Sunday, October 20, 2013

How to Release Music on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and Google Play with DistroKid

Songwriters have been recording and mixing down music in their bedrooms since the late 1970s, when 4-track cassette ministudio recorders such as the TEAC Portastudio first became available. As home studio technology matured and made the transition to digital in the mid to late 1990s and beyond, sound quality kept improving to the point where bedroom recordings began to rival the sound of professional studios. Combined with the Internet as a cheap distribution channel, home studio technology has given aspiring artists a terrific opportunity to get their music heard by listeners across the globe over the past 15 years.

TEAC Portastudio, launched in 1979.

But selling that music? That's been a tougher nut to crack. For someone without a record company contract, making an album widely available for sale has traditionally been a complicated and costly process. As music sales shifted from brick-and-mortar record stores to online music retailers, the barrier to entry remained high. Not impossible, but difficult enough to dissuade all but the most determined of amateur musicians. This situation slowly began to improve with the launch of services such as CD Baby and TuneCore, but the question remained: Why can't the process of releasing music for sale on iTunes be as easy as uploading to YouTube?

Well, now it is. Enter DistroKid, a new service launched earlier this month by Philip Kaplan (aka "Pud") -- whom Internet old-timers will remember as the guy behind, the site that hilariously chronicled the original dot com bust. A musician, programmer, and entrepreneur, Kaplan built the site singlehandedly over the period of a year.

DistroKid allows musicians to upload and release an unlimited number of songs to iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Spotify for a flat $19.99 annual fee, while retaining all royalties. That's a pretty great deal compared to TuneCore and CD Baby which charge $49 per album per year. (CD Baby even takes a 9% cut of sales revenue.)

But DistroKid's killer feature is its ridiculous ease of use: Just upload artwork and audio files -- and within a couple of days, your music is available for purchase and streaming across all four online music retailers. Sales reports are provided on a monthly basis, and payment is made via PayPal.

To test the service, I decided to upload an album I recorded about 10 years ago:

iTunes | Amazon | Google Play | Spotify

DistroKid doesn't offer many frills: The site just provides the bare-bones functionality needed to get the job done. If you want to make changes to an album, you'll need to delete it and upload a new version. (For some reason, album delete requests take much longer to be reflected in the online stores -- as much as a full week.)

I couldn't find any obvious bugs in the site, but I did identify one security risk: The site's account setup and login screens are not protected by an HTTPS connection, which means that your password will be sent in the clear. For that reason, I wouldn't recommend signing up or logging in from a wireless access point that is open to the public. (Thankfully, the credit card payment screens are secure.) [UPDATE 10/23/13: Users can force a secure login connection by going to Kaplan says he is working on a fix that will redirect all users to a secure login connection.]

All in all, DistroKid is a terrific online service for musicians. It's inspired me to start recording again. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: Kanguru Defender Basic Hardware Encrypted USB Stick

Cloud storage is great, but there are times when you need to physically carry data files around with you. Sure, you can save the files to a USB stick (aka thumb drive / flash drive), hang it on your key chain, and you're good to go. But not so fast: If the data is confidential or sensitive, how are you going to protect it? You could save all the data in an encrypted Zip file, but that's a tedious process, especially if you make frequent changes to the data. Or you could implement software-based encryption on the entire drive, if you're a serious propellerhead with time to kill. But by far the easiest (and probably the most secure) method is to use a hardware-encrypted USB stick to store your data. This type of device has an embedded processor on the drive itself, which automatically encrypts and decrypts data as it is stored to and read from the drive.

I've been using the Kanguru Defender Basic for several weeks now, and I like it a lot. I picked up the 16 GB model from Amazon for less than $50. It is available in capacities from 4 GB to 128 GB and features 256-bit AES hardware encryption, which is strong enough for the National Security Agency. (Even with a supercomputer, it would take 3.31 x 1056 years to crack the encryption, which is more than the age of the universe.) Let's just say that if you've got enemies that can crack 256-bit AES, then you've probably got problems with advanced alien civilizations.

