My first impression is that I could be convinced to listen to music with the Sonata Music Server software. Just imagine… A vast selection of music presented in the easiest to locate method. Your tastes catered to with a simple touch. In this case a Dell ST2220T Multi-touch monitor. It doesn't hurt to have the Arcam asynchronous USB rDAC, Stax SR-007 headphones and matching headphone amplifier which add that je ne sais quoi -- over the rainbow quality to the entire experience. Clearly, Digibit has positioned Sonata as the sommelier of music servers. The downside is that all of this is just a loan of gear and tomorrow I have to go back to being a classical music Cinderella. But let's not spoil the moment.
Whether you listen for simple enjoyment, enhancement of the ambiance of your high-end crash pad or just can't get enough Bach (moi), the pleasure of this classy robot librarian is evident. I'm only sorry that the Sonata software does not run on an apple, which could possibly make something like this even a little prettier. While the Sonata Music Server doesn't attempt to replace the physical experience of having an album in your hands to study and quietly absorb while the musical osmosis surrounds your senses, it does turn your listening environment into a haven of instant gratification. That has to be worth $130 (99€), doesn't it?
Now time to get serious.
<img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/PlusMinus.gif" style="padding: 1pt 5pt 1pt 0pt;" align="left"><i>Editor's Note: This is new contributor Kathy Geisler's first article for Computer Audiophile. Additional information about Kathy and the unique perspective she brings to CA can be found in my <a href="http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/Introducing-New-CA-Contributor-Kathy-Geisler">introductory post</a><a href="http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/Introducing-New-CA-Contributor-Kathy-Geisler"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>.</i>
<b>The Sonata Server by Digibit</b>
<b>What is it?</b>
<img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/thumb/playon-hd2-dlna-1000w.jpg" style="padding: 5pt 10pt 5pt 0pt;" align="left">The Sonata Music Server is software (hardware sold separately) designed to meet the broader criteria required for classical music, and all other genres for that matter, mainly enhanced metadata capabilities (see the Computer Audiophile FAQ section for an in-depth definition of metadata). Specifically, Sonata is a highly customized OEM version of the audiophile favorite JRiver Media Center application. Thus the system is capable of accommodating a variety of audio file types and audio output modes, such as WASAPI, WASAPI - Event Style, ASIO, Kernel Streaming, to satisfy the most discerning audiophile and function flawlessly with nearly any DAC on the market. If, like many audiophiles, you’ve been waiting for an inexpensive music server designed to work with classical music, in all of its variety of criteria, Sonata may be it. You can throw virtually any recording at it and end up with a set of classifications to suit. Yes, in the end, you will have what you want and how you want it, pretty much. But if you want all that definability, you will have to do a few things first.
How you approach the Sonata Music Server ecosystem will depend on the audio format or playback application you want to load in. A system that can accommodate almost anything requires rules of engagement. The customized ripping software that accompanies the Sonata Server, dBpoweramp, has a specific set of instructions that you must follow. The manual is required reading until you get to know the 'Simon Says' routine. The Sonata system isn't quite as direct as putting a CD into iTunes, but then you are getting FLAC files in addition to all of the groovy metadata that iTunes doesn’t support. Expending a little effort to get it right might be expected.
<img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/thumb/sonata-cdripper-1000w.jpg" style="padding: 5pt 10pt 5pt 0pt;" align="left">I attempted to rip a CD before reading the manual and was quite confused when it was ejected with an error message. The manual explains that this will happen if your media is not recognized by any of the databases (GD3 & SonataDB - Primary, FreeDB & MusicBrainz - Secondary) used by Sonata and that you just have to reinsert the disc. In this case, you have to plan to do your own tagging as well as locate the cover art online. Further, you must learn how to insert the cover art, which although this is covered in the manual, I found this part to be challenging and ended up receiving some instruction from the technical specialist at Digibit who was able to walk me through the process. (Note: An updated manual detailing how to import covers is due from Digibit this week. - Editor)
This is a one size fits many system. There are a variety of ways to configure it both as a smart jukebox and a kind of virtual sound-zone manager. The Sonata manual, independent JRiver website, or CA forum are good places to understand some of the possibilities of which Sonata is capable. This is important especially if you have plans to integrate Sonata into a complex design for how you access audio in your environment. For instance, you may want to extend to a remote listening station through your iPad and also run a playlist of your opera albums to listen to while you are in your shower, while you have a Mozart piano concerto play in the kitchen -- all at once. You have to be somewhat of a control freak to want Sonata to do all that it can do, and this is the thing, it can do a lot.
