This is the location of the podServe blog posts published up to June 2015.

Welcome to the podServe blog, a selection of tips, tricks, comments and various other ramblings on the topic of CD ripping, digital music, streaming and all the things that go right and wrong in being entertained.

Sonos - iTunes - Out of Sorts

This afternoon I was at a client's premises looking into some problems with their network and how that was handling music streaming. The client asked me to look at an issue that was puzzling him and it concerned music on his Sonos controller, compared to his iTunes library.

He showed me his Sonos hand held controller and accessed his Bach music. Right at the top of the list were two tracks that were obviously out of order. When we crossed to the Mac with iTunes, did the same search and looked at the result. A very different result. It was a trip down memory lane for me, back to my early days in IT when as a programmer you had to keep in mind a thing called "sort order".

I've deliberately put "sort order" in quotes, but if you saw that phrase among others, sorted alphabetically, where would you expect it to be slotted? In the good old days It manufacturers took different views and looking at the Sonos display it was obvious that the Sonos view is that single quotes and double quotes should come at the top of the list, like this -

'A
"A
A
B
C and so on.

Looking in iTunes it's clear Apple have set up iTunes to ignore any distractions such as the single or double quotes. So the track title will appear in the place it would be in if it didn't have those marks. Clever, would have saved me hours and hours all those years ago.

So if you have an iTunes / Sonos environment and you're experiencing some sort oddities take a look at your track names and album titles. My client's library is huge (2,700 albums) and I found four albums and 12 tracks that started with ' or ". It only took a few minutes to edit out those unnecessary characters and now iTunes and Sonos sort in harmony. Lovely.
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More Bits?

Talking about quality yesterday, and how CD ripping has changed since we started. Gone are the days of persuading clients to move up from 128 Kbps AAC or MP3 files, squeezing music collections onto masses of CD-Rs then onto DVDs. Today's standard is Apple Lossless delivered on a small USB drive.

So what about 24-bit rips?

At heart the source of our digital music libraries hasn't changed, that being the CDs issued over the years. Just to be a little technical, the music on those discs have been mastered from an analogue source using computer software which expresses each note as a digital value, stored in 8 bits. The big "complaint" about CDs and digital music is that it loses the detail, the warmth, the "feel" in the process. Something that doesn't affect vinyl. Suppose you upgraded and converted music using more bits to represent each sound, then you'd get back the elements that were lost. Well, that's the argument and indeed there are now a number of high quality music streaming or download services which are built on 24 bit sound.

Why don't we rip at 24 bit?

First, if we just ripped from the typical CD there would be no benefit. As an 8 bit source there's no way you can get back that which was lost when the CD was created. Second, you'd need 24 bit friendly devices to store, manage and play back the music. That isn't available in iTunes, the iPod or even a system such as Sonos.

Would we rip in 24 bit? Yes, we would, even if the only justification were to future proof our clients collections. However true 24 bit music libraries would require re-mastered CDs, better ripping software, plus storage and replay systems to take advantage of all that extra data. That's not going to happen any time soon.
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The Worst Music Mess?

CD ripping service“Is this the worst mess you’ve ever seen?” It’s one of our most frequently asked questions, usually posed when we’re called onsite to deal with a home entertainment issue. In most cases the problems aren’t massive and it’s pretty easy to find a polite way to sidestep the question.

Except on Monday. By a county mile I cam across the worst mess I’ve ever come across.

I’ll give you a flavour of the issues by describing the hardware. A PC, an iMac, a Sonos system with ten zone players. Next to the iMac were three iPad devices - two Classics with stick on labels, then an iPod Touch in a labelled box. Nestling amongst the Sonos boxes were three iPod docks, and yes, each dock had its own iPod Classic.

Then I was told there was a Mac Mini, and sure enough next to the Sonos boxes and the router, in a basement cupboard, there was a little silvery box with a tray containing a flip up screen, keyboard and a mouse. Then I saw the WD My Book Live NAS drive.

How did this mess come about? Here’s the history. Initially the client had a PC and naturally they put their music on it. A while later they decided to move from the PC to the iMac, their music was copied across by the Apple install man. Using the Mac resulted in a larger music library on the Mac, and a stack of classical music CDs ready to be ripped.

Not wanting to rip the CDs themselves, and the Sonos installer not being prepared to do it for them, they hired a student to rip the CDs. The Mac Mini was bought to give the student something to work on, hence that unit.

