Digital music at home

I think it’s time for me to address my home music situation the right way.

I bought a couple of new CDs last night (Panic at the Disco’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, which was disappointingly radio-pop-ish — I think I listened to the wrong tracks in the store — and the new Belle and Sebastian The Life Pursuit, which is great even though they’re developing a much lusher sound than Dear Catastrophe Waitress), and I realized while struggling to get them to play that there are huge chunks of my CD collection which never get played anymore. Ever since the DVD player died I’ve just been playing CDs in the Playstation, which suffers in sound quality and means I have to turn on the TV to see what track I’m on. The end result: I don’t bother with CDs.

But I don’t have a very good setup for not bothering with CDs, either. I used to run the otto audio jukebox on a little computer, but it was difficult to maintain. Now I’m playing mp3s with the SlimServer software used as the backend of the Squeezebox mp3 stereo component thingy, with an mplayer instance just reading constantly from its mp3 stream.

It’s a great piece of software, but the audio chain isn’t great: since I’m playing through mplayer, I have to use mp3, or else it transcodes. And in order to do anything I have to use a Web browser. Even then, it’s playing through the onboard soundcard of that little PC. On top of that, the CDs I have ripped are inconsistently ripped — most are from LAME’s “fast standard” encoding but there’s a chunk of old rips at 128k. On the other hand, the rest of the signal chain is OK, although my receiver’s a bit on the old side (and, incidentally, has no digital input).

So I’m thinking of using part of my tax refund to solve that problem by getting the Squeezebox hardware to go with the SlimServer. The Squeezebox accepts a raw PCM or FLAC stream so there’s no transcoding issues, talks over wireless or wired ethernet, has a respectable DAC, and gets me a big, bright display and a remote control, for $300. I can’t think of a much easier solution at the front end than that. I know that some people on my friends list have these things. What do you think of them?

The problem then becomes the backend. Right now the mp3s are on our all-purpose file server, a 500MHz Athlon with a pair of mirrored 200GB PATA drives. That should be plenty of room for mp3s of what I’ve got now (~900 albums, 63MB average size, so ~2000 albums), but if I’m going to jump completely on the bandwagon I’m not sure if I should be planning on using FLAC instead, which means ~400MB/album plus the mp3s (since we’ll still want to put music on our ipods). At that point I’m only going to get 300 albums on the existing disk, and I’d need another 600GB of raw disk to fit the rest. Will I regret not ripping to FLAC, given that I’m keeping the CDs, or do you think high-quality (lame’s fast-standard preset) mp3 will be sufficient?

(Which makes me wonder if I really need to RAID-1 the disks together. That’s important for a lot of the stuff on there like old tax records and home directories, but not so much for mp3s, since I’ll still have the CDs. On the other hand, for the price of doubling storage, not having to re-rip a thousand CDs is probably worth it. And the hassle of software raid 5 is never worth it.)

Any other advice for moving to online music storage?

4 responses to “Digital music at home”

  1. Can I explain how I’m handling this sort of thing on my system? I’m not sure how much (if any) applies to your situation, but maybe it’ll give you alternative ideas…? Admittedly, some of it is proprietary, but the music and video files themselves are all open.

    Anyway, I originally looked at an older generation of the Squeezebox hardware. The openness of it caught my eye, but the design and the blue vacuum-fluorescent display just didn’t jive with me. Navigation also seemed a bit inadequate. I kept doing the 900MHz digital wireless speaker thing (with web or VNC front end) for a very long time. Eventually, I got a Mac Mini, mostly for tinkering purposes, and it ended up as a permanent fixture for my media.

    My particular setup has a Mac Mini in the front room, hooked to the TV and stereo. This is a “stock” machine with no real extra software or media. It’s on a wired network now (for better latency in fast-forwarding video), but works fine with its internal wireless connection. The remote operates Front Row, Apple’s media center application for audio, video, pictures, and DVDs, and we never actually leave that and return to the OS. All of the UI is on the TV (which can be left on or turned off once you have a playlist selected.)

