Music Discovery in the 21st Century

Are streaming services evil? For some. For others, they are the gateway to new artists, concerts, and record purchases. Audiophiles that have made the leap are in this latter camp. There’s more to life than the next Beatles reissue. Read on to learn how Roon, Qobuz, and Tidal combine synergisticly to promote artists and music. Roon 1.6 Radio is the secret.

References

  1. https://roonlabs.com/howroonworks.html
  2. https://www.qobuz.com/us-en/discover
  3. https://tidal.com/

Revisions

  1. 08 April 2019: Original

A bit of recent personal history

The moocher retired in 2013 giving time to explore audio gear, recorded music, and the local music scene. In 2015, I put the hifi in storage while the kitchen was being remodeled. When I brought it out, I discovered that my preamp had failed. After some reading, I elected to replace it with a Parasound P5. I used an Apple TV to stream audio from Plex to a Cambridge DACmagic or to the P5 internal DAC, both similar Delta-Sigma converters.

I considred iTunes an unsatisfactory music player because the architecture required that my Mac be logged in and iTunes open to serve music. The lower quality playback relative to Plex was a disappointment. Could I run Plex as a server. Yes, on an nVidia Shield TV. The drag here was that I had to periodically move my music library to the Shield TV.

Adding the FreeNAS Server

My Drobo storage arrays were becoming dated. Anticipating a new iMac in 2017, I built a FreeNAS server in 2016 and moved the iTunes library to it using my Mac Mini and now the iMac to maintain the library. With the FreeNAS build complete, I started looking for a proper music server, discovered Roon, and installed it in a VM on the FreeNAS machine. By exporting my music library in a share mounted on the Mac, iTunes can maintain it, I can easily add FLAC titles to it, and Roon can play it.

More Possibilities than Air Play

Also in this period, a Chromecast audio showed up and I used Plex to stream music to it. The sound was much better. There was less startup latency as Googlecast uses a smaller jitter buffer, and apparently, was doing less to the music. Things that sounded flat delivered by AirPlay suddenly had depth and sparkle when delivered by Googlecast.

When I discovered that Plex sounded better, I set up Plex on nVidia Shield, first using a copy of the library on the nVidia file system but later mounting the FreeNAS share on the Shield. This let me hear a better playback than was possible with AirPlay streaming to an Apple TV. I no longer needed to leave my Mac logged in with iTunes running (something I considered a security hole.)

Although the play back experience was improved, Plex had not solved the decide what to play problem. I still had to remember what was in the library enough so to search for a starting point and there was nothing like iTunes genius playback in Plex at the time.

Roon Joins the Team

So, I stumbled across Roon and became curious. Roon was designed to fix the architecture issues by providing true model, view, controller architecture in which a Roon UI app controlled a music server that streamed music to supported endpoints which now include AirPlay, GoogleCast, and Roon endpoints running the Roon Bridge application. Roon Bridge is designed to be embedded in audio compoents and run on modest computers like the Raspberry Pi (what I do at Dismal Manor).

The addition of Roon to the Hi-Fi rig set the stage for exploration of the streaming services. Before Roon, I was aware only of the usual lossy suspects, Spotify and Apple Music. To my ears, both of these were flat and lacking. Only a lossless service that delivered the original recording would be acceptable. It didn’t need to be the “studio master” (more about this in future post). Also, service artist and music discovery left a lot to be desired as I had no interest in the latest pop or rap sensation.

Tidal Sticks Its Nose in the Tent

Tidal offers several tiers of service. I subscribe to the mid tier which makes available Red Book format music FLAC encoded for transmission. TIDAL CD quality tracks when reconstructed are the actual bits on the CD. Nothing is lost. All of the texture and and space in the original are delivered to your rig over the Internet.

I kept noticing this TIDAL thing in the sidebar and became curious. In 2018 I started a trial subscription. The UI was not particularly impressive. I’m a jazz listener which is a niche market for the services. They don’t have a lot of expertise in the genre and have difficulty curating artists and records for jazz listeners. The TIDAL featured attractions were leaving me cold. Why subscribe? Roon integration.

Roon with Tidal

But Roon and TIDAL combine synergisticly. When Roon searches for an artist, it searches both your library and your subscribed music services. It returns matching artists, albums, and tracks from both the local library and the service universe. So I could search for an artist in my library, say Miles Davis, and discover all of the Miles Davis music offered online in addition to that in my library.

