I’ve maintained a personal library of music files ever since I’ve owned a computer. For the last several years, though, I’ve been using streaming services to listen to music simply because it was easier. As a professional musician, I was happy that the artists received a little extra support from me. I had purchased a lot of the albums I was listening to, so they got their cut from that, but they were also receiving a cut when I streamed their work. It was a win-win for everyone involved.
Then, a few weeks ago, I wanted to listen to a playlist I listen to relatively frequently. Suddenly, only two songs were available. Since I had last listened to the playlist, an artist had pulled all of their previous recordings from streaming services and retail outlets and had only one new album available. Fortunately, I had sound files I could turn to, but that meant I would have to remember when to use Tidal (my streaming service of choice) and when to use Apple Music (the app, not the service). And I wasn’t yet aware of a way I could mix and match the two.
Pairing Files with Streaming
After a bit of research, I found two services that would allow me to mix and match the music files I already owned with streaming services: VOX and Plex.
VOX is an app and service that allows you to use your personal music files alongside Spotify. You can create playlists (called Collections in VOX) using your own files and anything Spotify offers. This could be a perfect solution, I thought. Well, maybe not perfect, because I don’t personally use Spotify and I’m not terribly interested in using it because it doesn’t offer hi-res streaming. But it could work if I needed it to.
Then I discovered a flaw in the way VOX presented my files. Instead of using the metadata (artwork, genre, etc.) I had meticulously curated for my sound files, VOX provided its own metadata. I didn’t appreciate VOX’s overwriting my data. Fortunately, it was non-destructive, so none of their changes were embedded into the files themselves. They were simply displaying different information than I wanted them to. This really was a dealbreaker for me, but it wasn’t the only dealbreaker.
The possibility of creating
playlists Collections that combined my own files and files from Spotify had brought me hope, but VOX randomly ordered the tracks in the Collections. I couldn’t edit the play order at all. I had to listen in the order that VOX decided I should listen. VOX Support anemically replied, “It shouldn’t be doing that,” but offered no substantive help on the matter.
Plex and Plex Server
Enter Plex. Plex has been around a while, and it has a lot of devoted followers. Plex Server allows you to host your own media files—music, movies, television shows, and photographs—on a device that maintains a connection to the internet. Plex also allows you to combine your files with music from Tidal, the streaming service I happen to use. This was the perfect solution! I downloaded Plex Server, set it up, pointed it to my files, and started building playlists using my library and Tidal.
Not so fast.
I have a pretty fast internet connection at my house, but it isn’t fiber. Download speeds are more than adequate at 400+ Kbps, but upload speeds top out at a paltry 20 Kbps. This could potentially degrade internet service at my house if I streamed files from Plex Server. So I would want to download files from Plex Server to my iPhone so that I didn’t need to rely on my home network to serve media to me on the fly.
This was when another issue showed up. Plex is designed to download albums or tracks each time they occur in your library. If tracks appear in multiple playlists, they’re downloaded once for each time they appear. So if I download an artist’s album and wanted to download a separate playlist that includes some of the tracks from that album, Plex downloads those tracks twice. I have songs that appear in three or four playlists, which could easily double or triple the amount of storage these files take up on my iPhone. This is by design, apparently; Plex’s developer believes avoiding the “occasional” duplicated track is too complex and not worth the effort (his words).
If I couldn’t combine files and services successfully, I would have to do this by hand. I would have to buy the albums I didn’t already own and rebuild my library from scratch like the good old days.
Rebuilding the Library
The first decision I needed to make after deciding to rebuild the library by hand was which file format to use. I was determined to use files of CD quality and higher because, unless the files have a really high bitrate and sample size, all of the devices I own are capable of presenting them in their full glory.
Compressed vs. Uncompressed
All but two compressed file formats are lossy (meaning, they remove data to save on file size). I wasn’t going to bother with lossy formats. I’m a professional musician, and I want as close to the full aural experience as I can get.
