Multimedia Mac: Music in the office

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
July 26th, 2004 • 4:38 am

I am enjoying some time off work right now, and this has given me an opportunity to explore certain things that had been on the back of my mind for quite a while.

One of them was that, when we purchased a new receiver with a PVR option for our satellite TV service ( last year, the old receiver was put on a shelf and forgotten about, even though it was still perfectly fine.

When we first got the satellite TV system installed 6 years ago, we purchased the option to have two satellite TV feeds in two different parts of the house. So, in addition to the main line of coaxial cable arriving in our living room, I’ve always had a second coaxial connection in the office that has remained unused until now, except for the period when we redid the flooring in the living room and taken all the TV/stereo equipment out of the room for a few weeks.

We don’t have a second TV, and have no intention of getting one. Simply put, we don’t need one. So I wasn’t particularly interested in buying a TV set for the office. But my idea was the following: As part of our satellite TV package, we get about 30 channels of CD quality audio-only music stations provided by our national broadcaster CBC Radio. There’s no DJ, no commercials. It’s just 100% music, all day and all night. It includes channels such as “Jazz Masters”, “Jazz Now”, “Blues”, “Folk Roots”, “World”, “Urban Adult”, “Baroque”, “Chamber Music”, etc. I never listen to the radio, because we get so few stations around here, and the little we get is atrocious commercial stuff. But I really like these satellite TV channels. My idea was that I could connect the old receiver to the second antenna feed and then put these channels on.

Now, I am not a big fan of “background music”. I don’t particularly like to listen to music and work at the same time. When I listen to music, I like to be able to focus on it and fully appreciate it. And when I work I like to be able to concentrate on that. But there are occasions when I don’t mind being exposed to music I don’t know in a unobtrusive fashion, in case something catches my ear. After all, in these post-Napster, pre-iTunes days (here in Canada anyway), with no access to peer-to-peer file sharing networks that require much more bandwidth than I have, my involuntary exposure to music I don’t know is rather limited.

So setting things in my office so that I can listen to these audio channels when I feel like it sounded like a good idea. But there were several issues that needed to be addressed first. One of them is that I really don’t like it when computer sounds interfere with music. In order to solve this particular problem, I have a PowerWave USB device to which I have connected two Apple Pro speakers, and I use a software utility called Detour to control where the audio coming from the computer is going, depending on which application produces it. I use the G4’s built-in speaker for computer sounds (alert sounds, etc.), and the Apple Pro speakers connected to the PowerWave for music applications such as iTunes, GarageBand, etc.

As far as sound input was concerned, I could simply connect the satellite receiver’s audio-out RCA jacks directly into the G4’s audio-in port or through the audio-in ports of the PowerWave. But the problem with such an approach was that I would have no screen to display the audio channel selection on the receiver and choose what I wanted to listen to (and show the track information that scrolls down the screen while the music is playing). To solve that problem, I decided to use my Miglia AlchemyTV PCI card. It’s a low-end TV tuner and video capture card that I had the opportunity to review for a while back. I could simply connect the video-out port (S-VHS) of the receiver to the video-in port (S-VHS as well) of the AlchemyTV.

I didn’t want to use the audio-in port of the AlchemyTV card, because it’s limited to a sampling frequency of 32 KHz, which is lower than CD quality (44 KHz). But that wasn’t a problem. You can set the AlchemyTV application to receive the video from the AlchemyTV card and the audio from another audio-in source.

So that’s what I did. And it works quite well. I can view the receiver’s programming guide and select the channel that I want to listen to (with the receiver’s remote control) by viewing the video feed in a window in the AlchemyTV application. And I can use Detour to send the application’s audio feed to my Apple Pro speakers connected to the PowerWave, so that I get a decent quality. Detour also lets you set the volume setting of each application independently.

Things are not perfect, however. So far, I’ve encountered two problems. One is that the PowerWave is USB-based and this means that it’s not trouble-free under Mac OS X, which has had problems with USB devices over the years. Occasionally the sound coming through the PowerWave becomes completely distorted, and the only way to get it back to normal is to quit and relaunch the offending application. I don’t know what exactly causes this problem. I discussed it with Griffin’s tech support a while back, and they said that they were aware of it and were working on a firmware update for the PowerWave that might help somewhat. But that was 6 months ago and I still haven’t seen that firmware update on Griffin’s web site. I suspect that part of the problem is with Mac OS X itself.

For example, earlier this afternoon I want to rip a few CDs. Each time I insert a CD (whether it’s an audio CD or a data CD, and whether I use my stock SuperDrive or the second internal DVD recorder I installed a couple of months ago), the CD takes a while to appear on the desktop and, during the process of mounting it, Mac OS X invariably has a temporary freeze during which I can’t do anything. I get the spinning wheel for about 15 seconds and then, after a few hiccups, I finally regain control of the system and the CD appears on the desktop. Unfortunately, these freezes affect the USB setup as well. While I can still move the mouse pointer with my mouse, other USB devices are affected and the sound played through the PowerWave becomes choppy.

This afternoon it got even worse and after inserting a few CDs, I lost the PowerWave sound altogether. I ended up having to fiddle around with the Detour settings and the AlchemyTV audio source settings for a while before I was able to restore things. It was quite irritating.

The other problem is that the AlchemyTV PCI card is obviously another source of heat inside my G4, which already has enough trouble eliminating the heat generated by the processors themselves and the internal drives. In these summer days, even though the temperature rarely reaches beyond 25 degrees Celsius in these parts, I regularly hear the internal fans speeding up and the general noise levels generated by the G4 are higher than they normally are. To be fair, this is probably due to a number of factors and not just to the PCI card, but it still is another source of heat. (I am a bit wary of trying the CHUD option again after the system freezes I experienced with the previous versions of the software.) We’ll see if it gets better when the outside temperature drops a bit again (typically after mid-August).

Another source of frustration is that the AlchemyTV application is very Mac OS X-friendly. I wanted to use my PowerMate to control the volume, but it obviously won’t be possible. Even though the AlchemyTV application is not scriptable at all, I was able to use Mac OS X’s GUI scripting feature to write the following script:

tell application "AlchemyTV"
end tell

tell application "System Events"
	tell process "AlchemyTV"
		tell menu bar 1
			tell menu bar item "View"
				tell menu "View"
					click menu item "Mute"
				end tell
			end tell
		end tell
	end tell
end tell

I can save this script as a stand-alone application and get the PowerMate driver to open the application when I do a long click with the PowerMate. It’s not instantaneous, but it works, so I can at least use the PowerMate to mute/unmute the audio feed coming from the satellite receiver. It’s better than nothing. When it comes to controlling the volume levels, I’ll have to either use the proprietary controls in the AlchemyTV “remote control” window or use Detour’s menu.

In conclusion, I am glad that I have been able to set things up so that I can use the old satellite receiver and listen to these audio channels while working at the computer. It doesn’t work quite as smoothly as I would like, but it works reasonably well. And, most importantly, I didn’t have to spend an additional cent. I already had all the hardware and software required. It was just a matter of finding the time to set things up!

Comments are closed.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.