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ATPM 11.11
November 2005


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Serving a Tune or Two

In the February issue of ATPM I discussed some uses for a Mac that isn’t your primary machine anymore. At the time, I wanted to connect a Mac to our stereo, rip our CD collection to the computer, and put the CDs away for safekeeping. Some unexpected traveling and a move got in the way of testing and writing, so by now some of you have seen Kirk McElhearn’s September 2005 Macworld article about setting up an audio jukebox. Hopefully I’ll give you a few additional tips.

In setting up a music server my goal was to use equipment that I already owned. External hardware that connects your computerized music to the stereo may be wonderful, but it’s out of the budget at the moment. All-digital options were also out of the question because my current stereo only has an analog connection. As a result, I completed this project without spending a lot of money, and I ended it with an arrangement that can be used with many older Macs. In fact, I’m currently listening to iTunes on the stereo while writing this article, and Safari is also open. All of this is being done on a 466 MHz iBook SE with no difficulty.

This is not a complicated project, though it does involve some trial and error. Before we begin, make sure that you have a stable Mac. If you want to use Internet radio or download songs from the iTunes Music Store, you will also need a working Internet connection.

Things to Think About

Normally I dive right in to a project. In this case though, a little thought beforehand is a good thing. This really is a three-step process: choosing appropriate hardware and software, connecting the hardware to the stereo, and “ripping” the music. Ask the right questions now, and you may not have to go through this again for a while.

If you’ve read this far, you probably have a Mac in mind for this project. A successful Mac-based music server essentially requires three things: the right sound output, lots of storage space, and fast enough hardware to run your chosen music players. Let’s briefly look at each of these issues.

Choosing the Right Hardware

The Sound Output

The first potential deal breaker is your Mac’s sound output capability. In order to get CD-quality sound into your stereo, the Mac must be able to output 16-bit audio at a sampling rate of 44.1 KHz. Macs have supported this level of audio for quite some time, but to check what your Mac supports you can open System Profiler and click on “Audio (Built In).”

Size Matters

The next thing to consider when choosing hardware is storage space. Audio files take up significant amounts of hard drive real estate. The uncompressed audio on a CD takes up roughly 10 MB of drive space per minute of audio. As an example, here’s the conversion data for one of my songs, which runs 4 minutes 23 seconds. The song was encoded to each format using the highest quality iTunes supports (without using Custom settings). The iTunes Help files suggests that using Apple Lossless compression produces files that are about one-half the size of uncompressed audio. As you can see from the chart below Apple Lossless produced a song roughly three-fourths the size of the original file. This estimate can vary somewhat though. Applying Apple Lossless compression to the entire CD produced files roughly two-thirds the size of the original CD.

As you can see, no matter what format you choose, audio files need lots of room if you are going to have a music collection of any significant size.

Uncompressed (from CD)

44.3 MB


6 MB


4 MB

Apple Lossless

32.1 MB

As the Macworld article pointed out, a quiet drive is a necessity. In my case, I chose to use an external drive. The first reason for this was noise. The machine I wanted to use has a hard drive that makes a horrible clicking noise that would be very distracting. The other advantage is that external drives are easily moved to a new machine should that become necessary.

Getting Up to Speed

When I first started listening to music, speed was not an issue. Music was usually on 33, 45 or 78 rpm albums. All you needed to worry about was whether the turntable could produce the proper speed. Even with the advent of tape players, all that most users were worried about was whether their player was the right type and speed. Flash forward a few decades and there is a positively dizzying array of audio file types currently available. To make matters worse, no single piece of software plays all of the available formats.

In order to decide whether your chosen Mac is right for this project, you need to know what types of audio files you want to play. The file types that you choose to save your audio in will dictate which programs that you need to run, and that in turn dictates how much computing horsepower you need. If you purchase music from the iTunes Music Store, you will at the very least want to make sure that your proposed server meets the iTunes system requirements.

Depending upon your listening habits, you may need other pieces of software as well. If that’s the case, examine the system requirements for each of the programs you will be using and base your system choice on the program that has the most strenuous requirements. It’s probably best to choose a Mac with a bit more processor speed and memory than the most strenuous program requires.

Choosing the Stereo Gear

Since we’re not focusing on newer stereos with digital input capabilities, choosing the stereo equipment is usually the easy part. All you really need is a stereo with a couple of available analog inputs. The inputs you’re going to use must be able to take a line level signal. On older stereos this will mean using the inputs for a tape deck or CD player. On most stereos, you cannot use the Phono inputs designed for a turntable or the speaker outputs. If you are not sure which inputs to use, consult your receiver’s manual or a knowledgeable buddy. Incorrect connections could damage your equipment.

