A couple of weeks ago, in Mass Music Migration, I wrote about the practicalities of moving my thousand-or-so CDs online. I’m well along on the job now; this is an update.

Data Storage · Last time I described my dual 1TB disks, “set up” as I said last time, “in a straight mirrored RAID which I take to mean that I need never worry about backup.” Ouch, did the commenters ever fry my sorry ass. They pointed out that I am totally vulnerable to a house-fire or to a software bug that corrupts both disks at once, or to me boneheadedly doing the equivalent of rm -r ~/Music.

Oddly, only the last of those worries me much. If there’s a housefire, re-ripping is the least of my problems; and if I only access the data with iTunes, the chances of software blowing my data away seem pretty small.

On the other hand, the commenters did raise one good issue; as a side-effect of ripping all this music, I’m putting a whole lot of work into cleaning up the metadata, and I’d really regret losing that. So now I’m thinking more about backup strategies. I’ll report back when I’ve figured out what to do.

Ripping and Organizing · Yeah, it’s time-consuming, but I find I can straightforwardly do other work while ripping; I only need to spend like ten or fifteen minutes each hour cleaning up metadata and swapping disks.

I’d like to preserve, in iTunes, the arrangement I had in my big CD shelf, with everything being ordered alphabetically by “surname of artist I mostly associate this with”. This means that all three versions of Bach’s Musical Offering should appear under “B”. I’m having to wrestle pretty intensely with iTunes to get it to work the way I’d like, but I’m mostly winning; you have to get the “Sort Artist” and “Sort Album Artist” fields right.

The metadata is a problem though; for most pop music it’s pretty simple, with the Artist and Album Artist and Composer being about the same. But for classical music it hurts. I started at the beginning of the alphabet and got to J.S. Bach pretty quickly; I have more of his music than any other two or three artists put together, and it was a real grind getting it to sort and display sanely.

iTunes ‘Albums’ mode display

iTunes displaying in “Albums” mode. It’s correctly grouping all the J.S. Bach albums, but labeling the grouping with the “Album Artist” from the first in the list. Also, note the poor Album Artwork coverage; typical for classical music. Sigh.

Anyhow, I’m only three disks away from being done with the letter “B”. Since, along with Bach, it has Patricia Barber, Beethoven, the Beatles, and Brahms, that’s probably a sixth or more of the collection.

Controlling · As I said, I’m having some heartburn with iTunes. What I’d like is to have an alphabetical display where I could jump to the letter, and then see the top-level artists under that. First “B”, then Bach, Baez, Baker, Barber, and the albums under each of those. In fact, you can almost always get what you want with a little bit of intelligent typing into iTunes’ search window, but I’d still like a better virtual CD rack. There is hope; but first let’s talk about remotes.

I hear the iTunes remote app for the iPhone or iPod Touch is pretty good. But I don’t have either of those. I do have an Android G1, and Jeffrey Sharkey has created a lovely Android iTunes Remote app.

Its display is closer to the virtual CD rack than anything I can get out of iTunes. What’s really interesting though is that the program is open-source (GPL3) and Jeffrey has also reverse-engineered the protocol you need to talk to iTunes.

So if I’m unsatisfied with the control options, I should just shut up and create what I need.

Playback · I spent a few enjoyable hours surfing around researching outboard-DAC options, and ended up buying a Benchmark Media DAC1 USB.

Benchmark Media DAC1 USB

It was a lot cheaper than the really high-end options, and the golden ears out there like the way it sounds, plus it has a bunch of nifty/useful features:

  • It’s small; fits neatly into the space beside my big screen in the living-room computer cabinet.

  • The USB lets you run your digital signal in at 24 bits and 96K/channel. Which is overkill for CD audio, but higher-resolution music is starting to come onto the market, for example from Linn Records, and I’d like to leave that door open.

  • The box comes with a couple of headphone ports and a volume knob with an apparently very high-quality potentiometer behind it, that you can set to control either the main analog out or the headphones or both or neither. I’ve got it set up to work with the headphones for private listening or gaming use, and I use the nice Linn pre-amp for volume-controlling the big system. So I leave the iTunes and Mac volume controls cranked to the max at all time.

How It Sounds · The Mac’s line-out sounded kind of dingy compared to my elderly Linn CD player; it wasn’t subtle. I haven’t done any serious extended listening with the new setup, and I can’t say that it sounds better than the CD player, but it’s certainly no worse; obviously better than the computer’s line-out.

Other Changes · I decided to retire my Magnum Dynalab FM tuner. All I ever listened to was CBC Radio 2; that music is all available now online. While the audio quality from their MP3s is probably not going to be as high as a live-to-air FM broadcast, frankly I didn’t listen to hardly any of those, and as MP3s go, theirs seem good.

So with that and the CD player gone, the nice oak audio table is going to be looking fairly sparse.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Graham Parks (Mar 21 2009, at 16:23)

A couple of iTunes tips it sounds like might help you:

- The Browser (command-B) is the best feature of iTunes, and you can open it on any playlist.

- Click the Album column repeatedly to get hidden sort options. You probably want "Album by Arist" or "Album by Year"


From: Patrick Gibson (Mar 21 2009, at 16:52)

Just wondering if you tried going optical line out from your Mac? Pretty sure all Macs for quite some time have this built in; you just need a different cable. I know Monster makes such a cable (1/8" mini-to-optical digital Toslink audio cable) as it's part of their Airport Express Stereo Connection Kit (http://bit.ly/Z43t). You could also use an Airport Express to stream audio from the computer to the stereo, and go optical that way if cable length is an issue.


From: Dave (Mar 22 2009, at 17:40)

Related to organizing, there is an interesting problem that I've yet to solve related to digitizing my entire library.

As it turns out, there are many CDs in my collection that I listened to rarely, seasonally, or not at all (because they were my wife's). When these CDs sit on a shelf, you sort of subconsciously gloss over them after a while. However, when I ripped my collection, I ripped the whole thing (I'm going to need Christmas music at some point) and now I have the problem that iTunes does not make it easy to gloss over huge sections of a library. Nor does it make it easy to separate a library by musical taste (My wifes, vs mine, vs our shared tastes).

Most of my randomly generated playlists now include a perverse combination of AC/DC, the Temptations, Kelly Clarkson, Jingle Bells and Brahms Symphonies.

OK - so this comment isn't particularly insightful or helpful, but from following your series up to this point I have a feeling that you'll run into a similar problem. I'd be interested to see how you tackle this once you get to the point of having the whole collection digitized.


From: Max (Mar 23 2009, at 05:51)

You should probably resist the temptation to leave your lovely new DAC set to 24/96 all the time. When iTunes starts up, it reads the sample rate settings for (all) sound output devices: whenever you play a track, it is sample rate converted to the appropriate settings. If your library is mainly 16/44.1 CD's, then you should set the DAC to 16/44.1. This is controlled by 'Audio MIDI setup', and/or the preference pane supplied by the DAC manufacturer. If iTunes finds the source & DAC sample rates & word lengths match, it does not touch the data.

If you have any genuine high-resolution music files, you need to shutdown iTunes; change the DAC settings in Audio MDI setup; & restart iTunes in order to get them played properly.

I sympathise with your comments on persuading iTunes to display the library in the way you want. Music library management will not be done properly until it is acknowledged to be a HARD problem. Like address books...



From: Nilesh Kapadia (Mar 23 2009, at 09:55)

The iTunes Remote is really good, and I bought a refurbished iPod touch for the dedicated purpose of using it even though I already own a iPhone. Combined with the Airport Express it is a poor-man's Sonos.

I wish there was a regular computer application equivalent of the iTunes Remote, though, as VNC is not the best solution. I've been thinking about taking Jeffrey Sharkey's work and porting it (to use Swing most likely).


What you can do is make playlists to divide up your music. Make one playlist that includes all of your music, and one that includes all of your wife's (there can be overlap of course). As Graham said above, you can use the browser in any playlist so it is essentially like a library in itself. When using Party Shuffle (now called "DJ"), or creating smart playlists, etc, you can select the appropriate playlist as the source. There's probably limitations to this approach, but maybe it will help for some of the problems you are having.


I agree that music management is a very hard problem. I've been thinking about what my ideal music management and playback system for a long time with the intentions of someday beginning such a project. But I've come to the conclusion that it is going to be a massive undertaking. Just library organization is hard enough, then factor in syncing parts of your collection to multiple machines (while keeping metadata like favorites synced between them), remote control, streaming, syncing to mobile devices, syncing to a car stereo, podcasts, storing lossless in the master collection while automatically converting to lossy when needed, etc.


From: Larry Reid (Mar 23 2009, at 10:59)

I'm addressing the music backup challenge right now, too. I don't have the answers, yet. I've just gone through the jailbreak and copy process to recover music off my iPhone, because I thought I didn't need to back up the music files on my computer.

I'm a geek, too, so I have a DAT-72 drive in my main server in the basement. Unfortunately, 72GB is the capacity assuming 2:1 compression, and since most of what uses space on my disks is music, photos and some videos, I rarely get more than 40GB on one tape. I wanted to avoid tape swapping, but I think I'm going to have to go there.

And then the infrastructure guy in me says, "There should be an Information Life Cycle Management solution I can cook up for this." It seems a waste to back up the same 30GB of music and photos every week...

Like I said, no answers yet from me. I just hear your pain. Good luck!


From: carlos (Mar 24 2009, at 09:13)

I started ripping my CDs with Windows Media Player. It works fine on a spotless CD, but doesn't tell you if a fingerprint or scratch introduced a click or dropout. You don't know until you listen to the music. This quickly became annoying so I switched to EAC. I understand iTunes has the same problem.

It seems a little perverse to spend money on high end playback equipment when your rips of are unknown quality.

Sorry if this advice is a bit late!


From: Jeff Greuel (Mar 24 2009, at 12:35)

You got my attention with the initial post regarding your DAC search. I knew that my laptop (or iPod) through my home set up sounded fine (relatively low volumes) but when I took my laptop to run a night an 80s night at the Bullring the sound was terrible (although that just added to the nostalgic atmosphere).

Anyway give me some warning next time you're coming to Guelph, bring your DAC and we'll get an 80s Bullring night scheduled. Maybe our 50 year old ears won't be buzzing quite as badly the next day.


From: monxton (Mar 25 2009, at 11:16)

I wonder if you're familiar with MusicBrainz (http://musicbrainz.org/)? MusicBrainz is an open source community music metadatabase that through the collective work of thousands of contributors really gets the tags right.

MB has a special set of Classical Style Guidelines, that give the composer the necessary prominence.

There may be some areas of conflict between what you think is right and what the collective minds of MB have decided, but from my point of view, I've found that it's usually worth going with the flow for the sake of consistency.

If you have processed your collection and submitted PUIDs (track fingerprints) to MB, then even if every tag was stripped from every track, you could just throw them all into the tagger and sometime later out would pop the collection resorted into albums, retagged, and usually with cover art too. It's quite something.


From: Eli Sarver (Apr 20 2009, at 08:14)

I love my DAC1 USB. Not only do the golden ears love it, but Peter Aczel (The Audio Critic site and former magazine) loves it because it's so distortion free. Really nice piece of kit. They've been adding new features including pre-amps and custom potentiometers to the newer models, but that only drives the price up and adds little to the design.


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