Music Library Management Chapter Two: Storing

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So you've acquired your digital music, from CDs or downloads, but how do you store your collection? Initially the simple answer is that you store computer based audio on the initial computer that performs the music acquisition.

There are a number of issues with this though. Space may be limited on the computer. It's also inflexible; your computer has to be turned on so that you can listen to music. This chapter discusses flexible and future proofed ways of storing your computer music collection.

How much space?

One of the first thoughts you probably had when building a digital music library is "how much space will it take"? In other words, how much computer storage will you need? Will your existing computer's hard disk be able to take the strain, or should you invest in an extra one?

As discussed in the previous chapter, I recommend ripping to lossless music format. The most obvious drawback of this is the extra storage space that it takes.

The following table makes some bold assumptions about the average size of an average album. The figures are only meant to be a guideline, but it shows that ripping to lower quality MP3 and OGG will save more disk space.

Albums MP3 256Kb/s CBR* (GBs) Ogg 256Kb/s VBR* (GBs) FLAC (GBs)
100 12.2 12 29
1000 122 120 290
10,000 1220 1200 2900

* http://www.bobulous.org.uk/misc/audioFormats.html

It's worth noting that 256Kb/s Ogg will probably also sound better than 256Kb/s MP3s, due to the superiority of the codec.

Clearly, a lossless music library will take up two-to-three times the amount of space of a lossy library. For a large collection of 10k albums, you require almost three terabytes of storage space. That's much more space than is available on most desktops or laptop computers at the time of writing.

I just wrote "at the time of writing" and, indeed, as with many things in the digital and computerised world, technology advances fast. Storage costs continually fall. You may already know of Moore's Law, which states the number of transistors that can be placed in an integrated circuit doubles every two years (this is CPU power to you and me). Well, there's a similar law for storage: Kryder's Law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Kryder).

Kryder's Law states that storage density achievable in computer storage doubles each year. In tandem, and importantly to you and me, the amount of storage purchasable per dollar, pound or yuan doubles each year also ( http://www.mattscomputertrends.com/Kryder's.html).

This means enough space to store all but the largest collections is now easily affordable. Taking the largest collection in the examples above, a three terabyte disk now costs around £100/$157/€115 (30th April 2012). In the context of wider expenditure on hi-fi equipment, this is a small amount and it also has the benefit of flexibility; it can be re-used for other data, such as photos, videos and documents.

On a computer

Most computer music libraries end up, at least at first, being stored on a computer's hard disk.

Initially, there's nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it's probably the easiest option. If you are ripping CDs to computer audio, the ripper will likely run on your computer and therefore storing the files on your computer's disk is the easiest, fastest thing to do.

Furthermore, if you are simply playing the music on your computer and not anywhere else in the home it makes some sense to store them on the computer because streaming them across your network will be slower (although probably not noticeably slow). Re-organising your music library on the other hand, which we come to later in this book, will be a lot slower across the network.

The main trouble with storing your music on your computer's hard disk is that your computer needs to be turned on for you to access the music. If you have invested in a home music network, with speakers and hardware in different rooms of your home, it can be a pain to have to switch your computer on each time you want to listen to some music.

The fact that the computer needs to be switched on is not only a hindrance to playing music. Other processes, such as automated backup, become more difficult if the computer is not turned on (and obviously so if the computer itself is responsible for the backup).

So if your computer music files aren't stored on a computer, where else can they be stored? Answer: on a NAS.

On a NAS

What's a NAS? Well I'll start with what the acronym stands for: Network Attached Storage. Essentially it's like a computer hard disk but attached to your network rather than directly to your computer.

As it's connected to your network, any of your computers can connect to it and use the files stored therein. This opens up your music files to all of your computers, tablets and smartphones on your home network. Importantly, it also opens up your music files to any music players in your home. Modern networked music players are capable of connecting to a NAS to play the music that's stored. All of a sudden, just by moving your music files to a separate device you have opened up the music-playing potential of your home music network enormously.

That's pretty cool, but possibly the biggest benefit is that a NAS is left on 24/7, unlike desktop or home computers. A NAS typically consumes much less energy than a normal computer, and runs cooler and quieter too. Now, if your music is stored on a NAS, that also means you don't have to traipse over to the computer, turn it on, wait five minutes while it boots and then go back to your music player before you are able to play anything. It's truly turn-on and play!

There are further benefits to buying a NAS. NASes typically come with functions to backup your data automatically, off-site or not (read the 'Securing' chapter for more on this). Some even come with ways of downloading music directly onto the NAS.

What should you shop for when buying a NAS? The first consideration is storage space. Clearly, you need enough storage space to store all of your music. Typically, and at the time of writing, NASes start at the 1TB level. This is probably enough for all but larger collections, but considering you probably also want to store video, photos and documents on the NAS you can get larger still capacities.

The one downside of many NASes is that there are limitations to how far they can be customised. Some music players require special server software to be run somewhere on your network, and if you cannot run it on the NAS that defeats one of the main advantages: you'll have to start your computer after all. In which case there's a halfway house between computers and NASes: home servers.

Home servers: a halfway house

Home servers are computers that run operating systems, just like your normal desktop or laptop. You can install software on them and configure them as much as you like. The difference is that a home server typically does not have a monitor nor keyboard or mouse attached to it. Instead, the home server makes files available over the network, like a NAS, plus it runs services which other computers or devices can connect to over the network.

What are the advantages? Well, because there is no mouse, keyboard or monitor they take up less space, and because they have to do less, for example not power an expensive graphics card, they consume less power than a 'normal' computer. By combining both the storage of music and its processing you are centralising your music network: this makes it easy to manage, combining the benefits of a NAS's central storage with a computer's flexibility to run applications.

Recognising this potential, some music specific home servers now exist. An example is the Vortexbox (http://vortexbox.org), which combines automated ripping with streaming music files via various music server applications.

Other home servers are more generalist. Windows Home Server is probably the best known home server operating system. Hobbyists also use Linux, which has the benefit of being so customisable it can be stripped back to the bare essentials, consuming even fewer kilowatts of electricity.


My system

How does my own system stack up, then?

In terms of ripping, I actually only have one computer CD drive in my entire house, on the laptop I am typing this out on now, so in terms of source computer I am pretty restricted! I rip CDs on this laptop using the 'abcde' (A Better CD Encoder, http://lly.org/~rcw/abcde/page/) ripper.

Rips are encoded to FLAC format and I generally prefer the data to come from the MusicBrainz FreeDB gateway.

Then, I run bliss against the ripped files, on the laptop, with my standard rules: high resolution embedded art, automatic file path organisation and inclusion of genre and year information.

I then upload the music files to my home server, running Squeezebox Server (a music server that streams music to the Logitech Squeezebox family of music players). On the home server itself is another installation of bliss which I use to correct any smaller items I find later or for re-organisation tasks, for instance reconfiguring genres.

Thanks to the Bank of England (no less!) for the image above.
tags: ebook storing nas
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The Music Library Management blog

Dan Gravell

I'm Dan, the founder and programmer of bliss. I write bliss to solve my own problems with my digital music collection.