Let's just say that in terms of high end audio, you are covered here, both for what you put in and what you get out. It’s what you can do with the digital files that makes this system so completely unique at this price point. At its core, Sonata addresses the question: in this age of digital music, what is the best way to retrieve classical music from a digital database? The answer: to integrate a series of identifiers that are specific to aspects of classical music and organize them into a network of paths. These paths expose a collection of albums in a multi-perspective unfolding of choices that ultimately lead to a destination track of music. Another way to think about it is one door leading to another and another--a bit like a treasure hunt, which is why this system might appear almost as a game to some.
It is a huge leap forward to finally have fields that are specific to classical music in combination with a database that can fill these fields via automatic Internet search. That combination alone has positive implications for classical music in general. Nearly every music media player coming before this has been designed for what we might label as 'trend' music while classical music has had to fit into something that rarely gave a thought to any of its criteria. At a certain point, the over simplification of classical music has become its compromise, limiting the information to appear only as one very long two dimensional jumble: album title, composer, work title, movement number, movement name, and opus number jammed together as one field. Enter Sonata, which is instead about expanding the possibilities. It is just a completely different way of thinking, and because of that, I recommend taking a moment to see what is being offered here.
<p><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/thumb/now-playing-1000w-150.jpg" style="padding: 0pt 10pt 5pt 0pt;" align="left">Eighteen defined fields of metadata out of the gate. Sonata is an intelligent browsing system for classical music. You don't have to be the architect of your information. There is a default system in place for how the metadata is organized (with those 18 fields). This standard that Digibit has created represents just one way to conceive of your database, and you will want to be aware of this almost before you begin.
<li>Album - Album name</li>
<li>Artist - Artist in the album</li>
<li>Genre - Genre of the album (Pop, Rock, Classical, Jazz, etc.)</li>
<li>Date or Year - Year of the release of the album</li>
<li>Period - Ancient, Renaissance, Baroque, Classic, Romantic, Modern and Contemporary</li>
<li>Style - Ballet, Chamber, Choral, Religious, Concerto, Incidental, Lieder, Marching Band, Opera, Operetta, Recital, Soundtrack, Symphonic and Zarzuela</li>
<li>Instrument - Brass, Cello, Choral, Guitar, Harpsichord, Organ, Percussion, Piano, Strings, Violin, Vocal and Woodwind</li>
<li>Composer – Sorted by Name</li>
<li>ComposerSort – Sorted by Last Name</li>
<li>Soloists – Sorted by Name</li>
<li>SoloistsSort - Sorted by Last Name</li>
<li>Conductor - Sorted by Name</li>
<li>ConductorSort - Sorted by Last Name</li>
<li>Orchestra - Orchestra</li>
<li>Label – Record label</li>
<li>Catalog # – Catalog number of the album</li>
<li>Custom – free field for your own needs</li>
These metadata fields are part of the story of each track and by selecting one of the field classifications from the sub-menu, an entire group of albums emerge. It’s as if you are viewing them through one side of a multi-faceted prism with which you can easily change how you would like to view your collection. It isn’t a list that you see on a two dimensional excel sheet but rather a multi-dimensional view of how your metadata creates sets, subsets and even integrated subsets appearing in a continuously unfolding linear hierarchical order. At first it can feel like making your way through a carnival fun house until you get used to the various combinations of fields. (For example: selecting 'Classical' leads to 'Instrument' leads to 'Period' or if you like, 'Period/Instrument' can be one elided field. It can be confusing when you are not used to thinking this way and have to decide that you will always want to think this way going forward. Such is the issue with a world of so many possibilities.)
It is how you tag your music with the information that goes into all of these fields that makes a track so infinitely findable. The whole notion of tagging is to free you from having to search endlessly for something. At the same time with Sonata it almost becomes an obsession because there is so much information that goes into completing the fields for any one track. You have to ask yourself how far you want to take this. Want more fields? You can create more, ad infinitum. In this way you can tailor the system to any collection. However, if you do want to add fields you’ll have to make a new hierarchical view so that the additional fields appear unless you only want to see them via the all powerful search function. Sonata is so flexible you’ll want to get to know the system first before entering any data so that you can decide if you want to push the envelope or not.
While the Sonata server software does allow you to make choices in how you would like to label or define your music, the real offering here is a specific set of fields which represent the first inexpensive and extensive metadata standard for classical music. Currently, only the Sonata system uses this set of 18 standard fields, but there is reason to believe it could catch on. In addition to the pre-defined 18 fields, they have inserted a 19th optional field that is ready to be used for custom labeling.
The people at Digibit / Sonata have done something very important here. They have redefined the media player from the perspective of classical music. They have done something very bold too. They saw the way millions of existing songs in databases are stored and turned their collective noses up at that and decided to blaze a new trail. More than just a labor of love, the Sonata system takes the business of classical music seriously, which is considered a niche for all intents and purposes, and they have brought to the market a high-end system that even a five year old can operate (at least the playback side of the system).
