How to build a simple music server

Building a dedicated music server from a Mac Mini, or even a Windows NUK, can be a snap if you just want to load your products and go. These instructions will walk you through the process of building a simple server. If you want to get more in depth, go here to read the extended version of these instructions.

In a nutshell

These are the quick steps we’ll be taking:

  • Purchase a Mac Mini computer (under $499)
  • Purchase and install Bit Perfect from the Apple app store ($10)
  • Load your music on the Mini
  • Connect via USB to your DAC

With the goal of a small, quiet, affordable, lightweight box without a keyboard, mouse or screen, the choices available to us narrow down quickly. Many of you suggested a laptop. I nixed this choice immediately because of size. Even a small 13″ laptop is huge, relative to what we have in mind for our project, and doubles in size when you open it up exposing the screen and keyboard. Besides, it looks like a computer. I don’t want a computer, I want a dedicated music server.

Next comes the choice of platforms. This one’s obvious to me. Apple. Why? Well, if we ignore my dislike for Windows and Windows based machines and focus back on our design goals that include ease of use and setup, that really narrows the choice down. Say what you will about Apple products, they are dead easy to setup and use. In fact, they are so easy, many Windows users don’t like them because of their simplicity. Tough crowd.

The Mac Mini is an easy choice. Retailing for $599 with a 500Gb storage drive inside, this little baby is all you need. Measuring a mere 1.4″ tall and 7″ wide and deep, this little faceless unit weighs in at 2.7 lbs, is machined from a solid billet of aluminum and is about as elegant a “computer” as you can get. It does have a fan inside but you’d never know it. Here’s a picture of this little jewel. It doesn’t even look like a computer.

Mini

To set this product up you will need an old monitor, USB keyboard and mouse (any brand will do). The monitor needs a DVI input (or HDMI) which most in the last 5-years have. If you don’t have a monitor, you can buy one cheap from Amazon: here’s one for $39 used. Apple makes different adapters if yours is ancient enough to not have DVI, check with the guys at the Apple store if you have questions. Remember, you’re only going to need these for setup and perhaps those times when you want to load a big library, but never in use as a music server.

You’ll need internet access to setup the computer and perhaps 15 minutes. Apples are brainless to setup, just follow the instructions that appear on the screen and you’re done. Don’t setup anything other than the basic computer.

For my setup I also purchased Apple’s Super Drive because it looks cool, matches the mini and works great. You can use any USB DVD/CD ROM drive you wish. For me, staying cool and matching’s important, so I spent the $80 to get the rig I showed in the picture yesterday. All in I spent $734.30 with Boulder city tax of 8%.

Using iTunes for the interface

In our music server we’re going to use iTunes as the user interface. iTunes isn’t perfect, but it’s damn good. I’ll put together a tutorial of how to effectively use it as a powerful ally in building your library. iTunes used to be very intuitive in its operation, but they’ve simplified the thing down to the point where it no longer is so. That was a big mistake on their part, dumbing the product down to the point of frustration for anyone wanting to do anything like manage their library. But once you learn a few tricks, it’s easy.  Most of those tricks are included in this How To section of our website.

The good news about iTunes is that once our server’s built, library’s been added and edited to be the way we want, the program is awesome as a simple, gorgeous, easy to use controller. That’s one of the reasons I chose it over any number of other choices. No program is perfect, and there’s a small learning curve needed to manage your library in iTunes, but we’ll get you past these small hurdles quickly.

Another reason I chose the Mini as the platform of choice is iTunes and the Apple ecosystem. Once you’ve made the choice to go with iTunes for your library management and user interface tools, it then makes perfect sense to stay with the ecosystem Apple has created. Apple products work well together. Perhaps better than any other concoction you can imagine. Yes, iTunes works on Windows, but nothing about it is native, the mobile devices that connect with a Windows platform aren’t native and, well, the whole thing is just messy and too fiddly for me. Give me simple, it just works. To do this, stay within the walled garden Apple has created.

