How to Get that 'Radio Station Sound' with Your Own Music Collection

Sound the way you like it!

J. River Media Center and a compressor plugin provide the music sound you've always wanted.

It's obvious that music played on the radio sounds different than when you play the same music from a CD or download. Radio station music is stronger, fuller, more consistent, more powerful. And it flows smoothly (segues) from song to song. The affect can be magical. After first getting to know a song on the radio, it's often disappointing to hear it directly from CD or download; the music feels weak, lethargic, empty.

The unique 'radio station sound' comes from a combination of track transitioning and complex audio processing. Radio stations do this to create consistency in volume, tone, performance and audience impact. I love it.

But radio station audio processing gear is expensive, complex, bulky, and by some standards, ugly. I used to run broadcast radio stations, and I still have exotic gear in my garage. But it is far from suitable for my family room -- and now, unnecessary.

If you're a media lover like me, the other big need is to collect, organize and play. Yes, some people let their music collection be controlled by Apple's iTunes software, or Microsoft's Windows Media Player, or WinAmp, or several other crude applications. I find all of these to be too rigid and too limited.

What I want is to manage, organize, and continually enhance my large music collection -- just like I controlled the programming of radio stations. And I want to listen to my music in the superior way that I think of as radio station sound. I do exactly this -- so can you. It's simple and affordable with J. River Media Center. 

J. River Media Center

Now available as Media Center 15, I've used J. River's inexpensive but fabulous music/media software since version 7 (when it was known as Media Jukebox). While explaining its many features requires a separate article, here's a summary: J. River Media Center (MC) is a combination of database manager and media players for audio files, video files, and image files. I use MC to organize and view my family photos, my large music library, and my growing video collection -- all done with one piece of software, the best investment I could have made for this purpose.

You can use MC entirely on one PC, but if you use multiple computers, J. River generously allows you to install it on them. J. River even provides a built-in server to make it easy to store media files on one PC, then feed the music or video or images to other PCs for playback, even over the Internet. For instance, say you have a PC in your home office where you store all your media files. You have a PC in the kitchen where you like to watch a random slide show of your family photos. You have a PC in the family room where you play your music collection, perhaps also feeding to speakers in other rooms and outdoors. The family room PC also connects to your TV to watch video, including DVDs, downloaded videos, and streaming video from the Internet. J. River Media Center does all this, and more.

My "more" includes using MC to manage the music I put on my iPod, and on my wife's iPod -- we each have an iPod with different music selections, and MC keeps it all straight and updates the iPods when we make changes to the music in our main library. I also use MC on a laptop in my motor home to enjoy my music library while driving. At home I syncronize the laptop with my main Media Center PC, the one place where I manage all my media.

Because MC is essentially a database manager, a big, big reason to use it is to categorize -- "tag" -- all the data that describes your media files. This lets you organize, locate, select and enjoy whatever you desire. For music I use extensive tags to identify the type of music, tempo, style, vintage, and much more. I can instantly switch from morning music to party music to dinner music, or from 60s hits to 90s hits, or from country to classical -- or "all Beatles" or broaden it to "all English Invasion" or "piano jazz" or whatever categories I've chosen to assign to my music tracks. My photo library includes the date, location, event, the people in the photo, etc. Video files can be tagged with any desired information, ranging from actors to genre to director to location.

And if somehow J. River didn't include standard tags (database fields) for what you want to know about your media, you can add custom fields (I use several in my MC music library). And when you run out of all that, you can add free-form comments and notes.

To make your music visual, MC can connect image files with music and video files as "cover art". When my family room PC is playing music, the screen automatically displays the album cover image and information about the recording. MC can also display dynamic visualizations triggered by the playing audio.

Even the MC library -- the spreadsheet-like list of all your albums and songs -- can be switched to display the cover art images, an eye-filling and cool way to see your collection and locate whatever album or artist you desire. MC can even work with a scanner to add cover images from your CD collection.

And did I mention that MC can "rip" files from CDs, and both download and stream files from the Internet? It can also burn media to CD and DVD.

There's so much to J. River Media Center that whatever I say here, there'll be "one more feature", so I encourage you to check it out at http://www.jrmediacenter.com/, where you can download and use it for 30 days at no charge. I bet you quickly purchase a registration key. For about $50 you will fulfill just about every wish you have for organizing and enjoying music, video and photos. (Looking to the future, historically J. River has priced upgrades very fairly.)

J. River also runs a lively forum where MC users share tips and tricks, discuss and argue (er, debate) features and techniques, and sometimes chat with the people who build Media Center, notably company head Jim Hillegass, MC architect Matt Ashland, video whiz Yaobing, and more. What other software company gives you direct access to key insiders? J. River's "Interact" forum is here: http://yabb.jriver.com/interact/index.php

Fun with music

My favorite way to play music with J. River Media Center is in random mode -- an amazing way to listen to my large collection, fresh each time I click Play. In MC I created a "smartlist" that automatically includes all music files that I rank 4 or 5 (on a scale of 1 to 5), in my major genre categories (excluding holiday, spoken word and a few others). I set this smartlist to automatically be shuffled to create a random mix. This lets me always be pleasantly surprised by the next song, yet assures that I'm hearing only music I really like (because I ranked it as 4 or 5). Since I enjoy a broad range of music, it's a delightful experience. 

