Music Browser Wars

Or: The history of hmvh vs. mp3

Like most connected people in the 21st century, I’ve accumulated a plentitude of MP3 audio/music files. Like many modern people in the western world, I’ve ripped most of my CD collection to MP3 music files, and like many other people I’ve also converted my old cassette collection to MP3 audio files.

Like a luddite audiophile, however, I’ve not switched to this so-called digital camp.

Everyone has an iPod!

Despite the ubiquity of digital audio files (in whatever format) and the devil’s walkman (iPod), MP3 files are by no means my preferred means of listening to music. Still, they are kinda cool, convenient, useful, comparatively small, and portable.

As a result I’ve accumulated a fair share since I started collecting them (as far as that’s even possible) in earnest after I decided to rip all my CDs during several boring weeks of being holed up in an apartment in 2001. Before long, I got broadband, discovered P2P and even managed to fill a few gaps (yes, I’ve been a naughty boy). Still, most sound like crap and all it’s done is make me go out and buy more CDs.

But on a positive note, a great feature of MP3 files is their ability to store additional metadata (ID3 tags) such as song and artist name, album title and track number, genres, and even “artwork”. Researching those missing and incorrect ones proved to be quite the challenge in the early days, and it was this how I happened across and eventually got involved with Discogs. It is the information within the ID3 tags alone that turns the MP3 format from background noise into a powerful and informative tool. Usefulness is key.

And throughout, Winamp has been (since version 1.x) the default player of choice. It was quick, simple, free, allowed editing of ID3 tags, and supported just about any audio format thrown at it — including MIDi and MODule files (from the BBS days) as well as Ogg Vorbis and FLAC formats (although initially only via plugins).

All in all, Winamp did and still does what I need it to do.

In fact, as I write this, it’s playing a mix.

Yes, a mix. All the MP3 stuff that’s been collecting on my hard drives as of late consists of either DJ mixes or other free downloadable material by netlabels, or mashups, promos and freebies by aspiring or independent artists, or my own CD/tape/vinyl rips. There is so much out there — all for free and perfectly legal.

Digital media has arrived, and I suppose it’s here to stay for a while.

But how does one effectively maintain a growing collection of MP3 files, one that, as the owner’s tastes and interests change, becomes increasingly unclear and unwieldy? How does one keep track of everything?

In the beginning it was easy to keep an overview of a hard drive with a batch of songs on it: Windows’ own old file manager in conjunction with a great indexing utility called Everything and Winamp (now matured to version 5) and my own stringent tagging standards and sorting methods ensured that I always know where my shit is. No duplicates, no problem — notwithstanding that there were a lot less files to worry about.

As for playing entire directories or MP3 CD-ROMs, it’s the outstanding 1by1 Directory Player that has earned itself a permanent place in the regular arsenal.

So what’s missing, I hear you ask? What’s the point of this blog entry?

Well, if you’re looking for a “professional” review of software-based music players, look no further than this good and informative article at anythingbutipod.com.

What follows below is my own experience and opinion.

Strange as this may seem for someone who spends most of his time dealing with music in one way or another, media managers are actually new territory for me. Honestly. I had some very specific requirements and had never, until now, really had rhyme nor reason to “manage” my music collection.

But when you’ve got thousands of files strewn across dozens of directories folders, you can lose track of what you have as well as the sequence the tracks of an album were intended to be played in. You can lose track of the albums an artist has released or when those albums or tracks did come out. If you’d like to play tunes written by a specific songsmith, regardless of who performs them, then you’d need something that can read the metadata and create a proper and dynamic database. Without modifying the original files. And grab the so-called “cover art” if it’s available somewhere. And auto-detect changes that I will make to the directory structure or ID3 tags as more information becomes available.

Most importantly, it needs to look good at a mere 1024×768 resolution. And be free.

Free is good. Linux is free. Ubuntu has grown up. It’s a contender.

There are Linux distributions that center specifically around home theatre PCs, such as Acoustic Reality’s eAR OS, or Element OS with its so-called “10-foot display”.

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Interesting as they may be, neither fit the bill. I’m not building an HTPC. No DLNA yet.

The next step was to round up all possible and interesting players one could find and give them a spin with a small selection of tunes. 1by1, Amarok, Banshee, Foobar2000, iTunes, J. River’s Media Jukebox, MediaMonkey, Songbird, Rhythmbox, Winamp, even Windows’ own Media Player 11 were tracked down and installed (specifically using the default settings and skins), and they were all tasked with detecting, managing and playing a dummy directory of some 200 MP3 files.

