Soldering on

I mentioned yesterday that I’d been listening to the radio and promised to say more about that.

Now, listening to the radio is perhaps not all that unusual, although it’s not something I do very often these days. What was notable, or at least a source of great satisfaction to me, was the fact that I was able to listen to this particular radio, which I’d managed to break several days earlier.

The radio in question is a fairly cheap little portable DAB radio that I picked up a couple of years ago in order to be able to listen to my favourite stations (mostly that’s Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio Cymru, with occasional forays elsewhere) without all the extraneous noise that tends to happen with analogue radios, especially if (like me) you live in an area with not particularly good reception. In fact, I think they are due to be turning off analogue broadcasting sometime soon if they haven’t done so already (or maybe that was just TV – I’ve not had one of those for several years but I’m fairly sure they are digital-only by now).

I didn’t actually use this radio all that often but recently I’d started tuning in again a bit more frequently (mostly the other week when I was working in my shiny new home “office” – aka my sitting room but had my music collection on the PC in my bedroom and hadn’t yet succeeded in setting up my Raspberry Pi as a music server from which I can access my music anywhere in the house; that is now up and running pretty well, and I may even get round at some point to tweaking it so I can access it from outside the house – not that there’s a lot of point in that just now; anyway, I digress!).

All was good until a few days ago when I moved a trailing extension cable, completely forgetting that the radio was plugged into it and sitting precariously balanced on a shelf at just about the extent of its power cord’s range. The radio came crashing down on to the floor. I picked it up and put it back, admonishing myself to be more careful next time, and then proceeded to get on with playing music on my Pi (controlled via ssh from my laptop), which I had by this time managed to get working.

I didn’t discover the problem until a couple of days later when I decided that, since I no longer needed the radio to listen to music while I worked, I’d put it in the kitchen to enjoy music while I cooked or washed up. I then discovered that the radio was not working, or at least it started ok and then stopped with a message about low power despite clearly being plugged in and turned on at the wall. A brief inspection revealed that the power connector was wobbly (to use a technical term).

Undaunted, I dug out a screwdriver and took the back off the radio (after unplugging it from the mains, of course, and being very careful to avoid going near any capacitors inside. It turned out that the power connector (a micro-USB socket) is surface-mounted to a PCB and held on by four fairly flimsy solder connections, all of which had got disconnected as a result of the radio being yanked off the shelf by its power cable.

Still undaunted, I figured that it was worth a shot at resoldering the thing since the worst that would be likely to happen would be a non-functional radio, which I already had, and there was at least a chance I might manage to get it working again, which would obviously be better than consigning it to landfill and having to either buy a new one or do without. I’d say my soldering skills are fairly rudimentary (and quite out of practice) but just about up to a relatively simple task like this.

Actually the hardest, or at least the slowest, part of the task was probably digging my soldering iron and related equipment out of the garage, where I’d left them after my latest burst of enthusiasm for electronics waned a few months (or years?) ago. The soldering itself went pretty well and I soon had the connector more or less firmly attached to the PCB once again. After that it was a simple matter to put everything back together and find out whether it would actually work.

It did, and so far is still doing so (well, not right at the moment as I’ve got it switched off, but I’m confident it will work next time I switch it on unless I’ve managed to pull it off the kitchen windowsill and break it again by then). And now I’ve dug out my soldering iron, along with several boxes of components and a handful of books, I may just have another go at getting back into electronics.

(In unrelated news, today is the anniversary – 33rd, or thereabouts – of the violin grade 1 exam that remains the pinnacle of my qualifications, if not my actual achievements, in practical music-making. I can’t remember whether I’ve ever played my violin on the radio, though I have apparently played it on Romanian national television!)

Vive la radio!

Since yesterday, I’ve been re-exploring the “radio” facilities of last.fm, which I have occasionally used in the past but not for quite a while.  Now that spotify imposes significant restrictions on the amount of streaming music you can listen to in a week (at least with a free account), this facility becomes increasingly attractive as a means of exploring music beyond what’s in my own collection.

There are several forms of radio offered by last.fm through their website.  As far as I’m aware, you need to have an account there to be able to use any of them (I believe accounts are still free).  Apparently there are limitations as to how much you can listen to in some countries, but here in the UK the last.fm radio is free, at least for now.

Each radio station is based on some kind of theme, which could be artists (or it may be tracks) in your library (or somebody else’s – I think you can listen to any user’s library radio), tracks having a specific tag (users are able to put whatever tags they like on music, and I assume that the tag radio looks for all tracks that anyone has given the specified tag; I’ve not really used that particular approach to the radio yet), or tracks recommended for you (by last.fm, presumably based on what you’ve been listening to recently).  There’s also artist radio, which looks for tracks by artists similar to the one you specify (I’m not sure quite how they decide on similarity, but it usually seems to give quite a good match and sometimes turns up unexpected gems).

One form of radio station which I’ve found to give surprising and, generally, somewhat disappointing results is the member radio stations based on the last.fm groups you belong to.  There are groups for all kinds of things, some music-related and some not really.  Amongst the groups I’m in, there’s one for Ubuntu Linux users (although I’ve actually been using different Linux flavours for the past several years), one for Nordic folk music, one for banjo players and one dedicated to the Welsh singer-songwriter Fflur Dafydd (I discovered that one last week and became its second member – the founder is evidently based in Poland but seems to speak quite fluent Welsh).  Rather than the member radio stations playing tracks that are specifically connected to the group interest, they play tracks drawn randomly from the  libraries of the group members.  That in itself can be quite interesting but it means that if you go to, say, the Nordic folk group radio looking for Nordic folk music you’re likely to be sorely disappointed (on the assumption that most of the group members will also listen to lots of other stuff).  Still, it’s not a great disaster since the artist and tag radio stations can be used to get at the more specific connections.

Like real radio stations (ignoring request shows) you don’t get any say on the actual tracks that are played beyond choosing which station to listen to in the first place.  However, you can pause the playback at any point and come back to it, so you don’t have to miss a particularly good track if you need to stop to answer the phone (or a call of nature).  You can also skip a track if you don’t like it (you can’t skip backwards to replay a track, presumably due to licensing restrictions, and you can’t navigate within a track).  Of course, the tracks you listen to on the radio also get scrobbled to your account.  I think I’ll definitely be making more use of these facilities in the coming months.