Build a Whole-House Music System with iTunes

Note: This tutorial was written for iTunes 11.0.2 and Remote version 3.0.1.

In the Thompson house, we rely on iTunes as the main music library, here’s a way to expand its reach and fill multiple rooms with music using AirPlay.

This system will play Pandora or Spotify to any single room, but not multiple rooms at once (yet), as can be done with Sonos and other off-the-shelf systems. As great as those networks are, I want to queue up exactly what will be played.

Preparing iTunes

The iTunes library is on a separate hard drive so that the collection can expand in size over time as audio and video content is added. I wanted to separate the iTunes library from the Mac OS system to increase response time. I haven’t measured this, but I plan to replace the external hard drives with two internal SSD drives when low cost Terabyte drives become available.

A whole house music system assumes that multiple family members and house guests will browse the collection and play music. I want the music libraries to be easy for family members or house guests to navigate, so first I cleaned the data in the iTunes library first.

I have some advice for improving information:

Clear duplicates. Use iTunes “show duplicate” to create a list of possible duplicate files. Look at the list very closely, and some files that iTunes thinks are duplicates are actually different versions of the same song.

Decide how to deal with compilations. Because we’ll be using the Remote app to browse the iTunes library, we want to set it up to make as clean a list as possible. Take some time to consider how music you’ve purchased should be displayed. For example, some compilations don’t list the performer in the Artist field, they list “Various Artists” instead. Think about how you want that song or album to show up when you or someone else is browsing by Artist.

Clarify murky artist information. Songs that feature more than just the main artist on the album can be problematic. If the featured artist has been put into the artist field, that will create a new artist on your list of artists (now with both names together), which clutters up the browsing experience. I recommend storing featured artist information in another place.

At the core of this system is a Mac Mini that runs iTunes 24 hours a day. It is plugged into the living room TV with an HDMI cable. Audio out from the Mac Mini is via a mini plug to RCA cable right into a stereo amplifier by AudioSource. This amplifier knows to switch sources when it detects audio from the Mac. Otherwise it pumps out audio from the TV.

There are few other apps on the Mac:

  • Mac Blu Ray Player
  • Handbrake
  • Backblaze
  • Carbon Copy Cloner

iTunes Music Server

Mac Mini with Seagate Hard Drives AppleTV and a External Blu-Ray player

The first part of the system is media storage on the Mac Mini. The name of the iTunes library is “Media”. This name will help users who try to access it from other interfaces, like iPhones and iPads know what it is about in the context of the home network.

iTunes calls the speaker hooked up of the computer it is running on “Computer”. This doesn’t make much sense in this whole house context. Since my iTunes server is in my living room, I changed the name of the speaker by editing the iTunes localization file in this location: /Applications/iTunes.app/Contents/Resources/English.lproj/Localizable.strings. I used find and replace to find “Computer” and replace it with “Living Room”. Detailed instructions here: http://www.timeshifting.co.nz/blog/customising-itunes-as-media-server.

Automatic downloads are enabled on iTunes so that if I buy music on another device, I can access on my home system soon thereafter. I’ve used this to purchase music to play on the home system while sitting in my house since the iPhone is a really good interface for shopping for music.

That said, this system also does not use iCloud. iTunes Match is not enabled. iTunes Genius is however.

Part of the motivation behind this system is to protect purchases of music. Until recently, iTunes wouldn’t let you re-download purchases. That has been fixed, but only for purchases you’ve made that are still for sale on iTunes. For this reason, it is very important to protect the files.

I use Carbon Copy Cloner to create a copy of the iTunes library twice a day.

Backblaze constantly uploads new music and movie files to the cloud in case of a catastrophe or burglary. Backblaze will send you a hard drive of your backup for a fee, so if the worst happened, I could be up and running with my media again in less than a week.

The Mac Mini is set to reboot in case of a power outage and iTunes is one of the default login items. If there is a power outage, iTunes loads automatically is waiting. This is set in System Preferences, under energy saver.

iPad Control

The second part of the system is control. An iPad mounted in a centrally located wall runs Apple’s Remote app tied to the iTunes library on the Mac Mini. The mount system is from iport. This system powers the iPad, keeps the home button exposed, but hides the power button behind a indentation in the rim.

Wall Mounted iPad

The location on a prominent wall just below eye level is very inviting to family and guests to approach and select music. Most of the time, we use it as a digital photo frame.

Airports

The third part of the system is distribution.

There is an Airport Express for each room where we want sound.

Each Airport Express in bridge mode. Each Airport has the name of the room where the speakers will be located i.e. Bedroom, Bathroom and Kitchen.

Speakers and Amplification

Each Airport Express is plugged in to a simple stereo amplifier with tone control.

BT3_7117

In my music system, all the speakers are the same brand. That helps the sound to blend well when it is mixing in common areas.

Drawbacks

Errors: the way iTunes handles errors sometimes leads to a freezing of the music system. Since you are mostly controlling from the ipad and can’t see the screen, if an error has popped up, you can’t see it. Hopefully this will be taken care of in a future version of iTunes.

One Response to Build a Whole-House Music System with iTunes

  1. HELIO BASILIO JR. June 22, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

    Eu vi e ouvi é incrível, é um sonho de qualquer amante de um bom som , filme , controles em geral , inclusive luzes, sistema de ar condicionado, incrível mesmo, Benjamin meus mais sinceros parabéns por este teu dom e bom gosto.

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