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CD ripping, digital music, music streaming, iPod / iTunes / Sonos - various thoughts, suggestions, ideas, odd ramblings ….

Mac - Flac? Flac - Mac? Max? Muck? F.....

I follow other people in and around the digital music arena and most of them are pretty good. Know what they're talking about, good peeps.

So when I read something patently daft it really stuck out, and it came from someone I (previously) respected. It relates to Mac computers and the FLAC music format.

What is it with FLAC? Over the last few years it seems to have gained some kind of cult status. I've had clients contact me asking for their music to be ripped to FLAC "because the guy in the desk next to me says it's the best". OK, we're a service business and the customer is always right .. We can rip to FLAC just as easily as we can rip to Apple Lossless or AAC or MP3. If you want it - FLAC - you can have it. But you have to be warned, and this is where I part ways with the blog post I read.

The gist of the argument was this. Lossless music is the best quality and given how cheap hard drives are, how powerful home networks are, there's no reason why every music lover shouldn't opt for the best. In his view the best being FLAC. So play your FLAC files on your computer in all their glory and if someday you want to move to another music file format simply use music management software to make the conversion.

I have two problems with this. First, FLAC isn't unquestionably the best file format. Recently a BBC radio program talked about "CD quality music" and made it clear that Apple Lossless (ALAC) and MP3 320kbps along with FLAC can be regarded as top sound files. If you look at the various online listening tests you'll find very few people can hear the difference between ALAC, MP3 / 320 and FLAC.

Second, enjoying digital music isn't simply a matter of accessing and playing a file. To get the best from your music you'll want to do many other things - create playlists, edit the metadata, change the album art, load tracks onto a portable player. This is where the blog's position collapses if you're a Mac owner.

The suggested strategy was to use a program called Max, and the implication is that you can play FLAC files, edit FLAC and if need be convert them to another format using Max. here's the problem.

Max doesn't work.

We've been using Macs for over 25 years, and the Mac platform has been at the heart of CD ripping for 14 years. We need to be able to do a raft of music handling tasks, including editing and converting FLAC. We've been running Max since the earliest days. I bet we've tried to handle more music with Max that anyone else in digital music. So when we say this we mean it - Max doesn't work. It crashes, it fails, it just drops away. Why? Well take a look at this, which is taken from the Max download site.

Max Download Page

The last version was released on 29th August, 2009 - seven years ago. In Mac terms that's light years ago, practically everything that underlies the Mac OS has changed in that time. Notice too "not all output formats are tagged with metadata". Just fills you with confidence.

If you're a Mac user and you want high quality lossless music the answer is simple - Apple Lossless. You can play your music, create playlists, edit metadata / album art, sync with iPhones, iPods, iPads to your hearts content. All with iTunes which is free, robust, reliable and supported by Apple. Of course it's current software not something created in computing dark ages.

Should Mac users avoid FLAC at all costs? No, I'm not saying that. There are a few high end audio systems that come with their own music management software that will handle FLAC on Macs and other Apple devices. Your hi-fi supplier can advise you on that and you'll have a great solution. If you own a Sonos system that will happily stream FLAC files from Macs and NAS drives just as happily as with Windows boxes. But you can't use the Sonos Controller to manage more detailed, lower level aspects of your music files.

OK, done. Rant over.

FLAC Album Art Fails to Display

FLAC - yes, we rip to Flac and are happy to do so. A few days ago we completed a project for a client - around 500 CDs into Flac format music files. His configuration was a Mac computer linked to a QNAP NAS drive with music being played through a Naim stereo configuration topped off with some brilliant speakers.

The music manager he was using was Kazoo on an iPad.

We completed the project and returned his music library on a 1Tb Seagate drive. The final size was just over 160 GB. Getting the music onto the QNAP NAS was simply a matter of plugging the USB drive into the Mac and drag / drop from there onto the shared music folder. Pretty quickly the OS X progress bar popped up saying the complete task would take four hours. I’ve always found that part of the Mac operating system spookily accurate (compared with Windows). We looked at the iPad and the folders / tracks were popping up consistent with the rate the music was rattling across. A further test was to play one of the newly loaded tracks and it sounded pretty good. My client was happy with leaving it at that.

When the transfer was complete my client contacted me and pointed out that he had two problems:-

  • FLAC album art was not displaying
  • one folder couldn’t be copied across.

The second issue was with a folder of Miles Davis music. It was pretty big and the problem was the process appeared to start properly but just wouldn’t complete.

The album art issue was a real head scratcher. Let me explain our approach to album art. If you think of iTunes for a moment you may know that Apple creates a folder into which it places all the little pictures it downloads for you from iTunes Music Store. Then iTunes links from the music sound file to the art file so when you play the track you see the cover image as you listen to the music. But the two remain apart, whatever you think you see in iTunes.