While the student was ripping the CDs they decided to install the NAS drive because the client didn’t want to have to leave the iMac on when (in due course) the Sonos system was linked up. However once the Mac Mini project was completed nobody seemed to know how to get all the music onto the NAS drive, so various genres of music was downloaded to its own dedicated iPod Classic. Each iPod was planted in its own Sonos dock, so that the in-house music system had something to broadcast.

Where can I begin to describe the problems the household had with all this. First the music ripped onto the Mac Mini had vast gaping holes - none of it had genre information attached. As the Mini didn’t connect to the rest of the home network none of the music on that could be shared, it couldn’t be accessed on the iMac, it couldn't be put onto any of the other iPods. As the iPod Classics driving the Sonos system sit in docks all day, and the docks are in an airless cupboard they frequently seize up. When that happens nobody can access that genre of music in the house until some kind family member does a hard reset. A problem that’s happening more and more often, iPods simply aren’t meant to run all day every day.

The client doesn’t know how to add music, there’s effectively a berlin wall between the Apple iMac in-house and the Sonos system. They have a bag of new music they’d like to add but if they add it to the Mac Mini somebody has to stand in the cramped cupboard ripping CDs. Oh, and as the Mac Mini daren’t be connected to the internet, all track data has to be entered by hand.

Maybe I’m being picky but despite the effort that had been invested in CD ripping (including some poor soul who had stood ripping 400+ CDs onto the Mac Mini) the music had been ripped to Apple AAC at just 256 kbps. Now that’s more than fine for an iPod on the tube but a massive Sonos investment real ought to be driven by higher quality music, Apple Lossless.

The way ahead?

After some head scratching I think the place to head towards is one where all the family’s music is stored in a single place. That should be the NAS drive. How do we do this? Well the Mac Mini has been dragged from its subterranean lair and the music has been removed to another drive.

As the iMac is connected to the internet and the home network the music recovered from the Mini will be plugged into that, where we’ll spend a few hours tidying up the resulting music library. Once that’s done we’ll copy that all onto the NAS drive, setting the iMac to rip into Apple Lossless for any music they might rip themselves in the future.

Once that’s done we’ll make sure the Sonos system is connected to the same router as the rest of the system, and that the Sonos Controller program points to the shared drive on the NAS. When that’s been done all the music will be available on each computer or Sonos unit in the home, any iPod could be loaded with any selection of music regardless of genre. When this is achieved the client will have a few iPods and iPods Sonos docks surplus to requirements.
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Sonos - A Bridge Too Far?

A few years ago I was in a hi-fi store, rudely eavesdropping on a conversation between a couple on Sonos. He was sold, she clearly thought this was (another) of her husband's daft ideas. I recognised the look I've seen so many times on my wife's face.

The salesman just passed a hand held Sonos controller to the lady and smiled. That was a really great sales tool, the wife scrolled though the music and clicked on a track. The shop was filled with "her" music, and she broke into a broad grin. I imagine they now enjoy a great Sonos system in their home.

On Saturday I found myself in a nearby PC World store. They now sell Sonos and there was another couple, him sold, her doubting. The salesman was trying to close the sale and telling rather than showing her, how easy the system is to operate. He didn't have a hand held controller (they abandoned that in favour of phone and iPad apps) and he hadn't linked his own phone to the in-store device. Her face was becoming more stony with every passing techno-babble second.

"What's that?" she said, in a tone of voice which, in the case of my own dear wife, means its never coming near our house.

The salesman explained it was the bridge, and at the moment it's free. Back home in Sonos HQ that's probably a big deal but over here, on a cold retail park on a dark December afternoon it's not a deal closer. You have to have it. "Why?" she said, not unreasonably. The PC World salesman tried to explain, and ended up with a lame you-have-to-have-it. But Mrs didn't want it. This time the husband tried "you'll hardly notice it's there" to which she retorted that she will, it takes up space, it gathers dust, it eats electricity, and it probably bleeps or flashes and keeps the kids awake or cause the hound to howl. "The other one didn't have one of those" she said, crushingly.

At this point I feared my eavesdropping was becoming noticed so I drifted off to another part of the store. Some minutes later we saw the couple walking across the car park, neither clutching a PC World or Sonos bag.

Since then I've been thinking. Yes, I understand why they dropped the controller in favour of apps, and sort of appreciate why they have the bridge unit, but somehow their stance might be comprehensible to the techies among us, to at least half Mr and Mrs Normal out shopping, it's an unnecessary bit of kit.
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Sonos Alternative? From Pure?

Just seen this, it caught my eye as I love the Pure Avanti we invested in a year or two ago. Yes - could Pure become a serious alternative to Sonos? I've got some head scratching to do but this is the article in question.

