Serving the music

March 11, 2023
 by Paul McGowan

Whether your streaming music is stored on your computer, NAS, or up in the cloud, the basic function of a network music server is pretty much the same.

The server is responsible for storing, organizing, and delivering digital music files to a renderer for playback.

This is your library. *(Technically, a library is a collection of files that lives on the server, but to keep things simple, I am referring to the whole mess—server and collection of files on that server—as the library)

First and foremost, a music server is used to store and organize digital music files. Once the music files are stored, the server software organizes them by metadata such as album, artist, genre, and track information. This metadata is crucial for browsing and searching your music library using a controller (which we’ll get to in detail tomorrow).

Think of the server (library) as a big hard drive in the sky. Each track of music stored on that server is assigned a unique ID number—kind of the same thing as the bar code on every product in your supermarket. All these ID reference numbers are stored in a database, and it is this database that our controller is going to interact with.

For example, let’s imagine 10 tracks of music are stored. Each of the ten is assigned a unique ID number, and each of those numbers references the metadata associated with each track. (Metadata refers to data about other data: artist, length, genre, cover art, etc.)

Now, a controller sends out a query to the server: search for Flamenco music. The server (which is just a computer connected to a big hard drive) searches all the metadata with that keyword and returns the results to the controller. 3 of the 10 tracks were Flamenco, and now we have 3 cover art pictures displayed on our controller.

You select number 2, and now the server sends out an address for the playback device to connect to. This address is essentially the same sort of thing as a webpage link. Click the link and your renderer starts receiving the music.

But millions of songs? How does a server like Tidal work?

Tidal’s music streaming service contains millions of songs from various genres, artists, and labels. To connect to millions of users simultaneously, Tidal, Apple, Qobuz, and Amazon all use a content delivery network (CDN) to distribute their content. A CDN is a network of worldwide servers that work together to deliver content to users from the server closest to them. When you request a song or album, Tidal’s CDN delivers the content from the server that is geographically closest to you. This offers minimal latency and buffering during playback.

So, a music server is a big hard drive in the sky. Everything on that hard drive is cataloged and organized in a big database that your controller—like Roon—queries and presents to you in the form of cover art, artist info, track titles, etc. When you select a track to play, the server connects your player to that one file in the same way you connect to a webpage, and voila! music.

Subscribe to Paul's Posts

56 comments on “Serving the music”

  1. Hi Paul, maybe I’m out of mode, using only physical media. I received the Nocturne SACD for two days. I was stunned and awed by the quality and recording of this live jazz session. Clarity, openness, magnificent soundstage, air between the instruments, all the live ambiance, it is all there. I even dare to say it is maybe even better than “Jazz at the Pawnshop”(Vinyl 45Rpm). I would like to congratulate you and the whole Octave Records team for sharing this gem with the Audiophile Family.

    1. Thank you! That comment made my morning. Yes, I am so thrilled with this recording and hope others get a taste for what live can sound like. Using minimal equipment and the advantages of a live space, there’s not much better.

      We just finished another live recording of a fabulous guitarist and it’s even better!

    2. Ok that sold it! At your suggestion Marc, I was listening to the sample recordings of Nocturne and my wife walked into the room (a total non-audiophile) and said “oh my that horn sounds real” and “That is weird how real that sounds”… and I was only listening to it on my MacBook Pro!

      I immediately went to purchase it but it is sadly not offered on vinyl. Nevertheless, I bought it anyway… Thanks for the tip.

  2. I think that was a description of how the internet works.

    PS Audio operates a website and for each of us users it keeps a record of our activity. We can look at our user account and see it. Every service we log into on the internet does the same. When I log into Qobuz it tracks my activity on their site in the same way. I can bookmark pages and create a library. So a Qobuz library is just a list of bookmarks recorded in our online user account. When I did this last thing last night, I used Qobuz on my phone and sent the data to a unit in the ceiling in my kitchen using Airplay, apple’s wireless protocol. I still don’t know what a renderer is in that process.

    So Qobuz is an app that provides access to online files for $. If you don’t know what an app is, you’re not breathing. As all users know, Roon is completely different. It doesn’t supply music. Its front page says in big letters: “MORE THAN JUST AN APP: Roon is a platform for all the music in your home”. It is essentially a music management system that collects music from anywhere and sends it anywhere in your home. Personally, if you have a static two channel system I think Roon is a waste of time. If like me you have 30 Roon Ready music devices, it’s priceless.

    Because Roon is (a) a massive piece of software (b) designed for domestic use (c) distributes over a home network and (d) has to be on all the time, it needs dedicated hardware. It’s called Roon Nucleus, but a Synology or QNAP server does the job just as well.

