Monday, 31 July 2017

Cataloguing Your Music For Cheapies

Why did I go through all this? I listen to music in two circumstances: when travelling, and at home. At home, I have a Marantz 6003 amplifier and CD6005 CD player with B&W 686’s - and that sounds as good as my ears can hear in my far-from-perfect listening circumstances. I buy and play CDs, and I'm happy doing that.

When travelling I play “train music” over the iPhone through Bose QC20’s. I rarely listen to train music in the house. Train music gets downloaded into iTunes where it rotates through a playlist called ‘iPhone’, which is updated every time I plug the phone into the computer. Train music has a finite life, and I have backups of it on a NAS. That’s why I looked for a way of streaming NAS files: it was a completeness thing.

Occasionally I want some random variety in my listening. So I was interested in streaming from You Tube / 8Tracks with decent quality but without a lot of cost. That’s an added-value thing. That lead me down the rabbit-hole. And it is.

I found out that a lot of serious audiophiles have all their music ripped to a NAS and play it back through a library + music catalogue program running on a computer attached to a high-quality DAC hooked into the hi-fi amplifier. I know: you can feel a flow chart coming on. A suitable authority in this is Hans Beekhuyzen.

Summarising his excellent videos… The preferred audiophile hardware set-up is a Mac Mini - and not the cheap one - and an iDevice to run the library’s remote-control app. Audiophiles are likely to have an iDevice or two already, so this set-up is a lot cheaper than buying a MacBook Pro. (Beekhuyzen makes a good point about the volatility from time to time and market to market of the actual boards and chips used in Wintel computers of the same name. Only Apple are consistent.)

The top-end library- players are JRiver, Audirvana 3 and Roon. These have remote control apps for iDevices, and there are generic remote control apps for OS X (the Mac Mini) if you want to stream from Spotify, Tidal and other services.

All this will cost around £1,000 including the software, and more for Roon. Roon is for the 1% of music freaks. The annual subscription is £120. It looks fabulous. It has the names of all the sound engineers who worked on the record, and the names of the receptionists on duty at the studio during the recordings. If, like the Hans Beekhuyzen, you too have 500 SACDs, this is what you want, and you won't bat an eyelid at the cost.

I like music, but I'm not nerdy about it. I can recognise most major 1950's jazz musicians by ear, and identify the major composers by style within five bars, and of course my head is full of pop-culture junk from my youth, but I'm not a music nerd. I don't have four different versions of The Planets - because I have the best one, which is by Von Karajan and the Berlin Phil. I have two versions of the Bach Cello suites: Tortellier and Yo-Yo Ma. That's it. For me, the additional spending on a fancy library isn't worth it. And I need to be careful of the bottomless pit that is getting all the catalogue details right.

I have a Mac, and Apple want you to use iTunes, and iTunes really, really wants to store all the music in the Media folder next to the library.itl file. So much so that the default setting when you do File-> Add to Library is to copy all the files to that Media folder. It really is inexcusable of Apple to make wasteful copying the default. I use iTunes to manage the travelling music and the iPhone: those files live on the laptop because iTunes is happy that way.

There are not many free / cheap music cataloguing (1) programs for OS X, and a fair few of those come from Linux. This is what Clementine looks like:

Not as pretty as iTunes. Let alone the Top Three. And I couldn't find any setting to increase the size of those thumbnails.

So I created a second iTunes “library” using alt-Click-on-iTunes-Icon, turned off the “use up lots of valuable SSD space with duplicate copies of stuff on you NAS” option, and then File-> Added To Library. iTunes created a nice catalogue of what’s on my NAS for me. However…

iTunes seems to have limited write permissions for files on a NAS. OS X defaults to a protocol called AFP to connect to a NAS, and AFP seems to limit your ability to do even simple file management operations. Connect to the same NAS as an SMB (Samba) server and you get the permissions you need. I suspect iTunes uses the AFP protocol. So it won’t modify file metadata and album art if the file is on a NAS. Yep, this was one of those I-learned-more-than-I-ever-wanted-know exercises.

There’s a free program called Kid3 that will handle metadata editing of file on a NAS. It looks basic, but it does the business. Once you’ve edited the metadata in Kid3, you have to close Kid3 to release the files, delete the original entry in the iTunes catalogue and repeat File->Add to Library. The new metadata and album art will appear in iTunes.

However, in a fine demonstration of the utter irrationality of consumer thinking, since I've just avoided spending up to £1,000 on kit I don't need, I can treat myself to some kit I might want. Or some more CDs. Or a music subscription. Cue next post.

(1) Libraries have books. Catalogues are databases that provide details of a book and a pointer to its location in the library. What we really want is a music catalogue program, which is what the Big 3 seem to be. If you don’t want iTunes to make space-hogging copies, turn off the “copy music into the iTunes Media folder when adding to library” option. It’s hidden on the Advanced Tab in options.

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