Pure Connect iOS and Android apps updated.
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CD Ripping - What 2013 Holds

Welcome to the New Year, and it's hard to believe another year of CD ripping lies ahead. Born of a period of childhood fads there have been times when I've thought people would lose interest in mobile music, or maybe streaming services such as Spotify would render us all pointless; but no, we are still here and looking forward to processing more CDs.

We are resolved to do better. First, we have taken steps to significantly improve throughput. During our first few years order sizes were around 200 - 250 CDs, we could handle this best by working around 9-17 using what has become six PCs. However when we got larger orders, 500+, it was a challenge to get this voulume of music converted in seven days. Over the last couple of years CD collections of over 1,000 discs have become common. We'd like to get those out in a week but it's hard to do that using the previous process of distributed systems. About six months ago we invested in a Nimbie CD ripper. This enables us to load up around 100 CDs and leave those to be ripped in a batch. Add a few evenings of unattended operation and throughput has gone up. For this reason we have another robotic CD ripping system on its way to us and we are hopeful that big collections next year will be ripped as quickly as smaller collections.

Second, we've taken steps to improve the quality of our Data Grooming service. These are very much 'under the hood' but we hope our clients like the results, even though it is a bit frustrating that clients don't normally appreciate just how much better their metadata is than it might have been.

Third, we're gaining more experience at delivering even higher quality music. When we started iTunes Music Store supplied music at 128 Kbps but we opted for twice that level with 256 Kbps AAC files. Today more clients are looking for lossless music which means returning files on DVDs has become unrealistic. So we've been down the USB thumbdrive route into USB connected external drives and into NAS drives. Additionally we're able to supply music on hard drives which can be installed inside a tower style system or in a bay of your NAS unit.

Taking these enhancements we're confident that 2013 will be our biggest and best year yet, and if you become one of our clients, we look forward to meeting you.
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Sonos Solved by Support Superstar

It's a few years since the name Sonos crept into my business vocabulary. It is very much the home audio system of choice for our clients who want music all round the house. For most of our works its been an absolute dream, we convert our clients CDs, load the digital files into their iTunes library, Sonos picks up the tracks from there.

Happy iTunes, happy iPod, happy Sonos - everyone's happy.

From time to time though it does go wrong, so a couple of times I've had to reinstall the Sonos computer controller and reboot the music library. And in one notable case our client's system just stopped working. Anyway yesterday we were called in to sort out the pesky Sonos, once and for all. Three hours into the task and not getting very far I did more digging around the main Sonos website and found mention of support over internet chat. I crossed my fingers and hit the button. A few minutes later I was chatting to Gordon.

Gordon is my hero.

One of the things I found out is that Sonos has a diagnostic facility. Using the main controller facility you create a file which you send to Sonos. As the file is submitted you get a code number, I sent that to Gordon and in a few seconds he had some suggestions. With his help we got the malfunctioning hand controller back working, loaded the latest software in the main Mac, updated the software in four of the five Zone players. In a few moments of joy I blasted some Bach over the rooftops of London.

Along the way I learnt a few mini-lessons that I think will help me should we be faced with this knotty problem again. First, update the controller software running on your PC or Mac. Then use that to load music into the Sonos library and maybe link into internet radio stations. Make sure that works properly.

Second, tackle the nearest Sonos device first. This is the unit that has to be hard wired to your router. Its should be an easy matter to press the mute and volume up button which reboots the unit. Check with the Sonos desktop controller to make sure this unit has been found. I'd also suggest moving the Sonos off its default channel, I think I put this on 1 rather than 6.

Sonos runs its own network in which each Zone Player links to the next. It doesn't matter how well your home wireless network works, how good the signal is, Sonos ignores this and does its own thing. Sadly its own little world can be screwed by your home mobile phone, the baby alarm or a radio doorbell. Hence try to get it away from any likely source if interference. Having got the first Zone Player working move onto the next closest because that's daisy chaining the network around your house.

This is what we did, progressively updating each Zone Player software as we went. We also updated the software in the handheld Sonos controller. Having spent a couple of hours getting to this stage we hopped round the house in minutes setting the other three units. When we got to the last unit we could see where the problem was - simply no signal this far down the house. On previous visits we'd started here and tried to solve this unit's malfunction, obviously a hopeless task that was never destined to work.

We were left having to explain only one thing to the client. Why did it work originally and not later? Well, Zone Players are brick like units. They don't look great on display in a very well decorated house so my client had them tastefully put away in purpose built cupboards with nice, close fitting doors. Add soft furnishings, carpets, rugs - the signal that rattled round the empty house just gets soaked up in a furnished home. So the final part of the solution has to be installing a Sonos Bridge unit, this doesn't play music but it boosts the signal, I hope, enough to reach the far rooms of the home.