Choosing the iPad Mini

So while you’re in the Apple store, decide how much you want to spend on the user interface device. For my money I went with an iPad Mini. This little gem fits easily in the pocket, connects seamlessly with your new server and costs only $299. You can save $100 by going with the iPod Touch if you want really small (or use your iPhone if you have one), and this will work just as well. However, in my experience, it takes a bit of the fun and splendor out of the experience. Sitting in your listening chair with the iPad mini controlling everything you listen to (except the volume) is a real treat.

Using the Mac Mini for sound reproduction

Macs have some of the best sounding outputs between the two platforms, when used just straight out of the box, but there are issues. For example, if we play high resolution audio on our server we want the sample rate and bit depth to be exactly what’s on the recording. Yet both Windows and Macs won’t support this. On our Mac, you are supposed to choose a fixed sample rate for the output of your computer to the DAC via USB. Let’s say you choose 176.2/24 as the output. Whatever you play is then upsampled or downsampled to this rate. In other words, everything you listen to on your DAC is going to be molested by the computer. Not a good thing. Even if you manually set it each time, the computer will molest your music. To complicate the problems, there’s DSD. Neither Windows nor Macs have a clue what to do with DSD. We need to fix all of this if we’re going to build a true high-end music server.

What we want is a program that grabs the audio from iTunes and pulls it out of harm’s way. Not only that, we want to place all our music into the computer’s RAM and play from RAM, not from our hard drive. In addition to that, we don’t want our software to affect, in any way, the iTunes user interface. No, what we want is for a magic program that sits in the background and turns our music server into a bit perfect output, played through the equivalent of a Digital Lens straight and unmolested from any contamination right to our DAC.

Let’s keep it Bit Perfect

What we want in our choice of software is a means for the audio stored on our hard drive to get out of the computer without being altered or molested in any way. Both Apple and Microsoft want to fool with your audio in ways that don’t serve the music and we’re not going to let them do that. We do, however, want to keep iTunes for our music management tool. There are a few excellent software programs out there that do exactly what we want. I am going to tell you about the one I’ve chosen and why.

From the beginning of this project I’ve mentioned my goal was simplicity, no need for keyboards, mice and video screens, high-end performance and ease of use. I want all the features and fun of using iTunes for my music, but I don’t want any hassle or downside to playing it. A tall order actually, but it is achievable. Let me say upfront that none of the available choices for software are perfect, so we have to choose whatever we think is closest to our goals of simplicity without sacrificing the sound quality.

For this task I have chosen Bit Perfect. The program hides in the background as if it didn’t exist and yet is extremely powerful: grabbing the audio from iTunes and forwarding it in perfect form to the computer’s memory. There it fills up the memory until enough has been added, and sends it on its way out the USB port in bit perfect fashion (hence the name). Moreover, it makes sure the sample rate and bit depth remain exactly true to the source material without any intervention from the user. This last bit is certainly not unique amongst the available programs, in fact I don’t know if any of this is unique, but here’s what I do know: it seems to be the least intrusive to the user experience than any of the other programs I tried (and I tried most of the big names) without any compromise in sound quality. In fact, to my ears, the SQ is marvelous and close to that coming from the PerfectWave Transport Memory player.

I am also enamored with the use of the computer’s RAM to mimic what we call a Digital Lens. Again, I don’t know if this is unique to Bit Perfect, but it certainly works, is effective and best of all, Bit Perfect is only $9.95.

So what about DSD? If you’re going to be playing DSD, as certainly I will be doing, here’s where we come into a bit of a hassle. To use DSD files you have to run them through another program Bit Perfect offers called DSD Master. This $29.95 program is used to package DSD files in a form that iTunes can understand. iTunes and Mac or Windows machines can’t natively deal with DSD as I have written before in the series on DoP. Different programs handle this in different ways.

Putting all the pieces together

With this long preamble in mind, here’s the simplest way to build you music server.  You will need the following items:

  • A Mac Mini computer.  Use the most basic of models, or upgrade to the next step up in RAM and storage if you wish.  Increasing the RAM to as high as 16GB can help the sound.
  • A Mac iPad Mini.  Purchase the lowest cost one without the better screen
  • An Airport Express router
  • Apple Super Drive DVD player
  • Bit Perfect software
  • Bit Perfect DSD Master software
  • An excellent USB Cable.  For my server is Used a JCat
  • An old USB computer keyboard
  • An old monitor and mouse
  • An internet connection

As described earlier, connect the new Mac Mini to the computer keyboard and mouse for setup.  Follow the instructions on the Mac to set it up, register it, get the latest operating system etc.  This make take a few hours, be patient and get it the way you want.  Do not load any other programs.

