Reinventing the Wheel: A Better Media Player

Posted: November 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Music, Software | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

As I’ve posted in the past, I am a picky media player user. I’ve tried most every free player under the sun, along with some not so free solutions and have yet to be entirely satisfied with any of the available products. To that end, I’ve started to think about the possibility of writing my own media player. The following are some of the considerations that I’ve been mulling over:

Base Requirements:

  • Playback of both mp3 and flac files. Support for other formats could be added as required by me or other users, possibly with us of some sort of plugin engine.
  • Some kind of a rating system, preferably with a high level of granularity. I’m not married to the standard 5-stars idea, and may explore alternative ideas, including tagging.
  • Truly smart playlists that allow for the standard global AND/OR rules, as well as more advanced expressions that support brackets and branching logic.
  • Smart importing from existing iTunes, Songbird, Media Monkey, and Windows Media Player libraries, various playlist formats, and other types of media collections.

Feature Wish List:

  • Blackberry Sync: When not at home, I listen to music from a flash card on my Blackberry Curve. The device can be filled with media by simply dumping it all on the media card, which appears as a removable drive. As previously mentioned, I listen to a mix of mp3 files and lossless flac files. When dumping these files to the Blackberry, I would like to see one thread dedicated to converting the flac files to mp3s, while another thread actually fills the device, resulting in a sync process that is not significantly slowed by media conversions. Additionally, since I have hard drive space to spare, I would like to cache some or all of the resulting mp3 files so that they don’t have to be converted again on the next sync. I would also like to see the ability to import files from the Blackberry to the library so that I could pick up media on the go and bring it home with me.
  • Library Export/Backup: With a library of 10K+ tagged and rated songs, losing the library of meta data about my music would be a traumatic experience indeed. To solve my paranoia over losing this data, I would like to implement the export of single playlists and entire libraries to all of the major playlist formats, as well as to a structured XML document, similar to the one that iTunes maintains. Some kind of automated backup feature like the one that iTunes has would also be nice.
  • Online Integration: I currently report all of my song plays to last.fm, which is an excellent resource for discovering new music. I would like my media player to link in with last.fm and other online resources, but am also open to developing my own online resource that lets users to easily compare and organize their collections, correct their meta data, and actively discover new music that other users have rated.
  • Library Sharing/Streaming: We run a large network with lots of computers, and I’d like the ability to listen to my music from anywhere in the house. I really like the work that Subsonic has done in this area, and hope to implement some or all of it’s features, while at the same time linking it into my database so that I can see my playlists and edit my meta data from anywhere in the house, and indeed, from anywhere in the world.
  • Cross-Platform and Open-Sourced: Given all of my recent experience with Debian Linux, I’d like to see my media platform running on both Windows and Linux. This one might take me awhile to accomplish, but is definitely a goal of mine, given that I am now a confirmed Linux user who still keeps a couple of Windows platforms lying around.

Implementation:

Of course, with all of these goals in mind, the next step is to consider which platform I’d like to build on. This basically comes down to a number of choices, some cross-platform, some not:

  • Visual Studio .NET: My development IDE of choice, Visual Studio provides extremely quick GUI creation and a great number of useful libraries that cut out a lot of the nitty gritty time consuming base code necessary for a project as large as a media player. Additionally, the Windows Media Player control allows for drop-in playback of media, and I have a ton of example code lying around that implements most of the features listed above. Unfortunately, while .NET 2.0 is supported on Linux under the Mono platform, I don’t know how far that support goes in terms of media management and playback.
  • SFML: The Simple Fast Media Library is available as libraries that are pre-compiled to run on Windows, Linux, and Mac, with support for Visual Studio, C/C++, Python, and Ruby. It includes packages for windowing, graphics, networking, and most importantly, audio capture and playback. This is a definite contender as it is open source, meaning that I could build the libraries directly into my code, and simply recompile for different platforms. Of course, the downside is that I’ll have to code in C++, and without any kind of graphical interface builder.
  • Juce: Jules Utility Class Extensions is like a more featured version of SFML that provides packages for just about every conceivable task, including some serious audio libraries that support all kinds of playback, effects, and hardware accelerated features. In addition, it does audio CD reading and writing out of the box on Mac and PC platforms. If I were to strike out from Visual Studio, this would probably be my library of choice, as it can do nearly everything that VS can do, but is fully open sourced and supported on just about every available platform.
  • Java: I have no idea how realistic this idea is. I do know that in the past, I’ve created Java apps that can play both wav and mp3 files, and stream those files over a network connection. That said, as much as I enjoy coding in Java, it is widely regarded as being slow and clunky – not exactly traits that I’d like associated with a media player that will be running all day. On the other hand, Java is not C/C++ (a huge bonus as far as I’m concerned), is fully object oriented, has decent audio support, and makes networking extremely easy. That said, programming GUI’s of any kind of complexity in Java is not a task to be taken on lightly.