This gives us a problem. If we were to follow this model when we return music to our client they’d have the sound but not the associated cover art image. When we started to download album art we needed to find a way to embed the image inside the track, and indeed music file formats (MP3, AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless and FLAC) all have a feature that enables this to happen. We now have our own software that takes the album art image that we get from iTunes Music Store or from other sources such as Google and embeds it into each track. This means that when a client (except for this one) loads our music they see the cover art on display instantly.

Having done this for a while we came across an issue. One of the most popular music systems our clients use is Sonos and for a while their music manager program could only find album art if it was handled in a different way. They needed the image stored as an additional file in the album folder - so you’d need a folder for the artist, then within that a sub-folder for the album, that folder would contain one data file for each track plus another jpg image file (from memory I think they were also picky and it had to be called “folder.jpg”). Anyway, that requirement from Sonos is history, they now handle album art embedded in each track.

Not being familiar with all the music management programs our clients use when they don’t use iTunes (and FLAC can’t be managed by iTunes) we try to use a belt and braces approach of both embedding art into the track and creating a jpg within the folder. In this instance that was misfiring and I needed to find out why.

Searching Google for FLAC / album art / fails to show / Kazoo, plus as many variations as I could find uncovered a large number of posts from people with problems displaying album art in Kazoo when running FLAC files. Some people seemed to have found a solution, which often involved reprocessing the files or using other tagging software, none of which seemed feasible given that the files were now on my clients NAS. I had to try another tack.

Kazoo is an app produced and supported by Linn, so I looked on their website and found that not only do they have a support function with a telephone number. So I rang them and spoke to one of their support team. He was brilliant. I’ve made a few such calls over the years and I always explain that we rip CDs commercially and we’re not directly the client. In the past manufacturers have been snooty about this and the conversation stops there. In this instance Linn were brilliant and asked for some tracks they could text for me. A few seconds later I got an email inviting me to upload some sample tracks to Dropbox for them to test. I did that and was very pleased to get a response pretty quickly. They confirmed that on their QNAP / Kazoo system the files played and the album art was displayed. Linn’s suggestion was that the problem might be with the media server program supplied as default on the QNAP. That program rejoices in the name of Twonky.

My approach to fault finding in these circumstances is to identify the key items involved in the process of displaying the art (or not) and then make sure each one is up to date. So I would check that Kazoo on the iPad was the latest (which it was) then look at the operating system for the NAS, then look at the management apps on QNAP, then check Twonky is first of all up to date and secondly is correctly configured. When doing this its key to change the first then check - not just that the art now displays but that other key processes also work. If the issue isn’t resolved, try the second, check and so on until, hopefully, the problem is fixed.

Twonky is an oddly named program. I don't profess to be an expert on it but I’ve had calls from people over the years from people having problems with it. Looking at internet chat it has its problems, probably no more so than other programs, but enough. Twonky is licensed to QNAP so you have to get the latest version from them and go through the install process for the NAS.

It isn’t just a question of making sure Twonky is there and up to date. You have to make sure it’s activated and there’s an option about refreshing. It doesn’t instantly either find new music you’ve added to your master music library nor in this case scan the library to locate the cover art. This means you might actually have solved the problem but not be aware of it for some while or think the problem persists. In this case the music server was set to instantly update so some art should show up, maybe a wait needed before it all showed up.

As an alternative to Twonky you can use Linn’s music server program - Kazoo Server - to work with the iPad app. That approach appeals top me, not least because my experience is that Linn offer first rate support. Thankfully rather than persist with the installed program Kazoo Server was placed on the NAS …..

….. PROBLEM SOLVED, FLAC album art started to be displayed.

On to the next issue - the inability to copy Miles Davis across. My first thoughts were that this was due to -

  • loss of the link between the NAS and the Mac
  • slow wi-fi connection and the size of the data chunks resulting in the transfer “timing out”
  • a corrupt set of files.

The connection between the Mac and the router and then on to the NAS included a Powerline unit, rather elderly and a very low spec compared to todays standards. To cut a medium length story short when that was upgraded to a current performance device the upload issue went away. This also helped with the album art service, around 500 CDs, say ten tracks each, one jpg per track, that’s a lot of data to scan and populate the iPad with.

FLAC Album Art Fails to Display

FLAC - yes, we rip to Flac and are happy to do so. A few days ago we completed a project for a client - around 500 CDs into Flac format music files. His configuration was a Mac computer linked to a QNAP NAS drive with music being played through a Naim stereo configuration topped off with some brilliant speakers.

The music manager he was using was Kazoo on an iPad.

