Your editor's computerized music collection started small - a few CDs
converted to Oggs and placed on the laptop to eliminate the need to carry a
CD player when traveling. Then the live music trading community, of which
your editor is occasionally a part, moved away from complex and unreliable
tape formats to optical media, and, increasingly, online exchange. The
digital music player showed up, replacing the old CD player as another
gadget which must be hauled (along with charger) in your editor's
increasingly heavy backpack; it brought with it a larger collection of
highly compressed music files. Over time, the pile of digital music has
become an unorganized mess of files in several formats, overflowing from
its own, dedicated disk drive. There must be, one would think, a better
In search of better ways, and looking for an excuse to listen to more music
while pretending to work, your editor delved into the world of free music
managers. The manager part of that is key: the world is full of
music players, but they are generally not helpful in organizing that
big pile of music files. Your editor would like a tool which brings some
order to the mess, makes finding and playing music easy, and helps with the
management of one or more digital audio players. The search turned up
three tools, all of which have some nice features, but none of which are,
yet, a full solution.
Before getting into the specific tools, however, please indulge your editor
with a topic which brings out his grumpiest side. Most of the tools
discussed below offer iPod support. They can move files back and forth,
interface with the on-device database, and generally perform the functions
that an iPod owner might like to do.
Your editor does not own an iPod.
None of the applications reviewed has any useful concept of working with other digital
audio players. Supporting only the iPod is as foreign to the free software
way of doing things as supporting, say, only the i386 architecture or the
Word document format. The iPod, as nice as it is, remains a highly
proprietary device in a sea of alternatives. One can understand if iPods
are supported first, since so many of them are out there; your editor very
much hopes, however, that the developers have thought a little beyond the
iPod and designed a digital audio player interface layer which is capable
of a little more flexibility.
Beyond that, few of the managers reviewed appear to have much idea that a
digital audio player is a separate domain, with, perhaps, its own rules.
These players, for example, generally require lossy, compressed audio
formats. But, when using a larger system, the idea that lossy audio is fit
to be pumped through one's $1500 (each) speaker cables is insulting at its
core. If much of one's audio collection is in lossless formats (FLAC,
say), it would be nice to be able to move files to a portable player and
have them automatically transcoded into a format that works on that
player. In the absence of such a feature, it becomes necessary to keep
music around in multiple formats - and most music managers do not deal well
Rhythmbox is a longstanding GNOME music
manager. It contains many of the expected features, but it has also been
subject to a certain amount of muttering in the GNOME ranks. The biggest
complaint appears to be that the pace of development is slower than some
would like. There have been comments to the effect that this project was
slowed down recently by external events, but that development can be
expected to pick up again soon.
The initial Rhythmbox display is sparse, essentially a large, blank
window. Gaining access to music requires "importing" it into the
"library." An entire directory tree can be imported at once, but Rhythmbox
feels the need to complain about every non-music file it finds in the
process. After the import process, the user is presented with a list of
every known track in one very long, scrolling window. There is not a great
deal of organization evident at this point.
A small button marked "show browser" opens a pair of panes allowing the
selection of a subset of tracks based on the artist and/or album. There is
also a "search" blank which restricts the list to tracks which contain (in
the artist, album, or title field) a given string. Searching can be used,
say, to find that recording of "Louie, Louie" that you know you have
somewhere, or, for fans of a certain persuasion, to get a full list of all
performances of "Dark Star" in the collection. The results form a sort of
instant playlist, so one can perform a quick search, hit "play," and get
hours of uninterrupted, out-of-tune Jerry Garcia goodness. Not that your
editor would be into such a thing, of course.
Speaking of playlists: they are created from a menu entry, and appear in
the left side pane. Creating playlists is a simple matter of dragging and
dropping songs into it. It is not possible, however, to see the contents
of a playlist and the library at the same time, so the creation process is
One obnoxious feature of Rhythmbox is how it treats albums: it sorts the
tracks by title if the track files do not, themselves, contain ordering
information. Since much on-disk music is created with file names which
describe the order of the tracks, it would be nice of Rhythmbox would use
The music player itself is functional, if rudimentary. It has repeat and
shuffle modes, as one would expect. There is a scrollbar which can be used
to move within a track, but it is strangely located far from the other
player controls. Rhythmbox, like most of the other applications reviewed
here, puts an icon in the panel tray, allowing it to
be controlled without having a window on-screen.
