November 22nd, 2010 — Music, Streaming
There are quite a few music streaming services available; for an up to date list see here. Unfortunately, most music streaming services are not available outside of the USA or the UK. This obviously has to do with the digital rights, and the deals with the big record companies.
In The Netherlands, the following services are available.
Spotify was launched in Sweden in 2008, and has since expanded to Norway, Finland, Spain, France, the UK and The Netherlands.
Spotify is an application you install on either a PC or a Mac. With the application you can browse through an extensive number of songs, and play these songs on your computer. The free version has (audio) advertisements after each couple of songs. The lowest entry subscription model removes the ads. Much more interesting is the premium subscription model. This allows you to store music locally (offline, so you can also play the music if you do not have internet connection). Additionally, the quality of the music (the bitrate) is higher. The best, however, is the fact that you can use an iPhone app to stream songs from Spotify on your iPhone, or download them to your iPhone for playback in offline mode.
Spotify has included some social network features, for instance by allowing to share playlists among Facebook friends. This has however been done in a very basic way. Especially if a lot of Facebook friends use Spotify, it becomes an extensive job to sift through everyone’s playlists. Let’s hope this improves in next versions.
Grooveshark does not require you to download an application. Instead, you can play music from your browser. Similar to Spotify, you can search for music, create playlists, and do social things through Facebook. Most notable is Grooveshark Radio, which recommends (and plays) music according to the songs you have played before; comparable to iTunes Genius. The basic version of Grooveshark is free. There is also a paid version, which removes banners and provides (limited) additional functionality.
Contrary to Spotify, the music is not offered through the large record companies, but rather through users uploading music. This has already led to legal issues, but not to the extent that the service had to be removed.
Grooveshark also has a mobile app for the iPhone, but since it has not (yet) been approved by Apple, it can only be installed on jailbroken iPhones.
Deezer is also a web browser basic music streamer. Its music collection is smaller than Spotify and Grooveshark, and since it is of French origin, a lot of music is French. Deezer has a free iPhone app.
The idea behind ShareTheMusic is that users make their own (legally acquired) music collection available. This is done through an application that has to be installed (PC only). Listeners can search for music, and stream it directly from the one that made the music available. Because the music cannot be downloaded, and only one listeners can listen to a certain song at a time (i.e. it is no radio), ShareTheMusic claim that what they do is legal.
ShareTheMusic also has recommendation features. Because of the nature of the service, they claim they are the only (legal) streaming service that provide Beatles music.
To be able to listen to a certain song, the user ‘hosting’ the song obviously has to be online and started up the ShareTheMusic service; this determines to a great deal the success of the service.
November 10th, 2010 — Music, Streaming
I have been working with Squeezebox as a device to play my digital music, and I have always been very happy with it. How does it work?
Buy a Squeezebox
While I am still using my good old Squeezebox Classic, there are much fancier alternatives out there at this moment:
- Squeezebox Touch offers a touch screen through which you can search and select your music; you will need an amplifier and speakers to hear the music, though
- Squeezebox Boom has two speakers, looks like a good old boombox
- Squeezebox Radio has only one speaker, and it is mainly geared towards internet radio. It is the least expensive of the three
Install the server software
The server software for Squeezebox is called Squeezebox Server. This server, among other things, makes sure your Squeezebox device can pull music from your digital music source. This means that the hardware the Squeezebox Server is running on, has to be turned on if you want to listen to music. Squeezebox Server is available for PC, Mac, Linux and Netgear ReadyNAS. Since I want to be able to listen to my music whenever I want, and I do not want to leave my PC on all the time, I bought a Netgear ReadyNAS Pro, and installed Squeezebox Server on this machine.
Put your CD collection on digital storage
Read this post to learn more about storing music digitally. Obviously I store my music on the Netgear ReadyNAS Pro.
Configure Squeezebox Server
Basic configuration of Squeezebox Server is fairly easy. It is accessible through a web browser, and in its most basic configuration you only have to set a few parameters. One of them is obviously the location of the music source (in my case the NAS itself, in the /Music directory). You can have Squeezebox Server scan your music source, and it will create views by album and by artist.
