Networking: Carry on streaming

All network and no "net play" would make anybody fairly dull. So put any extra LAN bandwidth to good use and share some quality time with your colleagues.

Most networks appear to be inextricably linked with their second syllable, "work". But it doesn't have to be that way. On most small to medium networks, network traffic is usually pretty light. This means that there is oodles of bandwidth lying around unused most of the time - bandwidth that could be diverted for other things. Such as streaming audio, for example. This would let you pipe music (say from an FM radio or royalty-free digital music collection) to every workstation on your network, big or small.

And before you say, "Hey, what about staff productivity?" It could just be that the provision of decent music to every PC on the network might go some way towards discouraging staff from illegally downloading their own music. Of course, if you're thinking about piping copyright-protected music, then you should think about contacting the PPCA (Phonographic Performance Company of Australia, www.ppca.com.au) to get a broadcast license. Tariffs vary depending upon the size of your organisation, but if a hundred bucks a year keeps the team happy (and stops the RIAA from throwing tear gas through your window and storming your office in search of pirate downloads), it could be a worthwhile investment.

Freefallin'

The good news is that the best known streaming server software comes absolutely gratis. And while installing a streaming server might seem technologically advanced, it needn't cost you a plugged nickel. You could, of course, just use one of the many Internet radio stations. But in the absence of any quality of service standards, I've found them to be unreliable for everyday use. No, if you want to do something properly, you have to do it yourself.

There are several ways of going about this but all the simple solutions involve the use of the SHOUTcast server, developed by the folks that brought you Winamp. SHOUTcast was originally designed to permit anyone on the Internet to broadcast audio from their PC to listeners across the Internet or any other IP-based network (office LANs, college campuses and so forth). But there's nothing to stop you using it just on your own LAN.

SHOUTcast's underlying tech­nology for audio delivery is MPEG Layer 3, also known as MP3 technology. The SHOUTcast system can deliver audio in a live situation, or audio-on-demand for archived broadcasts.

Triple whammy

The SHOUTcast system comprises three components for listening, broadcasting and running a server:

  • Winamp 2.91 (the celebrated MP3 player)
  • Winamp SHOUTcast Source plug-in 1.82b, (aka the DSP plug-in)
  • SHOUTcast Distributed Network Audio Server (DNAS) 1.94

SHOUTcast works like this: you play some music using the Winamp player. The Source plug-in transfers the audio to the DNAS server through Winamp, re-encoding the audio at a chosen bit rate before sending it to the SHOUTcast server, which then relays the audio stream to the listener over TCP/IP.

Although, obviously, it makes life a lot easier if both Winamp and SHOUTcast DNAS are on the same computer, they can be on separate PCs, providing you configure the Winamp plug-in to point to the server. I've also assumed you're using Windows end-to-end. There's no reason why you can't run the server on a spare Linux box, though Winamp does have to run on a Windows PC.

Note that, for the actual broadcast, you'll need a copy of Winamp 2.x. SHOUTcast doesn't currently work with Winamp 5.0, but you can still download previous versions from shareware sites (though not www.winamp.com) - the final release version being 2.91.

Download and install the Win32 Console/GUI server from www.SHOUTcast.com. We also need to install the DJ DSP plug-in for SHOUTcast from the same Web site. This acts as a bridge between the source of our music, Winamp, and the SHOUTcast server.

A little configuration...

Next, we need to edit the SHOUTcast server configuration. Click Start-Programs-SHOUTcast DNAS-Edit SHOUTcast DNAS Settings. The config settings are held in the sc_serv.ini file. This plain text file is fully commented and many of the options are clearly described, but you can check out the SHOUTcast Web site for more info. Now we need to edit the file a wee bit.

First, we'll need to adjust the MaxUser setting to reflect the number of users you can handle on your network bandwidth. As a rule of thumb, each user stream consumes 24Kbps (kilobits per second) of network bandwidth. The password should also be changed from the default "changeme" to permit users access to the stream.

Note that the PortBase specifies the port you'll 'cast on. The default is 8000, which should be okay. The network settings section only needs adjusting if you intend to broadcast to the Internet. Once you set your options, save the file.

Launch Winamp. Open Pre­ferences and choose "Plug-ins : DSP/Effect". Select the Nullsoft SHOUTcast Source DSP plug-in, which opens the SHOUTcast Source dialog box. Click on the Input tab and choose "Winamp (Recommended)" from the Input Configuration section. Hit the Output tab. Leaving the default selection as Output 1, click on the Connect button if not already connected.

If the connection fails, make sure the Connection button is selected. Make sure both the password and the port number are the same as set on the server. Next, click on the Encoder tab, choose the type you want (MP3 Encoder, for example) and the settings. Try using "128Kbps, 44,100kHz, Stereo" but feel free to experiment. Note: some reports suggest that Encoder 1 is buggy and that you should use Encoder 2 instead.

Pick and play

To get your music show up and running, simply boot up the SHOUTcast server by going to Start-Programs-SHOUTcast DNAS-SHOUTcast DNAS (GUI). A command box with status and info will show up. Load Winamp, open Preferences-Plug-ins: DSP/Effects and make sure the SHOUTcast DSP plug-in is highlighted.

Pick a few MP3 songs and play them. Switch to another workstation, fire up a Web browser, enter your IP address followed by :8000 (for instance, 123.123.123.123:8000.) This will take you to the SHOUTcast homepage. From here, you'll be able to listen to some music. It'll take a few seconds to buffer the stream and the audio will start playing after that. SHOUTcast server also runs a small Web server, which lets you see the status and play music from a Web browser. This can be accessed using the same IP address and port number given in the media player.

Radio show

As well as playing MP3 songs on your hard disk or streaming directly from an audio CD, there's nothing to stop you from using an external analog sound source such as an FM radio. Using an appropriate audio lead, connect the radio to the line-in socket of your sound card.

Open the Winamp preferences and select "DSP/Effect" under the plug-in section. In the right hand panel, choose "NullSoft SHOUTcast Source DSP plug-in" and click the Configure button. This opens the SHOUTcast source window.

Click on the Input tab and select "Sound Card Input" from the Input Configuration section. Next, set the Input Settings to 22,050kHz Stereo (or whatever suits you) and choose line-in as your input. Then click the Lock button to finalise the settings.

That's enough streaming for now. Next month I'll be showing you how to use Windows XP to act as a bridge between unconnectable networks.

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