We completed the project and returned his music library on a 1Tb Seagate drive. The final size was just over 160 GB. Getting the music onto the QNAP NAS was simply a matter of plugging the USB drive into the Mac and drag / drop from there onto the shared music folder. Pretty quickly the OS X progress bar popped up saying the complete task would take four hours. I’ve always found that part of the Mac operating system spookily accurate (compared with Windows). We looked at the iPad and the folders / tracks were popping up consistent with the rate the music was rattling across. A further test was to play one of the newly loaded tracks and it sounded pretty good. My client was happy with leaving it at that.

When the transfer was complete my client contacted me and pointed out that he had two problems:-

  • FLAC album art was not displaying
  • one folder couldn’t be copied across.

The second issue was with a folder of Miles Davis music. It was pretty big and the problem was the process appeared to start properly but just wouldn’t complete.

The album art issue was a real head scratcher. Let me explain our approach to album art. If you think of iTunes for a moment you may know that Apple creates a folder into which it places all the little pictures it downloads for you from iTunes Music Store. Then iTunes links from the music sound file to the art file so when you play the track you see the cover image as you listen to the music. But the two remain apart, whatever you think you see in iTunes.

This gives us a problem. If we were to follow this model when we return music to our client they’d have the sound but not the associated cover art image. When we started to download album art we needed to find a way to embed the image inside the track, and indeed music file formats (MP3, AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless and FLAC) all have a feature that enables this to happen. We now have our own software that takes the album art image that we get from iTunes Music Store or from other sources such as Google and embeds it into each track. This means that when a client (except for this one) loads our music they see the cover art on display instantly.

Having done this for a while we came across an issue. One of the most popular music systems our clients use is Sonos and for a while their music manager program could only find album art if it was handled in a different way. They needed the image stored as an additional file in the album folder - so you’d need a folder for the artist, then within that a sub-folder for the album, that folder would contain one data file for each track plus another jpg image file (from memory I think they were also picky and it had to be called “folder.jpg”). Anyway, that requirement from Sonos is history, they now handle album art embedded in each track.

Not being familiar with all the music management programs our clients use when they don’t use iTunes (and FLAC can’t be managed by iTunes) we try to use a belt and braces approach of both embedding art into the track and creating a jpg within the folder. In this instance that was misfiring and I needed to find out why.

Searching Google for FLAC / album art / fails to show / Kazoo, plus as many variations as I could find uncovered a large number of posts from people with problems displaying album art in Kazoo when running FLAC files. Some people seemed to have found a solution, which often involved reprocessing the files or using other tagging software, none of which seemed feasible given that the files were now on my clients NAS. I had to try another tack.

Kazoo is an app produced and supported by Linn, so I looked on their website and found that not only do they have a support function with a telephone number. So I rang them and spoke to one of their support team. He was brilliant. I’ve made a few such calls over the years and I always explain that we rip CDs commercially and we’re not directly the client. In the past manufacturers have been snooty about this and the conversation stops there. In this instance Linn were brilliant and asked for some tracks they could text for me. A few seconds later I got an email inviting me to upload some sample tracks to Dropbox for them to test. I did that and was very pleased to get a response pretty quickly. They confirmed that on their QNAP / Kazoo system the files played and the album art was displayed. Linn’s suggestion was that the problem might be with the media server program supplied as default on the QNAP. That program rejoices in the name of Twonky.

My approach to fault finding in these circumstances is to identify the key items involved in the process of displaying the art (or not) and then make sure each one is up to date. So I would check that Kazoo on the iPad was the latest (which it was) then look at the operating system for the NAS, then look at the management apps on QNAP, then check Twonky is first of all up to date and secondly is correctly configured. When doing this its key to change the first then check - not just that the art now displays but that other key processes also work. If the issue isn’t resolved, try the second, check and so on until, hopefully, the problem is fixed.

Twonky is an oddly named program. I don't profess to be an expert on it but I’ve had calls from people over the years from people having problems with it. Looking at internet chat it has its problems, probably no more so than other programs, but enough. Twonky is licensed to QNAP so you have to get the latest version from them and go through the install process for the NAS.

It isn’t just a question of making sure Twonky is there and up to date. You have to make sure it’s activated and there’s an option about refreshing. It doesn’t instantly either find new music you’ve added to your master music library nor in this case scan the library to locate the cover art. This means you might actually have solved the problem but not be aware of it for some while or think the problem persists. In this case the music server was set to instantly update so some art should show up, maybe a wait needed before it all showed up.

As an alternative to Twonky you can use Linn’s music server program - Kazoo Server - to work with the iPad app. That approach appeals top me, not least because my experience is that Linn offer first rate support. Thankfully rather than persist with the installed program Kazoo Server was placed on the NAS …..

