My Digital Library is Cloudy

A few days ago I tweeted about Amazon’s Cloud Player which started a discussion about the cloud and how to deal with a digital storage of music. It quickly reached the point where I should blog about it.

My music collection is roughly 22GB of music I’ve purchased in the past 15+ years; Moving to digital when it was easy to buy digital. I wasn’t much of a file sharing person in the days since I just didn’t have the time. Course with that large of a library, I’ve had to make some choices between all the devices I use for music play. While it’s changed over the years due to technology, my current layout works for me.

Central storage of music is important for me as it helps to keep things consistent between the devices, unless the device can’t store that amount. I also concerned about backups of this music data. While I still own physical CDs, the digital purchases can’t be re-download (except new purchases). So here’s my system I’ve established for myself. I’ll explain it in a typical workflow.

Obtaining Music

The only time I buy physical CDs is when they are signed by the artist or some preorder bonus is included. The rest is all digital. I do this for a number of reasons. Physical items are expensive to everyone in comparison to the delivery of bits. For me, physical media that doesn’t have a more meaning for me is largely wasteful. (I’m proud of buying MC Frontalot CDs from the man himself.) There are exceptions for when an artist is selling directly on their own service. Otherwise I prefer Amazon, followed by iTunes. I will admit that the Amazon cloud service makes that buy more attractive, but I’ll get to that later.

Where ever the source, the first place music goes is my MacBook Pro’s iTunes. This makes my laptop the most up to date storage of music. It’s my primary listening device by far, but I still have other places to play my music.

Home Storage

When I get home, I’ll do one manual copy from my MacBook Pro to my Windows 7 iTunes. While this is a manual step I haven’t been able to automate completely, I have added some things into that step that add a lot more bang for my buck.

My Windows 7 Music folder (which is essentially my iTunes music folder) is actually a network disk provided by my Network Area Storage (NAS) device, a Synology Disk Station 207+. This step alone enables the music to do the following:

  • Interface music through iTunes GUI.
  • Broadcast my music via the NAS’ iTunes Server (without my Win7 box turned on).
  • Broadcast my music via DLNA.
  • Stream music to my iPhone via DS Audio.
  • Stream music to a web browser player.

While I admit I don’t use most of the other functions as much, there are times when I use the PS3 to play music and keep my computers closed down. It’s also great for guests staying at my place and have the music available to them. I confess I don’t use the DS Audio app much, but the places I want to listen to music with a solid 3G or WAN connection are times when I have my laptop.

Playing Music

My portable Mac is the main place of music, followed by my iPhone. I work a lot with my laptop and there’s no need to stream when I have my devices with me.

On my iPhone, I don’t do the streaming as much. The times I’m without my laptop and play music are usually the dead zones of cell service. Which means I’m listening to podcasts, of which iTunes is still the best solution for. There are times where I’ll plug in my iPhone directly to my AV receiver to listen to podcasts and don’t want to turn on my Windows box.

At home, I mainly use my Windows box for music listening, which is connected to my receiver. I have the flexibility to move to either my PS3 or Xbox360 and access the same music. Usually it’s the PS3 as the interface is better than the Xbox.

My car however is in the past. It’s a Ford Focus 2007 I got when I moved to the bay area. My father and I knew that in six months the Focus would include the Ford Sync system. This allows my iPhone to play though the car. Sadly I couldn’t wait that long for a car and settled for the 6CD changer. Thankfully it will read MP3 CDs so I can store more music than a Red Book CD. Slowly I’m moving to MP3 CDs of music I’d like in the car. I tried the FM transmitter thing, but it’s not the best with a phone physically connected. Once it’s available, I do plan on getting the BlueTrip DualConnect which should solve my iPhone as music player issues.

Long-Term Backups

While this adds a level of backup to my media files, it’s not the Final Solution™ for backups. For this I use another feature on the Synology and backup to an Amazon S3 Bucket; All automated on a weekly process.

S3 is a network storage service that’s more advanced than a service like Dropbox and much cheaper depending on your volume. You’re charged for the storage you keep and the bandwidth you use. The rates can very depending on what location you want the data stored, but for anyone in North America, US East (Virgina) is fine. My bill for last month was $1 to store the 22GB. Once my music is on my NAS, everything else falls into place.

Enter the new thing: Amazon Cloud Drive & Player. This service does what my NAS already does – A steaming music player and cloud storage of music. For me it’s reduced features to what I’m used to with my NAS. Not to mention extra manual steps to make it all work. The only benefit is redundancy from failures of my local devices. But that’s what my S3 bucket is for. My current plan is also much cheaper than Cloud Drive. I’d have to pay $4.25/month to upload my existing music manually at the 50GB tier.

Cloud Drive does allow you to redownload Amazon music purchases without counting against drive quota. Makes sense as Amazon simply links to the existing music download server and storage and fully recommend people do this. You can always download your music off the drive at a later date. The alternative is a one-time download so you’d be silly not to use Cloud Drive. The big bummer is I can’t re-associate my music I payed for on Amazon to the drive without Quota. They still have purchase history and could in theory. I suspect it’s a licence issue, but who knows.

But is this for you?

My system setup is this way as I know what I’m doing and don’t want to worry about it as much. While I’m not trying to sound like a product placement for the Synology, it’s a system that does a lot of things that are helpful and just plain work. I also use the device for a bunch of other things like Time Capsule and other features. The device is pricy in comparison to other NAS systems (current model at $300 without disks). Unless you’re doing security camera stuff, there’s no other costs besides the drives. All the iOS apps are free. I’d recommend a Dynamic DNS name service like DynDNS so you can always phone home, which is free. You’ll also need to poke holes for ports on your router.

With services like Cloud Drive and what ever rumored and future services from Apple, Google, and et all, there’s a simplicity that doesn’t require a hardware purchase like a NAS. We’ll see what these services offer, but I feel my current setup will end up being cheaper as I’m rolling my own services. So long as I don’t make the downloading of my library public, I don’t need to strike licensing deals to do it either.