An iTunes Alternative?

What do you think of iTunes now? For the first time in ages I've heard sensible people voicing disappointment with the latest version of Apple's iPod management application.

This version is so tipped towards buying from iTunes Music Store, particularly downloading movies, it's hard to remember this is really about managing your music library. Well, at least that's what I thought. If you think iTunes is fast becoming "bloatware", how about this - Doubletwist.

Not surprisingly you can download it from doubletwist.com.

Visually it's a stripped down version of iTunes. Rather than ITMS this one is oriented to Amazon's music service (MP3 downloads). Interestingly this version of iTunes supports many non-Apple devices including Blackberry and Android phones.

Oh yes, it's also free. Give it a try.
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Glass Half Full?

A question I'm often asked at podServe is how much music should I put on my iPod? As in I'll sort through my CDs and decide which to put into my library. My answer is - all of it.

Today computers and iPods have such massive capacity that its quick, cheap and easy to have all your music in digital form. Having it all digital avoids the issue of whether deciding music contents on a CD by CD basis is the best way, if the CD you reject contains just one great track, think of what you're missing.

I just wish I'd taken my own advice. While ripping my collection I came across two CDs by Philip Glass, I know my wife loves his music but, well, I'd never got into it so I just skipped the CDs and pressed on with music I'm comfortable with. The easy choices. Well on Tuesday we went to Philip Glass's concert at the Barbican. I wasn't greatly looking forward to it but you can't deny Glass's position in modern classical music, and at around 70 there won't be many more chances for those of us outside America to hear him play his music.

From the first note I was held, right through to the dying last note. It was a brilliant concert, a great evening out and the music just wonderful. Finally I knew what I was missing. So there - do as I say, not as I do. Yesterday I dug out the CDs I'd previously skipped, put them into iTunes and I'm listening to them now.
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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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iTunes Movie Ripping? Again?

You buy (or more likely bought) a CD and now you want to listen to it on your iPod. iTunes does the conversion, with as little fuss and drama as you could wish for (generally).

Chances are your iPod will show movies, maybe you've downloaded a trailer from the Apple website or even converted one of your own home movies. A process which reminds you of the dark ages of computing.

If only you could just put your movie into iTunes and have it rip the film into the digital file you need. Now wouldn't that be great.

There have been suggestions in the past that this feature would be added to iTunes, it does seem to me and many other people that this is the "missing link" in the entertainment flow, all the more important now that Apple TV seems to be gaining ground. You can handle all sorts of entertainment products, but that DVD you bought, well .... you're on your own for that.

So I was interested to see a footnote to a recent post on Mac Rumors noting that a forthcoming release of iTunes will have a facility to download Blu-Ray DVD data from Gracenote (the database currently used to source your CD metadata). OK, it's a major leap from that snippet to concluding that DVD ripping will be offered soon, but if you add it to all the other suggestions it could be that a major new feature upgrade is on the near horizon.

Put it another way, why add movie database features if you're not going to offer movie ripping?
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iPod Service Module Error

You may have seen the earlier entry on this blog posting suggested solutions to the dreaded iPod Service Module Error. Since this was originally suggested (sadly not be me but by a blog reader) I've received many positive comments saying this soultuion has worked for others.

If you're looking at this and the earlier, longer, set of instructions and for any reason you having a problem I'd suggest you look at the responses to the posts. These don't automatically appear and one of the comments suggests an alternative location at which one of the instruction steps can be located. Best of luck with this.

Oh, and in answer to another post, I don't think there is a "simple" solution to the curse of the iPod Service Module Error.
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XPlay 3 & Senuti

Ever since podServe began I've been using a great program called XPlay, now in its third incarnation. There have been so many times when this piece of software has got me (and our clients) out of a tight spot. Here's a typical case study.

Client has three iPods, a USB hard drive and a new computer replacing the machine that previously housed his music library. The old PC was damaged beyond recovery so the task we were given was to reconstruct one complete music library from four locations. The procedure is pretty simple, you just recover the music from each iPod, merge it with what's on the drive and then do some housekeeping to remove duplicates.

So each iPod was connected in turn to one of our Windows machines that runs XPlay 3, and it dutifully recovered two of the three iPods. Unfortunately it struggled with the third. XPlay recognised the iPod and opened it, but refused to display the contents of the music folder. We were able to update the iPod's firmware (an XPLay function), ran standard Windows disk checking functions, but all to no avail. Music stays stuck on iPod which by bad fortune holds more music than any of the other units.

