Media Management: the road to synchronicity

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Media Management: the road to synchronicity

Forget world hunger, forget the everlasting state of war and poverty all around us, forget the corruption of the great and good!  Cast your mind to matters far more important, for instance consider the matter of managing your audio files and routinely transferring them to a mobile device of one kind or another. Now there is a vexing issue that will stun and silence even the most talkative plutocrat that one can name, be he a ruski or a yankee...

The challenge
Manage about 250Gb of music of pure audio in mostly benignly compressed WAV form that resides on an X86 platform (a PC to you and me) hard drive.

Frequently transfer various parts of the collection to a Windows mobile device capable of accepting around 16Gb of the least compressed form while maintaining as much metadata as possible.

Enjoy fuss free ripping and burning that will allow you to share and grow the burgeoning collection.

It may sound like an easy and indeed basic activity which is performed daily by tired housewives and toddlers with ease, until the minute you realize that in digispeak ‘compatible’ is an oxymoron of gigantic significance. Also that the digital platforms and tools offered as virtual manna from un-anointed gods to us mortals are designed to provide sadistic platforms for engineers and software giants to torture the little men and women who are only trying to pay homage to their creators by installing the effing software on their computers.
A few muses and comparisons will be offered by one such bruised victim to music lovers who may or may not have had similar near death experiences. They may help to steer some of you away from self destruction and even allow for a reduction in time spent glaring at missing metadata and mis-labelled tracks. With the above in mind view the following set of short shrifts as your friendly digital mine clearing devices.

Microsoft Mediaplayer 12
Mediaplayer 12 has possibly the best GUI (graphical user interface). It’s almost perfect in the way it’s programmed for synching to a mobile device. It is, however, fraught with so many short comings that one has to wonder what kind of sadists are running this software giant. You can easily decide which files will be sent to your device as opposed to the many other audio media management programs that simply send all the files you have on your hard-drive automatically, or require you to laboriously filter out the files you don’t want to transfer.

The Bad
If you store your files in WAV format and have migrated copies which you have ripped from original CDs and stored on an external hard-drive the metadata will suffer greatly. In fact unless you succumb to the axiomatic bullying demand to save all files in the WMA format the file’s metadata will be cancelled after a few days and you will be left to stare at a list of songs, no album or artist indexed records will be available for you to navigate through. Trying to re tag the metadata of almost any file will drive most towards dark thoughts about harming Bill and Melinda, as the corrected and re edited version will not appear on the various sub displays or, in the case of foreign languages will not appear even after a file’s information has been re created in its original alphabet (Hebrew in my case).

Overall
The giant MS is so insecure about its users' ability to behave legally that every effort is made to prevent one from having fun. Needless to say the de rigueur silliness used by all the modern giants of trying to lasso end users and jail them in their own environments is in full force here, the motto is on this occasion is “join Xbox media shop or else”. The lack of FLAC compatibility (strangely shared with their equally inept rival iTunes) means that migrating metadata in a safe fashion is nigh on impossible to execute. Even when the copies you are migrating where obtained legally (eg CDs). Sound quality, even from good recording the audio performance of the MS player is at best average.

Winamp 5.666
The more media players one tries the more one discovers about the way in which each developer views its potential users. Having tried a number of audio file management software programs I am distinctly unimpressed.
The Winamp media player is a “case in point” that highlights the point of the case. At face it has much that is going for it, eg the ability to handle FLAC files and read a library quickly etc. For a while it seemed like a love affair of a monumental proportions may develop. It also has much going for it when it comes to audio quality, and it will play high definition files of up to 24/192 in a very glorious fashion. So far so excellent.

The highs
Winamp manages a wide range of files. It imported all iTunes files and played them effortlessly on account of a bank of drivers that seems to be able to deal with any type of file and compression method known or used in the solar system. It offers excellent audio performance, but one does need to fiddle with the equaliser to get the best out of it. It can import a large amount of media files very quickly and automatically tags many of them. And while its ripping platform is slow it is able to very accurately retain Metadata information. This is the freebie version, the fully paid up one offers a very fast ripping platform. Alas this nirvana arrives with a compromised package of goods wrapped in the inexplicable series of annoying shortcomings.

The Lows
Tagging artwork on imported albums is all but impossible with some files. Even those that were legally and properly obtained and copied. There is little rhyme or reason behind these and one suspect a licensing issue that has not been finalized. Even when a lot of time is vested in tagging files, some of the content refuses to sit in its correct place, and tracks from the same album will be shown as individual albums.
And now for the biggest bug bear. Synching to a mobile device is at best adequate, the device is recognised and all is happy until the time comes to assign which albums from a library of around 250GB of music you want to transfer to the puny 16GB available on the mobile device (Windows 8 phone). One can filter the content but it takes an enormous amount of time because you need to use the ‘Opt out’ method as opposed to the ‘Opt in’ approach of the MS Mediaplayer. But even after spending the better part of an hour and a half of trying to manage a very small section of the screen, the content found on the phone bore little resemblance to the tracks assigned to it.
All in all however, this still my second favourite and one which I will be using frequently.

It is becoming clear to me that combining the best possible facility and attuning the functions to one's exact needs and wishes, may require more than one Mediaplayer/manager program. None of the free versions of any of the players can be fitted in a complete and seamless fashion to all a users' needs, and in a way which addresses every style and file. The search for nirvana may continue for a while longer...

MediaMonkey 4.1.0
By the time I got to try the next media file manager software I realized that the quest for a single solution that will encompass all wishes, tastes and requirements may not be easily resolved and could turn into continuous chase after the unobtainable (a bit like high fidelity Ed.). There is a Goldilocks effect that follows the ongoing attempt to discover an illusory perfection. So with all the above in mind allow me to present MediaMonkey for your delectation.