Connect Squeezebox to an amplifier
Squeezebox Radio and Boom come with a speaker. Squeezebox Touch (and older models) need to be connected to an amplifier. This is straightforward, since the Squeezebox has all required output (analog and digital) at the back.
The Squeezebox has to be connected to the Squeezebox Server. This can be done using an internet cable, or wirelessly. As soon as you start up your Squeezebox, it will start looking for a Squeezebox Server. If it cannot find the Squeezebox Server, you will have to locate it manually by entering the IP address of the server the Squeezebox Server is running on.
After the set up steps above have been completed, you are ready to play music. This can be done:
- Via the touch screen or the knobs and buttons on the Squeezebox.
- Through a remote control (which can be bought separately or together with the Squeezebox Duet)
- Through a web browser using Squeezebox Server
- Through an iPhone/iPad application, for instance the excellent iPeng
Squeezebox Service Wiki
November 9th, 2010 — Music, Tagging
Every song in your music collection has properties, such as title, artist, album, potentially album art. These properties are called ‘tags’.
If you want to be able to search through your music collection, or display it in a structured way, it is important to tag your songs correctly.
If you import a CD via iTunes, the songs will be tagged automatically. That is, based on the knowledge in the iTunes database, it will give your songs certain properties. In many cases this is exactly what you want, in other cases the properties may be off. Most arbitrary is the genre. While you may have a certain opinion about genres of your music (I used to order my CDs by genre), iTunes may have a different opinion. Within iTunes you can remedy this quite easily by selecting all songs of an album, getting the properties, and selecting the genre that suits you best.
In many cases, the songs will not have tags at all. The most versatile software to manage tags is Mp3tag. It is able to tag various audio formats, bulk tag (e.g. if you want to change all songs with a certain genre to a different genre), look up album art, and obtain tags from various libraries (Amazon, freedb, MusicBrainz).
What should you keep in mind when tagging music?
- Decide upfront which genres you want to have in your collection. This turns out to be extremely convenient, for instance if you only want to play music from a certain genre
- If you are into classical music, decide if you want to have the ‘artist’ as the artist, or rather the ‘composer’ as the artist. iTunes has the tendency to do either of the two at random, and that makes your music collection messy
- Decide if you want to store album art as a single file (e.g. a Jpeg) with the album, or whether you want to have the album art as a tag for each song. The latter has the advantage that you don’t have to care about filename conventions (which may be different depending on the audioplayer). Take care that the size of the album art does not become large, since it is added to the file size of each song within the album
- ID3v1.1, ID3v2.3, ID3v2.4, MP4, WMA, APEv2 are formats (‘containers’) that are used to store tags. Usually it shouldn’t matter too much which one is used – it is kind of technical stuff; take note however that some audioplayers are unable to deal with certain formats. Check before you start tagging your entire music collection with Mp3tag
Mp3TagGuide for Squeezebox
November 8th, 2010 — Music, Ripping
Suppose you are going to build a collection of music on a hard drive. Obviously you have bought your music legally on CD, so you will have to rip the music to the format you want.
If you have installed iTunes (either on PC or Mac) and you enter a CD, usually iTunes will then start up automatically and read the content of the CD. After showing the content of the CD, it will suggest you import the CD and write it to your hard drive. By default, iTunes will rip to MP3 format. This can be changes by going to Preferences – General – Import Settings. If you want to rip losslessly (without losing quality), select ALAC (Apple’s proprietary lossless format).
