A Minimalist Music App for Collectors and Audiophiles
Update April 09, 2018: New build (20180409) is available for download.
For music collectors and audiophiles, choosing a music app may not be an easy job. Music apps could be classified into mainly two groups: local music players and online streaming services. The former reads your ripped or downloaded music, the latter allows you to stream tracks it has licensed. Let’s review each group separately to see why we’re still looking for the Holy Grail.
Local Music Players
Digital collections are built mostly based on ripping CDs and downloads from online stores. Local music players enable collectors to manage and listen to their digital collections. Actually, for some collectors, the experience within their music players is their digital collections.
Most albums ever released could be collected via this method. A collector’s digital collection thus is not limited to tracks licensed by online streaming services; this may be one of its significant advantages to collectors. Digital collection also requires no subscription — it never expires as long as you keep the audio files. These traits render a feeling of privacy and ownership. But keep in mind that comes at a price: a collector has to pay for the storage, be prepared for hard drive failure, and spend precious time configuring all the devices required. Transfer sizeable digital collection from one location to another is also error-prone: files may be lost or broken, and the process requires a lot of patience.
Although we’ve invented powerful mobile devices and ubiquitous wireless network, such experience is still somewhat tied to your living room. Suppose you’re on vacation, at your friend’s home, or at an audio-visual show, there’s no reliable way to access your collection easily.
Digital collections are usually of lossless or high-res quality. But that doesn’t exempt them from audio quality issues. Ripping is error-prone: scratches and vibrations lead to glitches. Some crowdsourcing databases (AccurateRip and CUETools) are developed to verify ripping accuracy and repair broken audio to some degree. Some discs in your digital collection will fail the test, plus some discs may be transcoded from lossy formats (e.g., mp3).
Audiophiles have an intense enthusiasm for almost everything in the sound reproduction chain. Music players replace the old school but expensive CD transports from audiophiles’ Hi-Fi rigs. Some music players take special care for audio playback quality. Dedicated playback engines are made, marketed as “bit-perfect”, “shortest signal path”, “direct mode”, or so. If you do some research, you may end up with two discoveries. First, software vendors treat audio engine design as a “black art”, not willing to reveal the internals. So there’s no well-accepted framework yet to perform objective, apple-to-apple evaluation. Second, no proof of sound quality improvement could be scientifically measured via laboratory equipment such as an Audio Precision analyzer.
Music players offload the metadata quality issue to collectors. Most music players support parsing metadata tags from various formats of audio files. Some players also support fetching cover arts and metadata from sources such as MusicBrainz, Gracenote, or FreeDB. Collectors who are still unsatisfied usually end-up editing metadata by hand, taking them countless extra hours.
Online Streaming Services
Online streaming services are more of a music licensing and distribution reform than a specific technology. Subscribers can access millions of tracks for a reasonable monthly fee, which is excellent for discovering new music.
Collectors enjoy streaming services as well, but streaming services could not be their only choice for mainly two reasons. First, collections are built over years, if not decades. Unfortunately, only a small percent of albums in their collections present in streaming services. For hard-core collectors, the number may be less than 20%. Second, we can’t expect our favorite tracks in the playlist will still be there in the next week — there’s a love-hate story between copyright holders and streaming services.
Audiophiles are not satisfied as well. Most streaming services serve lossy audio. Few streaming service cares audio playback quality. Take the “disc in the transport” analog, streaming music via these services feels like playing an mp3 transcoded disc via a budget CD player.
In recent years, several streaming services start to offer lossless audio. Some music players with dedicated playback engines also begin to embed these streaming services as optional features. At the first glance, this seems to be a win–win combination. Unfortunately, music players, when working in standalone (local) mode, are still prone to sound quality debates. Embedding one or more streaming services changes their behaviours drastically, thus compromises the predictability of audiophile performance.
Streaming services usually have better metadata quality than music players since commercial metadata vendors such as Rovi and Gracenote help them to improve the metadata quality continuously: more detailed and consistent track information and cover arts of higher-quality are fed regularly for no extra time and cost on the subscribers’ side.
Tonal is a minimalist music app for collectors and audiophiles. With Tonal, your complete digital collection is organized in one place and is ready to be streamed anytime, anywhere. That may sound unfancy, but there’re three foundational innovations which clearly differentiate the Tonal experience from the competition.
Yes, we’re talking about three foundational innovations combined into one lean but integral experience:
- A managed cloud-based music locker service with audio quality verification built-in.
- An innovative metadata solution which focuses on standard, quality, and community collaboration.
- A well-crafted playback engine which ensures highly predictable audiophile performance.
Audio data, music metadata, and playback engine are the three cornerstone components of music apps targeting collectors and audiophiles. Our investment in these areas builds Tonal a rock solid foundation to be able to evolve into a promising music distribution platform.
I’m sure different readers weight these topics differently. To not waste your time, I’ll explain them separately in a series of articles on “Tonal Internals.” You can skip to your favorite topic and grab a cup of coffee before start reading.
- Part 1: Audio Data — White-Glove Service for Your Collection
- Part 2: Music Metadata — The New, Old Problem
- Part 3: Playback Engine — Demystifying the “Black Art”
Below are some screenshots which could help you grasp the core concept before try it on your own computer.
If you’re reading this article, the initial release of the Tonal app is available for download. I strongly encourage you to collect some of your favorite albums into Tonal, inspect the metadata quality, experience the audiophile performance on your best gears. I’ll always be here to help if something goes wrong.
Please forgive me if the initial release looks unpolished. Although small fixes will be delivered as soon as possible, a more fluid, beautiful, and still lean experience is due in the next major release. I need to gather enough community feedback and resources before moving onto the next major version. I’m also seeking opportunities actively in business cooperation and early stage investment to accelerate the growth of the Tonal ecosystem.
I spent nine years (from 2007 to 2015) working sparsely on my previous project — the International Classical Music Database initiative. I spent another two years (2016 and 2017) working full-time realizing the envisioned Tonal concept which leads us here today. It’s my 12th year on the realm, and it’s quite hard to describe my feeling. Anyway, let’s cheer for the launch of the Tonal app. The community now has something new to play with, and hopefully I could have more friends with me on my lonely journey.
I’d like to thank everyone who loves me and shares my dream. To Matt Steel, Junren Huang, Yuan Ren, Xiaodong Jia, and Alex Su: thank you for all you’ve done for me in the past decade. The Tonal app is my humble gift to you.