What could be done? Nothing to be lost by trying to recover the music on one of our Macs. I didn't have much hope and was mentally planning my "Oops sorry" speech to my client. XPlay is Windows only, the equivalent software we have on Mac is called Senuti (yes, that's iTunes backwards). I was immensely relieved to find Senuti quickly grabbed the iPod and promptly started to download the music from iPod to the Apple hard drive.

I was so pleased to have achieved the recovery we needed I was more than happy to overlook the slowness of Senuti compared with XPlay. So while I remain an XPlay fan I'm finding Senuti is quickly winning a place in my heart.
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Useful Podcasts - at Last.

When I first heard about podcasts I thought they'd be big, really big. I know many clients sign up for them, I know here in the UK The Archers daily radio soap is one of the most popular and that comedian Ricky Gervais has made squillions from his hilarious podcasts.

But somehow I think the technology has not blossomed as I'd expected.

Anyway, I came across a useful collection of podcasts from respectable academic sources under the title "50 Terrific iTunes U Lectures to Get You Through the Economic Crisis". Worth taking a look.
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Ripfactory

Ever since the earliest days of podServe I've been in contact with Patrick McGrath, formerly of Ripfactory. If you're casting a film and looking for 'lovable Irish rogue' I don't think you could find a better match. He was always helpful and amusing. Our conversations were mainly about copyright issues and Patrick was a great help.

At some point Patrick raised the question of their robotic ripping system and datagrooming software. Somehow ripping in quantity had never struck me as anything other than a task suited to a parallel rather than a serial approach so I said no to the robot, but yes to their software. The investment was modest, less than £500, but I did expect it to work in accordance with their own leaflets.

It soon became clear that the code was horrendously defective. Despite the best efforts of their technicians none of the programs I bought ever worked as described. Then in the autumn of 2007 I was contacted by a very irate Ripfactory robot owner. He felt he'd been treated very badly by Patrick, sold a robot, paid for it, no unit supplied. This was followed by other contacts from people with the same or similar stories - orders not fulfilled, poorly performing products. They were not happy bunnies. As I've said to many people now, not buying a robot was one of the best decisions I have made in CD ripping. In fact it was such a good decision I think I'm going to make it again today.

I was prompted to put a post here on the matter, and I called it "Ripfactory RIP?" That prompted a call from a less than happy Patrick McGrath. Early in 2008 Patrick contacted me again and said that the issues my post had highlighted had been resolved to the purchasers satisfaction, that the US company MF Digital had taken over supply of the hardware / software bundle, so would I remove my less than flattering entry. Which I did. Despite one or two more rumblings and grumblings things went very quiet on the Ripfactory front.

Yesterday I got a message from a contact in America suggesting I visit Ripfactory's site. Well, it seems poor Patrick's company has hit the buffers and has passed over to MF Digital. This strikes me as better news for Ripfactory's existing clients as I've been impressed by the people I've spoken to at MF Digital. If I had a mobile phone number for Patrick I'd ring him and ask what happened to the investors behind Ripfactory whose pockets were so deep they'd never let the company go but I'll let that one pass.

In these parlous times, and with other robot offerings now available, it strikes me that more suppliers will be fighting over a shrinking market. It will be tough to stay in the game, although thankfully for MF Digital they have other revenue streams so hopefully they'll be able to stay the course. But I still don't think CD ripping is a robot-solved problem, or maybe I'm just a parallel man to the core.

Anyway, even if Ripfactory is no more I hope Patrick resurfaces. Robots are a dime a dozen; lovable Irish rogues are in short supply.
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Senuti - I Used It

Panic phone call from a client - he has a Mac with his music on an external hard drive. With impending dinner party the hard disk failed and he's concerned that he won't be able to pump music around the house using Airport Express. Mrs Client not happy about silence and looming dinner disaster. We talk about plugging his iPod directly into one of the Airport Express units as an emergency fix, that's a possibility but he wants me to make a house call to get music off iPod onto a new drive.

Normally the way we'd handle this is for the iPod to come back here where I'd connect it to one of the PCs and use XPlay to recover the music. I've spoken about XPlay many times before and think its a great product for this type of work. However time is against us so the music has to be recovered at clients home and since my PCs are all desktops that means either using my MacBook or his Mac. Either way I can't use XPlay as that's Windows only.

