Songbird, Amarok, Ubuntu and iPods

This is a marathon rambling one about iPods, MP3s and my struggles to get the two together. It’s been sitting in my Drafts folder for ages, and recent events have made me finish and publish it.

When I first got an iPod (white 20GB color model in 2004), I was still running Windows on my PC. Apple’s software, while bloated and jarring a bit with the look of Windows, remains the best way to sync your Windows music collection with your iPod, no question. The playlist functions are great, and for a while, it really did “just work” – plug in the iPod, iTunes started and synced up. All was well. I also like the way I could drop whatever badly tagged MP3 I wanted in my music folder, and iTunes would see it, and file it in the correct artist folder. I would check the “Unknown Artist” folder regularly to re-tag stuff.

Then I switched to a Linux distro, Ubuntu, after some earlier dabbling with Mandriva back when it was called Mandrake. I had to find a new way to sync my iPod with my Linux box, and there were several choices.


Amarok was the first choice I tried. This was back a couple of years, so it was an earlier version. I notice there is a new one out now – Amarok 2.2 – which may be totally different from the one I tried.

It looked kind of OK, but had a strange way of dealing with playlists. When you double-clicked on a file in your library, it didn’t just play it, but created a new current playlist with that track as the only member. It’s a bit blurry now, to be honest, but I remember it had some unusual and unpredictable UI behavior.

It couldn’t watch a folder for new files and file them correctly, but you could manually ask Amarok to “manage files”, which would rename the files according to the tags. This was very useful at one stage in particular.

With the correct plugins installed, it was apparently able to sync to an iPod. In common with most FOSS music player software, Apple iPods needed special treatment, unlike all the other DAPs. Typical. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to figure out how to sync. There seemed to be a possibility to just copy playlists across, but I wanted to set up playlists on my PC, and have them mirror across to the iPod, just like iTunes used to do.

I tried searching online, in the official help files and elsewhere, but I have to say there was little help to be found – a symptom of getting the user base to write the documentation. In the end I decided to try something else.

Sidebar – Removing duplicate music files using Amarok on Ubuntu Linux

One thing Amarok did let me do was remove a ton of duplicate files from my collection. I got into this situtaiton because of another great Amarok feature – the ability to copy files from the iPod to the PC. I did this to make sure I had everything in one place, because I wasn’t sure how many files on the iPod were already on the PC. There were definitely files on the PC that weren’t on the iPod. But this created 4000 duplicates! 75% of my collection! Uh oh.

After some thought I came up with this solution. Using Amarok, just use the cool “manage files” feature, which renames your files according to their tags. Renaming your files can also mean moving them, because you just rename them with path information according to Artist, Album and so on. I switched on the “overwrite destination” function, so that when multiple files with the same tags were renamed, they would just overwrite each other, leaving one. By doing this, and testing it first, I was able to get rid of all the duplicates.

Songbird from Mozilla version 1.0

After leaving Amarok behind, I started to use Songbird for a while, because I already used and liked Firefox and Thunderbird (and more recently Sunbird), so it seemed natural to collect the set. It had a plugin installed by default for iPod support, and it seemed to do almost everything I wanted (although not everything that iTunes could do).

Cassie had bought me a new iPod for Xmas 2008, a black 120GB “Classic” (you know you’re getting old when what you remember as the standard model is now the “classic” version). I plugged it in, and Songbird mounted the device and allowed me to synchronize. Sync works like iTunes. You can sync all files and playlists, or a selection of playlists, or manage your files manually. I like to sync all, for simplicity’s sake.

But as time  went on, Songbird started to irritate, and then annoy, and then frustrate, and finally anger me. It seemed like every time I clicked a control, it would take ages to respond, to the extent that Ubuntu would do that lovely “fade to grey” thing it does when it’s struggling to respond. Mounting the iPod started to take several minutes, when it worked at all. The UI is OK, but the default is very small text, and irritatingly small controls, and while I could have installed any number of “feathers” (skins), I took the easy route and gave up on it.

Sidebar – “Party Shuffle” on Songbird

Songbird allows the creation of regular playlists, and smart playlists with the usual filtering features. There’s no “Party Shuffle” on Songbird yet. There is an add-on called “Party Shuffle” which claims to implement this feature, but all it seems to do is generate a one off random playlist according to some rules. What I want is the following:

  • Random selection of songs
  • Filter by tags (e.g. only songs in genre X)
  • Allow drag and drop of other songs you think of while playing
  • Allow view of upcoming songs
  • Allow removal of songs from queue
  • Auto-update of playlist

Perhaps there’s some way to do this using a combination of a normal playlist and a smart playlist.

This has been discussed at length in various places, so it’s definitely something people want.

Organizing music files

Amarok does this already, as described above. Basically I want software to use the MP3’s ID3 tags (Artist, Album, Track Title etc) to rename the file and it’s path, effectively moving the file into the appropriate folder. Some people don’t like their music software to do this, because they want to manage it all manually. I’d rather let the machines do the filing, with guidance and minimum intervention.


EasyTAG says it can do this, but I find the interface far too complex, and the possibility of renaming all the files incorrectly has stopped me from testing this too far.

Songbird 1.2

The latest version of Songbird, 1.2, has the ability to watch a folder, and add any new files that appear to the library. It can also shift files around according to their tags. Great! Just the functionality I want. Sadly, all the other problems remain, so while I leave it installed to organise my library from time to time, I won’t be using it to sync with my DAP.

Musicbrainz Picard

This clever thing doesn’t rename files and put them in correct folders, but it did a great job of correcting my tags. It reads the files and makes a digital fingerprint of each one. Then it matches them against the Musicbrainz database of tags, and allows you to easily retag a load of “unknowns” with the correct artist, album and so on. It was a bit tricky to understand at first, but once you try it with a few files, it becomes very simple to use.

Once the files are renamed you can use another program (like Songbird 1.2) to automatically move them to the correct folder.

A Problem

But all of this experimentation meant that something very odd was wrong with my iPod, which led to some angry words.

Continued very soon.