Monday, December 07, 2015

Bare Minimum Software

With the financial year end fast approaching it is time to consider any kit purchases in anticipation of activities during 2016 (and I don’t get that list right very often in truth). A laptop upgrade to something smaller and lighter looks a good idea – particularly with one of the teenagers having a dead machine and thus more than grateful for my cast off (actually not a bad spec - certainly going to outperform most current low end offerings).

Buying hardware is just a few clicks in a web browser these days but the software component list promises a long session just running installs.

What would be on your list for a basic set-up?

I started with:

Plus some homemade tools and utilities.

Then there is the question of MS Office – will Gmail’s ability to display (say) Word documents fill in enough on incoming attachments to get by?

Something to read PDF’s I suppose.

Any suggested additions?

Factor in a few system updates to add to the confusion and slow package download speeds and this already looks like a day’s work


Cracked and added a copy of MS Office. With the release of Office 2016 there are a lot of bargains around - particularly with earlier versions. In fact by a series of stock shortages I ended up with a copy of 2016 Pro for the price of a 2013 Home & Office on the residual market.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Raspberry Pi music

Somewhat off topic.

I am the very happy owner of a five year old Brennan JB7 digital music system which includes a couple of their speakers sitting on some carefully positioned stands. Recently Brennan sent me an email to introduce the new “B2” model – and very nice it looks but I wondered if the price at £579.00 for the top model was strictly warranted (with all due respect for the undoubted product quality).

As the new device seemed to be based upon a Raspberry Pi I ran through a few numbers for building something equivalent:

  • 1tb USB drive – retails at around £40
  • Raspberry Pi 2 – around £30 (often less)
  • Micro sd card - £5
  • Amplifier - £50
  • Power supplies- £20
  • CD drive - £8
  • Sundries (cables, case etc.) - £25

The Brennan box also has digital SPDIF and Line Out plus input options (all of which add a little to their costs) but I can’t see me making use of those in these minimalist times. I would just like to add digital radio and streaming to a disk based music playback capability.

In going through my shopping list I started to get enthusiastic and wondered just how good a device I could put together. Now I am a software man – so what am I doing with what looks like a hardware project? Well not much in the way of electronics – I just need to hook the main components together – so perhaps just a little soldering. The nitty gritty all looks to be in the software.

First task was effectively a side project. I felt that testing with speakers would be clumsy within the relatively confined area of my personal workspace – but I could manage headphones. So I decided to build a (near) empty box to hook some speaker terminals up to a headphone jack socket. With this I could provide an amplifier with something to drive and use the headphones to check the output without disturbing the peace.

The hard drive is one recovered from a retired laptop sitting in a box that adapts the SATA interface and makes it a USB drive – cost less than £3 on Amazon if I recall. The Pi can’t supply enough power for the drive through the USB port so there is an additional power supply that takes the 12 volts arriving at my “box” and converts it to the 5 volts required delivered through a USB connection and a standard “Y” USB cable.

The main power supply is a butchered mains/car adapter but an old laptop power supply would probably do – depending upon the voltage limits of any amplifier used. The HifiBerry Amp+ used here can happily operate between 12 volts and 18 volts and in turn powers the Raspberry Pi which helps reduce the complexity of the wiring rat’s nest you can see below. The idea was to start with longish hook-ups and then shorten them as required when the components get fixed into the case.

The case already has a power lead entry and an on/off rocker switch drilled and fitted. I have also drilled the back plate for the speaker connections and super-glued the main part of the loudspeaker terminal block to the outer face. 

I will have to decide if I am going to go with wifi or add an RJ45 fitting to the back plate for a wired Internet connection. The box will certainly need a ‘power on’ led indicator and I would like to add an infra-red remote control for volume and track skipping at least (although most control will probably be via a web browser interface). Given that the pi can join the network and expose the music storage location (so I can add albums) the inclusion of a CD drive is still a choice to be made (one that might tax my ability to neatly tackle the case modifications).

I first started the Raspberry Pi with a copy of the standard Raspbian Linux variant. This booted just fine but (of course) was not aware of the amplifier so a rather quiet initial test. I then downloaded and installed the distro supplied by HiFiBerry and tried that. Now I quickly ran into the limits of my Linux knowledge and had some difficulty in getting sound to the amplifier. In the end, I pointed the web browser at Amazon, found the latest Enya album page and clicked on the track samples. That initially got some loud clicks from the headphones but after adjusting the (xwindows) volume control I heard some very nicely re-produced music. That at least confirmed that the amplifier worked and that my speaker/headphone adapter also functioned as expected.