Well, that about sums it up. This project is definitely something that I intend to undertake in the coming months, and until then, I’ll keep thinking about my requirements and what library I’d like to use to implement it. If anybody else has experience with some useful audio libraries that they’d like to share, please do so in the comments.


Ups and Downs of Audio

Posted: July 5th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Music, Software | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Lately, all of my technology seems to by systematically failing on me as if a demon sent by some higher being of tech has decided that I am no longer worthy to own and operate any of my toys. It started with a flatscreen monitor, spread to my blackberry, took out my iPod along the way, and stopped in for tea at my parent’s house, where it made enough of a mess to call me away from my own problems for a couple of days trying to fix their computers.

My room mates insist that I have a “midas’ touch” that breaks all the technology that I fool about with. I prefer to consider myself unlucky.

Blackberry Media Player

Since I never leave home without my phone, I have recently tried to reduce the amount of crap that I carry around by using my Blackberry as a media player. It has a 4GB memory card in it, and Media Monkey (my jukebox software of choice) treats it just like a USB device that can be filled up with songs from my library.

Normally, after filling the card with music, I simply launch the media application and tell it to shuffle all songs. While it starts playing, the device scans for audio files in the background and fills up a database file of some sort with information gleaned from ID3 tags.

The problems started with a refurbished device that I picked up on a warranty replacement of my original (which mysteriously started to freeze up whenever I used the camera application) – now when I load the songs onto the device, the scanning process seems to find one or two of them, and just ignore the rest. Imagine my joy after leaving the house this morning for a day at work only to find that I had a grand total of two songs available for listening on my device.

My interim solution has been to tell Media Monkey to export an m3u of the playlist that it puts on the Berry to the device. Then I can just tell the device to shuffle that list instead of waiting for the scan that doesn’t work to complete before listening to some of my media. If that doesn’t work, I’ll likely source a different media player app for the device.

Windows Media Playback

Lately, whenever I play music files on my computer (regardless of format, bitrate, or player), they pop and click as if the volume is up too high and the machine is clipping it to compensate. Increasing the amount of buffer memory that Media Monkey keeps helped, as did turning down my levels to prevent clipping; but the noises are still present in the stream.

This one truly puzzles me, as it seems to have started out of the blue, and affects all audio on the system (but not video for some reason). Nothing at the driver or hardware level has changed in recent memory, and the problem spreads across all players, formats, and bitrates, so I don’t think it’s an issue with specific software or codecs.

I’ll keep banging my head against the wall until I figure it out and get back to head banging.

Last.FM Scrobbling

On a good note, I recently decided to try playing about with Last.fm after an official scrobbling plugin was released for Media Monkey. Wow. I cannot believe that I went for so long without using this incredible website, and as a music lover, suggest that anybody who collects music start using it immediately.

The plugin is seamlessly integrated with my player, and does all the heavy lifting in the background so that I don’t even have to worry about it or run a separate app, and the site itself is pretty much astounding.

Occasionally, my music collection feels stale – even though my standard playlist has about 2500 songs in it (as selected by rating), I sometimes get bored of it and go looking for something new. Previously, I accomplished this primarily by listening to Alan Cross, comparing notes with friends, and trolling amazon.ca and wikipedia pages for information about related bands and albums. Now, last.fm allows me to click the ‘related artists’ link from any artist page, or check out it’s suggestions for stuff that I should listen to.

Consider me a convert for life.


Which Music Jukebox Software is Best for You?