Roon integrates with the All Music database and retrieves the relevant reviews for artists and records. And any critics ratings. I could stream tracks or records. If I liked the record, I could add it to my library.

Roon Updates Radio

Roon Radio is a feature of Roon that plays items from your library that are like the last track played. It’s a version of iTunes Genius that actually works. Using metadata about track genre and stylistic attributes, Roon Radio is able to pick a sequence of tracks that are to my taste of the moment.

In Roon Release 1.6, Roon Labs improved the radio metadata and query algorithms to improve track selection and extended the track trawl to the subscribed music services. Now, I play a record then let Roon Radio start after the end of the last track. You can constrain Roon Radio to your local library or allow it to search your services too. You can also train Roon Radio by up-checking or down-checking its picks. If you do a good bit of this, Roon Radio becomes a pretty good music stream curator (like Pandora).

Roon Adds Qobuz Integration

In the winter of 2018-2019, Qobuz expanded to the US and with Roon 1.6, Roon Labs added the necessary API’s to allow Roon to communicate with Qobuz, fully integrating Qobuz into Roon artist and title search and the Roon Radio trawl. Subscribe to both? John Darko (https://darko.audio/) convinced me in his reviews that the two services worked well together. Each has a different catalog with Qobuz having superior offerings from European artists. So I subscribed to the Qobuz middle tier.

The Roon Overview

When I add a record, Roon makes an entry for it in the front of the overview. Overview shows the most recent additions first with the unplayed additions highlighted. This makes it easy to find your Roon Radio adds and play them.

Roon Overview

My Workflow

It’s strange to have a workflow for listening to music but I do. I play something using Roon. I let radio start. As I hear something I like, I grab the iPad, open it to determine what is playing, and navigate to that record. All you have to do is click the track now playing down at the bottom. Roon retrieves the album and displays it as if you had searched for it. You can read the artist bio and album review, view the track list, determine genre, etc.

If I like what I hear, I add it to my Roon library. Roon saves the product code and track numbers, not the entire record so I’m not eating up local starage. I have quick access to the bits but not the bits. To do that, you can purchase the track, something I’ve not tried but will as many of these artists are out of print in the US or Amazon.

Down at the bottom, the Overview shows what is now playing. In this case, it is WHRV, the local NPR news affiliate as I had started Morning Edition in the bedroom and had yet to switch to the FM. By clicking here, you can see the Roon Radio track now playing, view the Album and Artist details, up-check or down-check the track and add the album to the library.

Tagging in Roon

Roon is able to add tags to items in your library. Typically, these let you annotate records with their genre. For example, Roon may tag something as Jazz but you may want tag it further as BeBop or Post Bop, or Fusion, primary intrument like Piano, Trumpet, Sax, Trombone, etc. Or track for purchase using a tag. I use the wish list tag for this purpose. You can easily have Roon retrieve albums having a tag as shown below.

Roon Wish List Overview

Purchase Tracking

If I find I’m navigating to an album and playing it with some frequency, I tag it with a “Wish List” tag. When I get the urge to buy records, about monthly, I navigate to Amazon or the artist website to buy the records. I give priority to musicians younger than me (most these days). For example, I just bought 2 Ryan Keberle titles after hearing him in concert and chatting with him at the his recent show’s merch table. I’ve also bought several Snarky Puppy live show record from their website. The thinking here is that Miles Davis’s heirs are about as rich as they need to be. So support emerging artists like Ryan who has a day job (Hunter College music department chair) so they can continue to record and tour.

The trick is to remember to remove the Wish List tag when you’ve bought and added a record. For example, I have purchased Maz and Heavy Dreaming but Heavy Dreaming has not been added to the library. When I rip and add Heavy Dreaming, I will remove the wish list tag. I need to do this for Maz’s record.

Over-Night Music

I pick an album or track to listen to while reading. I let Roon Radio drive at the conclusion of my selection. Roon Radio begins trawling my library and my up checks to pick music like that in my library and my up-checks. I just let it run as night time music to fall asleep to and to mask house noises for the dogs. Letting radio run brings in some spins and additional royalties for my Tidal/Qobuz artists.