It was now time to widen the testing and this meant entering (at least initially) the sometimes murky world of “open source” software. I might have the odd moan in this section but I would not want to imply any criticism of any of the projects mentioned or the teams that labour on them. Without open source and free projects we would all be the poorer (financially and culturally). In the past I have published open source software myself and that’s all I am saying (I have shared the pain guys).

A few minutes Googling showed that the Pi has inherited a solid core of key music related components from Linux and that there were a number of live projects looking to deliver the ‘ultimate’ solution. Two projects (RuneAudio and Volumio) seemed to be forks of the much respected RaspyFi project that itself now looks defunct. These projects currently sport PHP web interfaces that in turn make use of the MPD (Music Player Daemon) music playing server. A few posts suggest that the RuneAudio/Volumio divide was a little bitter.

I tried the RuneAudio project first. This was partly because the main internet page showed a picture of the HiFiBerry amp I had selected with the implicit promise that this and other selected Raspberry Pi (HiFi) add-ons were supported. I was also slightly put off by the way the Volumio project announcement was ‘camped out’ on top of the RaspyFi site. First I had to download the RuneAudio distribution (based I think on ArchLinux) and pop it on the micro SD card. It booted and I quickly located the web interface from the browser on my PC. It was clear the RuneAudio had located the albums stored on the hard drive and so I had a stab at selecting one to be played. Not a lot could be heard. A Google search found a commitment to support my amplifier from early 2014 and some suggestions on how to manage the trick short of that support eventually being delivered. This involved installing some software and settings. I logged into the distro and started trying to follow the instructions. The first irritation was that my keyboard was not supported (symbols all over the place and inexplicably the <y> and <z> keys swapped) but I struggled on. Then the installations failed with 404 errors and so I decided to try my luck elsewhere.

Next up was Pi MusicBox which has a web site like something from the early 90’s but – it’s the software that counts. Unfortunately (for me at least) the software sort of booted and then hung. To be fair, this might have been because my Pi was the recent Pi2. So I tried again.

I tried Volumio after all. Another distro (based on Debian this time I think) to install on the old SD card. This distro booted and the web app quickly became available from my PC’s web browser. The web page presented was nearly identical to the RuneAudio one which probably means both are inherited in turn. A quick trip to the settings page located the HiFiBerry amp and well - it just worked, playing albums and tracks from the hard drive. I turned to the Web radio options and soon had the BBC World Service coming through load and clear (sitting there with my headphones it could have been a clip from an old 1960’s spy film – although there was no short-wave crackle and I was not wearing a hat).

So with a working sound source it was time to stop and take stock (actually I should try Mopidy soon as that is Python based and thus potentially susceptible to some constructive hacks).

On the face of it Volumio might look like a good start point for further development. I am no fan of PHP but how bad could it be? However, the Volumio project has now started a complete re-write using Node.js. Now that is probably the best current start point for a new project of this nature but this does imply that future releases might be “feature incomplete” and that not much attention is going to be paid to moving the current release forward (this is not a criticism – just a comment).

Everything tried thus far has been based upon a custom distro which presumably greatly simplifies the task of distributing software updates (as well as integrating any developments with core OS changes). This does make the process of adding custom additions (like a CD “ripper” and IR interface) a teensy bit problematic. I am assuming that the additional power of the Pi2 will compensate for any extra “drag” from any software mods and additions I make – but that we will have to see.

I will next dig out a pair of old Mission monitor speakers I have in the garage and give them a try – cranking up the output to see just what this little rig can deliver.

One sad note – I had hoped that this little project could deliver BBC radio output (2, 4 and 5 anyway) and thus preclude the medium term purchase of a DAB radio for my office space. Turns out that earlier in the year the Beeb retreated into their iPlayer and websites so they could control (read stop) who got to hear the output based upon a proxy for location (IP address). I am not at all sure how to view this – particularly as I though the BBC had a mission to communicate with the world and not just those who pay the UK license fee. The continued availability of the World Service channel just sort of underlines this parochialism.

Speaker Update:

The amp drove the speakers very well indeed. Loads of power - going to be as loud as anyone would want even in a large room. Not set up for a more discerning listening test yet but the "sound stage" was clearly evident and I could not detect any obvious amplifier induced distortion.