Rhythmbox also understands (and can "tune into") Internet
radio stations. Of course, the out-of-the-box install fails to cope with
the formats used by most stations, but some quick searching and installing
takes care of that problem. Additional features (help in finding stations,
recording from a stream) would be nice, but what's there is a start.
Rhythmbox has the ability to import tracks from CD - though it outsources
the work to SoundJuicer. It is unable to burn tracks to CD.
Rhythmbox also lacks any sort of digital audio player support; not even
the iPod is supported.
When GNOME users talk about replacing Rhythmbox, the most
commonly-suggested alternative is Banshee. Banshee is a Mono
application which is coming along quickly, but which still lacks some
The initial Banshee experience is similar to what one sees with Rhythmbox.
After an import process, a long list of tracks appears. Unlike Rhythmbox,
however, Banshee has no features for narrowing the list of tracks by artist
or album. The search facility can often be pressed into service to obtain
similar results, but it is more awkward. Playlists are handled in pretty
much the same way as in Rhythmbox. Banshee lacks Internet radio capability.
Banshee does have a couple of nice features. One of those is the ability
to edit the metadata in music files. A CD ripped using information from
one of the online databases often ends up with some very strange metadata:
it's always fun to find that whoever entered the information decided that
Led Zeppelin belongs in the "ambient" genre, or that they decided to change
the spelling of disk set name between the first and second CDs. Once you
find the metadata editor (nicely hidden as "properties" on the "view"
menu), you can fix problems like that.
By most accounts, Banshee has the best iPod support among the available
free music managers. Among other things, it understands that it may have
to transcode music as it moves it between the computer and the player.
Banshee has a few different ways of controlling the movement of music to
and from the iPod; it can be done entirely manually, or the library can be
automatically synchronized with the player.
Banshee has a CD importer built into it, and it can import to a number of
different formats. The ability to burn CDs is also there. At least, the
web page says so; the version of Banshee from the Ubuntu repository does
not appear to be able to perform either task.
Quod Libet is a GTK+
music manager written in Python. Its authors appear to place power and
extendability above eye candy.
Quod Libet resembles other managers at startup time, and users go through
the same sort of import process. Tracks are displayed in one big window.
It is possible to get a browser which narrows based on artist and album,
but the user must explicitly ask for it, and the browser is separate from
the music player controls. In fact, there are two different browsers with
very similar functionality.
When a playlist is created, a separate window is popped up; the usual
drag-and-drop mechanism will populate the list. Access to playlists is via
a pulldown menu slipped in between the player controls and the track list.
It's a somewhat awkward interface, especially as the number of playlists
The distinguishing feature found in Quod Libet, perhaps, is its plugin
mechanism. A simple Python interface makes it easy to add new features to
the system; some of the available
plugins include a song blacklist, various features for obtaining and
displaying album cover art, a CD burning feature, an AudioScrobbler client, and a simple
plugin for copying files to a portable player.
Amarok appears, as of this writing, to
be where much of the
music management action is happening. The Amarok hackers have, in a short
time, put out a number of releases of this increasingly attractive and
Amarok makes an immediate impression when it is started; the developers
have clearly put quite a bit of effort into its appearance. The interface
makes more use of color than the other music managers. It also never sits
still; like a jukebox in a bar, Amarok is always flashing lights and
generally trying to attract attention to itself. Some of the gaudier
features (like the "on-screen display" which comes up every time Amarok
starts playing a new track) can be turned off, but others (the flashing
track name in the playlist display) are seemingly permanent. The work
which has gone into creating a visually appealing tool is appreciated, but
not everybody likes flashing distractions on their screen.
Needless to say, Amarok does album covers. They can be obtained from the
net, browsed, and saved by the user, and come up with the relevant tracks
are played. It also has features for digging up song lyrics and looking up
artists in Wikipedia.