Posted: December 8th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Music, Software | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

I listen to a whole lot of music. There are really no two ways about it; if I’m at home, music is playing on my computer. If I’m not, it’s playing on one of the myriad of portable devices I own. I maintain a music library with just over ten thousand songs spanning most every genre and year in the last half-century. This of course means that I need to run some mean music organization software.

Like most other iPod owners, my default player is Apple’s iTunes, but lately it just hasn’t been impressing me as much as it used to, as evidenced by this long list of complaints:

  • Regular memory usage is around 130MB, and that number balloons to well over 250MB if I dare open that new-fangled glossy cover flow feature.
  • To make matters worse, if I close the cover flow, usage drops almost immediately to around 180MB, but refuses to dip lower, making me suspect a memory leak.
  • I keep the application running 24 hours a day and after about a week of uptime, its footprint can often climb above 300MB (without coverflow), lending more evidence to the memory leak theory.
  • As I type this, iTunes is converting some WMA tracks to MP3 while playing music, and is sipping 78% of my 2GHz dual core processor. That’s inexcusable.
  • Smart playlists are dumb at best, allowing only a global AND or a global OR for all playlist conditions. Sometimes this just doesn’t cut it, and I find myself chaining two or more playlists or using De Morgan’s law just to figure out the boolean logic behind a desired set of conditions. Yeah, I’m that much of a nerd.
  • The iTunes store peddles DRM-laden garbage. Sure, they sell iTunes Plus tracks now, but those are still m4a files (while the rest of the world sells MP3), and most big-label releases are still protected by FairPlay DRM.
  • When importing a folder full of songs, it often creates two copies of each track in my library and on my file system. Except that sometimes I get two copies of only some of the tracks, while the others copy as normal…
  • If a friend who runs a Mac brings his iPod over, I can’t plug that iPod in and stream tracks off of it because it’s Mac formatted. Sure, Windows doesn’t know the format of that hard drive, but Apple does; couldn’t they write a driver layer that can read it? I’ll bet that they could.
  • iPod cables are expensive. What are all of those damned pins used for? My blackberry is a mobile computer and it syncs just fine with a USB cable. Every device on the market uses the USB standard, while Apple sticks to this ridiculous cable with at least 30 pins on it, forcing third party manufacturers to license the design and jacking up accessory cost as a result (ok, this is really an iPod complaint, sue me).
  • Lastly, when editing information for multiple tracks, like for an entire album at once, the application doesn’t save my changes to the id3 tags. Yet if i modify the info on each track separately, it does. What gives, Steve?

Overall, considering the long list of features that iTunes does provide, it’s certainly not the worst program ever written, but I can’t help but think that the Windows versions an after thought in Cupertino and that they just don’t get as much polish as the Mac versions of the program. Long story short, I recently went looking for alternatives. The shortlist of what I require from a jukebox application:

  • Easy to navigate interface that lets me search, organize, and find my music with ease
  • Track ratings. This is a must when your library has more breadth than the weekly Top 40 list.
  • Smart and Static playlists that let me automatically partition my music into logical subsets
  • Equalizers are nice, but should come with some presets that i can tweak to my setup.
  • Low memory footprint with no leaks – I run this app all day long, so make it efficient
  • Automatic file system organization so that I don’t have to worry about it.
  • Search by track name, artist, album, etc.
  • CD burning and ripping is a nice extra, but I can use a third-party app with no complaints if necessary
  • XML file importing so that I can migrate my giant library from my existing solution is a must. Honestly, I’ve written a number of simple apps that parse an exported iTunes library (see the sidebar); This is a dead simple feature to add.

And so with the help of the SomethingAwful SHSC community, I’ve installed and played with a number of media players over the last couple of days.