After a bit of Googling I saw Senuti (groaned to learn thats iTunes backwards) which is Apple OS X based software intended to let you recover music from an iPod back to your Mac. And its free, always a bonus. So when I arrived amidst the stricken music scene I set up Senuti, opened iTunes and crossed my fingers. As you connect the iPod you have to hold down the two keys next to the space bar (cmd,option) which intercepts the normal iPod sync process and lets you select disk mode. Once this is done the iPod is accessible from Senuti.

I was impressed. Senuti checks the contents of the iPod against iTunes and highlights what's on the iPod and not on the hard drive. In our case that was the entire iTunes library, so I selected all the tracks and hit the green arrow in the top left of the Senuti screen and waited. About 30 minutes later the tracks had been copied off the iPod onto the new hard drive. While this was being done I'd read that I could have set Senuti to add the tracks directly back into the iTunes library but I hadn't done that so I had to spend a few minutes reloading the library into iTunes, no great hardship.

Best of all one happy client and very happy Mrs Client. History doesn't recall if the meal was a triumph, I'm sure it was, but I was certainly cooking with Senuti.
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Secret Services - That's podServe

Almost choked on my cornflakes - that could be me. Some months ago I was approached by Cary Whitley as she was compiling a new book. She was reviewing services for people who in marketing speak are cash rich, time poor. Our CD ripping service (read all about it at http://www.podserve.co.uk) was up for inclusion. I'm pleased to say after further talks our service has been listed.

So there this morning is an article by Judith Wood in The Daily Telegraph reviewing 'Secret Services'. Conceitedly I scanned through to see if podServe CD ripping service got a mention, but pride comes before a fall and we didn't get a mention in the Telegraph. Reading the article more closely (I'm not a bad loser) I was fascinated to see the basket of services we're among. I didn't know you can hire a handbag (www.be-a-fashionista.co.uk) or get a company to swoosh out your wheelie bin. I did know there are people who'll assemble flat pack furniture for you and I was pleased to see Ten UK mentioned in the side bar as we've had many of their clients using podServe over the last four years.

If you're looking for a copy of Secret Services by Cary Whitley and her company Fab Publishing, go to www.fabpublishing.co.uk or call 0870 443 0035. If you want to go direct to our CD ripping service we're at www.podserve.co.uk
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iPod Touch Springs Into Life

One of the things I like about my CD ripping service (www.podserve.co.uk) is the chance to play with new toys, and today it was the iPod Touch. A client had invested in one while on an overseas trip and plugged it into an HP Windows PC expecting it to synch music and videos.

Result - nothing. First the iPod Touch began to charge so the unit was functioning, then it appeared in My Computer as a photographic device. I was called over to try to work some magic. A quick look at the PC verified the situation being as reported with no new iPod icon in the iTunes source pane. My first thought was to install the latest version of iTunes, despite my clients belief that this was not going to solve the problem. Acording to the client iTunes update had been run when the new device was plugged in - just a matter of days ago.

"Humour me" I said, and loaded the latest iTunes from my USB drive. It took ages to load, so we made small talk about the wonders of technology, until finally the new iTunes had taken root. Instant succes, I appear to be a minor techie god, the iPod Touch starts to synch as required.

Client mainly wants video content so to check it works OK we go to the Apple site and download a couple of movie trailers. "Wow" says client (actually using another word with one more letter) at the image quality. "Can we get on the internet?' We could, in just a few seconds. I was amazed to see the iPod Touch found more wireless networks than the PC and one was unsecured, so we clicked our way onto the worldwide interweb. It was great, fast, cystal clear and easy to enlarge the page image. Client immediately notices how much better this is than BlackBerry.

Moral of the story - if you're having problems with an iPod Touch (or any other iPod for that matter), make sure you have today's version of iTunes not just what you think might be recent. Don't assume for the sake of a few minutes downloading.

Second moral - if you want to play with cool toys set up a CD ripping service in London.
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Brilliant Stereo Sound That Follows You Across the Room

I’ve got a new best friend. It’s cool white, very discrete and called Dias. Thanks to Dias for the past week I’ve been listening to some great sounds while I work or unwind.

Brilliant sound is what Dias is about. I like a good stereo sound, over the years I’ve invested a lot in audio equipment and music CD ripping is my business now. But getting a good sound here, while I work, is difficult so I love the sound I get now. Yes, the quality is high – very high – but that’s not the main thing. Thanks to Dias I get a great stereo sound wherever I am in the office.

Incredibly Dias stereo sound follows you round the room.

