High-end Audio: The iTunes Audit

You know when you start a thing and pretty soon enough it dawns on you that you’ll be doing that thing for a long, long, long time? And, the more you consider when you might be done, you realise it’s highly likely you will never really be done. I got to that stage a few months ago when I decided to tackle ~90GB of music files sat on an old hard drive. If I can offer myself any post-rational advice, when you find yourself at that stage, ask yourself if you genuinely care about what you’re spending your time on. Luckily I’m delighted to say that I’d rank music and its technology ecosystem a 10/10 on the MEGAFUN for Larry Index. MFFL.

Swiftly moving on from talking myself into the delight of another Sisyphean tale being added to my waking hours, I’m keen to jot down a few exciting moments along the way. And this web post marks the completion of skimming through all ~90GB of music files and processing them to either the trash, Roon, a DJ folder for rekordbox or an inbox folder.

Before I started the music files audit I had an idea in 2019/20 to reduce my digital clutter. I had ended up with a lot of data in all sorts of places and it needed some attention. The journey my music took was pretty wild. I moved off iTunes as Spotify became feasible for everyday use and the ~90GB got uploaded to Google Play Music. My thinking at the time was that I’d recreate what I could in Spotify and use Google Play Music when I wanted to dig something out the archive. What actually happened is that my collection went into cold storage there, only to be pulled when I had a lightbulb moment for a track, mix or album I wanted to hear. Spotify dominated by always having a new new to hit play on. Google closed their storage service in 2020 and sudo merged the streaming part with YouTube Music. I downloaded the ~90GB of music files and put them on a physical spinny hard drive under our bed.

Now listen, before the rise of streaming there were the far more thrilling days of buying albums from shops, sharing albums with friends, downloading DJ sets from forums, downloading shows hosted on websites and ripping CDs. They all went into one database, which, at some stage in my life was organised at just above average level of care and attention. That data was now without its base and it sat in a worse place than the ignored cold storage of Google, it sat with the eliminated usb cables of yesteryears, unplugged, dusty and dead.

Beep, beep, beep. Wait. What is that? Can you hear it too? That is the sound of life once again. The collector has come to his senses, dust dusted, untangled from the tether of useless cables, the spinny hard drive has been plugged in and is … transferring … for quite some time.

I used our media server MacBook Air to start trying to make sense of the data in Finder. That was impossible as the filenames were bonkers and everything was in just one folder. It was time to go back to where it all began and drag that one folder straight into iTunes. I don’t care that it got renamed to Apple Music. It is still iTunes when you’re doing something like this. And so began the monumental quest of auditing all of it to work out what to actually do with it.

The plan at the time was to get the best of the music into Doppler and sync that with iCloud or Google Drive. I’d bought into Doppler as the user experience and interface is wonderfully elegant with just enough features. However, I stumbled into a couple of gotchas. FLAC playback was stuttering and I was repeating my previous failure of separating streaming and local files into two experiences. After many chats with Dan and Brad, a handful of John Darko videos and starting to nerd out on high end headphones and audio formats I decided to double down and bought into Roon.

Six months later, I’m done. The gigs of music is less gigs, the good stuff is saved and the bad stuff is trashed. But, I’m not done. In reality I’ve only just poured the foundations of the house. House music.

What did I learn from the audit?

There was a lot of shit. iTunes libraries suffered from more is more. Mine was a victim.

There was a fair amount of gold. Music that hasn’t made its way onto streaming. Mixes, EPs and albums from an era when I was dedicating a lot time to music discovery as opposed to letting a computer program choose tracks for me.

I got rid of a lot of classics. These are songs that are easy to find on streaming but I’m unlikely to listen to the whole album or the song unless it is on a mixtape. Usually pop or rock. They deserve a place but cluttering the library is low value.

MP3s are shit quality. Who knew? Well, yeah, a lot of the gold requires an additional audit to determine if I link the high end TIDAL version or if I buy the lossless files. This got me thinking not only about the cost but then how much I actually value that particular creation. Not having a bag of endless cash is good, it makes you focus on what you really appreciate and assign a value to it.

