One thing I have noticed over the years that my music collection, consisting of audio cassettes and CDs of Hindi songs amassed over more than 15 years, was mostly gathering dust. It has become rare for me to switch-on the music system at home. The system in the car gets used more often but even there it is the same set of CDs that keep playing again and again. Not that my taste have changed (though I should admit that the intensity of the craving for music has gone down signficantly over the years), but it is just that changing CDs or audio cassettes is just too much hassle. It was not unusual to have the same set of CDs playing in the car stereo for months, making it much more appealing to switch to the radio.
So when a friend talked about his home radio system powered by an old Apple laptop and free iTunes software, playing a huge collection of songs in a random order 24x7, and allowing him to tune-in from any of the myriad FM tuners present at various locations in the house, I got interested and started thinking about creating something similar.
Collecting all the pieces and assembling them into a home radio station to my satisfaction took some time, close to 10 days, but now that the system is fully functional, it surpasses my friend's system in certain capabilities. It has been working quite well for past few days -- so much so that and even the kids and their mom like it and I feel quite good about it.
If you find the idea intriguing and long for such a system at your own home, it is easy to create one without spending a lot of money. Just read on.
The Basic Setup
The basic system is pretty simple -- an MP3 player plays the songs in shuffle mode repeatedly, feeding the audio output to a FM transmitter. I used my Compaq EVO N1015v (AMD AthlonXP 1600+ CPU, 512MB RAM, 30GB HDD) running MS-Windows 2000-SP4 and free Apple iTunes as the MP3 player and the Whole House FM Transmitter as the FM transmitter. You are welcome to use whatever is convenient for you, but keep in mind that using an MP3 player like Apple iPod or those from SanDisk would deprive you from important capabilities such as controlling the player from anywhere in the house and the ability to listen to any Internet Radio station and optionally, recording that. Other thing is that using an older, less powerful computer could also be problematic, for my laptop usually shows 100% CPU utilization during high activity periods.
You also need to be careful about the FM transmitter -- most of the transmitters available in my local Frys store had very short range (though, strangely, the specifications didn't talk about range at all), and hence were inadequate for a home radio system. Whole House FM Transmitter has a decent range -- the advertised value is 150-500 ft in all directions. Although I installed it in a remote corner of the house, the reception is quite good at most locations I care for.
Few other things to keep in mind: make sure that your PC has its volume control non-muted and the FM transmitter power switch is on. For setting the FM channel I just followed the instructions that come with the product. Another thing that took a while for me to figure out was that I needed to attach an indoor FM antenna to my Panasonic Home Theater Sound System to be able to tune any FM channel. Most other FM tuners worked without need for an antenna.
Control From Anywhere
The shuffle mode is good most of the time but not always. There are times when I want to play a specific song or tune-in an Internet site that streams music. BTW, this is not impossible even with the basic setup -- I just need to go to the computer playing the songs and either select the specific song in iTunes or stop iTunes, go to the specific site that streams the song and make my selection -- just inconvenient. Wouldn't it be cool to be able to do this from any computer in the house.
Turns out setting this up is not difficult at all. I installed Real VNC server software on the laptop running iTunes and VNC client software on other computers. Actually VNC allows a Java Applet based console that can be launched from any browser so installing the client is not really a must. But I found the native client better and faster. As all my computers are on a wireless home network, it is now possible to control the radio station from any computer.
Setup for Recording
Every once in a while I come across a song at one of many online music sites -- Smashits.com, Raaga.com or Music India Online -- that I would like to add to my collection. An easy (and inexpensive) way to do this is to use the computer itself as the player and recorder and record the song using an Audio Editor like Roxio Sound Editor (I got it as part of Roxio Easy CD and DVD Creator 6 a couple of years ago, but looks like this version is now discontinued. But I am sure it must be present in other CD/DVD recording software bundles). All you need to do is to feed the audio output to the audio input of the computer running the recording software using a 3.5mm male to male audio cable.
It is even possible to visually edit out portions that you don't want.
One drawback of this mechanism is that you don't get any auditory feedback on what is getting recorded.
So what I did was to split the laptop audio ouput, one feeding into the FM transmitter and another one into its own audio input jack. It is not too hard to do this with a splitter like this one, though I couldn't find this in my local Frys and ended up with a much more complex assortment of cable to get the same behavior.
This arrangement allows me to listen to Internet streaming audio through the home radio system while recording it using a recording program from any computer in the house. BTW, all this processing (accepting streaming data, playing it, accepting the audio input, recording it and driving the VNC client to show all this on-screen activity) is quite compute intesive and brings AMD Athlon1600+ CPU to its knees!
I spent around $75.0 on the Whole House FM Transmitter (including S&H), $6.0 on various audio cables and $12.0 on a clock with FM tuner for one of the rooms that didn't already have a FM tuner. Rest of the components or software are either free or were already with me.
Not bad for a total investment of less than 100.00 dollars.
More wires in the house, as you can see in some of the above pictures and also those appearing below.
Do not know about the electricity cost of keeping the laptop and FM transmitter running round the clock. My rough estimate is that it should be somewhere between $5.00 to $10.00.