    The machine in the back room, in our case, is a Mac but it could just as easily be a PC–as long as it is on the same subnet and running iTunes, all of its audio and video is automatically detected, cataloged, and menu’ed by the Mini in the front room. I know that some people have an issue with how iTunes stores files (./$Artist/$Album/$TrackNum01 $Track.$ext), but that is how I’ve stored my media since the beginning of time. If you have good ID3 metadata, then iTunes picks up on that and uses it accordingly. If not, it makes a good batch ID3 editor (which, admittedly, I had to do for about half of my music a number of years ago.)

    The media itself is on an external 100G Firewire drive and gets (manually!) mirrored to a second external 100G drive. My initial intention was to do RAID mirroring, but eventually came to the realization that data loss is equally likely from (1) hardware failure, which RAID can cover and (2) user error (“oh crap, I didn’t mean to delete that”), which RAID can’t cover. When I add new media, I manually run a shell script that rsync’s the two drives.

    Admittedly, it is Apple and pretty much closed-source, but it’s a nice turn-key solution and something I trust a heck of a lot more than a Microsoft media center type of setup. I also have to think-about/tinker/tweak things less than I did with the Linux media stuff I was using previously.

  2. I’ve been thinking about things a bit more and there are a few easy decisions after all:

    • Nothing else does what the Squeezebox does at that quality level without isolation hassle. That’s a no-brainer, especially since I’m going to be using their backend software anyhow.
    • Once I’ve ripped to FLAC and tagged, I can transcode to the lossy format du jour unattended. If I rip to a lossy format then I’m back handling individual CDs whenever I need to re-encode. So I want to rip first to FLAC.
    • I can buy storage as I need it, and shouldn’t buy it until I need it, since disk prices aren’t going to go up. Since I’m going to keep a high-quality lossy format around anyhow, the FLAC masters can be kept offline as a backup, either on disks or on tape (7-8 AIT tapes should cover the collection). Extra IDE controllers are cheap.
    • None of these operations other than transcoding will hit a disk bottleneck, so PATA is plenty (and extra IDE controllers are cheap).
    • Other than the masters, I don’t need RAID — the worst-case scenario is that I have to re-encode unattended from the masters. I just need to keep enough storage around to fit an online copy of the FLAC plus whatever lossy encoding I’m keeping.

    That makes things a lot easier. Am I missing anything?

  3. Thanks — I thought about an iTunes-based thing, but the price of a Mini gets me a Squeezebox in two rooms — and that’s not including the price of Firewire enclosures and a properly isolated audio output. Since having the UI on the TV was one of the things that got me annoyed with using the physical CDs themselves in the first place I don’t think that’d work for me.

  4. funny you should mention squeezebox; i bought one just a week ago and set it up in the bedroom. i needed a new alarm clock – for which this is way overkill – but a good friend has one, is friends with the founders, and wrote their documentation, so she raves about it a lot and everything i’d seen of it was impressive – the newest version, v3, even moreso than older ones like hers.

    as far as alarm clocks go, the squeezebox lets me set an alarm for every day of the week, and i can set the volume, time, and what it’s playing when it goes off. local friends and i run a shoutcast stream of varying mixes of music, so mainly i set it to that, but i could set it to a playlist on my pc, or a directory – or something else entirely on the SqueezeNetwork, like nature sounds, one of their select stations, or Pandora. i like the vast selection available to me. there’s also rss feeds, a tetris game, and a zillion plugins, though i’ve tried none of them yet.

    i don’t have much to say about music storage other than i’ve got about 400G devoted to it on my pc, from which i can stream to the squeezebox or my xbox (which is hacked to run XBMC). it’s a sticky problem, to be sure. as far as mp3 vs. flac goes, you should give the same song in both formats a listen via the speakers or headphones you usually use and ask yourself if you can really tell the difference – so much so that double the storage space is worth it? you’re keeping the cds – so even if reripping down the road is a pita, you at least have that option. my hearing is terrible as you know so personally i use mp3 for everything (other than live show trading, which is usually flac or shn) and they sound fine to me for the most part.

    so, to sum up: i love my squeezebox so far, and mp3 has worked for me. i’d love to know if you decide to get a squeezebox!