- In my opinion not up to Apple standards, but nevertheless well designed and updated frequently
- Many users already have iTunes installed to manage their music collection
- When inserting a CD, iTunes will recognise the CD most of the times
- ALAC is an Apple format that is not supported by many other media players than iTunes. In many cases you would have to install a separate ALAC plugin to get it working; claims are that these plugins are not always very stable. Alternative is to rip to ALAC first, and then transcode to a different format using other tools (see below)
- iTunes stores artwork (the CD cover) in its own proprietary database. If you use a different mediaplayer not only to play the music, but also to view its artwork, it is sometimes hard to get the artwork to show up
Foobar2000 is an open source audioplayer for the PC. It has excellent capabilities to convert music from one format to another (‘transcode‘). If it does not support a certain audio format out of the box, you can most likely download a plugin for it (for example ALAC).
- Excellent transcoding, also in batches (to transcode large quantities of music in one go)
- Advanced tagging (although not as advanced as a dedicated tag editor)
- Music on CD is not recognised, it is just encoded. This means you would need a separate program (like a tag editor) to obtain the information of the songs, artists etc on the CD
- User interface is not very intuitive, takes some time to get used to it
Max is the Foobar2000 alternative for the Mac.
- Supports many audio formats out of the box
- Can do batch encoding (although not as powerful as Foobar2000)
- Can retrieve CD information, which is gathered online through MusicBrainz
- Album art can be retrieved automatically from Amazon
- Not very intuitive, has a learning curve
- CD information and album is often not retrieved, much less powerful compared to iTunes
November 3rd, 2010 — Music, Stored, Streaming
Playback of digital music can be done on various devices:
- On a device specifically created to play digital music
- On a computer
- Via an amplifier or receiver
How to most effectively use the device depends on the location where your music is stored. Read this article for more on this subject.
On a device specifically created to play digital music
MP3 players were created with the specific goal of playing digital music. In most cases the music has to be stored on the MP3 player.
The obvious disadvantage of an MP3 player is that you and only you can listen to the music. However, by plugging the MP3 player into a device that has an amplifier and loudspeakers, your friends and neighbours can also enjoy the music.
Alternatives are the products from Logitech (Squeezebox) and Sonos. These products have an amplifier and a loudspeaker, and allow you to connect it to an external music storage device via wired or wireless internet.
On a computer
If you are happy with the audio quality of your computer speakers, the computer is a very versatile device to play digital music. If you have your music collection stored on your computer, you can use programs like iTunes or Windows Media Player to organise and play music.
If your music collection is on a home server, this server needs to be running software that can stream music to your computer. An example is Firefly, a piece of software that is able to stream music to iTunes. This way you can use multiple computers to access your iTunes collection stored centrally.
The third alternative is having your music ‘somewhere’ on the internet. You would typically have to install a program on your computer that will retrieve the music from the internet and play it. An example is Spotify.
Via an amplifier or receiver
There are few amplifiers or receivers that can play digital music straight away – Denon has a couple of receivers that are able to do so. Most likely you will need a separate box that is located between your amplifier and your music collection.
Again, both Logitech (Squeezebox) and Sonos have products that are capable of doing so. A product will have audio jacks that connect it to your amplifier, and on the other hand an internet port that connects it to your music source.
November 3rd, 2010 — Music, Stored
In general, there are three possible locations where you would typically store your music:
- On the device that plays the music
- On a home server
- On the internet
On the device that plays the music
Traditionally, music is stored on the device that plays the music. That is, music for your iPod is stored on your iPod, and music you want to play on your computer is stored on your computer. The advantage is that this configuration is simple, and that you always have your music ‘with you’.
However, if you want to play your music collection on more than one device (for instance, two computers), storing and maintaining this collection on all those devices become a tedious process. This calls for a more distributed model: music is stored in one location, and the devices stream the music from that location.
On a home server
A typical setup would be that your music collection is stored on a home server, and that the device your want to play your music from acts as a client. There are servers on the market that provide music streaming out of the box, which also provide storage space for your music. An alternative is a device that is mainly geared towards storage (such as a NAS – Network-Attached Storage), and which also provides some server functionality.
On the internet
The latest trend is towards having a music collection ‘somewhere’ on the internet, and that the music is streamed over the internet to the device your play your music from. Spotify and Grooveshark are good examples.
For more on which device you can use depending on where your music is stored, read this article.