Music Anywhere on a Budget

It’s easy to spend thousands on a music system that will let you use your music anywhere (or video for that matter) but for most of us, budget comes into it and of course… dedicated, expensive systems tend to age quickly and become out of date – and what about on the road?

Here’s my simple, inexpensive but powerful system and a few tips along the way.

Firstly the system is PC-based. I’ve tried Microsoft’s Media Centre and it’s too limiting.. I’ve also tried various open-source solutions and many of those don’t work either and for while I was starting to give up – but then I got the iPhone and things started to fall into place.I though of putting everything on the iPhone but with fixed memory that didn’t seem like a good idea – and what if I lost the phone?

Firstly there is iTunes on the PC. With that on your PC its easy to keep all your music, pictures and videos in one place. It’s also then easy to copy stuff onto your iPhone – but what if you only have the 16Gig iPhone and you have lots of video and music. I’ve always thought that a better way would be to wirelessly send my media to wherever I need it.

So let’s look at the HOME side first. You want your music, videos, images etc. in one place. Put them in iTunes. If your PC is attached to your TV you’re all set – but what if it’s in a different room or the other end of the room. My solution was to spend sub-£100 and buy Apple TV 2, a little box that plugs into the PC and lets you share everything on your iTunes PC (or several PCs for that matter) to the TV. Works a treat. With Apple TV2 comes a little remote control but you can also use an iPhone armed with the REMOTE app to do the same thing.

So now you have Internet radio, videos, images and music all available at the tips of your fingers.

But, what about music on demand… do you REALLY want to pay the ridiculous prices that the App store charges for music? In my case no. There was a time when I’d pay anything for the next YES album – but that time has long gone.  I’d been looking at Spotify as that’s a great program for legally playing just about any music you want… but to do the job properly you need to pay around £9.85 a month. I was thinking about that when I switched my phone from Orange to THREE.  Why is that relevant? Well, as part of the all-you-can-eat deal with THREE, they GIVE you the licence for Spotify Premium – i.e. no extra monthly payments.

So now you’ve added music on demand… but wait, how do you get the music from Spotify or similar to Apple TV? It won’t do it on it’s own. Well a little utility that costs around £15 called AIRFOIL lets you take ANY audio source on your computer-  and send it straight to Apple TV. Problem solved.

Now lets look at the mobile side.  With Spotify on the phone, it’s easy to stream or download music – and the PHONE APP can beam directly to Apple TV2 (handy for parties, playlist on the phone, selecting on the phone – but playing from Apple TV2 through your stereo (in my case my stereo is old and does not have optical input. Apple TV2 has optical output and a quick trip to EBay got me the relevant converter – optical to normal wired connection.

With StreamToMe APP on the phone, I can access all video and audio etc. from my PC to the phone. With TuneIn APP I can get all the Internet radio stations, with TVCatchup I can watch live TV.

Add AirFoil Speakers App and I can even stream any audio from the PC to the phone.

Ok, this glosses over some detail but nothing you see above is hard to implement OR expensive.  So now I can get access to my media as well as TV and radio when on the road and when I’m at home I can control the whole lot with my phone and even let guests select their favourite music, whether I own it or not, at parties, to play straight into the stereo system or TV.

Publishing Powerpoint with Sound

Sounds easy doesn’t it. Make a set of Powerpoint slides.. get a recording, add some background music… convert to Flash – put it on the web.

Well if you’ve managed this successfully with anything over a few slides – do let me know because I’ve just had one HELL of a time with this.

We started with 40-odd slides, added a 6 minute sound track of someone talking. We bought in a 2 minute music track. All we had to do was put them together. Doddle, really?

We put the Powerpoint slides together in Powerpoint 2007 and then I tried using MediaStudio Pro (Ulead) to edit together the voice track and 3 overlapping copies of the music. The reason for using MediaStudio (no I’m not using a MAC and don’t plan to so please don’t say “use a MAC”) was that it allows for easy audio envelope control to fade the music in and out as the speaker is talking… well, it’ll handle one music file and one speech file fine – and when editing it handled the 3 copies of the music file – but somehow when it came to SAVING the lot, the music ended up finishing half way through the presentation!!!!

That was THAT brilliant idea… I looked at a package I recalled from years ago called MULTIQUENCE and sure enough it’s still out there. Brilliant – armed with overlapping copies of the music track it is a piece of CAKE to put the whole sound scenario together.

So I added the one sound file to Powerpoint, got the timings of the slides all set up and then tried various packages that promised to convert Powerpoints to FLASH. Not ONE of them kept the whole lot in Sync!!

What was the solution?

EXPORT the slides as PNG files from Powerpoint, IMPORT to MediaStudio Pro with a single sound file made in MULTIQUENCE – adjust timings-  save…. send to BLIP.TV.

The result – a perfect FLASH video synced completely accurately!

If you’ve a better solution – do let me know.

Peter Scargill

Free Painting Packages

As part of what I do, I recommend painting packages to people I work with who have to dress up photographs for their websites. Basic features like brightness, contrast, saturation, cropping etc… anyway as part of that I tend to keep an eye open for free or cheap packages.

Personally I use Photoshop so I’m pretty hard to please but I’ve made Faststone image viewer my staple for quickly updating images… well, until now.  I’ve been following some FLASH-based packages for a while now and finally one of them looks like it’s come up trumps.

image SumoPaint has now come out of BETA and I have to say, it makes you wonder why you would want to spend a fortune on some of the alternatives. Layers, a boatload of effects and FREE make this a winner – though I can’t find arbitrary ROTATE which could be an issue. Anyway – go over there and have a look. It could save you some money and time.

Need to convert a bitmap to a vector – or simply improve the bitmap image?

This morning I was faced with a challenge. The company has a logo with the word MEMBER underneath it – and I had to get that available on our website – but the problem was the original logo was simply not that high quality…

Having for once caught up with the email mountain, I decided to look and see if my paint packages would turn our bitmap logo plus the text into a vector image which I could then enlarge and doctor –  and of course they would not – so I started looking around the web – and lo – after much wasted time looking at old programs that don’t even work in XP never mind Vista, I found an online convertor called Vector Magic website – you can only do two images for free – but that was ok – I only had one!  – so I gave it a whirl…


To say I’m flabbergasted by the results would be to understate the matter. The site does a WONDERFUL job of converting a bitmap into a vector file –but parts of the original were far from perfect and I could see I was going to need to do some editing – but then that brings me back to square one, except… no.

The site would let you create various formats of the image – PDF, EPS, PNG and SVG…. hold on, what’s an SVG?  Just for the sake of it I downloaded the SVG file and clicked on it, thinking Photoshop might take a look. Instead a program I’d forgotten all about – a freeby called Inkscape popped up – and it’s capable of editing vector images….

See the original image above – full size, that’s a small part of the image to be sure – the lettering FSB. Notice the jagged edges – not only that the some of the imagery was slightly off-square. Not any more.

imageHere’s a similar shot to the one above – same area from the PDF I produced… remember this is starting from a not-very-good BMP file with VERY little effort on my behalf… yes, that’s a tiny part of the bottom right hand corner of the “B” – not only vastly improved but also ACCURATE. I had to make half a dozen corrections two of which were due to problems with the original image – and I now have a master PDF that could scale up to the size of a block  of flats!

So – there you have it. The links will take you to the websites to use the convertor and download Inkscape. This won’t solve EVERYONE’s problems but it solved mine and hopefully if you’re reading this because you’ve a need to blow up an image, it’ll solve yours. If you found this useful, please do leave feedback.