One of the keys to using J. River Media Center for radio station style music is to select the appropriate track playback mode. A couple of versions ago, I helped persuade MC's chief developer Matt Ashland to make this possible, but it's not obvious how to do it. In MC's menu system, follow these steps: Playback Options > Track Change > Switch Tracks > "Cross-fade (aggressive)" > "1s". Also check "Do not play silence". These settings cause MC to slightly overlap the end of a song with the start of the next song, getting very close to what radio stations call a "segue". (However, MC's labels are a bit confusing. What it calls "cross-fade aggressive" does not actually fade either song -- NOT fading is the change I asked Matt to make. And "1s", which presumably means 1 second, results in about 2 seconds of overlap -- usually just right in my experience. Caution: If you activate cross-fade aggressive but leave the the seconds unchanged, the default "4s" overlap is too long and sounds horrible -- unless you actually like two songs playing at the same time.)

In addition to invoking the segue mode, there are more keys to playing music with radio station sound. One is compression, which dynamically evens out the energy and impact of different recordings made at different times with different production techniques. Another key is frequency shaping, which compensates for the wide range of highs and lows of different recordings and vintages. The ultimate combination of these is multi-band processing. When done properly, it's quite amazing to hear a mix of music ranging from the 1930s to 2010s that is consistently bright, with solid bass, better than the original recordings. Achieving consistency that showcases a broad range of music is why radio stations use audio processing (I've spent many thousands of dollars to implement this in various radio stations), and why it is such a nice way to listen to music at home too.

Media Center has digital signal processing (DSP) and includes several processors that can be activated to control the audio. For instance, MC's Replay Gain can analyze the music and maintain a fairly consistent volume level. It's quite effective, but it is NOT the 'radio station sound' that I really like. But since MC's DSP accepts a variety of standard plug-ins, I'm able to add exactly what I want.

Add compression to the music playback

The way to get radio station sound in J. River Media Center is to add audio compression, the same process radio stations use. There are several ways to add this. Easiest is to add a DSP plug-in. Media Center includes several plug-ins, including an audio compressor, but it doesn't provide the effect I want. Media Center's Replay Gain is built-in and important to use, but it only evens out overall volume among tracks, it does not provide radio-station-type compression.

My current compressor plug-in is Piettro Pro's RockSteady 2.1. It's free and does a good-enough job. But it can be difficult to adjust settings because it was created for music player WinAmp and MC does not handle it quite the same way. Still, free is good, and no restrictions and no "phone home" behavior is important to me. (And MC leaves defunct Winamp in the dust as a media manager and player.)

For a while I used AudioProc. Billed as "high quality broadcast audio processing for music player Winamp", it worked quite well in MC. The level of audio control is massive -- the reason AudioProc is used by radio stations and Internet broadcasters. AudioProc is priced for professionals; last time I checked, the pro version was about US$40, and the Lite version was about US$20. The price is per-computer (not per-owner as offered by J. River for Media Center) and this is enforced by AudioProc contacting the owner over the Internet to validate the installation. So there's a hassle factor to moving it to a different computer, or reinstalling on a new drive. And there's a persistent risk with all such "phone home" software: If you can't reach the company or it ceases to exist, you'll lose your investment. For these reasons, I stopped using AudioProc.

Whatever audio compressor plug-in you use, the authentic radio-station sound of music from Media Center + compressor is so pleasing that when I have to listen to music without it, such as on my iPod, it sounds weak and wimpy.

To process or not?

I acknowledge that some people think music should not have playback audio processing. They usually take this position based on a belief in sound "purity", as if that actually exists. Every musical instrument, even heard live, gets "processed" by the environment. I play keyboard in a band, and can declare that a piano in a carpeted room sounds very different from in a tiled room -- and so does the sound of a piano coming out of a loudspeaker. Every sound engineer knows that a sound check in an empty auditorium does not indicate how it will behave once the audience arrives. Every car presents a different listening environment to each person -- and varies depending on who is in the car. The sound reproduced by loudspeakers and earphones varies dramatically based on design, placement, even temperature. Speaker placement is a big factor -- move your favorite speaker from shelf to floor or from mid-wall to corner and see how radically the sound changes. Besides any recording or broadcast MUST use audio processing to deal with the recording and broadcast medium limitations.

Then there's the simple fact that digital audio, no matter how good, is not "real" sound, which is continuous physical air vibration -- analog, as we now call it. Digital audio is a series of samples of the analog sound. Sampled rapidly-enough, the combined result is extremely close to the original -- close enough to "fool" our ears, but never identical.

So, there's no such thing as "pure" audio. Therefore, my preference is to apply the processing I like to hear music "my way". Why not?

Making your media experience better

J. River Media Center can make all your media activities better. It's simply more versatile, more capable, more "powerful". For music, set up MC for slightly overlapping segues and your music transitions will sound radio-like. Whether you also use an audio compressor is a personal choice. The terrific thing is, it all can work together to give you a killer music experience. Try it!