alan little’s weblog

taping things from the radio

13th May 2004 permanent link

Having discovered the joys of Internet Radio Three yesterday, I had a look at their programme listings and found that they have lots of interesting stuff. They’re in the middle of a series of live lunchtime broadcasts of the complete Beethoven string quartets, with one or two of them played by a different group each day. (The live performances are happening in Nottingham, and if I were anywhere near that part of England I would be trying very hard to find an excuse to go. Wait. My parents live near Nottingham. Sudden urge to visit parents). Today’s is the Skampa Quartet playing opus 132. I’ve never heard the Skampa Quartet but I know they are students of the Smetana Quartet, and the Smetana Quartet were one of the undisputed greatest string quartets of the last half century – I’ve mentioned here before that their recording of Beethoven’s 9th string quartet is one of the most inspired performances I’ve ever heard of of any piece of music. And Beethoven opus 132 – well, as Brian says: peak of Western Civ. Note To Self: if caught up in Apocalypse & required to justify entire existence of mankind, mention late Beethoven string quartets.

But I won’t be at home at lunchtime today, and I’ve already established that Radio Three’s audio stream doesn’t work through the firewall in the office. Internet radio streams are intentionally difficult to record. What to do?

A quick google search on “capture RealAudio Mac” reveals that the answer is Audio Hijack. This is a piece of software that defeats attempts to prevent people from recording internet audio streams by, basically, pretending to be the part of the operating system that normally controls the Mac’s soundcard, grabbing whatever gets sent to the sound card and, er, recording it. And it’s perfectly legal because time-shifting, fair use, just like a VCR, mutter, mumble. Whatever.

A quick test shows that it works and that setting it up to record a particular audio stream on a timer is indeed, as advertised in the help file, “just like a VCR, but you’ll actually understand how to program it”. So I fondly hope to get home from work today and find Radio Three’s lunchtime concert sitting on my hard disk.

This is all quite nostalgic for me – I haven’t “taped” music from the “radio” since my student days. The results from the tests I did sounded a lot better than I ever remember getting by really taping things from the real radio. (The baseline for comparison here isn’t what somebody could theoretically have achieved in the Old Days using an audiophile-grade tuner, writing to an audiophile-grade tape deck, on expensive metal tapes, in a location carefully selected for good FM reception. It’s Alan in a student dwelling, using the cheapest available tapes on a cheap portable). On my Mac’s soundcard and a small pair of earbuds, both the BBC’s audio stream and the Audio Hijack recording of it sound perfectly acceptable. I strongly suspect they would sound less impressive burned to a CD and played on a real stereo – so, Note To Music Industry: if this performance turns out to be as good as I hope, and the Skampa Quartet ever record Beethoven, already having a recording of a live performance might well make me more likely to buy the CD not less.

Audio Hijack is made by Rogue Amoeba (“good software with a bad attitude”), who seem to be a prime example of a good small software company. They have a niche product that fills an obvious need and appears to be the clear leader in its niche. Their software, as far as I can tell from a couple of small tests, works as advertised and is easy to use. The support forums on their website are informative, the website is reasonably well designed and – just think for a moment how unusual this is – their help files actually contain useful information that helps you to use the product. Recommended.

Mac Software Tip Of The Day Number Two: assuming I have programmed Audio Hijack correctly, I will get a single one hour file containing two pieces of music plus some things like Radio Three presenters and audience noise that that I don’t want. Assuming I wanted to listen to the Beethoven more than once (even though that might be Wrong because then it isn’t just time-shifting) I will probably want to cut the big one hour file up into manageable chunks. But I don’t seem to have any software that can do that. Apple’s QuickTime Pro does it, but also does many other ”professional media authoring” things that I don’t understand and am not interested in, and $30 seems like a lot of money just for a pair of digital scissors. My also-Mac-using colleague Andreas informs me that what I need is a piece of freeware called Audacity. This also has all the editing bells & whistles that I wouldn’t know what to do with even if I wanted them, but should work perfectly well as a free pair of scissors.

Update: bollocks. Audio Hijack worked perfectly and recorded an hour of Radio 3 that, burned to a CD and played on a proper stereo, sounds much better than I expected. The only problem is: it’s the wrong hour. I forgot to allow for the time difference between Germany and the UK, so no Skampa Quartet for me. Oh well. There will be other interesting things on Radio 3 in future, and I know how to get them now.

related entries: Music Mac

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