Just think about that. Like me you’ve probably tried speakers attached to your PC, or maybe driven by your iPod. You probably set things up so you get the best sound where you sit, but then when you move, you lose the stereo. Not with Dias – now, my stereo sound really does follow me round the room. Doesn’t matter which PC I’m working on (I rip CDs using six computers), doesn’t matter which end of the office I am, standing up or sitting down, the same great sound.

I’ll try to describe the quality of the sound from Dias. The first thing that struck me is that it’s loud. Some music just needs muscle, rock for sure but a lot of classical music just is loud. An orchestra is loud, and there’s no point in trying to relive an orchestral experience when you can’t make the windows rattle.

Dias, if you want, is thumping loud. Wind up the bass and my wooden floor does overtime transmitting the low notes. That brings me on to the next thing I noticed. Perhaps it’s best described as detail and I hear it in two ways, First, with a good bass setting the music isn’t lost to a dull thump. Dias delivers the bass I love without smothering the rest of the music. Second, there’s a lot of fine points in sound that Dias delivers brilliantly. Sometimes that’s high notes, but I’ve also noticed (I love live recordings) its often little things like a shout from someone in the audience or an aside to another musician, this new system brings out music data I’d expect to hear only on much more expensive systems.

Great at the top, solid at the bottom and faithfully reproducing everything in between. It’s hard to describe what I hear but Dias conveys emotion. Maybe I should call it a warm sound, maybe it’s a human sound quality rather than an overly technical rendition you get with some computer generated sound. Thanks to that emotional quality the Dias is easy to listen to and doesn’t leave you feeling strained. Dias is a good colleague at work and a relaxing friend indoors in the evening.

Where does Dias stack up among the competition? Well, most of my clients connect their iPods to Bose units and Dias can hold its head up in that company. The sound is every bit as good. Both Bose and Dias have that effortless quality people love, plus a handy credit card style remote – all the sound settings are at hand plus a mute button when the phone rings. Subjective comparisons are hard to make but I’d give Dias the edge over Bose because it generates sound over a larger area and is better at carrying that sound round the room.

I’d love to explain how Dias stereo sound follows me when I move and does so without the traditional two speaker system, but I can’t. Try the Dias website – www.diasmusic.com. I’ll just tell you what you get. The biggest of the three ice white units generates the bass and has a black knob labelled ‘spatial level’ which is what does the clever bit – getting stereo in effect from a single speaker. This box can be hidden out of the way, at the moment it’s living under my desk.

Next is the small white satellite unit with speakers at the front and on either side. By the clever use of sound from these outlets Dias generates the great stereo. Because the sound is outstanding anywhere in the room, the location of this unit isn’t as critical as you’d expect in a good stereo. When I set the system up I played with its location but the Dias sounds good wherever the satellite sits. There’s a docking station for my iPod (which charges the iPod while it plays). The cabling is simple to connect and long enough to enable you to locate the units where you want them.

Finally the small remote control. I put my iPod into the dock, hit a playlist and using the remote got the sound I wanted within a couple of minutes. I tweaked the spatial sound knob and found half way round worked great and I’ve left it there. You can use the iPod dock as a sound source – with the new iPod having such a massive disk all your music would be at hand – or connect your computer’s sound card to listen not just to music but internet radio or sound streamed from websites. If you connected this to Apple’s AirPort Express, or a Roku unit, you’d have a brilliant distributed sound system.

That’s my new friend, my best friend. If you love music check out Dias. If you’re interested in digital music check out how Dias makes sound, it’s just so much better than the old two speaker approach. If you’re thinking of pumping sound round your house, check out Dias. If you’re thinking of Bose, check out Dias – sounds better and its £100 less expensive. Dias should be your new best friend too
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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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podServe For Sale on eBay

You can imagine my surprise when I received an email saying my business - podServe (www.podserve.co.uk) - was up for sale. On eBay!

A snip it seemed, with starting bids of $10,000, although as of writing there aren't any bidders.

My blood pressure is now back to normal but I'd like to make clear that my podServe (the CD ripping business for London) is in business, will continue to serve iPod owners and I have no intention of selling up, and certainly not for as little as $10,000. It seems that the PodServe that's on the blocks is an American podcasting platform. You can read more here:-

http://www.texasstartupblog.com/2007/08/27/podserve-for-sale-on-ebay-no-reserve/

So if you want you CDs ripped contact me, www.podserve.co.uk or ring 01277 222398, we are definitely in business.
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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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iTunes, Exact Audio Copy or dBpoweramp?

Last Friday my wife invited some friends and colleagues over and a good time was had by all. That is until I put some music on and we sat out on the patio enjoying the late evening sun, and someone moved his chair to sit next to me.

