Real appears to be doing is quite simple. People have always had a contractual right to copy their encrypted songs to music CDs. So, just as printer manufacturers have no right to assert the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to bar competitors from making compatible print cartridges, Apple has no legitimate DMCA claim to bar other companies from providing tools to perform the lawful act of making music CDs from iTunes downloaded songs. If Apple was only worried about their encryption scheme with no ulterior motives, then it would have been a simple matter to license a decryption library to Roxio for the limited purpose of making music CDs from iTunes downloaded music. That obviously didn’t happen.

It’s too bad that Apple, which has been embraced by the public as the model technology company in this country, just can’t seem to resist the temptation to jump into the legal thicket and shoot itself in the proverbial foot. Worse yet, it always seems to happen when Apple is on a roll. Makes you wonder what would happen if Apple really were in the desktop computing driver’s seat, doesn’t it? Once word spreads that Apple is beginning a process of further crippling music downloads by changing the original terms of their deal with the public, then, read my lips, the iTunes lock on music downloads is going to be history. So, Steve. Say it ain’t so. You’ve inspired a new generation of kids to actually buy their music. Don’t make them all sorry they trusted you.

About the Author. Ward Mundy is a retired attorney who spent more than 30 years providing legal and technology assistance to the federal courts in the United States. Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice, and obviously the views expressed herein are solely those of the author.

Road Warrior’s iPod Solution … and an Alternative

Like the rest of the universe, we’re pretty much sold on iPods to handle all of our music needs, but there’s an exception to every rule. The exception in this case is for those of us that carry around a USB flash drive on our keychain to meet other needs. Strolling down the Costco aisle the other day, I ran across a slick little device for about $25 that turns any iPod or even a garden-variety USB flash drive into an MP3 music source for your vehicle. Checker Auto has it for $10 more. And Wal-Mart carries them as well. It’s called a VFM7 FM Modulator from a company called Roadmaster. In addition to functioning as your own private FM radio station, it also can play MP3 files (only) from almost any USB flash drive. And it includes a 3.5mm line input jack for attaching virtually any music device including any iPod. Wouldn’t you think the automobile manufacturers could spring for a line input jack on automobiles that now cost as much as a house? Kinda reminds me of the oil companies. They had no problem washing your windshield and checking your oil when gas was 40¢ a gallon. Now that a gallon of gasoline costs over five times that much, you get to do it yourself. Go figure. Just play your music louder. It’ll help you forget!

The VFM7 can broadcast on any of seven FM frequencies which provides the necessary flexibility to avoid interference in all but the largest metropolitan areas. Having tried many FM modulators over the years, I can tell you that this one ranks right up there with the best. The trick to most FM modulators is to plug them in, leave the music off, and try each frequency matching your FM radio to your choice on the modulator until you find one that is quiet, i.e. no noise, no faint radio signal, and no hiss. The round button (see inset) changes frequencies, and the other three buttons are for skip to previous song, play/pause, and skip to next song. Once you’ve found the correct frequency for your area, plug in your audio device or USB flash drive and press play. There are tons of FM modulators you might be saying. And right you are. But most of them aren’t the size of a slightly enlarged car cigarette lighter, and none of them have a USB MP3 player and line in jacks built in to the unit. Usually you’ve got a bunch of dangling cords to contend with in addition to the modulator. And most of the non-battery modulators lack the flexibility to support both USB flash drives and line in using the same unit. If you’re a boating enthusiast, you’ll also find using a $25 flash drive with a $25 FM modulator makes a lot more sense than risking an unintended swim for your mega-hundred dollar iPod.

And speaking of USB flash drives, here’s a great little secret if you don’t already have your fill of flash drives. What we’ve started doing is building different music collections on different flash drives for travelling. Then all you have to do is swap out flash drives when you want to switch from country music to punk rock. The SanDisk Cruzer Micro series of drives has the added flexibility of being able to plug in to the Cruzer Micro Companion MP3 player to provide a portable MP3 player using a single AAA battery and a set of headphones. You get about 7-9 hours of play time out of an alkaline battery. The 256MB flash drive costs about $25 and the 512MB drive is about $40. Larger drives are available as well. The MP3 player device is about $45. Or you can purchase a combination 512MB flash drive with the player. Buy.com was the cheapest source earlier this week, but you might want to run the items through PriceGrabber and check the latest pricing. As a rule of thumb, a 256MB flash drive holds about four hours of music, and we’ve found that bigger isn’t always better. Each time you power off the VFM7, you go back to the first song on your flash drive so smaller, multiple drives tend to make more sense. Another approach on the Windows platform is to use Renamer to shuffle your songs from time to time. Enjoy!

