Using iTunes To Control Your Audiophile Music Collection

Using iTunes To Control Your Audiophile Music Collection

Curious how to coax the best performance out of your digital music collection? Do you use iTunes? Then you owe it to yourself and your beloved music collection to check out this article that tells you everything you need to know when it comes to transforming Apple's iTunes into the audiophile source of choice.

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OK, I admit it - I still own a lot of Compact Discs. Yes, I have a good number of SACDs, DVD-Audio and other discs on the shelves but CDs take up the vast majority of space in my media storage area mostly because most of the music that I listen to never was released in a high resolution format. Trust me, I would have re-bought my collection if the pony-tailed, Boomer sellout, know-it-alls at the major labels could figure out how to sell me a $20, copy protected 24/192 stereo file on a Blu-ray. Hell, I don't even need a ton of supplemental materials. I just want to pay more for better sound - just as I pay more for better picture and sound with movies on Blu-ray. With that rant out of the way - managing your music on a server of some sort has become the new-school way for tech-savvy audiophiles to enjoy their music. But before you buy the hype at your local stereo store (assuming you still have one in your area) there are some things you need to know about managing your music collection so that you do it right from the start.

Additional Resource
• Read more audio server news from HomeTheaterReview.com.

Ripping and Re-ripping Music
I first ripped my collection of music, which might have been over 2,000 Compact Discs, about six years ago. This was in an era when hard drive space wasn't as plentiful and was far more expensive. iPods, to this day still a modern marvel for overall musical portability, could barely hold any music compared to today's iPhones, iPod Touches and especially the new Apple iPad. At the time and considering the market conditions - I didn't rip my music for my computer and iPod in full AIFF (CD-level) resolution. The process of ripping the music was time consuming, to say the least, as it took me most of a summer to cart in my CDs from home and rip them between writing articles and making ad sales calls. The end product was pretty impressive with a highly organized folder of music, organized by artist as well as subcategories for certain genres and beyond. This folder worked really well for me for a long time as it provided a personal, quirky and downright flush playlist of music that covers damn near every genre I care about.

Then recently I got an AppleTV for my theater and everything changed.

During the period of time after my first ripping I had my whole collection additionally ripped on a ReQuest Music server which fed a pretty simple Crestron home automation system. There were many advantages to this setup at the time including the fact that the ReQuest server had multiple variable output zones for different parts of the house and the ReQuest could hold nearly all of my CD collection ripped at full resolution. The re-ripping of my music took easily three months to get it all into the ReQuest because I couldn't use my Mac to rip CDs - I needed to use the drive in the unit which often took 15 minutes per disc to rip. Moreover, back in the day - connecting an external Firewire hard drive to a ReQuest was just not possible; thus all of the music in lower resolution was stuck on my computer using iTunes. The CD stuff was on my ReQuest, which I could use at home or even stream over the Internet if I wanted. Where I ran into issues with the ReQuest was with Meta data. Band names like Yes were spelled "Yes" and "YES" thus leaving 90215 under one spelling and Tales of Topographic Oceans under another. Jimi Hendrix was listed with spellings like "Jimi Hendrix," "Jimmy Hendrix" and "The Jimi Hendrix Experience." Don't even get me started on how Prince was organized because - respectfully - it wasn't. The online interface was needed to make playlists, but it was cumbersome to use, thus I got stuck listening to the same playlists over and over again, with no Internet Radio and beyond. "PC convergence," as they like to call it at the Consumer Electronics Tradeshow, had made it to my system - but I didn't want a PC - I wanted a Mac.

Here's the rub. While low res files sound "OK" (audiophiles can flame me below if you must) on computer speakers and ear pod headphones - they sound like a screeching nightmare on an audiophile system. My AppleTV running into a Classé SSP-800 preamp with Mark Levinson N° 436 monoblocks into Revel Salon2s connected with Transparent Audio sounded like - respectfully - crap. Unlistenable crap. Is controlling AppleTV slick? Absolutely. Is listening to Abacab in 1/5 Compact Disc resolution worthy of such a system? Absolutely not, thus I reverted back to spooling up my trusty CDs in my Classé transport because the idea of re-ripping my music again was so burdensome that I couldn't indulge it at this stage.