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The first thing one notices is that most adhere to a familiar formulaic interface / layout of a bunch of playback buttons on the top or bottom row, a tree/menu structure on the left, a list of songs/files in the larger main/right window, and some window dressing by way of cover art or filters / search results in another section within that large window. The views are customisable and usually skinnable.

Had I chosen the Linux route, Banshee would most likely have been the winner over the default Amarok, especially when one considers that a decent music manager requires more than the intended laptop’s 1024 pixel width.

Meanwhile in the Mac/Windows camp, iTunes is the undeniable 800-pound gorilla.

Its cute Cover Flow feature was just about its only redeeming feature, were it not for the additional and horribly intrusive other nonsense it installed, proving that it’s heavily centered on iPod devices (ain’t got one) and that it’s joined at the hip with the iTunes Store (physical media for my cash, thanks). I tested Version 9 as version 10 was released only after the final decision to not take the Apple route was already made.

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Another behemoth of a player that looked most promising at first was Songbird.

Although neither the test bench nor the target system are exactly slouches, Songbird is slooooow to launch and took some 40 seconds to autodetect and import an additional 120 tunes it was fed with. It had probably the most attractive interface of all (subjective) but relied too heavily on a permanent internet connection to feed its otherwise great mashTape feature that includes display of artist biographies (courtesy of last.fm and Wikipedia), lyrics, news, and similar goodies. I was a little disappointed to have had to rule Songbird out of this roost.

Then there’s MediaMonkey, a slimmer and more off-line player which had too many restrictions in the free version. I didn’t fancy its interface much either.

The highly-regarded Foobar2000 and the latest version of 1by1, in turn, had more simplistic interfaces but didn’t quite make the grade either although MediaMonkey and Foobar2000 each have very dedicated groups of followers and their own specific features, strengths and plug-ins while I, personally, have always been terribly fond of 1by1 because of its miniscule size and simple explorer-like interface. I therefore couldn’t help but keep it as a secondary player.

Windows Media Player‘s interface is one I simply cannot stand by default. I also discovered that it has a habit of re-creating empty directories for items in its library that I’ve since long deleted. WMP clearly has some issues with subservience and ended up nowhere near consideration for the primary music player.

Ironically, it was only after having evaluated the aforementioned players that I figured I may as well see what the latest incarnation of that old Winamp mainstay looked like and grabbed its latest version. Whoah! Overload!

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Overcomplicated overkill with a major “wow” factor (image lifted off Wikipedia).

Finally, after some brainstorming, soulsearching and due consultation with soothsayers, the honour of becoming the primary music organiser was bestowed upon J. River’s Media Jukebox 12.

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It’s simple and intuitive, compact at the 1024×768 resolution the chosen laptop natively displays, surprisingly quick to respond to manual changes made to the directory structure, imports new content into the database within a few seconds, supports ReplayGain, quietly finds and downloads “cover art” during idle CPU cycles into a directory of my choice when online, keeps logs of what was played when, and has numerous playlist options that I’ve not fully explored yet (including its own “smartlists” of “100 random songs” or “not recently played” that update themselves). All functions that I’ve found useful are available in the free version, and nor does being offline give the user the impression that he’s missing out on any real info or critical functionality.

It also scrobbles.

Yes, I’ve re-discovered and polished my old last.fm account. Now I listen and scrobble.

Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of media players that may appear to have been overlooked: Sound quality.

Subjectivity aside, what we’re dealing with here is a bunch of MP3 files (encoded at bitrates ranging from 128- to 320 kbps). They get played via an integrated soundcard and pumped through the same laptop’s internal speakers or silly little earbuds. Bose or B&W or Yamaha kind of performance is out of the question, right off the bat. This is not hi-fi. All players have equalisers and  DSPs that one can fine-tune to your ears and the pithy hardware that plays it, and all players sound just about fine.

A more detailed study into dynamics and the loudness war may follow when I get around to re-ripping and analysing my CD/vinyl collections again. It’s not exactly an iP*d but I’m sure this setup will make do until then. And it can play/burn CDs/DVDs.

The old Acer laptop has now been dubbed my “aPod“.

Screenshots by hmvh DOT net unless indicated otherwise

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