He said he was moving his seat to get the best audio location. My heart sank – an audio bore. I smiled politely and was pleased when he complimented me on the sound quality. We went through my stereo components and he approved them, although he had ‘auditioned’ my speakers and had gone for a more expensive model. Then the question of CD player.

Actually, I explained, this isn’t a CD player – it’s my iPod. There was a pause. One of the new video iPods? Er, no, this one’s about three years old and its done a million miles, looks like it’s about to fall apart, but sounds good.

“You must have used special software to rip your CDs”. Er, no – iTunes. There was one of those pauses where I’d clearly said the wrong thing. I probed his concern and this was his reply.

“Nobody who’s is halfway serious about music quality would use iTunes.”

That was it. Complete certainty despite the evidence of his own ears. What would be acceptable ripping software? I was given two names – Exact Audio Copy (EAC) and dBpoweramp – which could be relied upon due to the thoroughness with which they read CDs. As my guest explained CDs played via a computer can result in bad CD readings and only advanced software such as these two can read with the accuracy a serious music lover needs. As we later said our goodbyes I thought I’d test that view.

On Saturday I downloaded both applications and set them up on one of my computers. When I set up podServe I’d tried other ripping software so this was a good opportunity to try these, in the case of dBpoweramp re-try. I chose at random five of my own CDs to compare. I wanted to primarily test ripping quality to see if these systems produce better sounds than iTunes.

I started by ripping five CDs into iTunes, stopwatch in hand. Timings carefully noted I repeated the process using EAC. Or at least tried to. EAC is the most confusing product and it took a long time to get a working ripping system. I used the most accurate ripping configuration and eventually the five CDs were added to my hard drive.

dBpoweramp had a more forgiving interface, so I was able to start ripping more quickly. Broadly you can opt for speed of ripping or high accuracy. Thanks to a more communicative interface I could see what had happened when I ripped the CDs. Using the highest accuracy settings each CD had been ripped properly (as was the case with EAC). However it had taken considerably longer to do so – slightly over four times longer.

So I had three sets of rips – iTunes, EAC and dBpoweramp. Bit rates and file formats were the same. Time to sit down and listen for a couple of hours. Did the audiophile rips improve on iTunes? Well not to my ear. As far as I could tell they were identical.
Finally I thought I’d test dBpoweramp’s claim to offer fast ripping. So I switched from great accuracy to speed. Five CDs later I had another set of rips and two notable red flags. On the last tracks of two CDs (The Rolling Stones – Stripped & The Beatles – No 1s) dBpoweramp was flagging ripping errors. What about the speed though? dBpoweramp was marginally slower than iTunes but only by a few seconds. However dBpoweramp got its album data more quickly then iTunes (which was taking a leisurely 15 seconds or more to query CDDB) and at the same time it located the album art. As you may know, iTunes gets its album art in a second pass and only then if its on iTunes.

To be fair to dBpoweramp the fast rips of the good tracks sounded every bit as good as the accurate rips. But there are two tracks where the sound is distinctly flawed, albeit flagged nicely for the user. Given no significant speed advantage I can’t see the point of using dBpoweramp above iTunes.

In this test I found that iTunes was both fast and accurate. It ripped all tracks properly. It ripped all tracks a little faster than dBpoweramp in sprint mode and much, much faster than either EAC or dBpoweramp in their secure ripping modes. And crucially my iTunes tracks sound just as good as the others. Roll on the next home social.
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Sounds Odd

Don't you just love train rides? This week I've been into London twice by train so the last thing to go in my bag as I leave home is an iPod. The iPod in question is the podserve.co.uk main test platform. I hope that sounds grand but its actually three years old and if it were a car it would have been round the clock at least twice.

Leaving in a bit of a rush its pot luck as to what's on the machine. This time it was pretty full (just as well as there were some long delays) with a wide mix of music. None of this is terribly remarkable until I got to Elvis Costello. I can't vlaim to be a big fan but he's done some good stuff. I noticed my favourite, Oliver's Army, wasn't there but none the less started to listen to Elvis.

Then it screeched. Short, sharp scream. Then Elvis performs for a few seconds, then hopped on to the next track. So I skipped back to check what was happening, same thing second time around. I made a note of the track and thought I'd look in more detail when I got back to The Hutch (which is what the office has now been named).

The first thing I did this morning was to listen to the track in iTunes. It plays fine, which was a load off my mind. I wouldn't like the thought that podServe's CD ripping clients were suffering jumpy tracks. Breathe a big sigh of relief and re-synch the iPod. Track still plays up.