Connecting the Gear

Now that you have chosen the computer and the stereo, it’s time to connect the gear. In order to do that, there is one more thing you need to know. The speaker connection on your Mac typically accepts a 1/8-inch mini plug (like the headphones for an iPod or portable cassette player). The stereo’s tape or CD inputs usually take male RCA plugs. You need a piece of audio cable with a male 1/8-inch connector on one end and two male RCA connectors on the other end. You may have a short cord like this already, since they shipped with some CD burners,

If you don’t already own the right audio cable, it’s usually readily available at electronics outlets. These cables are usually available with either mono or stereo mini plugs on one end. If the package doesn’t specify which one you are holding, try to look carefully at the mini plug. Stereo mini plugs have two black or white lines near the tip, while mono mini plugs typically only have one.

Keep in mind that the longer a cable run is the more likely it is that there will be some electrical interference or signal loss. The maximum effective length will vary somewhat depending upon your environment, but will likely be between two and ten meters.

Although you don’t need the most expensive cable on the market, the cable you choose should be shielded to reduce electrical interference. It’s probably also better to use one cable rather than connecting several pieces of cable together for a long run. When making the cable run, try to avoid close proximity to sources of interference such as power cords.

Before you connect anything, make sure the power is off to both the stereo and your Mac. As an added precaution, I turn the volume down on the stereo so that there are no loud pops as the system powers up. Assuming that you were already getting good sound from your stereo, it’s time to connect the computer to the stereo. Plug the mini plug into the Mac’s external speaker output and the RCA connections into your chosen inputs on the stereo, making sure that all connections are tight. When you power up the Mac and stereo, switch to the correct audio source before you raise the volume on the stereo.

Before you turn on any music, raise the volume on the stereo to something near your usual listening level. If you are hearing more hum or noise than usual, turn the volume down to its lowest level and recheck all connections including the connections to any external hard drives. The first time I tried this, a horrible hum occurred whenever I used my USB drive. No such hum occurred with my FireWire drive. Don’t connect or disconnect equipment with the volume level raised, or you may damage your speakers.

Now that everything is connected, launch your music software and attempt to play a sound file or load an Internet radio station. You may have to adjust the volume settings on your Mac and on the stereo to get a volume level that you like. It’s probably best not to set the Mac’s volume to its highest level.

Are We There Yet?

Now that everything connected and the audio sounds fine, it’s time to start “ripping” all that music to the computer. There’s one last decision to make: What format should you use to save you music. Every Mac user seems to have his or her preferred format. The best thing I can suggest is to try each of the formats supported by iTunes and see which one you prefer. Try both the best setting and the next lowest quality. Some people claim to hear a difference, and some say that the difference is not noticeable. Let your ear be the judge. I chose MP3 for most of my collection because it is supported by a wider variety of Mac and PC software than any of the other formats iTunes supports.

Final Notes

Once you decide on a format, “rip” several songs in that format and listen to them before going any further. As you rip additional music, periodically listen to the music that you have added to your server. That way you will notice any problems which may have occurred. While preparing this article, I discovered that some of my songs will need to be deleted and ripped all over again because of in audible glitch in several songs.

If you ever decide that you want to change the format of your music files, it’s best to go back to the original CDs as a starting point. Most audio formats for computer use save desk space by compressing the file. This process involves throwing out some of the digital information. Transferring a file from one type of compression to another throws out additional data. Throwing out too much data results in a loss of sound quality. Any time saved by not ripping from the original CD is probably not worth the loss in quality that is likely to occur.

Remember to back up your music regularly. Any time you purchase new music or “rip” a significant amount of music from your own collection, it’s time for a backup.

That’s it for now. I’m currently looking at a few pieces of software that may tie this whole thing together nicely. Until then, there’s music in the air.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (2)

msbob · May 4, 2007 - 12:12 EST #1
You did call it a music server...but in fact, you didn't discuss the details of using it as a server. Connecting a mac to a stereo is the easy part. The hard part is controlling the mac during playback, sharing music with other computers, and keeping the music synchronized on all of the connected computers.

I am setting up a headless Powerbook Ti (500Mhz G4) as a music server. With desktops on the network, I just selected the powerbook's shared music drive as the itunes library. With laptops, it's a whole different game. The laptops leave the network to travel, then become disconnnected from all of the music. This becomes a management issue of what and how to store music on the laptops.

Another situation to consider is how the different computers on the network get their own itunes music library updated when music is added to the server. The music is available, but iTunes on a networked mac won't know there is new music. This works both ways, if music is added to a laptop the itunes server doesn't update it's catalog.

I found a great (free) program called "TuneConnect" for controlling the itunes server. It has an itunes like interface that allows anyone on the network to control what is being played on the server. Simple, small, and anyone can use it from anyone on the wired or wireless network.

"Vine Server" and "Chicken of the VNC" are simple (free) programs to remotely control the server. Necessary for my headless powerbook or any headless tower, and very useful for a server that you want to store in a closet.
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · June 28, 2008 - 12:35 EST #2
Thanks for the comment. I don't know how I missed the e-mail letting me know that someone had added a comment.

The software that I used was discussed in part 2 of this series which appeared in the December 2005 issue. It addresses some of the control issues with this arrangement. Your comments are still helpful though because the options that you are using to control the music are free. The one that I am using are not expensive but they are not free.

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