Tiger Vittles. In celebration of Apple’s release today of Mac OS X Tiger, Tiger Vittles presents a round-up of what works and what won’t with Tiger and unveils a new database app to let everyone report on their favorite programs: Tiger-Ready Applications: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

ISP-In-A-Box: The Final Chapter (P2P from A to Z)

In the beginning, there was Napster. And then there wasn’t. Then, from our friends at AOL, sprang Gnutella. And Gnutella begot Limewire. Now you can download BitTorrent for free from Apple, and Napster’s once again offering unlimited song downloads … as long as your $15 check clears each month for as long as you both shall live. What’s wrong with this picture? Well, that’s for the Supreme Court to know, and you to find out. In the meantime, while the Supreme Court is deciding the future of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks in the United States, it seemed like a good time to once again propose a fresh approach to the music sharing problem and to briefly review some of the P2P software options which are available at least today on the Mac platform.

It’s the M-Chip, Stupid! We won’t wade into the legal thicket of how you should use P2P tools other than to note, as we have in the past, that Congress has really dropped the copyright ball by refusing to consider creative solutions to the music and movie downloading problems and instead opting to rubber-stamp legislation reportedly drafted by the folks they should be regulating. It would be so easy to add $100 to the price of every music or video player and make all of this litigation go away. Before you say $100 is too cheap, just consider how many music and video players you have in your home and cars and how long they typically last before you buy new ones. The tally for our family is close to 20 devices, but don’t tell your burglar friends! Think of my proposal as a reverse V-Chip for music. Let’s call it the M-Chip. Instead of locking you out of content as the V-Chip does, the M-Chip would let you in. Pay your $100 and the M-Chip would enable your music player to play any music (encrypted or not) that you can get your hands on … legally! M-Chip proceeds would go to the record companies and musicians. And, down the road when every music player had an M-Chip, why would we need encryption any longer other than to make the music moguls sleep better? The only drawback I see to this approach is the poor lawyers. What would all of them do if the ‘music problem’ just went away?

If you want to read more, here’s a link to our previous discussion of this topic. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a great site that explains everything which is at stake in the pending Supreme Court case. We’ll assume that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and allow P2P networking technology to coexist with the recording industry and the movie studios. But who knows? Perhaps the next big public works project can be building enough jails to house the million plus Limewire users who are on line most of every day and night. Or, we could borrow a page from the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Orrin Hatch. He believes we should blow up the computers of people who download music illegally. Isn’t it nice to finally see one of our elected representatives thinking creatively? We’d like to believe he was just frustrated by the difficulty of the copyright problem. Otherwise, just think what he might do to you for stealing something that costs more than 99¢. Death row, here we come. Three songs, and you’re out … for good.

The real problem with all the legal mess, and it is most assuredly a mess which is only getting worse, is the adverse effect it is having on an entire generation of Americans who see nothing really wrong with committing felonies before breakfast each morning… assuming they’re up at that time of the day. And, of course, there’s the chilling effect it is having on enhancement and use of an incredibly versatile and creative technology: P2P networking. Killing off technology pioneers to deter music pirates is not unlike biting off one’s nose to spite your face. In short, it’s a great way to irreparably damage the innovative spirit which has made the United States a creative force since the days of Thomas Edison. Write your representatives in Congress and urge them to look at this issue responsibly … as if their children’s futures and respect for the American legal system were at stake. They are. End of sermon.

If P2P networking is your thing, then there is no finer platform for it than the Mac. Why? That’s an easy one. The P2P tools that have been written for the Mac platform don’t include the Spyware and Trojan Horse features which you’ll find in almost all of the offerings for the Windows platform. Just try to delete a P2P application from a Windows machine, and you’ll understand what we’re talking about. The real beauty of P2P technology is that it provides an IP solution for sharing files amongst various types of computers worldwide, something we’ve all become accustomed to using local area networks. In addition to many other companies, IBM has devoted enormous resources to exploration of P2P technology for business use.