Then the iPad came out.

Holy crap. For $499, you can get a bigger-than-my-$4,500-Crestron-touch-pannel remote that can be a book reader, surf the Internet, play Frogger and Ms. Pac Man, control my lights, track my stocks, check my fantasy hockey scores and oh yeah - it can completely control my music, movies and photos. I had to have one and as soon as it came out I started looking at how to use it for a simple home automation control. I will admit to you that I haven't had the time to get to that level; however the iPad inspired me to take on the ultimate challenge of re-ripping my music because I was going to need it for every location in my house that has an AppleTV, including my living room, my gym and of course my theater room.

From re-ripping my music, I have come up with some observations that might help you, assuming you will ever try to take on such an ambitious project. Here are some thoughts, tips and advice based on frequently asked Apple iTunes and music collection questions:

Continue reading about how to control your audiophile music with iTunes on Page 2.

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How Big of A Hard Drive Should I Buy To Back Up My Music Collection?
Storage is cheap today. A 2 TB internal hard drive cost me less than $200. Buy a very big hard drive and don't skimp because you will use it up. That is a promise.

Should I Buy An Internal Drive Or External Drive For My Media Collection?
Internal drives copy files faster and seem to allow for the ripping of Compact Discs more quickly. Saving time in this process is always a good idea. My advice is to get one of each and/or setup a RAID configuration if you have a computer that allows you multiple hard drives. The Mac Pro Tower that I use has four hard drive bays and swapping them out isn't too hard nor are the drives too expensive. I also back my music up on an external drive that I keep in another location. There is no way that I am losing this kind of data.

Should I Rip My Music in Uncompressed Formats Like AIFF?
Ripping your music at AIFF levels takes a long time per disc but it is worth it if you care about sound quality. For best performance, use error correction when doing your project even though it might add even more time to your collection. With that said - not every file needs to be in uncompressed file formats but with the cost of hard drive space, it's no big deal to give your whole collection the star treatment.

Should I Mix Uncompressed with Compressed Music Files In My Main Music Collection?
You absolutely can mix compressed and uncompressed files in your collection. I recommend that you color code whatever files you have in compressed formats. I picked blue for these files. Color code the files that you rip in uncompressed levels a different color. You might find that seeing them in another color inspires you to buy more CDs to round out your collection.

Manually Organize The Compilations Folder in iTunes?
Make sure your "Compilations" section is in order, as it can get messy. Full albums that belong in your main folder end up in there. Others belong in sub-folders such as "Christmas" or "Lounge" or "World Music." Take the time to put the files where they belong. Add folders, create subcategories and keep this catch-all folder fully organized.

How To Make Subcategories For Your Music in Apple iTunes?
Not every artist has to have his or her or their own folder in your main drive. I have one for World Music, Reggae, Rap, Country and Classical as well as one for Classical Guitar, which is a favorite playlist. Led Zeppelin or The Beatles likely earned their own folder but all of your world music is likely better subcategorized.

How Long Does It Take To Rip My Music To A Hard Drive?
Full length albums (35 min to 50 min est.) often vary greatly in the time that they take to rip. Some albums go pretty fast (about five minutes). Others can take upwards of 15 minutes. I find the ones that take the longest are scuffed up or have Final or CD Stoplight on them. Thankfully, I don't have too many scummy CDs left, but with error correction on - they end up getting you what you want even if it takes a little while longer.

Where Do I Set My Ripping Preferences In iTunes?
Be sure to set your ripping preferences to an uncompressed format assuming that is what you want for the disc. I normally use AIFF and select it when you drop a disc into iTunes, there is a button called "import settings" at the lower right of the window. From there you can select AIFF and or turn on error correction.