So I erased the iPod, and reloaded it with the same playlist. On checking, Elvis is still deformed. My thinking by this time is that there's a fault on the iPod's hard drive and by chance I've found the track that rests on the bad sector. To force a removal to another and better location I created a new playlist, with EC and other artists, and synched the iPod to that. Nothing changed, he was still skipping to the next track after a few seconds. So I again erased the iPod and forced the new, shorter playlist onto it. Crossed fingers.

So on an almost empty iPod poor old Mr Costello finds the same flawed area again. As Sherlock Holmes might say, this is a two pipe problem. Not being a pipe smoker I made do with a cup of coffee.

I thought I'd try the same exercise but rather than use iTunes to load the iPod, I'd use Xplay 2 (from www.mediafour.com). This is a great piece of software that's got me off the hook time and time again. Magic. The track loaded with Xplay works fine. But why?

I can only think that the iPod's mini operating system has a method of placing files that results in the same track landing in the same place each time. Xplay must use a different algorithm. Moral of the story - if your iPod produces odd sounds check with iTunes first for file integrity. If normal resynchs don't solve the problem try a third party product such as Xplay 2.
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iTunes, Hard Drives and The Joys of Windows

Several of our clients (www.podserve.co.uk) have reached the stage where their music libraries are larger than their hard drive on their laptop or PC. So, more and more people are looking to store their music on a separate hard drive, and it particularly suits people with second homes as it allows them to take their msuic with them.

Music library on a USB connected hard drive is a simple system on our Macs. Just plug the disc in, no problems. Leave the drive unplugged, no problem.

Windows? Oh, no. If you open iTunes even once without your hard drive being connected it loses all links between its internal libraries (the itl and itx files) and the real location of your music. You see a swathe of grey exclamation marks, against every track. You can't play your music, your iPod doesn't synch properly. The 'cure' is to reload all your tracks. Not only does this take time, but it means you lose the contents of all your (simple) playlists. Small consolation in that smart playlists rebuild themselves.

Twice in the last few days we've had to fix this problem for clients, neither of whom were happy that their hard built playlists had gone.

So, if your music is on a free standing hard drive - you must hae your drive connected and powered on BEFORE you open iTunes. Each and every time. Please don't blame podServe, Apple or iTunes. This is down to Microsoft and I'm afraid I don't know a work-around.
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Robotic CD Ripping

In an earlier post Ripfactory explained that they were exiting the robotic CD hardware ripping market. Their plan instead was to have their ripping software sold by the hardware manufacturer as part of a robotic ripping solution. Given the worldwide raising of the blood pressure in the CD ripping community at the mention of Ripfactory, a step in the right direction.

Other postings have brought me into contact with MF Digital. I would have no hesitation in recommending them as a first class company to deal with, they've come over as a solid and professional, keen to deliver good service to their client base. They've even stepped into the breach when their erstwhile trading partner had appeared to let a client down.

So the ripping scene takes a step closer to the golden horizon with the launch of MF Digital's combined robot hardware and software CD ripping systems. You can find out more at MF Digital's web site.

The RipStation name echoes the heritage of Ripfactory but the product is supplied by MF Digital. If you're looking for a robotic ripping solution now your first port of call should be MF Digital. Perhaps I can briefly point out that I don't use a robot myself and I hold no brief for MF Digital beyond being happy to plug the good guys.
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Itunes Music Store Enhancements

Macrumors today annouces two significant extensions to the facilities offered by iTunes Music Store.

The first is an advice function - based on past purchases you can be alerted to the availabilty of new music by the same artist. It's a cute feature, I wonder how long it will be before we're told of similar music we would enjoy, much as Amazon does now with its 'other readers have purchased' at the same time.

The second has financial impact - the ability to 'complete my album'. Noticing you've bought one or two tracks you'll be prompted (and probably financially incented) to but the rest of the album. Not only does this make sound business sense but it would go some way to narrow the gap between a downloaded album and the low priced CD suppliers. I wonder if it's Apple or the labels who are biting the financial bullet on this one.

But ...

With a full download costing £7-99 a physical disc offers good value for money. If you'll forgive the plug for our own CD ripping service (http://www.podserve.co.uk), we can rip a CD for £1. I can source a CD in my High Street music store for as little as £5, putting the two together we can still offer a saving plus the client gets a physical CD he can enjoy anytime.

Final shameless plug - podServe also rips your CD at a higher quality than iTunes Music Store.
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