    Thinking about it, discussion of Roon completely confuses understanding streaming. Streaming services are simple – the streaming app just drags a music file from wherever and sends it to your player. Roon is an incredibly sophisticated music management system. The one thing Roon doesn’t do is license music files.

    1. Just as a side question and because I assume you don’t have 30 children in different rooms…what are you doing with 30 Roon ready devices? Ok, you may be in the lucky position to have 30 rooms anyway…but in London? 😉

      1. 1 x Devialet Expert
        2 x Devialet Reactor
        1 x Naim MuSo Qb2
        26 x Zuma Lumisonic

        These are grouped in 13 Roon zones.

        Zuma is the most flexible. In terms of app control (controller to those still in the 20th century), Zuma can be used with its own app, Alexa (Amazon HD via voice), Roon (Ready), Amazon HD (onboard), Tidal (onboard), Spotify (onboard), Apple Music (onboard), Qobuz (Airplay), MConnect and Innuos Sense (uPnP). It’s a complete audio system the size of a coke can – no server or render required.

    2. I’m just fine using my Roon Nucleus with ‘one’ 2 channel system. It’s worth it to me just for it’s user interface. Roon opened up a whole new world to locate any type of music I desire. I can discover musicians I’ve never heard of and most of their recordings with a tap of an iPad pencil.

      1. If you have a device with really good streaming software, like Linn or Auralic, which also create virtual servers, Roon is pointless. Because it is so difficult and expensive to build a streaming platform, as PS Audio found, it’s just simpler to adopt Roon Ready, even for standalone systems. Devialet did this, along with dozens of others. I was very happy using it in a standalone system – the streaming platform Roon RAAT is superb – but its multi-room management is its real strength.

    3. Sure Steven,

      But this post is not about Roon, nor your specific setups.

      Let’s stay with the intended topic for now, and let the author make his point?

      1. Paul mentioned Roon and I suggested Roon is confusing the issue because Roon is a music management suite of applications, not a streaming service. Roon does not have any music servers or libraries.

        A lot of people, me included, don’t agree with Paul’s descriptions, for example that a server and a library are the same thing. People have said they have servers that are not libraries and libraries that are not servers.

        We are now told “a music server is a big hard drive in the sky.” I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen any servers floating around overhead.

        This is an interesting subject because some old time audiophiles don’t trust the idea (they like to think they own music), whereas for most other people subscribing to a music service is no different to subscribing to a newspaper or an online audio magazine.

        It’s not like it’s a big secret. In the USA there are now 92 million people with paid music subscriptions and streaming accounts for 84% of music industry revenues.

        Personally, I’ve been streaming for 20 years, have used the same service for 9 years and my system has been unchanged for 3 years. Probably pretty normal. Streaming was solved a long time ago.

  3. Thanks for the good explanation of what a server does!

    However again a lot of mix up of terms which contradict each other:

    You correctly say “wether the music is stored on a NAS (or wherever), a server’s basic function …”…YES, storage is a different matter…. just to later say “a music server is a big hard drive in the sky…where each track is stored and…”…NO (but can also inherit that).

    Isn’t it that a server CAN be combined with a storage and even a streamer (=renderer?), but if we try to get it halfway clear, we have to say, that the pure server function is nothing but the organizing and sending out to streamer part?

    Then there would be to clarify if we understand the combination of HW and SW as a server or only the SW, as there are so many options of HW configurations. If we only see the SW as the server on which HW ever it’s installed (PC, Hifi unit, data center server), it also gets clear that storage is a different thing. But some server HW is sophisticated to the purpose enough (e.g. the HW of an Innuos unit), that we should include it in the server definition..on the other hand in other e.g. NAS configurations the server SW can be installed anywhere on a PC or the NAS itself…so this HW would rather not be included in the server definition then…which would again lead to a pure SW related server definition….

    I know it’s hard, but couldn’t we get the basic few parts at least really precisely defined?

  4. One of my My servers doesn’t talk to the big hard drive in the sky…. I allow It to talk only to one set of local hard drives flash thumb drives or on where or what ever I have music stored upon that the server can communicate with. Those local drives also are also responsible for storing many other files for many other things.

    I use a separate server for accessing files from other networks around the world.

    I think of a server as an obedient Labrador Retriever. I say “go get it” and it faithfully brings it back. The difference being is the music server doesn’t ask for treats. It needs to be told exactly where to go and what to look for. That’s where Meta data comes in. It is a great tool for defining parameters – but in my experience not an absolute requirement for playback. You just listen to a lot of unknowns. ✌️ 😀

  5. I was in IT for over 40+ years doing large databases over many large computers using large multi million dollar SANs. What you describe is very easy to do. There are databases that have billions of objects in them and you have data analysts performing ad hoc queries that can take hours to execute, those are complex tasks.
    Just to put things into perspective, when you do a query against Tidal that might take 1 or 2 seconds to get a result back, that 2 seconds includes the network time from your iPad to the Tidal computer room, placing your task in the computer queue, the database and associated app doing a search for the requested album/song, sending the file/query result back thru the network from Tidal to your home. So the query of the data (reading all the data over hundreds/thousands of hard disks) is probably the fastest segment of the overall task.

