Editor's Note: A few weeks ago I was contacted by Baoshan about his application named Tonal. With several hundred messages perpetually in my inbox, I'm unsure why I read the entire unsolicited email. There was something about him and what he had to say that really drew me in. The more I read the more I liked what he had to say and I liked his project. Undoubtedly, Baoshan's humble demeanor and ending sentence spurred me to want to hep him.
"Please let me know if you think the concept is promising. Your valuable opinion will help me a lot! If you think the great community of Computer Audiophile may enjoy the concept, do you mind me introducing the Tonal app to the community?"
After reading three of Baoshan's previously published articles about Tonal, on Medmium.com, I knew his application would be of interest to the CA Community and I was 100% positive that this community could help him take it to the next level. In our exchanges he continually asked for feedback in order to improve upon his years-long effort. Thus, I offered to publish an introduction to Tonal, written by Baoshan.
There's no better way to obtain positive feedback, negative feedback, and constructive criticism than to ask a group of opinionated, yet very dedicated, audiophiles what they think. I close this introduction to the Tonal introduction by saying Baoshan's app isn't perfect, but his ideas and thought process about the app and where he wants to take it are excellent. My request of this community is that we offer constructive feedback. We all love competition and options. This is our chance to help improve upon a software application / option and our own hobby.
Tonal: A Minimalist Music App for Collectors and Audiophiles
A Gift to the Computer Audiophile Community
A community is, at its very essence, a place where stories happen. If one more story about how an audiophile endlessly pursuing a better music collecting experience still sounds interesting to members of Computer Audiophile, it would be my honor to share mine.
I bet you can easily recall the first few albums you’ve ever collected in your early years as a collector. Do you still enjoy playing them? As a collector, things usually go smoothly for the first years: more albums were added, in both physical and digital formats, scattered in IKEA CD racks and hard drives. In a summer weekend, you decided to start ripping all your physical albums into a lossless format to take all the digital advantages. An expensive 5-bay Synology NAS was on its way. You were very, very happy: “Hooray! Technology!”, you yelled.
It seems a music player is the last byte required to connect you to your private digital collection. You’re absolutely right: for collectors, the music player IS their digital collections.
When it comes to the choice of music players, I wish you don’t mind me take portable players and those fancy chassis with built-in SSDs off the table: they usually have a relatively short lifecycle. At least, they can not be my only choice. Well maintained software, on the other hand, greatly eliminates such concern.
As for the Holy Grail of music player software, different collectors hold different definitions. Prejudice may probably be the biggest enemy of creativity. In most realms, masters continuously seek innovative but natural approaches to tough problems. So, let’s dive into the music player issue more deeply.
Question the Status Quo
As a product lead, when I work with clients on an open project, I usually start from harsh questions, questioning the status quo. If you don’t mind, we can play the same game together:
- Will streaming services finally replace music player software?
My answer is a resounding yes, with some fine print. In the foreseeing decade, there’s no chance that any streaming service could offer a decent coverage for hard-core collectors. I believe music player software focusing on private digital collection have a lifespan of 10+ years from now. In the meantime, things evolve and boundaries might be blurred.
- Do audiophiles need to keep their collection locally?
My answer is no. Audiophiles keep their digital collection in internal SSDs, external HDDs, SD cards, or NAS. They not only pay for the devices but are also responsible for the durability and accessibility. Have you ever lost an album due to an unintended operation or failure of spinning magnetic media?
Amazon S3 can provide 99.999999999% annual durability. I doubt my manual backup or a RAID 5 configuration can score higher. I guess external hard drives and home NAS may become history someday. With the invention of decentralized storage systems, your digital collection could be further secured from failures caused by any 3rd party.
- Can music players touch the audio files?
Most music players do not touch a single bit of your audio files (unless you edit the metadata). But an extra pre-processing stage for your digital collection could be benefiting:
- Ripping errors can be fixed (the best case) or detected (the worst case). Hats off to AccurateRip and CUETools.
- Transcoding via a natively supported encoder (FLAC is natively supported by macOS, iOS, and Windows) eliminates 3rd party decoders when playing music. This not only minimizes the software footprint but also reduces the unpredictability of audiophile performance.
- A new file format could be designed to further optimize streaming performance and enhance privacy.
- Is there still room for a new playback engine?
Existing vendors usually treat the technical design and implementation of their playback engine as a “black art,” not willing to reveal the internals.
A microkernel with less than 50 disassembly instructions is implemented. As a benchmark, the latest GPL version of a well-received audiophile-grade player has more than 1000 disassembly instructions serving exactly the same purpose.
Also, zero-configuration is favored over a preference panel. All related parameters are automatically optimized for your exact environment.
- Can we have perfect metadata without the need to make edits?
Metadata is the foundation of collection management. I hate imperfect metadata. I hate editing metadata by myself in a music player. But, am I talking about contradictory requirements?
Inspired by Wikipedia, can we invent a genuine innovative metadata engine which focuses on standard, quality, simplicity, and community collaboration?
- Can we clearly define the minimum scope?
For every designer, the seeking for the minimum scope means a lot: it’s the DNA of a product. High-end audiophile market accepts well designed and engineered gears with quite limited scope, but rejects poorly designed or engineered gears with many fancy features.
From mid-2015 to early 2018, we were working quite hard on our (different) answer to the (same) music player question. We named the project “Tonal”. On May 13, the Tonal project finally came to her initial release. You can download it from here (currently, only macOS is supported).
In short, Tonal is a minimalist music app for collectors and audiophiles. With Tonal, your complete digital collection is organized in one place and is ready to be streamed anytime, anywhere. That may sound unfancy, but there’re three foundational innovations which clearly differentiate the Tonal experience from the competition.
Yes, we’re talking about three foundational innovations combined into one lean but integral experience:
- A managed cloud-based music locker service with audio quality verification built-in.
- An innovative metadata solution which focuses on standard, quality, simplicity, and community collaboration.
- A well-crafted playback engine which ensures highly predictable audiophile performance.
We’ve prepared a series of articles for those who are willing to know more details about the design of Tonal. Read these articles on Medium.
Below are some screenshots which could help you grasp the core concept before trying it on your own computer.
Since her initial release, Tonal has received many feedbacks from the community:
“Such an ambitious project!”
— Member of Computer Audiophile Community
“Beautiful design. Simple and elegant.”
— Medium Member
“The metadata looks all good.”
— Member of Audio Science Review Community
“Amazing audiophile performance!”
— Founder of Octavart Audio
Frankly speaking, the designing of Tonal is an adventure full of fear to me because Tonal takes completely different approaches for basically all the sub-problems a music player faces. I wish members of the Computer Audiophile community could kindly offer comments and critics on different aspects of Tonal in depth. I’ll always be open to your opinions.
Tonal is still in her infancy. Software needs maintenance, maintainers need to subsist. If we, the Computer Audiophile community, believe the concept is exciting and promising, I’ll do my best to find early-stage investors or business partners. A crowdfunding campaign may also be feasible to support the project before enough revenue could be driven by a subscription (or one-time payment) based business model.
I would like to thank Chris Connaker for offering me such a great opportunity to reach millions of Computer Audiophile members. I would also like to thank Kirk McElhearn for supporting me since I worked on the International Classical Music Database initiative.