Load your library into your new server

iTunes will come pre-installed on the computer.  Prepare to load your library into the Mac Mini.  You can do what I do, use the internal Hard drive, or you can use an external hard drive, one that is either on your home network or connected to the computer itself through USB.

If you wish to use the Mac’s internal hard drive, iTunes is already preconfigured for this.  Your files will be located in the iTunes Library, which you can access using the Mac’s Finder program.

If you wish to use an external hard drive to store your media, follow these instructions:

Open iTunes->Preferences->Advanced to see the location of the iTunes library.  You may select Change if you wish to use an external hard drive or NAS.  You must first make sure the desired drive is attached and recognized by your computer.  Once you select this drive, all music that iTunes manages will be accessed on this drive.

You will also note there is a checkbox that allows for iTunes to always copy any new additions to the iTunes to this location or not.

Screen shot 2014-05-25 at 7.04.09 AM

Set the import options

When iTunes imports a CD or music from any source, it will save it in the way you select.  My preference is to use AIFF, which is the same as WAV, only you are able to keep cover art and track titles.  This setting does not compress the music at all and because memory is inexpensive, highly recommended you do not compress the media, even with a lossless compression.

To select AIFF as the import setting:

Open iTunes Preferences.  Go to iTunes->preferences.  Go to the General preferences are and select Import Settings.

Screen shot 2014-05-24 at 10.13.58 AM

From the drop down list, choose the file type you want to convert to.  This is also the place where you set how you wish iTunes to import (rip) your media.  Select OK.

Import your entire library

Following the aforementioned guidelines, import your entire library, either onto your internal hard drive or your external hard drive.

Once imported, spend a good day making sure you have cover art that is correct, song titles, composers and artists labeled correctly.  Time spent on polishing and perfecting your music library is time well spent.

To manage the tracks and albums in your library, you can refer to this How To in our support section.

Purchase and load Bit Perfect

The next step, after your library has been uploaded, edited and ready to go, is to load Bit Perfect onto the Mac and launch it.  There are very few settings to adjust in Bit Perfect, but perhaps the most important is setting up RAM and Integer mode.  Open Bit Perfect Preferences menu:

Bit-perfect-preference

Set the memory buffer to no more than 25% of the total RAM size of your computer.  If your computer has 2GB of RAM, then this setting of 512MB is perfect.  Assign more if you have more RAM.

Setup the Airport Express

To set up the Airport Express router, which we recommend using as a separate router dedicated only to communicating between the iPad Mini controller and the Mac and iTunes, simply plug the AE into the wall.  Take a Cat 5 Ethernet cable and connect it between the Mac’s Ethernet input and the AE’s Ethernet LAN (Local Area Network) input as shown in this photo.

apple-12q2-airportexpress-schematic-lg

Once connected and powered up, open the Mac iPad Mini.

Connecting the iPad Mini

If you followed the previous instructions and loaded the free Apple Remote program on the Mini, all you will now need to do is configure the Airport Express to communicate with your iPad.  On the iPad, go to Settings->WiFi.  The Airport Express will appear as a choice.  Simply choose the AE as your WiFi choice and configure it as the system walks you through the simple setup.

Open Apple Remote

Once connected to the AE and your Mac music server, open the Apple Remote app.  The app will see your Mac and ask you to pair it.  You will need the computer monitor and keyboard connected for this part of the operation.  Follow the simple instructions to pair the iPad to iTunes and you should be good to go.

Connect your DAC

Using the USB cable you’ve chosen, connect one of the USB outputs on the Mac to the DAC’s USB input.  Launch Bit Perfect and open its Preferences.  You should now be able to select your DAC from the drop down list.  If your DAC is not recognized, we would recommend leaving the DAC connected and rebooting the Music Server, leaving Bit Perfect open.  The program should open automatically (if you didn’t close Bit Perfect) and your DAC should be seen.  Choose it and you are done.

have fun!

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