The setup is a bit clunky -- but once properly configured, it's easy and transparent to use on any Windows or Mac PC. The storage device comes with two partitions, one of which contains the Kanguru Defender Manager (KDM) software, which enables the device to work on any computer without installation. During initial setup, you're prompted to set the device password: Obviously, you'll want to choose a strong and unique password. The device will wipe all data if an incorrect password is entered 7 times in a row.

Windows users also have the option of activating real-time virus scanning on the device -- which is a handy plus. But beware: The initial download of the virus signatures takes several minutes, and the only indication that this is happening is the blinking of the read/write LED on the device.

Kanguru offers a cloud-based remote management service (think of it as "Find My USB Drive"), but it's not available on the consumer-level Defender Basic models. Unfortunately, the setup software doesn't seem aware of this, and blithely encourages you to sign up anyway. Just ignore it.

Once set up, using the drive is as easy as plugging it in. In Windows XP, it auto-runs KDM and asks for your password. In Windows7, you have to click on the KDM icon to start it up. Once it's running, you can simply drag and drop files to save them to the encrypted drive. When you're done, first unmount the drive using the KDM utility, and then "eject" the drive using Windows Explorer. That's all there is to it.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Review: Casio Edifice EQWT720DC-1A

Pros: Unique combination of solar power, atomic time calibration, and automatic adjustment of hand home positions.

Cons: No detailed readout of solar charge level. Stopwatch function lacks real-world usability. Complex functionality not easily accessible without user’s manual.

MSRP: $580.00

Casio is probably not the first brand that comes to mind when you think "high-end analog watch," but the Edifice Black Label EQWT720DC-1A stands a good chance of changing that perception. To the best of my knowledge, it's the only analog watch on the market that combines solar power, atomic time calibration via radio signal, and auto-adjustment of hand home positions.

By combining those three key features, Casio has created a watch that could in theory run without any intervention for the next 87 years (until the year 2099, which is the end date for the pre-programmed calendar). It's a good thing that the manual is well-written, because you'll need it to configure the watch correctly upon first use -- and you'll want to refer to it daily for some of its more esoteric functions. This is a very complex watch.

There are three secondary dials on the watch: One for the day of the week, one for 24-hour military time, and one for a secondary time zone (which can be set to any one of 29 global city codes). The primary and secondary time zones can be quickly swapped -- a boon for jet-setters and bi-coastal folks. The watch also includes a stopwatch and alarm functions, and features a "tough" movement that is sufficiently robust for activities such as chainsaw operation. It is also waterproof to 10 atmospheres. Although the stopwatch function is accurate to 1/100th of a second, the implementation is quirky and not very readable.

The face of the watch is covered by solar cells, which charge an internal battery. The system works well, but there's a minor caveat: The user has no accurate way to determine whether the watch is fully or just partially charged. The power state of the watch can only be determined by observing the motion of the second hand: If it is moving smoothly at one-second intervals, then the watch is "sufficiently charged." If the second hand is stopped or moving at two-second intervals, that's a sign the watch has entered power-saving mode due to a low charge.

According to Casio, the watch requires 8 minutes of outdoor sunlight, 30 minutes of window sunlight, or 8 hours of indoor fluorescent lighting to maintain its charge on a daily basis. The face of the watch can easily become covered up by a shirtsleeve or jacket -- and given that the watch provides such ambiguous feedback about its power state, you might find yourself rolling up your sleeves just as a preventative measure. On the other hand, the watch is rated to operate 5 months on a full charge with no exposure to light, so there's typically little need to panic.