    1. Thanks for explaining that. Would it be true to say that Tidal’s servers that handles queries and file management may be in one place, a server farm, but the actual music files will be somewhere else, or multiple locations, i.e. various data centres.

  6. It would be great if we could get the following terms straight:

    server, storage, streamer, renderer, controller, endpoint (not sure if I forgot one), as well as the optional HW/SW parts related to the optional definitions and integrations or separations. This should reach from an online service situation where mich is combined, to a NAS/PC/server/streamer situation where most functions and HW/SW parts are completely separated. It would be helpful to assign the 6 definitions above (extended by the respective HW/SW part) to each possible incarnation of major setup options.

    Everything else will just confuse I guess and be just right for one of the few major options.

      1. While you may be the server and to a degree a controller everything talked about concept wise still applies. In fact it all applies with all your You Tubing also…

    1. I think Paul has achieved something, turning something pretty simple into something complex and confusing.

      You just don’t have to know anything about file server networking to do music streaming, because streaming apps do it for you.

      This server=library thing is just plain wrong, Mike pointed that out, many agree. In reality a “server” is a piece of software that manages network-accessible data. The HW physical bit, often called a “host”, is just a bunch of hard drives in a box with a processor.

      My server uses the QNAP QTS operating system and Roon is the data management program, but there IS NOT ONE MUSIC FILE on that server. The files sit on other devices, usually known as “clients”.

      If music is stored on a home network, all you need to know is the address, for example it might be You put that in your music app and it does the rest.

      If the music is online, you log in and – hey presto! – the software does the rest.

      I think most people know this, and if they don’t, it’s usually that easy. Most streaming services can be set up in seconds.

      1. I think the point is, this can’t be brought to an end by a discussion and answering of various individual questions.It would have to be structured and documented to a necessary extent from someone who knows as much as Paul and who has the will to really think it through once, maybe even rethink, and complete it.

        1. I don’t know how much Paul knows about streaming. He’s not a software engineer and PS Audio has not produced any streaming hardware or software of any significance (the Bridge is third party HW/SW, eLyric never worked, and I tried, Octave was abandoned and the AirLens if it ever arrives will not have a PSA app). You or I might know just as much and could probably explain it better, certainly other IT professionals here could do a much better job.

          The real problem for high-end manufacturers is that they want you to believe it is complex and requires expensive products. It isn’t. For years I used an Auralic Aries Mini, a streamer that can also work as a host server with killer software and cost $500. I can get great quality music sending music from my phone to my audio system using AirPlay. All 30 of my audio devices can stream 24/192 PCM wirelessly.

          Streaming is as easy as using a mobile app like Amazon or Qobuz to drag files from the internet and send them to your music system using AirPlay. You can make it complicated with switches and reclockers, and certainly clean power helps.

          1. English Steven is completely correct. It is simple. Why overcomplicate it?
            I chose to have fewer options than him but still run effortlessly with an iPad as remote or direct from the PowerBook.

        2. I think that is what Paul intends to do over the next several days. I find his writing quite interesting. I also find the discussion here mostly interesting and sometimes confusing. Hopefully, it will all come together in a blaze of enlightenment. 😎

  7. Paul I use completely different programs/apps for storing music on my NAS and for organizing the stored files than for serving those files to a renderer. I think you are confusing and obfuscating the issue further by suggesting the server is responsible for storage. In fact my server retrieves files from multiple storage locations and devices

  8. Until I can stream DSD music, which may never happen in my lifetime, I’ll stick to Fat Rat’s method. Remove SACD from case, place in drawer, close drawer and press play.

    1. They are a certain few Blu-Ray players that will rip your SACD’s to DSD or dsf . Older PS3’s will also do it but with some difficulty. There are Sony Blu-Ray players that will do it to be found quite cheaply. That, a usb stick, a free software download and all your SACD’s are backed up & ready to dive into the stream.

    2. Ned,

      I stream DSD now.

      My NAS stores them
      A small indexer scans them and manages metadata
      My App displays the metadata
      I choose by Artist, genre, etc what I want to hear
      The player drags it from the server
      The DAC converts it to analog
      My preamp/amp plays the analog signal to my speakers.

      Simple complexity; simultaneous functionality.

      Most of the commentary here are everyone’s need to say it in their own words, and mostly confuse the issue.