….. PROBLEM SOLVED, FLAC album art started to be displayed.

On to the next issue - the inability to copy Miles Davis across. My first thoughts were that this was due to -

  • loss of the link between the NAS and the Mac
  • slow wi-fi connection and the size of the data chunks resulting in the transfer “timing out”
  • a corrupt set of files.

The connection between the Mac and the router and then on to the NAS included a Powerline unit, rather elderly and a very low spec compared to todays standards. To cut a medium length story short when that was upgraded to a current performance device the upload issue went away. This also helped with the album art service, around 500 CDs, say ten tracks each, one jpg per track, that’s a lot of data to scan and populate the iPad with.

​Should it be USB or NAS?

Only a different set of three letters but it could make a massive difference to the way you enjoy your music, and impact on computer technology in your home (in a nice way).

Let’s start at the end - the financial bit. If we supply your music back on a small USB drive you’ll get a 1TB drive the cost will be £45. However if we upgrade that to a NAS drive the cost will only be £100 - yes double the price, but only an extra £50.

What do you get for the extra money, and is it worth it?

First, you get more storage space. The £100 drive is a 2Tb WD NAS drive so you’ll have twice as much space. VFM, not bad.

Second, with a NAS drive you have the ability to store your music on a free standing unit. This means you can listen to your music without having to switch on your PC or laptop. For many people running a computer injects a level of noise into your living space when you just want to relax and enjoy some music. The WD NAS is silent.

Third, it means you can take your computer away from home and still stream music round your house. It has surprised me the number of clients who use a single computer for all they do, including music / iTunes. This means they have to take a MacBook off to work. Yes, nice to have all your tunes with you, but is anyone else stranded at home with only the sounds of silence?

Sonos? You can enjoy your music via Sonos just as easily from a NAS as you can from a Mac or PC. They play nicely together.

Fourth, backup. I know I keep banging on about this but you do need to make and keep copies of vital files. You can use a NAS drive as a backup device for Windows machines and as a Time Machine drive for Macs. One NAS, backing up multiple machines, automatically. In days when kids do homework on their computers they really need to be protected against the massive panic that would happen if they lost vital coursework files. You can create a lot of data safe havens in the extra 1Tb.

Fifth, sixth etc. Well you can use a NAS drive to keep files in sync across multiple machines, you can access data remotely, you can use it to share large files with people where email attachment limits fail you. If you have another NAS in your holiday home you can keep that in sync automatically. While your main computer can configure iTunes to use the NAS just as it would a local drive, iTunes allows you to stream that music library to all other computers in your house. With a few clicks.

So, if you’re planning to ask us to return your music on a drive, how about thinking NAS rather than USB?

​Should it be USB or NAS?

Only a different set of three letters but it could make a massive difference to the way you enjoy your music, and impact on computer technology in your home (in a nice way).

Let’s start at the end - the financial bit. If we supply your music back on a small USB drive you’ll get a 1TB drive the cost will be £45. However if we upgrade that to a NAS drive the cost will only be £100 - yes double the price, but only an extra £50.

What do you get for the extra money, and is it worth it?

First, you get more storage space. The £100 drive is a 2Tb WD NAS drive so you’ll have twice as much space. VFM, not bad.

Second, with a NAS drive you have the ability to store your music on a free standing unit. This means you can listen to your music without having to switch on your PC or laptop. For many people running a computer injects a level of noise into your living space when you just want to relax and enjoy some music. The WD NAS is silent.

Third, it means you can take your computer away from home and still stream music round your house. It has surprised me the number of clients who use a single computer for all they do, including music / iTunes. This means they have to take a MacBook off to work. Yes, nice to have all your tunes with you, but is anyone else stranded at home with only the sounds of silence?

Sonos? You can enjoy your music via Sonos just as easily from a NAS as you can from a Mac or PC. They play nicely together.

Fourth, backup. I know I keep banging on about this but you do need to make and keep copies of vital files. You can use a NAS drive as a backup device for Windows machines and as a Time Machine drive for Macs. One NAS, backing up multiple machines, automatically. In days when kids do homework on their computers they really need to be protected against the massive panic that would happen if they lost vital coursework files. You can create a lot of data safe havens in the extra 1Tb.

Fifth, sixth etc. Well you can use a NAS drive to keep files in sync across multiple machines, you can access data remotely, you can use it to share large files with people where email attachment limits fail you. If you have another NAS in your holiday home you can keep that in sync automatically. While your main computer can configure iTunes to use the NAS just as it would a local drive, iTunes allows you to stream that music library to all other computers in your house. With a few clicks.

So, if you’re planning to ask us to return your music on a drive, how about thinking NAS rather than USB?

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