  1. Songbird: Perhaps the most full-featured iTunes clone that I’ve ever seen, this app has some serious promise as an iTunes replacement. Memory usage is similar to that of iTunes, but is a little more stable, and doesn’t seem to leak so bad. The interface is fully customizable and skinnable, and it imported my iTunes library in about 5 minutes. Unfortunately, it lacks an equalizer, CD burning or ripping, and has the same poor smart playlist support that iTunes does. I get the feeling that I haven’t even scratched the surface of this players’ feature set, not to mention the hundreds of plugins that you can add from inside the program. Built on the the same XLU framework as Firefox, it’s generally stable, has a tabbed interface, an in-app web browser, and links to SHOUTcast, lastFM, and a ton of other web services. While it’s not quite there yet, I’ll be keeping a close eye on future releases.
  2. Zune: Over the summer, I participated in a Zune marketing program and received a free device in return for reviewing it and the player software. My full reviews can be found over at the Bus Error weblog if you’re interested. The basic story goes like this: Track ratings are either “i like it,” “i hate it,” or “not rated,” which doesn’t provide enough resolution for a large library. The interface is pretty and an interesting departure from iTunes’, but the Zune Marketplace and Social are seriously hampered at best in Canada, which is a shame because I’d probably buy a Zune pass and use this thing to discover new music otherwise. Lastly, when filling the Zune from a smart playlist, there’s no way to limit the number of songs in the playlist by size, so if your library is larger than your Zune capacity, it’s a guessing game. The popular iTunes to Zune playlist converter utility (available in the sidebar) was a project of mine written to address the fact that the Zune is an amazing device with crappy software behind it. Unfortunately iTunes is way ahead of the Zune Jukebox, even though Zune brings some great new ideas to the table.
  3. foobar2000: For what it does, this program is simply amazing. It plays music with my entire library loaded in just under 35MB of memory, and has more customizable features than you could reasonably count. Unfortunately, it lacks ratings and smart playlists (at least i think so – there are a bunch of playlist options that I just don’t understand), and is about as easy to use as reading a novel printed in binary is to read. This app does everything, but for anything more than playing specific songs, albums, or artists, it requires a bunch of reading to learn about. I’m sure that if I spent a week or two learning the ins and outs, I could get the hang of it, but this player is most certainly not for the consumer marketplace – it’s for people who don’t mind taking time to configure it properly and don’t want high level abstraction from the file system.
  4. Media Monkey: One of the only Media Players that I’ve heard of that still offers a paid option. I suppose when you don’t have a store and you’re not open sourced, you have to make money somehow. The free version has a good feature set, and a lifetime license is worth $20, considering the extra features that are enabled with it. On first launch, it took about 10 minutes to index my music folder, detected that I had iTunes installed, and imported all of the library data from it. Unfortunately, this last step took forever, although I could listen to all of my music in the mean time – it just isn’t all tagged properly. At first glance, this appears to be the best jukebox software ever written. It sorts by just about any criteria you could wish for without making playlists, automatically pulls track information from amazon or wikipedia, has podcast, SHOUTcast, and ICEcast, and a web browser built in, and has a direct link to purchase any track in your library from the Amazon store. As of yet, this is by far the most impressive media player that I’ve ever encountered. I will be purchasing the full license and temporarily adopting it as my main jukebox. Expect to hear more about this app in the future.

So there you have it. As per usual, Apple is shiny and simple but doesn’t necessarily include every feature that one could want. Microsoft brings a strong contender to the table, but fails to pull ahead in the race, likely until they throw a few more billion dollars at it. The open sourced Songbird looks promising, but as with most open sourced projects, will need to hit version two before it’s viable for the mass marketplace, and foobar2000, while an example of impressive programming, is so stripped down and customizable that it would confound the average user. Kind of like Linux. Ok, that wasn’t really a fair jab. For now, I’m going to be playing with Media Monkey, and I’ll share my experiences when I’ve thoroughly explored its feature set.

Which player is best for you? If you’re not a computer enthusiast, and don’t feel like paying $20 for a media player, I’d go with iTunes. It’s simple, intuitive, and provides every feature that the average user expects. If you don’t like rating your music, or have a collection of less than 100 songs, check out the Zune player – it’s a neat twist on iTunes, even if it’s not that great for large collections yet. Songbird is most certainly an app to keep in mind, and will probably become a possible iTunes killer as it approaches maturity. Meanwhile, if you want an eye opening experience that will show you how a media player ought to work, look into Media Monkey. It really is cool.

Cheers,

Jon

Edit: As pointed out by my colleague Jake Billo in the comments of this post, some of what I wrote about iTunes in this post was 100% made up and totally incorrect. Not that I was intending to lie about it, but some of my thoughts regarding iTunes were misconceptions. For the record, if you haven’t yet challenged your membership to the cult of Steve, you should still try to do so – there are alternatives out there. And yes, the grass is greener on the other side.