How To Get Every Album In Your Collection To Have Cover Art in iTunes?
In iTunes, Apple has a feature that allows you to have them pull album art for you and I recommend it (iTunes - Advanced - Get Album Cover Art) which will automatically get you upwards of 80 to 90 percent of the cover art you want for iTunes, AppleTV, your iPod, iPad and or iPhone. Be forewarned that the accuracy of these album covers isn't perfect. Also you will still have blanks to fill in. Managing your blanks is pretty easy. On the right side of your iTunes interface there is an iconic graphic that allows you to toggle through views like "List," "Cover Flow" and "Icons." Select icons when you have some time and scroll down alphabetically and manually replace your cover art with missing or correct files. This is easily done using files from Google Images. Simply find the art, cut and paste the art and then toggle back to iTunes. Select the song and use Apple I for "get info." Select the tab for artwork and paste the file in and you are set. You can select multiple files from your iTunes main music collection and add images to an entire album by selecting more than one song in an album with the use of the Shift key while selecting each file on the album.

Backup Your Music Collection Hard Drive Or Else!
Plan on buying at least one backup drive. You likely have thousands of dollars of music in your collection and re-ripping the files is something that you want to avoid. Trust me - you want to avoid it. I recommend buying an external drive and putting it in your safety deposit box or keep it at your office if your work environment is conducive to that. Hard drives go bad. They just do and you don't want to lose the effort that you put into this project.

Should I Load Every Album From My Music Collection Into iTunes?
Don't feel pressured to dump every album that you have into iTunes when you are done. Your hard drive is your master storage area tantamount to the CDs that sit on your shelves. You can move records in and out of your collection in iTunes as you see fit much like you might rotate different suits in and out of your wardrobe based on the season. Think about it: if you have a lot of Jimi Hendrix - how many versions of "Red House" do you really want to listen to at any given point. Also, if you use your main iTunes music folder in "Shuffle" like I do - you might have an odd balance of music skewed more to one artist that you might like.

It's important to note that your music is ripped into iTunes when you are ripping music to your hard drive. What I tend to do after a big upload is to start fresh with iTunes and reload the music that I want to listen to. This helps keep my collection fresh. The uploading of album cover art can be a pain as can uploading playlists, but after a big upload it can be helpful. Here's a trick if you are already pretty well setup in iTunes - sort by date in iTunes and remove the files you don't want from the most recently added tracks.

Programming Your Mobile Devices That Have Different Media Than Your Main iTunes.
Take the time to program your iPod, iPad and iPhone differently. Perhaps you use your iPod Nano for the gym - then make playlists for that with your best workout music. If you take your iPad with you on trips, make sure it's loaded with games, books and the music that you like to travel with.

Playlists Make The World Go Round When It Comes To iTunes
Playlists are key to making an iTunes system do what you want. The Genius feature is neat but for true audiophiles - we want to listen to what we want to listen to when we want it. Make a playlist for your best demo tracks. Make playlists for different moods. I have one for mellow jazz but if I dump 82 John Coltrane albums in there - you get those four records where he was strung out on junk and they can wreck your groove after a stressful day.

Finding New Music and Buying More Music For Your Collection After You Rip Your CDs To Your Hard Drive.
Test your playlists and use Amazon, iTunes or even a good local record store to suggest what you can add to your collection. Buying more music and expanding your collection is what it's all about and when you are consuming music you get the itch to buy more audio gear. It fires up the hobby.

Time will tell if I get my iPad to be able to do what my Crestron system can do, but I am up for the challenge. In the meantime, I am taking on the challenge of controlling my music like a master. For those with large sums of money, systems like the Meridian-Sooloos and/or Kalidescape are useful but expensive. Their best advantage is the way they manage meta data. Sooloos is likely the best but it doesn't do movies as well. Before I pop for one of these systems - I am going to see how far I can get my iTunes to go. You don't have to be in the cult of Apple to get involved in this program; however if you buy an external hard drive or two, an AppleTV and start ripping music - don't be surprised if Steve Jobs lures a dedicated PC user over to the dark side of the Mac.

Additional Resource
• Read more audio server news from HomeTheaterReview.com.

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