The atomic clock sync works well, calibrating the watch to the correct time every night based on radio transmissions from the U.S. government's atomic clock in Fort Collins, Colorado. (If you're traveling abroad, the watch also receives signals from transmitters in England, Germany, China, and Japan.) Of course, successful reception of the radio signals will depend on your location.
The "auto hand home position correction" feature is perhaps the most unique feature of the EQWT720DC-1A. If you're a fan of analog watches, you've probably experienced a watch whose hands don't line up exactly right. This is often caused by mechanical shock, and requires a trip to a repair shop to fix. The EQWT720DC-1A is able to automatically detect and correct this error condition, using LED sensors that measure hand positions every hour and provide accurate feedback to the watch movement to re-align the hands if necessary. Quite impressive.

All in all, the Casio EQWT720DC-1A is a very handsome watch with some highly unique technology. If you're the kind of person who geeks out over watch technology, then be sure to check this one out. Although the $580 MSRP is fairly steep, discounted prices are available from online retailers if you look around.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How To Turn Off Automatic Installation of Windows 7 Updates

It's Patch Tuesday again, and you know what that means: Windows users across the globe will soon be rebooting. Don't get me wrong, I love Windows Update. Without a systematic way for Microsoft to push out security patches to 1 Billion+ PCs around the world, the Internet would be a very dangerous place. Keeping one's Windows PC patched and up-to-date became a civic duty around the turn of the millennium, and it still is.

But there's something very aggravating about the default way that Windows 7 is configured to handle Windows Update. Back in the Windows XP days, users would be gently reminded to install an update -- giving them a chance to finish what they were doing, close any open documents, and set aside 15 minutes for the installation to run its course. In contrast, Windows 7 blithely downloads and installs the updates in the middle of the night, without bothering to ask permission beforehand.

So let's say you're halfway done with that important presentation when you call it quits at 2 am. You have multiple windows and documents open, arranged just so, and you leave everything as is with the intention of picking right back up the next morning where you left off. Except when you return to your PC, Windows 7 is grinning back at you with a blank desktop, proudly announcing that "updates were installed and your computer has been restarted." Nice.

Happily, there's a quick and easy fix for this problem: Simply launch Windows Update, click "Change settings", and change the drop-down selection to "Download updates but let me choose whether to install them":

Of course, the wording of the drop-down selection is misleading and misses the point. The issue home users have to deal with isn't whether to install updates, it's when. (In the enterprise, it's both.)

Happy updating!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Extend Wireless Range with Powerline Networking

Here's a neat trick to maximize wireless network coverage in your home: Use inexpensive powerline networking adapters to gain more flexibility in the placement of your wireless router.

Because home broadband connections typically originate from a cable box or a DSL modem, wireless routers tend to be placed near the flatscreen TV or telephone jack simply as a matter of practicality. Sure, most people know that wireless routers benefit from being placed as high as possible, in a central location in the house, and away from other equipment and reflective surfaces. But who wants to run an unsightly 30-foot Ethernet cord from the cable box in the living room to the second-floor bedroom, just because that's the location that happens to be the best placement for the wireless router?

This is where the SlingLink TURBO W1 Ethernet over Power Adapter comes in handy. This handy gadget (which retails for $30 but can be found for close to half that amount online) uses Ethernet-over-powerline technology to piggyback your Internet connection on top of the electrical wiring in your house. These devices require zero configuration and are truly plug and play: Simply plug them in and connect. Now you can place your wireless router in the most optimal location without running long Ethernet cables all over your house. All you need is a nearby power socket.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

How to Create an RSS Feed from Your Twitter Posts

Bummed that Twitter has removed the RSS feed link from profile pages? Turns out you can still access an RSS feed of your tweets through the Twitter API.

The URL format is as follows:

(where "xyz" is your Twitter account name)

(More info here. Hat tip to @daveisanidiot.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

30 Second Review: Bose QuietComfort 15 noise cancelling headphones

Pros: Spacious, detailed, and effortless sound. Excellent noise cancellation for listening in noisy environments.
Cons: Expensive ($299). Slightly boomy mid-bass. Won't operate without a AAA battery. No way to disable the noise cancellation system.
Verdict: Great sound and effective noise cancellation let you create an instant sphere of tranquility around your head. But don't forget to stock up on batteries.