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My journey to music management app nirvana



This is a brief blog outlining my journey through various audio management & playback apps which took me to where I am today.

Dial the clock back to around 1997. I had gotten into minidisc as a way of making my own compilations and recordings of music - a definite step up from cassette. Also in the mix were CD-Rs which would allow music to be burnt to a CD and played in a regular CD player. Though as time went on, the step of copying the music to some form of physical media became increasingly redundant; the advent of the iPod a few years later in 2001 further accelerated this trend. 

I began with keeping my "digital" music collection in a folder on my PC (at the time, probably a 486 or equivalent). Downloading was of individual tracks due to low connection speeds. As my collection expanded, full albums were placed into individual folders within Windows. As it grew further, the root folder was divided into genres and the album folders placed within those. As I was keen on being able to browse via album art, I set the folders to be displayed in "thumbnail" mode, which allowed an image (called folder.jpg) to be superimposed on the folder icon. I spent some time acquiring the front covers of the albums, renaming to folder.jpg and placing them within the individual folders. If a folder had a few albums in it, then up to 4 album covers could be displayed on the thumbnail icon. Eventually it looked something like this:


At this time I was using Winamp to play the music. As can be seen in the screenshot above, it allowed for a small unobtrusive player to be situated somewhere on the screen. Winamp could also read and display some of the basic file metadata such as artist and song title. At this time I also used the "visualisation" feature that a lot of these players had - graphics that moved in time with the music. Bit of a gimmick, looking back :)

Around this time I also experimented with Windows Media Player. This was the next step up, as it improved on folder structure-based browsing by using file metadata to arrange and display the music. You could then browse by artist, album, genre and year. Album art was shown without the folder icon in the background, and if there were a number of albums by a particular artist, it would show a "stack" effect which was quite nice. I don't have any screenshots of my own of this, though it looked something like this:


Always on the lookout for improvements, I think around 2006 I discovered Mediamonkey. This was a more versatile app and allowed for user customisation. What was great was that instead of just growing by artist, album and genre, you could define your own criteria and be able to browse via these criteria in the menu tree. As well as the above, I set it to be able to browse by "compilations by album" and "compilations by genre". As a snapshot, my setup around this time looked like this:


Eventually, two other useful features came along. The first was "coverflow" type browsing as popularised by Apple. This was meant to emulate the act of flicking through CDs/the physical media. I found this more of a novelty rather than anything else, as I preferred the "grid view" which allowed a more organised and higher-level look. The second feature was the ability to display a second image relating to the album in a sub-window. For example, the rear album art could be displayed alongside the front album art - the following screenshot shows these two features:


The problem with this particular setup was that the rear album art image was quite small - unless you resized the window, in which case it encroached on the browsing tree and made the main window too small. However it was a nice addition, though required quite a lot of extra work to make sure that all the albums had a rear album art image in their folder. The customisability of the browser tree allowed for some other useful features - for example, showing the number of items within each folder or sub-folder.

I was happy with Mediamonkey for a few years, though soon something better came along: JRiver Media Player. This just seemed to be a slicker and more polished product than Mediamonkey. It was similarly customisable and had a very helpful user forum with good input from the development team. This forum was necessary, as modifying the tree required the understanding of the particular code that it used, which (to my mind) was not particularly intuitive! It also seemed to be in active development with regular updates. I was able to customise the tree further, e.g. to browse via decade before drilling down to year, along with a range of other customisations over time. It also had the "stacked" album view that I enjoyed in Windows Media Player. Here is a screenshot of my JRiver setup in October 2010 (ignore the albums themselves, as I was having an issue with the code at the time and the screenshot was to show an error):



Here is another screenshot, showing the individual album view:


However my quest to improve the album art aspect of things continued. I tried a range of media management apps including MusicBee, iTunes, Album Player and many more. Eventually I settled on FooBar2000. This took customisation to the next level, and finally (with a great deal of effort and input from the helpful user forums) I was able to customise it to show what I wanted - including the front and rear album art. It looked like this:



To me, this made for a much more realistic browsing experience. Extra features which I added to the app included a detailed waveform seekbar (even the colour of the progress bar was customisable), having the front album art show in a jewel case, a number of information panes (including artist info, news & reviews, comments and other images in the folder), a customised information panel at the bottom (showing information including bit rate, bit depth and sample rate) and having the rating show after each file in the tree. A number of these addons required the installation of special modules - Foobar2000 is quite a modular app. 

Foobar2000 was my music manager and player for a number of years. As always, I remained on the lookout for any new and interesting alternatives. Foobar2000 was great, and I liked the amount of detail you could get on a single screen (i.e. as per the screenshot above), though it looked a bit "computery". In 2006 the company Sooloos came on the scene; they offered a very slick and elegant bespoke media browsing experience, with great integration of a range of metadata (imported from the AMG service) - though tied in with hardware and with a price to match. In 2008, Sooloos was purchased by Meridian, an AV manufacturing & distribution company founded in 1977 and based in England and the product became (and remains) Meridian Sooloos. In 2015 however, some members of the original Sooloos team formed an agreement with Meridian to start their own new enterprise: Roon Labs. Further details are provided in a blog entry by Enno Vandermeer, founder/CEO of Roon Labs:


Roon took all the things that were great about Sooloos and released it as a standalone software app that could be installed onto any PC or Mac. When it was released in May 2015 I knew that it was the app for me. The interface and paradigm was completely different to all the previous media managers (apart from Sooloos). It presented your music collection in a much more visually appealing way - in part due to the ability to run it via a touchscreen. It also (like Sooloos) drew on online sources to recognise your media and pull the appropriate metadata. Roon also has a very active user base with excellent input from the developers onto the forums - and has undergone a number of updates since the initial release, now up to version 1.3. There is also a strong focus on sound quality and compatibility with various devices. There are still a number of features that I would like included (in particular relating to its management of album art) - though there is a new version (perhaps version 2.0) in the pipeline with some big changes in store, apparently. Hopefully I have found my media management endgame.


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