radioSHARK AM/FM Computer Radio with TimeShifting, Part 3
Published on February 1, 2005
radioSHARK AM/FM Computer Radio with TimeShifting
Cross-platform: Runs on Mac OS 10.2.7 or higher, G4 recommended, requires a USB port; Runs on Win 2000 or higher, 400 MHz minimum, requires a USB port. Consists of AM-FM Desktop Radio plus cables, CD-ROM with required software, manual
I used to run occasional “how to” features on my national radio version of Audiophile Audition concerning time-shifting of radio programs. Nearly everyone timeshifts TV programming in order not to miss their favorite shows when they are out of the house or apartment. Originally via a VCR, but now increasingly various versions of TiVo and other Personal Video Recorders. However, doing the same thing with radio programs has been a total pain, and there are so many unique programs – especially on NPR and community stations – which millions of listeners miss because they are not set up to timeshift radio as easily as TV. None of the systems approach the simplicity of setting a VCR to record an hour show, say, once every week. I’ve struggled for years with a Radio Shack timer which is a bear to set up, controlling a cassette deck with a portable radio connected to it. I frequently forget to push just one switch and when I return the cassette is still sitting there with all the tape on the left hub, obviously unrecorded.
Even if we’re not supportive of the idea of our computer being at the center of a complete home entertainment system, many of us would like to be able to hear local radio while we compute. The radioSHARK provides that in straightforward fashion and for reasonable cost. It’s powered from the USB port and the sharkfin-shaped unit is also the antenna, so placing it closer to a window usually results in better reception. The three bright blue stripes on it light up when in operation – cool. When the radioSHARK is recording the stripes turn bright red, so when it is automatically time-shifting a program for you while you do something else you know the operation is proceeding properly.
The radio dial appears on your screen (as seen above) and you can set it up for various most-listened-to stations just like a car radio with pushbuttons. You can either enter the frequencies you want or use the scanning feature to find them. I found the AM reception not great but even expensive separate tuners usually provide lousy AM reception. The FM was clean and sensitive, bringing in a couple difficult-to-receive stations with excellent S/N whereas the portable FM stereo feeding the amp and speakers in my office can only receive those stations decently in mono, and that only after much choreography with its whip antenna. The sensitivity settings are Low, Medium and High and operate the opposite of what you might think since they only control how strong the signal must be for the Seek function. It will seek the most stations when set to Low.
Those with TiVo and its ilk are well used to the idea of accessing a program from the very beginning even if you arrived home after the program had started; also pausing any live program to answer the phone or door and then restarting it at the same point without missing anything. If you thought ahead to set up radioSHARK to record a scheduled show, you’re all set to timeshift it in this manner. The key to this trick is the buffer – a temporary storage area on your computer hard drive that is set aside for background recording. Whether or not you are listening to the station you have selected, radioSHARK will be recording it continually. The default setting is for a 30-minute buffer but you can change that in the Preferences. Of course you can’t go back further in the program than the 30 minutes it has recorded. Another way to look at this is that you can’t pause the playback any longer than the time you have left in the buffer. The CD with radioSHARK has a full-featured application that handles all these operations, and the on-screen displays are well-designed and allow you to even change color touches to match your desktop.
For simple timeshifting of any radio programming, you just selected the date, time and frequency. You can set it to record each week for weekly programs and it will keep saving them until your drive is full if you don’t start listening to them. The setup is even easier than most VCRs and a major improvement over the frustrating Micronta timer I’ve been using with my cassette deck and radio. If you want to just start recording something you are listening to, you use the instant record, unless you have already selected “Always records live radio” for the sophisticated time-shifting.