Digibit also offers its services as an outsource ripper. Through this, Digibit has been building a database of its own named SonataDB. If you load in one of those lucky titles (currently over 40,000), you will instantly have 18 fields of metadata automatically filled in. Otherwise, the system will go down the list of other databases and if found, will fill in the standard four fields of metadata that are currently in use by all of the major database companies. And in case you want to insure that you never lose your precious cargo, they have a free cloud storage service in cooperation with <a href="http://www.audiosafe.com">AudioSAFE</a><a href="http://www.audiosafe.com"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a> where you can back up your entire collection free of charge. Sonata really is a one stop shop offering a vast array of options.
There are a number of preset display views that come with the system. It is with the Theater View that it all comes together -- this is where the experience of the Sonata Music Server truly begins. At first glance, in the 'Home' menu, you see what appears to be a very minimal list of possibilities or categories, as they call them.
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Once you leave 'Home,' the world gets significantly more complex. Going into 'Audio,' which takes you to the main window to browse through the various fields, you are greeted by a plethora of album covers.
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This is where the possibilities of where to start are so varied as to be overwhelming. In my own explorations of the system, I have to admit that the 'Back' button is the one button I clung to most. This is because all roads do not lead to Rome. It’s more the opposite. Once you leave the top most hierarchy, it is easy to get lost in the possibilities and then where exactly do you want to get back to? But this is the richness that we have been missing all this time, and the organization of all those fields of data naturally creates a new universe of dimensions and possibilities that can be disorienting.
'Home' is also the location of 'Search.'
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The 'Search' function trumps all. It can be a more fun and satisfying way to find something in the database. You can type anything and before you get to the second letter a list of possibilities appear instantaneously, each line complete with a miniature picture of an album cover. It is so responsive that you might decide to avoid browsing through your complex set of fields to find something. However, you spent all that time setting them up and part of the reward is being able to see your collection organized that way, and I repeat, since you did go to all of that trouble curating your music collection. Other default 'Views' are less complex in their options and more standard in terms of what we have been used to, since Sonata is built on the existing JRiver application.
It would be nice, if the 'Search' function was accessible from the 'Audio' window, which would allow you to switch gears away from scrolling through the classifications in just one click. And displaying 18+ field classifications as menu items on one page, all at once, has been done in a slightly less than intuitive fashion by Digibit. The list scrolls sideways, something that many of us aren't that used to doing. But it is all there -- complaining even a little feels so ungrateful, and I must restrain myself from doing so because the Sonata system has attempted to champion the cause on so many levels. In a way it is kind of amazing that this even exists, and for $130 (99€).
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<center><a href="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/full/zone-1000w.jpg" class="thickbox" rel="Sonata-Music-Server-Review"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/thumb/zone-1000w.jpg"></a> <a href="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/full/style-683.png" class="thickbox" rel="Sonata-Music-Server-Review"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/thumb/style-683.jpg"></a> <a href="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/full/SoloistSort-683w.png" class="thickbox" rel="Sonata-Music-Server-Review"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/thumb/SoloistSort-683w.jpg"></a></center>
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<b>Powerful and Versatile</b>
<img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/thumb/sonata_server_tv_remote_control-566w.jpg" style="padding: 5pt 10pt 5pt 0pt;" align="left">Sonata is an advanced system. If you are interested in this, you probably know something about classical music and are not a novice there. But even still, whether you consider yourself part of the classical music cognoscenti or want to give your five year old a leg up on his or her Mozart piano sonatas, you can now have a system that speaks 'classical,' and it can do so in eleven languages and counting (five of which can be used for the field titles themselves). And just a note here, the system is set up to accommodate any type of music, all appearing in a complete view. So all you triple Virgos, take heart, you can organize any part of your collection and make any references you want for anything you can imagine.
I have a sense that while this qualifies as a very powerful tool for serious listeners, it also appears to be something for professional applications because it offers a rather large dynamic range of programmability. Web radio, listening libraries and archives currently either have to devise proprietary systems or operate in transition, waiting for something with enough diversity and capability to handle their specific needs. We are talking about power users who would use Sonata for work instead of play. I suspect the system would have to adapt to have more of a fixed path so that finding things could be more direct and require fewer steps across the data for these more purposeful operators. While somewhat antithetical to what the Sonata system brings to the table, I could see expanding the use of the impressive on board search tool as an option for the more sophisticated or professional user.