Two very different P2P technologies provide excellent results on the Mac platform. The traditional P2P solution is Limewire which includes free (with ads) and Pro versions. A better Limewire solution and the reason some folks have actually switched to the Mac platform is a product called Acquisition. It has perhaps the best user interface ever written for Mac OS X, and at $16.99 for a single-user license, it won’t break the bank either. Installation is a breeze. Download the software from here and drag the Acquisition icon to your Applications folder. Run the Application and choose Preferences to set your default download and upload folders, to turn on iTunes integration, and to specify the number of simultaneous connections you wish to support. Now enter a search term and presto! And, yes, keep in mind that downloading or uploading copyrighted material is against the law … at least in the USA. But, if all you want to do is download music, perhaps it’s time you planned a vacation to Canada with your Mac mini or Powerbook, but you’d better hurry if current news articles are to be believed.

The other great P2P solution for the Mac platform is BitTorrent which is available for free download from Apple’s web site. Go figure. Once you download the software, just drag the application to your Applications folder and start it up. Now use Google to search for BitTorrent content. HINT: The files always end with an extension of .torrent. The same copyright warnings (as above) apply, and Big Brother is probably a BitTorrent user himself. Everything you ever wanted to know about BitTorrent is available in their FAQ or Brian’s FAQ and Guide.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of music downloads, there’s been lots of buzz recently about a Russian web site (allofmp3.com) which offers music downloads for about a penny a minute, slightly cheaper than iTunes. But, is it legal? With our usual disclaimer that we’re not in the business of providing legal advice here, we can point you to some sites that discuss the issue. FadMine seems to think it’s OK. Moscow prosecutors also gave allofmp3.com the green light, at least inside Russia. And then there’s at least one California lawyer that thinks it’s not. But see this piece in the Tech Law Advisor. In the Americanized words of a famous old British insurance handbook from 1846: "You pays your money and you takes your chances." If you haven’t guessed it already, copyright law is a goldmine for lawyers and law professors at the moment because virtually nothing is settled. Another 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court should make things much clearer. Didn’t know you were gonna have to go to law school just to use your computer, did you?

Tiger Preparations. Over at our new Tiger web site, Tiger Vittles, we’re getting ready for the big day, Friday, April 29, when Apple officially releases the next version of Mac OS X. Beginning next week, we’ll walk you through the steps you should take before upgrading an existing Mac to a new operating system. For those coming from the Windows world, don’t have a heart attack. The Mac experience is downright pleasant compared to the Microsoft torture chamber you’re accustomed to. Your homework in preparation for the upgrade is to scrape together $100 and buy a firewire drive big enough to back up your entire Mac. We’ve covered all of this before including recommendations on the best firewire drives for your money. So just click here and follow the steps.

ISP-In-A-Box: The $500 Mac mini (Building a Streaming Audio Server, Part II)

Todd Daniele's Apple VictrolaToday, we want to finish building our streaming audio server by picking up where we left off in Part I. We’ll assume that you already have chosen your favorite player or smartphone and that you’ve opted out of buying Apple’s just-announced Victrola (click inset) or Sony’s latest marvel, the NetJuke. Did we forget to say it … April Fool’s. So we’ll be putting in place your own server using a Mac mini to send your tunes to your streaming audio player, whatever it may be. As we mentioned last week, streaming music is a processor and bandwidth intensive operation because your Mac not only has to decode a compressed music file stored on your local disk and broadcast it to the streaming server, but the streaming server also has to recompress it and manage the audio streams for each player that connects to your streaming server. Put another way, you probably don’t want to be transmitting a 192K audio stream in stereo if you only have a broadband Internet connection with limited upload bandwidth.

So the best place to begin the design of your streaming audio server is with a pencil and some math fundamentals. The bottom line is that a streaming audio server can only stream as much data as your Internet upload connection will support. How do you figure this out? Well, first you need to know how much upload bandwidth your Internet connection supports. Don’t take your ISP’s word for it. Instead, visit a site such as DSL Reports and run a Speed Test. The MegaPath Networks site usually works well. We don’t care so much about download performance for this project. What we’re interested in is the upload number. Let’s assume your upload number is 256 kbps. To determine the maximum bitrate that your server can support, divide the number of simultaneous streams you wish to support by the upload bandwidth of your connection. For example, the maximum bitrate your 256 kbps connection could support with two streams is 128 kbps. For 8 simultaneous streams, the supported bitrate would be 32 kbps. What happens if you do the math wrong or cheat? Your server crashes and burns. It’s that simple. Actually, the burning part is hyperbole, but you can almost count on a crash.