The two compressed formats that were, theoretically, lossless formats were FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). Both of these require the processing device (in my case, an iPhone 12 Pro Max) to decompress the file and unwrap the digital wrapper around the file before presenting it for listening. Theoretically, this shouldn’t affect the sound, but some listeners argue that the need to unwrap the file takes processing power away from presenting the file and, therefore, degrades the sound.
Since I use an Apple device and don’t foresee using a non-Apple device in the future, ALAC could have been an option because Apple devices are designed to seamlessly decompress and unwrap the files. But I really wanted to try my hand at using uncompressed files and that left me with two options.
WAV vs. AIF
WAV (Waveform Audio File) files are as pure as they come. There are no wrappers for devices to unwrap, and they’re full uncompressed music files. You get essentially what came out of the studio. WAV files are also playable on every device and platform. The downside to using WAV files is that the files themselves can store very little metadata. I would have to enter information by hand for every track and every album in Apple Music.
AIF (Apple Interchange File Format) files are Apple’s answer to WAV. They’re uncompressed just like WAV, but they have a small wrapper used to store the metadata WAV files can’t store. Just like ALAC files, Apple’s devices seamlessly unwrap the files before presenting them.
Can You Really Tell the Difference?
In a word: Yes. I had some help setting up blind tests between FLAC/ALAC files and WAV/AIF files. Using wired headphones on my iPhone, I was able to tell the difference between the compressed (FLAC/ALAC) and uncompressed (WAV/AIF) file formats with 100% accuracy. Theoretically, I shouldn’t have been able to hear a difference. And some people would argue that my results aren’t accurate. But the uncompressed files felt fuller (not necessarily louder), and there seemed to be more air and energy around the sound.
Between AIF and WAV files is where it got interesting. I was only about 50% accurate here in the blind tests, which means I couldn’t really tell a difference at all. But when I knew which file format I was listening to, I thought I heard a difference. I’m completely comfortable admitting that this was purely psychological and a matter of perception. But, if it is anything, music is a matter of perception, isn’t it? If I think it sounds better, it does sound better. And since I was going to be the one loading these files onto my own device, and I knew what file format I used, then I would be predisposed to hear certain things. The bias makes a difference. Should it? Maybe, maybe not. Does it? Absolutely.
And the Winner Is…
I went back and forth over this decision for longer than I should have. Because of my perception that the WAV files sounded slightly better than the AIF files, I chose to go with WAV files this time (with one notable exception, a multi-disc King’s Singers collection that I really didn’t want to wrestle with). It would serve as a learning experience if nothing else.
After purchasing a few additional albums to complete my collection (for the time being) from Qobuz and a few from HDTracks, I downloaded the albums in WAV format and I downloaded their artwork. Remember that WAV files store very little metadata. I had to do that on my own, album by album. Using Tag Editor, I edited the track names and changed the file names to match the track names. Tag Editor makes this really easy, and it would be very helpful later in the process.
I didn’t bother to edit any other tags in Tag Editor because only the track names I entered would make the trip over to Apple Music. So, after I imported each album, I had to add some information: Artist, Album Title, Album Artist, Genre, Year, and track numbers. Most of this information is universal to all tracks on the album, so I only had to enter it once. Adding the track numbers was relatively painless. For a few classical albums, I had to make a few extra edits to add work and movement names.
I’m quite happy with the result. The files sound fantastic on wired headphones, and now I have complete control over my library. I won’t have to worry about an artist or label pulling files I want to listen to because they’re all on my device.
I have automated the backup process for these files using a combination of Carbon Copy Cloner and Backblaze and, of course, Time Machine. I even went so far as to download the AIF versions of the files; in case anything ever happens to my music library and I have to rebuild it again at some point in the future, I’ll use the AIF files so I don’t have to worry about manually editing the metadata. I’m glad I did it this time, but I won’t want to do it again.