Tracks are imported into the "collection" in the usual way, but things
change after that. The music collection is displayed in the left pane in
file manager-like presentation. Nothing one might try in that pane,
however, will cause a track to be played. In Amarok, everything is a
playlist, and tracks must be added to a list before one can hear them.
Double-clicking on an album will cause all of its tracks to be moved to the
current playlist; from there, they can be heard. Individual tracks can
also be dragged over. The playlist is
cumulative, so a bit of wandering around in the collection can create a
truly eclectic selection of tracks in the list. Playlists can be saved, at
which point they appear in the hierarchical playlist display.
The playlist display includes a section for Internet radio stations.
The music player itself has seen a fair amount of development attention.
There is a small, xmms-like player window, a fancy frequency-amplitude
display, and a built-in graphic equalizer. There is also a "queue manager"
which can be used to program a sequence of tracks to be played; your editor
is not entirely clear on how this feature differs from the regular playlist
mechanism, however. There is a "dynamic playlist" feature which is poorly
documented; it appears to try to find tracks (with help from
AudioScrobbler) which are, in some way,
similar to those which are already in the playlist.
There is reasonable player support built into Amarok, but, of course, it only
supports iPods. Unlike the other players, Amarok allows the user to
configure a mount command to make the player available.
Amarok is scriptable, and has a script manager built into it. Some of the
available scripts can make the player stream out whatever is being played,
perform transcoding of audio files, and more. There is also a "transfer to
media device" script which can make Amarok move audio files to a
USB-storage device. It knows nothing about the filesystem hierarchy on the
destination device, however, not to speak of issues like encodings, so this
script is not particularly useful.
There are many other features to this tool: fancy "visualizations," CD
burning, track metadata editing, cross-fading between tracks, downloadable
themes for the "context" window, automatic track rating (who knows how it
works), basic podcast support, and more.
Hopefully the idea is clear by now.
Readers who are mainly interested in iPod support may also want to have a
look at gtkpod. Those of us with
other devices will have to be content with advanced tools like
Clearly a lot is happening in this particular "type manager" niche. That
is a good thing: computers are increasingly at the center of the audio
experience, and we are going to need good tools to keep our music
collections from looking like those piles of CDs, DATs, cassettes, records,
eight-tracks, and other media that many of us have been surrounded by for
much of our lives. The tools which are available now are far beyond what
was out there even one year ago; once again, the free software community is
showing how well it can create great applications when it gets fired up.
There is still some thinking which needs to be done in this area, however.
The Rhythmbox and Amarok developers have realized that net-based audio is
of increasing importance; their support for Internet radio streams is the
result. Amarok's podcast support is also nice, if a little hard to get
started with. Feed it an RSS file, however, and your playlist will always
have a current listing of what's available from that podcast source. Now
if we could just convince more podcasters to offer something other than the
MP3 format, things would be even nicer.
Most of us want to take our music with us, and, thanks to the availability
of high-capacity digital players, we can. The music management
application developers are still figuring out how to cope with a music
"library" which comes and goes, and which may or may not be a mirror
(perhaps in a different encoding) of a local library. And they all seem to
have difficulty with the idea that some of us folks - the more
unfashionable ones, certainly - might use something other than an iPod.
Your editor is looking forward to improvements in this area. An especially
nice thing would be a cooperation with the Rockbox project to ensure that
Rockbox-equipped players are seamlessly integrated. Given that, soon,
iPods will also be able to run Rockbox, it seems that there should be a
large enough user community to motivate some effort in that direction.
Your editor, if pressed to make a recommendation now, would have to go with
Amarok. It has a feature set and visual appeal which is unmatched
elsewhere. For those looking for a basic manager for music which lives
only on the computer, Rhythmbox is also a stable and functional
alternative. Banshee shows signs of developing into a highly capable
application, but it is not there yet. Given some time, however, along with
a broader willingness to install the whole Mono system, and Banshee may yet
push its way toward the top of the list.
Now, if you don't mind, your editor has some tunes to listen to.
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