      I’m all for letting the author make his broad stroke points in this series.

  9. Ned it would be wise to decouple life expectancy from the possibility of DSD streaming. There was already a Japanese service, Primeseat, that streamed only DSD files. In addition I have numerous DSD files on my NAS that I am able to stream whenever I am so inclined

    1. I recently heard of Primeseat which offers 2300+ recordings in DSD. My interest is primarily classical and I haven’t checked out the extent of their catalog.
      Streaming DSD files from a NAS is not my idea of streaming directly from the music service.

      1. Ned, Primeseat started in 2015. Unfortunately, the service was terminated as of January 31, 2023. However the site did work quite well while the service was offered

  10. I’m with you FR.. I can honestly say that I have never streamed a piece of music in my life.. I have successfully downloaded some albums from HD tracks to sample as a comparison to my hard disk, I somehow can’t get them from my music files to my library on my MacBook, no biggie, my diggy.. my P S. Audio perfect wave transport and direct stream dac with nordost Fyr2 IC to BKK pre with the synergistic purple fuse,amperx6dj8 tubes… Love is a beautiful thing

    1. That’s why we are a diverse community. No need to defend yourself by drawing a line in the sand soundhound, everyone is entitled to their own likes. To each his own.

    2. Have you never watched a music video on YouTube? That’s streaming. YouTube is the most popular streaming service on the planet.

      FR posts YouTube videos all the time. So he does stream, but he does not play sore or online files on his 2-channel system.

  11. I’m sensing a new book over the horizon, or at least I hope so. The subject of digital streaming presented in a manner that you’re laying out here is certainly one that I would buy.

  12. As I just commented in yesterday’s Paul’s Post, I use my NAS to store DSD128 needle drop recording of some of my vinyl albums ( my initial focus is on 45 rpm albums to have four sides each 10 to 12 minutes long ). Since I am very new to this music server business, and I am old, and I am doing something more unique, it has been a very rocky road to getting it up and running.

    The biggest problem was the lack of metadata. I do not know how it works when Paul records live musicians in DSD, but when I record my vinyl records in DSD my ADC does not magically go out to some server in the clouds and pull in the metadata. Fortunately my ADC does allow me to record in the .dsf file format which allows room for the metadata. Even more important, since my NAS was designed for digital audio use it allows me to edit the metadata, which in my case means add the metadata by hand.

    It is a bit clunky right now, but as I get more practice it is getting more straight foreword. I really helps that I do not do tracks. If I record a 33 rpm record there are two files: Side 1 and Side 2. If it is a 45 rpm record than there are four tracks: Side 1, 2, 3, and 4. This gives me exactly what I want. A simple digital copy of my actual library of vinyl records.

    1. I like what you’re trying to do Tony. I hope you ring out all the problems because this sounds interesting to me. I’d love to try it out but I’m not going to until the aggravation factor is over on your end.

      1. There will be a surcharge for the aggravation that I will suffer so that you can use my experience without the aggravation. It must paid in cases of my favorite tequila! 😉

    2. Tony,

      Yes, I’ve done this also and the results are amazing.
      Several steps, however.

      I purchased a Parasound phono pre years ago that had a USB out, the data stream from that records to a file which then can be manipulated and output to one’s choice of file format (in our case it’s .dsf (which is DSD.

      Then, basic metadata is hand created and stored in the file. A labor of love.

    3. I recorded my vinyl a few times. It’s easy with Devialet because it converts all analog to DXD and the usb socket is two-way, so connect your computer with a usb cable and you get a 24/192 PCM stream. No extra boxes needed.

      I used Vinyl Studio, its about $30 and gets metadata off the internet.

      Personally, I prefer to play the records.

  13. Thank you for this second installment Paul. This is perfect for a person like me who is not ready to get “into the weeds” on the particulars. One day I will get into streaming and this is helping to clear up whether that day is sooner or later – probably sooner. This is a big help. I don’t miss the old days of having to live with whatever was on the local radio stations. We are fortunate these days.

    1. Buying a download or CD may give you a copy of the digital files, but it gives you no more rights as to what you can do with them than than a streamed version.

      Some streaming sites like Qobuz and Spotify allow you to download files into an offline library, but they are encrypted.

  14. The plus of the serving mechanisms is that they give the, yes, library experience. Except, I would see it more like an enormous bookshop – plenty of good stuff to sample, to whet your appetite. But the real test is that adjoining that space do you have the “perfect” reading room – can you go from the library to the latter and be totally caught up in the text, live what’s on the page? Or do you become itchy, a bit bored with the substance of the book – and want to head back to the store, to ‘juice up’ the vibe, again?

Leave a Reply

© 2023 PS Audio, Inc.

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram