First of all, a quick rundown on my setup. I’ve got:
- A Squeezebox 3 digital music player, connected to…
- A pile of unremarkable cheapo stereo components in my living room
- A garden variety PC running Windows XP in the office
- A 500 GB external hard drive connected to the PC
Why did I choose the Squeezebox in the first place? Couple reasons.
- I have a lot of music, and I wanted to digitize it once, without data loss, and in an open, non-proprietary format. So using an iPod as my primary music storage device was right out.
- My computer is fairly far from my stereo, and running either speaker wire or ethernet cable from computer to stereo wasn’t feasible.
- I didn’t want to spend money on a NAS (network attached storage) device, or clutter up my living room with a computer. (I briefly thought of buying a Mac Mini, but $600 was a bit rich for my blood.)
The $300 Squeezebox (plus another $220 for a big ol’ external hard drive) was an affordable solution that would let me store and play high-quality digital music with few compromises.
So, how are things going, two months in?
In a word, I’m thrilled. I’ve all of my and Molly’s ~200 CDs ripped, plus a bunch of live music I’ve downloaded from archive.org. We’re finding that we’re listening to a lot more music than we used to, simply because it’s all so accessible.
I was somewhat surprised at the number of technical decisions I had to make, and the variety of software tools I wound up employing along the way. I could have just used iTunes for the entire process. But in the end, I wanted to avoid locking myself into their proprietary file formats and software. (I did come away with a renewed respect for how hard Apple has worked to make their digital music experience seamless and easy, and for just how many decisions Apple’s software makes on your behalf.)
Here’s the workflow I used:
The first big decision I had to make was what file format I wanted to store my digital music in. I’ve got tons of hard drive space. I want high quality. I want open formats. I want to be able to easily transcode my music to other formats as needed in the future. And I never want to rip 200 CDs again. These criteria eliminated “lossy” formats such as MP3, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis, which achieve high compression factors by throwing away audio information. In the end, I was left with “lossless” file formats such as FLAC and Apple Lossless, both of which create bit-for-bit perfect (or, “lossless”) copies of the original digital information on the CDs. Choosing between FLAC and Apple Lossless was actually pretty easy; FLAC is open source and Apple Lossless is not. The fact that the Squeezebox can easily play FLAC files without needing to reconvert them was an extra bonus. FLAC it would be.
Now, how would I got about ripping 200 CDs without driving myself crazy? After a bit of investigation on the SlimDevices wiki, I identified the Exact Audio Copy as the CD ripping software of choice. It’s a free, ultra-high-quality program for extracting music from CDs without errors. It even handles scratched CDs (although slowly). While setup involved setting lots of wierd settings I didn’t fully understand, I just followed the directions on the SlimDevices wiki and pretty soon I was up and running. I particularly appreciated the ability of EAC to automatically access the FreeDB database of CD metadata and automatically tag each track with correct information.
Most CDs took about 7-8 minutes to rip; scratched CDs took longer as EAC read and re-read them to correct the errors caused by the scratches. A few tracks couldn’t be read at all. (I’m going to have to go back and rip them with less paranoid error correction; a few audio glitches may result.)
Once I’d digitized my CDs, I used a few additional programs to further enhance my new digital music library.
- Foobar2000 helped me set correct “ReplayGain” metadata on each file so that tracks would play at a consistent relative volume.
- Album Art Aggregator helped me download cover art for my albums.
- Mp3Tag helped me correct tag information on my tracks.
All of these are great freeware programs — big thanks to their authors for creating such useful and easy-to-use tools — and giving them away to the world!
The icing on the cake, however, turned out to be a piece of software called MusicIP Mixer. It does some sort of patented acoustic analysis on your music library, and then it can build playlists of songs that it thinks sound similar. It can shove those playlists over to iTunes or your Squeezebox. And thanks to the handy MusicMagic plugin for Squeezebox, you can automatically build MusicIP playlists right from the Squeezebox remote control.
What I’ve really loved about MusicIP is that it lets me take a not-quite-random walk through the far corners of my music collection. Instead of total, jarring randomness, I can pick a “seed” song, artist or album, and then the MusicIP system generates a not-quite-so-random playlist that “sounds like” my seed song. Smooth.
The Squeezebox hardware is a really nicely engineered unit with a high quality display and really good electronics. But most of the real magic happens in a piece of software running on my PC called SlimServer. And even better, it’s open-source. That means that there’s a strong community of add-on developers, a reasonably transparent process for reporting bugs, and nightly builds with the latest features.
I suspect that SlimDevices has managed to get away with under-resourcing their software development department a bit, and the open-source community has taken up a good chunk of the slack. But not quite all. What’s cool is that SlimDevices have incorporated a lot of community-built functionality into SlimServer along the way. What’s less cool is that they haven’t really managed to build a simple, fast, responsive user interface on top of all that power. Hire a couple more UI guys, y’all!
All in all, though, I’ve been really delighted. I’m not a “nerd toy” kinda guy, but this a pretty great toy for this music-loving nerd.