A small library is a tough concept. While reviewing the seemingly endless ~90GB I kept thinking, “can I get my core library to 100 albums, if I add one I have to take one away”. Today, I’m at 490 albums and I haven’t yet started to sift through the Spotify playlists. I haven’t got a solid answer for this one. My current bet is that I will use tags to define 100 essentials. Works that I consider to be the sounds that are important to me, available in lossless formats. The Roon library only has entries that I know, listen to and believe to be a great work. This needs a bit more thinking through, it’s tough.

Metadata is messy data. I wasn’t super diligent with metadata in the days of building an iTunes library. Some stuff got fixed, a lot didn’t. I’m crossing my fingers that what I experienced in the recent audit in Apple Music was a look-up and not permanently changed in the file meta. Roon has done a wonderful job of providing the right data on its lookup. The worry is when I want to use these files outside the platform. Conveniently, this app popped up in my Twitter timeline this week https://www.nightbirdsevolve.com/meta/ which looks a touch friendlier to use than others

I’m missing amazing albums. They were not in my collection. They were overlooked or never discovered. But, perhaps they should be added. Where does this start and end though? How do I keep a simple system and not just overload by adding “missing” and never really listening? I’ve been wondering about setting focus for a few weeks at a time and going through artists back catalogue, listening, deciding, refining. Album of the Week web posts are likely the best way to capture my research and link back to stuff as I go.

I don’t want to do this again. Never again. I guess my approach to music collecting and listening is very different now. I was, like a lot of us in the iPod era, a greedy little shit that took any MP3s I could get my hands on and stuffed them into the iTunes database and never really did much to keep things clean, updated or managed in anyway. A well thought out library is the way.

Apple Music is buggy and the ux doesn’t work for me. Playback often didn’t work during the audit, I’d have to go backwards and forwards between tracks to try and get it to kick in. It could be me, but I never seemed to hit target spots for transport controls that easily, the basics of pressing play was tough. Scrubbing the same.

Supporting artists is important. Buy more music. Stream to discover.

The High-end Audio Quest

This is my first go at writing this down so I’m likely to revise this plan over time.

  • Set-up Roon Server to run on home network, KEF LSX and Bluesound Node
  • Transfer out of Spotify and into TIDAL
  • Organise Roon and TIDAL so hearted songs don’t end up in {My Library} – I want to make active decisions to add an EP or album to the library, I want to remove the behaviour of having a track only collection that Spotify promoted and I guess iTunes started
  • Audit old local files and add the good music to Roon ? (I am here)
  • Audit old Spotify playlists and add albums and EPs to Roon that are missing
  • Double audit local files and buy or link high end audio formats (MP3 → FLAC)
  • Triple audit local files and evaluate where the discography gaps are with the music styles I love
  • Define a tagging system for stuff I care about – e.g. I want to see a list of DJ Mixes
  • Fix metadata tags on local files so they can be used easily outside Roon
  • Create 90 minute fixed duration mixtapes (now called playlists) that are fit for themes, invest more time and effort than the endless mess of Spotify playlists I ended up with
  • Figure out how I get music on my phone for offline listening
  • Figure out budget and plan to buy more music from Bandcamp
  • Consider downloading vulnerable online only DJ Mixes
  • What do I do with audio/music that is not a fit for the Roon library but I still want to hold onto
  • Buy a DJ controller and start using rekordbox, audit mixable tracks that were salvaged from the ~90GB
  • Create a “one USB key” approach to DJing that enables me to be mobile if I want to DJ out of home
  • Carefully consider if and when any audio hardware additions or upgrades are worth it

I did say a few paragraphs ago that I wanted to “reduce my digital clutter”. This list can appear to be an increase of clutter rather than reduction. I coud just ignore the hard drive under a bed or just use Spotify. For me, clutter in this context is music you’re mindlessly adding to a library, not listening to or haven’t listened to. I’m highly interested in music and along the way tools, services and technology devalued it by increasing its capacity, discovery bandwidth and encouraging likes and loves rather than purchase investments. Finally, digital clutter is everywhere and having purpose and plan for each area of your digital data is the most important thing, otherwise we all end up mindlessly storing more and more stuff with very little need for it and zero joy.

Next up, auditing the Spotify playlists whilst picking albums of the week to go deeper into the library and define the essentials.


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