The Good
There is much to recommend here, the software has a monumental tagging system that should make it easy to bring order to any bank of chaotic titles in various alphabets, even if they are sourced from here or there and possibly everywhere. It may take a while but once the corrections and missing information has been added it will maintain the new tags for the most part, which means that when switching to another media player the correct information will be retained.
It appears that the raison d'être of this fine player/manager is the managing of files, it does it with aplomb and will leave most users smiling. The MediaMonkey player is able to deal with 24 bit, 88/96 kHz media, I have not tried higher resolution but suspect that it will be able deal with 176/192 kHz sample rates as well. For those who maintain their music file collection in FLAC format this software will rip, read, play and manage their it with ease.

The OK but not memorable
Whilst the various players tested rely on the Windows operating system to extract the best of sounds (in my case Windows 7 installed on a Intel board with good audio credentials) the differences in audio performance between the various players are quite substantial. In the event this player leaves something to be desired for those who choose to park their files in the least compressed fashion. It isn't bad, but if you are streaming your music to a hi-fi this player is not the last word in resolution or bass accuracy.

The bad
The only annoying factor, and the one that made me continue the search was the odd fashion in which the player interacts with my mobile phone. There is a way of deciding through an ‘opt out’ which tracks, albums etc will be sent to the SD card on the device. However, since some of the media chosen was not convertible during the sync process* (much like the case of the Winamp player sync mechanism), the result was a confusing array of files being sent in a fashion that did not resemble the choice made during the very arduous process required to select it in the first place. Another strange feature which I wasn't able to control via the set up/option lists is the way in which newly ripped media was sent to a folder located on the operating system portion of my PC and not shared with the ‘My music’ folder that holds all previously acquired/ripped music files.
All in all this is an excellent choice for those who maintain most of their music in a compressed format like MP3.
Please note again that the versions checked here are the free versions and as such some of the facilities which are afforded to people who pay for a full fledged platform may not be included or are offered on a limited basis.

*Window phones only correctly display tags when the music is in the WMA format.

JRiver Media Jukebox 14
The last of the piece of software covered in my wayward journey towards digital nirvana is the JRiver Media Jukebox. Please note, this is not the all singing ‘n’ dancing JRiver Media Centre but rather a lite version that offers most of its playback, ripping, synching, burning and file management facilities and, importantly, is free. The JRiver was the media player that had the least amount of problems of all those assembled. There is much to recommend here and a wee bit to lament as well. But all in all it is the one that best suited my personal needs, but that does not mean this is the best media facility here, the winner, in my view, is the one that best suites each user's specific needs and circumstances.

The good
JRiver’s metadata facilities were my first port of call as I have a quantity of music whose metadata is not Latin and is written from right to left (Hebrew). In the event this has proven to be the best metadata management/reconstruction facility I have used. Its editing facility has made the task of re-editing content easier than the other platforms described here. Next on the list is the audio facility which is quirky and requires trial and error testing of a sort, but it is nevertheless an outstanding asset. In addition to an audio upsampling facility that will breathe life into your collection in the form of 8/16/24/32 bit by 44.1/88.2/96/176/192 kHz resolutions, there is also a setting for virtual subwoofer that varies in size from 6 to 15 inches. It’s an audiophile delight. The sync system has a decoder adjustment that allows for a conversion of a wide range of formats, as such it offered a perfect gateway for music that was sent to my Windows Phone 8 which is designed to accept WMA compressed media as a prime default. I was finally able to benefit from a collection that did not suddenly lose its metadata as was the case when using other programs.

The Bad
The JRiver encoder utilises an odd set up with a clip protection that effects volume levels in a very strange way, this only occurs if you use the various effects it offers but as the bass management is so good it’s something you want to do. The volume level behaves in an odd and unnatural way, it may not be as noticeable for those who listen to MP3 collections compressed to 192Kbps or less, but it is very apparent when playing high resolution and mid resolution files. The sync system is also not without its faults. For reasons unclear to me, and after having taken considerable amount of time and having used many attempts to find a solution, it would appear that whilst a Windows Phone 8 device is synchronizing with the JRiver Jukebox, it will not load new content to the SD card until the old content is deleted. This means that a global update is required which can take up to two hours to complete. Not very convenient. Lastly, whilst the ripping of CDs is a blindingly fast affair compared to most other media players, it is not able to include the album cover with the rest of the ripped CD data, even though it is able to read the CD accurately and places all the rest of the data in correct order and fashion.

Conclusion
I need to emphasize again that this exposé of software is not a review but rather an attempt to highlight the perils and joys that (ever changing) digital platforms offer music lovers and incurable hi-fi fanatics. All the software that is highlighted here will exceed most users expectations, and are all very accomplished. Considering the software packages are all free they offer positively brilliant value for money. For those who are tempted to push and elevate matters to higher degrees of excellence there is an easy upgrade path (not including the MS Mediaplayer) into paid versions that include more facilities and capabilities. There are no absolute winners or losers here and all the free-to-download versions of the various makes are excellent at what they do.

As described previously there is a wide range of considerations for users to take into account when choosing a media player/audio file management software. An almighty range of factors such as the operating system, the preferred compression, associated mobile devices that may be used, streaming facilities, the amount of missing metadata you may need to organize and so on.  I would strongly recommend that anyone who is making the move from disc to a digital collection to check the free version of the software prior to committing funds. Likewise some may find that including two or even three players on a computer will allow the various strengths and weaknesses of each platform to be balanced for best results.

Reuben Klein