Wind turbines on the mountain

I finally flipped with Apple Music

On Saturday I wanted to buy a music track (Kometenmelodie 2 by Kraftwerk from Autobahn if you must know), to complete an album in my music library. It was important to me to listen to it right then as I was emotional about the passing of Florian Schneider and this was a track that was important to me as a boy. I had the CD, in a box somewhere but I thought it would be quicker, easier and only 99p to buy the track digitally. But even though I tried and tried, I still could not figure out how to buy it on iTunes. All paths in what was originally hailed as a

"revolutionary and simple Audio CD ripper and music organiser"

seemed to lead to subsciptions to Apple Music. As an esoteric fan of physical media and ownership of my music collection, I have Apple Music turned off in my preferences, as I am never going to sign up for a monthly streaming audio account for music I care little about, despite my childrens' attempts at conversion. I suppose this means I am not the Apple demographic for Apple Music now. Perhaps I never was.

I've concluded that the iTunes apps which I have used for over 19 years are now dead. Apple Music today is conflicted about what it is and the iTunes brand name is gone. If the next release follows this direction of travel it will likely suit my requirements even less. iTunes had a visualiser and a graphic equaliser. They are still there in Apple Music but well hidden now by the Apple Music storefront. I don't want to hunt for the functionality I need. Apple Music never got an enhanced DVD or Blu-Ray disk importer to match its Audio CD ripper presumably because ripping CD's is accepted but ripping movies is not. Apple haven't provided any hardware with DVD or Blu-Ray drives for years now either.

Neutron Player

So what could replace Apple Music? Well I've always had Neutron Player—it still has the greatest sound on mobile because of its 32/64-bit audio engine. But its quirky design and lack of curation across multiple devices from a server isn't really what I am looking for.

Plexamp

I have a Plex Media server for movies (of course) and I noted recently that Plex Labs had a couple of mobile apps, but hadn't paid very much attention. Plexamp, they said was

"A beautiful Plex music player for audiophiles, curators, and hipsters"

Screenshot of Plexamp on macOS

I read the release note when it came out which promoted a Tidal subscription. Another ten quid a month subscription I knew I didn't need.

You probably know I create mobile phone apps for a living so I have an unusual array of devices running iOS, Android, macOS and Linux. So the decision about what to choose needs to be something that would play my library on as many of my devices as possible. This is not to be a library in the cloud from a subscription service like Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music or Tidal. One thing I've decided is that subscription based music streaming services are not what I want at home.

Upon further investigation into Plexamp, the system requirements say you need a Plex Media Server and an active Plex Pass to use their app with a Plex music library. No Tidal Subscription required. I have all that but I have not actively maintained my Plex server, and there is no music on it. Fortunately, I have found myself with a little extra time at the moment, which I am spending on home server housekeeping, updating, backups, firewall management and sorting out the network to make it more effective.

Finally, after completing all the maintenance steps, I needed to add my music, as it became clear that the Plexamp wouldn’t work at all, unless there was a proper Plex music library for it to examine. I had previously been so ‘conditioned’ to believe that this was Apple’s realm, that it had never occurred to me to set up a Plex music library.

I have not felt the need to properly examine the ‘Music’ folder on my Mac since iTunes first launched, which has been nearly twenty years. I have kept it through the iSync years syncing to Symbian phones, and on into the early iPhone years when you could also sync your library to your original Apple TV. Now that we have reached the Apple Music years, you cannot sync your personal library to your Apple TV anymore and the Apple Music Preference setting

"Keep music media folder organised"

is no longer sufficient for my needs.

After twenty years of neglect, my ‘Music’ folder was a mess, partly due to this long history of use I am sure. I've got ripped CD's, as well as music I have obtained from outside the Apple world digitally, like The Beatles USB stick. Plex expects music content to follow a naming convention 'Music/ArtistName/AlbumName/TrackNumber - TrackName.ext' The Beatles USB is in the form 'Music/ArtistName/flac/AlbumName/TrackNumber - TrackName.ext' and music ripped from CD/vinyl into 'iTunes/Apple Music' is not so cleverly organised. Instead it is spread over the '/Music/iTunes/Apple Music/' and '/Music/iTunes/Apple Music/iTunes/Apple Music Music/' folders. If you found the past few sentences confusing, imagine looking at over twenty years worth of music file names that lack consistency in naming.

All the music I have ever played in iTunes is there. Apple Music displays the album listings correctly and in their entirety. But on the drive, in the folders it is all jumbled up. Pretty much every album has some data in '/iTunes/Apple Music/' and other data in '/iTunes/Apple Music/iTunes/Apple Music/'. I know not why, or how, it came to be like this.

I have now sorted and moved by my Music Library and its 20 years of detritus into Plex, with astounding results for Plexamp. It may have taken hours of work, but it is already a thousand times better. Now my music is all in Plex preferred folder hierarchies. 'Music/ArtistName/AlbumName/TrackNumber - TrackName.ext’.

Plexamp has a simple and effective user experience. It has some quirks, probably because it is written for cross platform use on phones and computers of various types, which I applaud of course. The music quality is high, the Plex curation of band information and cover art from my reorganised folder and the Internet was automatic and very good indeed, it caches for spotty wifi/data and supports offline playlists which was a key use case for me before the pandemic and will be be again when travel recommences. It has a pretty visualiser as well which was lost or hidden in Apple Music for years. It is pleasing and intuituve to use and has some well thought out themes that look good on modern devices.

While this may seem like a job well done, if I am to truly change my music management system and leave Apple Music behind, there still remains a couple of things to think about and act upon.

X Lossless Decoder - XLD

Screenshot of XLD for macOS
X Lossless Decoder - XLD

Firstly, rippers for macOS. Apple music has too much lock in to Apple Music and its folder management. I found an audio ripper. X Lossless Decoder XLD which is a tool containing a CD ripper to 'lossless' audio files such as flac files. It is well documented, works well on macOS, and the source code is published. All good! Importantly it and outputs what I need. I also use MakeMKV which can rip from Blu-Ray and DVD.

Secondly, I need to tend my library a bit more. I use Carbon Copy Cloner for macOS folder cloning and management. It was easy to set up a job to copy my Plex Library to an external backup drive. Its important to have a backup in addition to my Time Machine since it took hours to create. If I want to I can take the external drive with me if we ever need a portable copy of the whole library.

Delete Apple Music

Lastly, I can delete Apple Music. It may be just a token gesture but the analytics will show that I’ve moved on.

Plexamp works on iOS, Android, macOS and Linux - thats everything I need. I've no connection with the folks at Plex but I know good software when I see it and Plex with a Plexpass and Plexamp is highly recommended and honestly setting it up, and sorting though all my CD's was quite fun to do too even though it took a long time.

What next

My next job is to digitise my oddball LP collection. Thats another story.


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This article was originally published on my LinkedIn

Note: iTunes, Apple Music, Mac and macOS are trademarks of Apple Inc., Plex, Plexamp and Plex Media Server are trademarks of Plex, and various other product names used here are used for reference only and do not imply any endorsement by those companies and indeed are probably trademarks of their respective companies registered in the U.S. and other countries.