But look, just because it has a lot of muscle, the people at Digibit don't want you to be afraid of the server. And I agree with them. Sonata succeeds in merging two things that haven't been integrated before: the world of classical music metadata with a media player that can support this level of complexity and at such an inexpensive price. This could very well be the dream server for the eclectic collector and audiophile unwilling to shell out thousands of dollars for a complete Meridian Sooloos system. Just so it’s clear, this is no small issue that has been dealt with here. The people behind Sonata have solved a series of problems that are so extensive and diverse it is a true tour de force that it has all been handled by one single company. And because it is software, I would expect there to be other versions in the future, including plugins for entering data, and even possibly other choices for how the interface looks and feels.
Personally, I'm not crazy about the actual interface. First of all I'm not a big fan of black backgrounds because they are a little harder to read and secondly the slippery slidey way the screen reacts when you mouse across things to scroll through the selections can be rather dizzying at times. Which, as a note, is not so bad if you are using a touch screen and you are going directly onto a point on the screen. It’s when you use a mouse traveling across the screen that a lot of elements are moving that you aren't going to be selecting. If you are inputting data for instance, and I assume if you are using this you will be, it is likely you would be using a mouse and keyboard. But these are very superficial things that many might actually disagree with me about. These items are just little distractions to an extraordinarily versatile and well informed system.
Sonata claims to be operable with little or no computer experience, but I personally found that there is a slight learning curve to understanding how it functions and it did require a certain amount of hand holding to get things to work the way they were supposed to. This is a fantastic system from which to experience classical music, particularly for the uninitiated. Sonata spells out what is essentially a series of routes on a map, each trail leading through a series of basic classifications (the ABCs of classical music) that are simple enough to understand (for example start with ‘Baroque’ and go to ‘Violin’ and you might get to ‘Vivaldi’). The Sonata Music Server software encourages an awareness of various aspects of classical music through its use and would be a wonderful addition to a family environment. Sonata presents a capable, intelligent, innovative and versatile package. If you’ve been waiting for a way to put your 5,000 albums into a server that can handle with equal care any format or genre, playable through a multitude of audio configurations, you will want to look into the Sonata. They have a try before you buy option, a clearly written downloadable manual and a super conscientious support team. Considering the number of things that this product offers, the Sonata server does not miss a beat.
Product: <a href="http://www.sonataserver.com/">Sonata Music Server</a><a href="http://www.sonataserver.com/"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>
Where To Buy: <a href="http://www.sonataserver.com/index.php/en/download/software-trial.html">Via Download</a><a href="http://www.sonataserver.com/index.php/en/download/software-trial.html"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>
Specifications: [<a href="http://www.sonataserver.com/index.php/en/sonata/specs.html">Link</a><a href="http://www.sonataserver.com/index.php/en/sonata/specs.html"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>]
User Manual v1.4: [<a href="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0124/Sonata_SW_english_V1.4.pdf">Link (8.5MB PDF)</a><a href="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0124/Sonata_SW_english_V1.4.pdf"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>]
Data Sheet: [<a href="http://files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0124/Sonata_Music_Server_USA_data_sheet.pdf">Link (6.1MB PDF)</a><a href="http://files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0124/Sonata_Music_Server_USA_data_sheet.pdf"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>]
Sonata v. JRiver: [<a href="http://files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0124/SonatavsJRiverMC.pdf">Link (PDF)</a><a href="http://files.computeraudiophile.com/2012/0124/SonatavsJRiverMC.pdf"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>]
<b>About The Author</b>:
<img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2012/0124/thumb/kathy-10-1.jpg" style="padding: 5pt 10pt 5pt 0pt;" align="left">A graduate of the Juilliard School, Kathy Geisler has producer credits on more than 35 albums for the Well-Tempered Productions label, many of which were recorded at the world-class Skywalker Ranch scoring stage. Besides her work for Well-Tempered, Ms. Geisler has been instrumental as the recording liaison for the Russian National Orchestra, notably putting together the orchestra recording logistics for their Grammy Award winning album ‘Wolf Tracks,’ featuring Sophia Loren, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, and conducted by Maestro Kent Nagano. She has produced several videos including dozens of interviews for the online magazine Fresh Digital Produce. Her live music production credits include several concerts and tours in the United States and in 2010 she produced orchestra concerts in Hungary and Italy featuring pianist and conductor <a href="http://blog.konstantinlifschitz.info/">Konstantin Lifschitz</a><a href="http://blog.konstantinlifschitz.info/"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a>. She is currently engaged in launching <a href="http://blog.festivalparadiso.com/">Festival Paradiso</a><a href="http://blog.festivalparadiso.com/"><img src="http://images.computeraudiophile.com/ca/icons/ex.png" style="padding: 0pt 0pt 0pt 3pt;" alt="link"></img></a> in Tiburon, California.