There are several features radioSHARK only provides to us fortunate Mac users, including being able to skip forward and back on the recording. You can set in the TS (time-shift) window how far forward or back, such as 10 seconds. It takes a lot of getting used to – I would prefer plain fast forward and reverse buttons that you could hold down till you got where you wanted to be. But it’s better than not having forward and reverse at all! I was frustrated to find that when I stopped a recording halfway thru which was playing back, upon hitting Start it began the entire program from the top again rather than continuing where I had left off. Using the pause function avoids this. With Macs only, the recording buffer will continue to record (if TS is On) even after you have quit the radioSHARK program. With Macs you have a wider color choice in the general appearance prefs: blue, red, silver, black, turquoise and pink.
RadioSHARK also has an option called simply Add which allows you to put any other MP3, AAC or AIFF audio files elsewhere on your hard drive into its Recorded Schedule. There are some other frustrations in playing back material already on this schedule. Sometimes I had to click repeatedly on the name to get it to start, and whenever one of them is not playing you are receiving whatever station is tuned in on radioSHARK – there doesn’t appear to be a way to turn off reception when you are listening to already-recorded material. There is a mute feature and you can also put the master volume control in your menu on a Mac, but enabling that mutes everything so you can’t hear the recorded track!
One important option in the preference is to select the particular audio format in which you are saving to your hard drive. The choices are either AIFF uncompressed (for Macs), WAV uncompressed (for PCs) or AAC, which makes the most efficient use of your hard drive due to its compression codec. Using AAC can take up seven to ten times less space than AIFF or WAV files, and the quality is better than MP3, though still compromised vs. standard 44.1K PCM. Talk shows would be fine with AAC and if you set the buffer to record continuously that would be a good choice. But if you really care about the fidelity of the music you are recording, AIFF or WAV would be a better choice, especially if you plan to burn it eventually to a CD or DVD.
Those with an iPod or other portable MP3-type hard drive will naturally want to transfer material they have recorded from their PC or Mac to the iPod. AAC is perfect for this. This not only allows for mobile listening to what you have recorded, but also enables one to feed it into ones main audio system aux input and enjoy the programming thru better speakers. If you don’t own an iPod, but do still have a cassette deck, this would also be good way to transfer programming you have recorded for portable listening. A C-120 cassette can hold an hour radio program on each side and decent portable cassette players are available for as little as $25 today – quite a bargain compared to an iPod. With either source plus good headphones and Headroom’s little Total Bithead, you’re in business for some pretty good sounds. (Yeah – there’s artifacts but they’re different from those of digital data reduction and besides I’m used to them.)
The radioSHARK serves a functional need very well. Since I don’t own an iPod, and prefer to time-shift radio programs to cassette to listen to in my car or walking, it is not quite as valuable to me as it would be to iPod owners. It does sound better and is much easier to time shift than my former setup with portable radio, cassette deck and Micronta timer. What I would like to see is for it to be able to also access the variety of Internet music channels available (nearly all free), and either record them to the drive or transmit them as a local FM signal to your FM tuner of the audio system so they would be heard in other areas of the house and with better sound. But it only records FM or AM sources. I understand the first announcement of the new product stated it would include Netcasts.
There are shareware applications for audio recording which will record Internet casts to your hard drive – Sound Studio and Audio Hijack for Mac and I’m sure several for PCs. I just joined the NaxosRadio fee service (NaxosRadio.com – $10 a yr.), and they provide excellent quality with a huge variety of classical and other varieties to choose from, but I would like to hear them on my reference audio system – especially because the higher sampling rate casts for cable or DSL sound excellent via my office system. I suppose you could just add a simple Radio Shack FM transmitter to your computer audio out, which I hope has a line level input as well as the microphone. [Mac users have NiceCast from Ameoba which broadcasts via Ethernet but can work with Apple's AirPort Express base station to extend its reach to your audio system anywhere in your home. But it costs $40.]
[This just in: NAD is showed at CES their NetCap Network Player, which brings music on MP3 or netcasts, jpeg images and even movies from your PC to your home entertainment system via either an Ethernet line or wirelessly. If it's cross-platform I want to review it!]
- John Sunier