Thanks Sonos, I understand. And thanks Gordon, wherever in the world of Sonos you may be.
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iPod Moves To Kill Sonos

In various places I've speculated on the possibility of using the new iPod Touch, with its wi-fi capabilities upgraded, to act as a remote control for a home music / entertainment system. One of the attractions of such a device for me, being so associated with Apple as I am through podServe.co.uk, is to be able to take on Sonos.

The term in my mind for such a device was 'Sonos killer'. In my opinion it would lever Apple into a whole new dimension for complex home audio. Yet being Apple, it would look great, work out of the box, have a cool user interface and a realistic price tag.

Is this simply a pipe dream? Well apparently not, because judging by Apple's patent applications they're heading in that direction. This great blog post explains it all:-

http://www.macnn.com/blogs/?p=311

Please Apple, get moving on this. I'd place a small wager that this will be the in-demand boys toy for Christmas 2008.
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iTunes & Sonos Reunited

I was asked by a long-standing podServe client to source and install a new computer system for his London home. One of the key features was that it had to store his music in a form that was available to a new Sonos system. Without the computer having to be switched on all the time.

The configuration we agreed on was largely Apple components. We're both Apple fans so we opted for a new iMac (with the 20 inch screen), connected to Apple's AirPort Extreme (the new version with N grade comms) and a Netgear modem. Data storage ended up being a LaCie ethernet connected hard drive. Installation was a two phase approach, I went in one afternoon to connect up my hardware, the audio visual suppliers went in the next day to do their stuff, mainly setting up the Sonos system.

Actually there was a wait of several weeks while BT supplied first a broadband connection to the clients door, then a week or two before the phone wiring was able to get the signal up to the top of the house where we needed it. Anyway, I did my bit and when I left the music was on the hard drive, the system was connected to the internet, iTunes played music and there was a wireless signal so my client and his wife could use their laptops. The following day the AV team went in.

I got a message to say that although the Apple / iTunes / Sonos mix worked fine when the AV guys were there, our client found the next day that Sonos had 'lost' its music. No sound, no customer satisfaction. I was aked if I'd go onsite with the AV company's technical man to see if we could resolve this. Three hours later we had everything working, but it was a fraught installation.

The first problem we had to overcome was the http address of the ethernet drive - how do you find it? Actually this was simple, using the software LaCie supplies called IPConfigurator. This is a free download from the support area of lacie.com (its also bundled on their discs I believe). This is a simple utility that when run scours your network and comes back with a list of addresses for any connected drives. perhaps I should say LaCie conncted drives, I haven't checked to see if IPConfigurator will find drives made by other companies.

Mr podServe is a happy man thinking we're almost there. Over to the AV expert to use the Sonos configration software to set up the sound system. At this point we have a problem getting the Sonos software on the Mac to accept the http address of the drive. Eventually we got it to accept our entry - if you're doing this remember you need to input not only the address but also the username and password. Even so it wasn't easy to get the Sonos unit to go to the drive and catalogue the music.

We battled with the Sonos wireless connection, no luck. We connected the nearest Sonos to the router via ethernet cable, still it wouldn't access the drive. We swapped Sonos units thinking that might be the issue, nothing worked. So my AV guru had the brainwave to connect the LaCie hard drive to the ethernet port on the Sonos unit, which was in turn connected to the router.

Bingo! It worked, Sonos found the drive and catalogued the music library. Then that information was propagated through the Sonos network. It seems they create their own little peer-to-peer network for this purpose, very clever. To round off the configuration I opened iTunes on the iMac and set about getting the music library to point to the relocated LaCie drive. I had thought this would be a tricky task but no, very straightforward. When done (the main problem was waiting the 10 minutes it took to complete the re-listing in iTunes) we had:-

- a functioning Sonos network
- Sonos Zone players happily accessing different music from different parts of the house
- iTunes playing music from its library.

All at the same time, all with a very quick pick up time from the hard drive. We switched the iMac on and off, same for the Sonos, just to check amnesia hadn't crept back in and we found it worked and continued to work. Job done, Mr podServe is a happy man, as is the hi-fi guru.

The configuration we finished with is a Netgear modem/router to which we connected the iMac, the AirPort Extreme and one Sonos controller. The LaCie ethernet drive is conncted to the Sonos controller, from which the iMac happily accesses it. There's sound and wireless thoughout a four storey brick and concrete house on the edge of the City.
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