Another factor to consider in planning the bitrate for your streaming server is the player hardware and download bandwidth of your target audience. We’re going to assume that you are the target audience for your stream to keep things on the up and up. You did read our first installment, didn’t you? So, if you only will be supporting one stream (to you) and you plan to listen to your music on your cellphone, then a bit rate of 24 kbps in mono is probably about right unless you want the audio stream at the receiving end to die and restart regularly. If, on the other hand, you plan to play the stream from your home server at your beach house 500 miles away using an AudioTron with a three megabit cable modem connection to the Internet, then a 128 kbps stream in stereo may be more appropriate to improve the quality of the music at the receiving end. Just keep in mind that the higher the stream rate, the more processing power is required to pump out the stream. And, to broadcast in stereo, means multiplying everything by two.

Choosing A Streaming Server. Assuming you’ve solved the bandwidth requirements, step two is actually choosing a Streaming Audio Server. As we mentioned in the first part of this article, this is complicated a bit by the fact that you also need a Broadcast Server in the Shoutcast environment. If you only want a system which can send a single song on demand or a system which will play a predefined playlist, then Nullsoft’s Shoutcast DNAS server for the Mac is a perfect fit, and you can download it here. Be sure to carefully read the installation and configuration instructions which are included on Nullsoft’s web site. For the broadcaster component on Mac OS X, you can download the Shoutcast DSP Plugin for Mac OS X here. Be sure to review the configuration settings before you install the software and keep in mind that the Mac broadcast module cannot stream input from a sound card, only a playlist.

Other Broadcast Options. Let’s assume that your only reason for doing any of this is to impress your friends by playing some unique content on your cellphone "live." Nothing quite beats the iMan’s talk-radio broadcast if this is your goal. And there are a couple of approaches on the Mac platform. The first is to install the Shoutcast DNAS server on your Mac as outlined above and use the Windows platform for the broadcasting module. In this scenario, you download WinAmp 2 for Windows XP from here and then download the Shoutcast DSP Plugin for WinAmp 2.0 from here. You obviously have to have a Mac and a spare Windows XP machine and a radio with a line out jack to make this work. The only trick to successfully connecting all the pieces is making sure the passwords for the streaming server on the Mac and the WinAmp broadcaster module match. And, of course, make sure that the Shoutcast port isn’t blocked by a firewall on either your Mac or the Windows XP machine. If this sounds like a configuration nightmare, trust me. It is!

NicecastThe Smarter Alternative. Unless you just spent your last nickel for lunch today, there is a far simpler way to bring up a streaming audio server on the Mac platform, but it’ll cost you $40. The product is Rogue Amoeba’s Nicecast. You can try it for free, and it’s fully functional for the first 20 minutes of every broadcast. Then the quality of the audio stream starts to deteriorate. If we’re still talking about listening to the iMan, 20 minutes is probably more than enough in one sitting anyway. In short, you can make absolutely certain that Nicecast meets your needs before you spend a dime. Complete installation and setup takes about two minutes, and Nicecast provides both the streaming server component which is Shoutcast-compatible and the broadcaster component. And any content you can play or hear on your Mac can be streamed with Nicecast. This includes iTunes as well as input from a microphone, a mixer, any radio with a line out jack, or even EyeTV. On the Mac mini, you’ll need a USB input device for most of these options. Griffin’s iMic is the best value. Finally Nicecast includes 40 professional plug-in’s including a terrific equalizer to improve the quality of your stream.

To get started, download and install the software. Run the application by double-clicking the Nicecast icon in your Applications folder. Click on the Source button and pick your input source. Click on the Input button and name your streaming station. You can include a genre and web site address if desired. Click on the Quality button and choose the quality of your audio stream. Nicecast will make an educated guess based upon the speed of your Internet connection, but you can change it in one click by selecting one of the predefined stream types. Click the Share button, and Nicecast will provide you the web link to use in your player. Make certain that Port 8000 is open on your Mac firewall and that Port 8000 on your hardware-based firewall is mapped to the internal IP address of your Mac streaming server. Now click the Start Broadcast button, and you’re in business. It really doesn’t get much easier than that which explains why Nicecast has won just about every software award worth winning including MacWorld’s Editor’s Choice in December, 2004. And, if you do ever need help, Nicecast’s first-rate documentation is as close as the Help button in the application. Finally, if you’re thinking this whole project sounds pretty silly, then take a few minutes and read this article which explains better than I why, a year from now, this project and the Mac mini may not look so silly after all. See you next week for FTP servers.

ISP-In-A-Box: The $500 Mac mini (Building a Streaming Audio Server, Part I)

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.

That’s it for today. If you want to try out the product we’re going to be raving about in Part II, then download Rogue Amoeba’s Nicecast and have a blast until next week.