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Introducing the New Tonal App

baoshan

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I am presenting the new Tonal app for macOS (the old one here), which defines a better way to build and experience your audiophile music collection.

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To structure Tonal’s specifications and features in a compact yet engaging way, I list ten opinionated principles for good (software audiophile) players. I want to keep the post as short as possible.

TEN PRINCIPLES FOR GOOD PLAYERS


1. GOOD PLAYERS ARE INNOVATIVE

Tonal introduces a new audio file format, a feather-light playback engine, and a groundbreaking music metadata solution. Built on these foundational innovations, Tonal creates its category.

2. GOOD PLAYERS ARE PREDICTABLE

Tonal collects music into .tonal audio files — a lightweight audio format containing pure PCM or DSD data of a complete disc in a standardized encoding. The effects of different codecs and/or parameters are completely eliminated before playback.

3. GOOD PLAYERS HAVE CONSTRAINTS

Tonal rejects lossy audio and incomplete discs. Red Book discs must be AccurateRip verified. Don’t worry, CUETools is included to fix broken rips automatically. Remember, we’re curating, not just collecting. These constraints make the playback even more confident and predictable. These constraints, in the end, set you free.

4. GOOD PLAYERS ARE ACCURATE

Tonal is always bit-perfect. The whole app is engineered bottom-up from an audiophile engine that is canonical and featherweight —— only 4 SLOC in C (the theoretical minimum code footprint). Tonal also offers fine volume control at your DAC’s native resolution, enhancing your Mac’s native experience.

5. GOOD PLAYERS REQUIRE NO CONFIGURATION

Tonal has preferences, but no settings, not a single. No need to tweak checkboxes, pickers, or sliders for optimal audiophile performance. Tonal automatically measures and optimizes all parameters on your Mac before the first note is played. Discuss the music and the sound with your friends, not the settings.

6. GOOD PLAYERS MAKE DURABLE COLLECTIONS

.tonal audio files contain no music tag, making them absolutely stable once created. Collectors always hold bit-identical .tonal audio files for the same (commercially available) audio disc. Also, there is no duplicate music on your storage.

7. GOOD PLAYERS ARE RESPONSIBLE

Indexing your music collection using proprietary metadata sources is irresponsible: they may not last long.

Tonal relies on only one metadata source: the Tonal disc catalog. Edit metadata easily in the browser-based Tonal Editor, which syncs your collection in real-time. The catalog is licensed under the (not revocable) CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Your collection and the metadata must outlast Tonal.

8. GOOD PLAYERS EMPOWER COLLABORATIONS

Collaboration is the spirit of our community. The Tonal disc catalog is contributed solely by Tonal users —— community collaboration on music metadata is finally real.

Improve data quality, or establish a style guide, there are many things you can do! Imagine a published discography of [name your favorite pianist] with your name on it —— Tonal can make it happen.

9. GOOD PLAYERS ARE LOCAL

Tonal is local first. You create no account to use Tonal. You can play and explore all your collections without a network connection. You can migrate or rebuild your entire library even without Tonal backend services.

Tonal is subscription-free. Buy once and use forever. Apple wants developers to switch to a subscription model, which simply does not align with Tonal’s philosophy.

10. GOOD PLAYERS ARE AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE

Tonal does not treat the UI like a bazaar, letting recommendations, portraits, biographies, audio metadata, and various controls compete for your attention. Tonal is just 25 MB (universal build runs natively on Apple silicon and Intel-based Macs). Tonal wants to be a tool —— a simple, precise, predictable, and working tool.

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart -- and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them. Tools are just tools. They either work, or they don’t work.”
—— Steve Jobs​

BUILD YOUR AUDIOPHILE COLLECTION THE HARD WAY


A Plex-like app that monitors your folders and grabs music metadata automatically works well until it fails.

No commercially available music metadata source meets Tonal’s standard, especially for classical music. You need to do it yourself. You must also learn a new language (see the complete user guide to learn more).

Seriously? Why?

As an Asian, organizing (think Marie Kondo here, not MBA courses) is deeply rooted in my mind and body. When practicing organizing, my philosophy pivots around two points:
  1. Good methodologies are usually hard to get started; a great one may be even harder (if not the hardest) and demands a lifetime commitment.
  2. Measure the entropy (as in information theory, represents uncertainty) and reduce it to the minimum. You need to fight hard for this, at all costs, for all the time.
Building a music collection, at the essence, is all about organizing. I don’t want to preach on intangible things. Once you understand how Tonal works, you will never look back.

Tonal is neither for everyone nor for every audio file on your disk. Please read the complete user guide at least twice. The website may also help you understand Tonal’s purpose. I am glad to answer any unanswered questions here.

Here are some screenshots that recap how Tonal works:

app_store_screenshots_002.png

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CODA​

The new Tonal app is available for pre-order today and is expected to be released on June 30. The introductory price is $99.99 (50% off the regular price). You won’t be charged until the day Tonal is released for download.

There will be no free trial during the introductory period (no plan afterward). I prioritize finding people who know Tonal is their long-awaited missing piece and helping them onboard.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS​

Gratitude to David Bryant (WavPack), Matt Ashland (Monkey’s Audio), and Grigory Chudov (CUETools) for your excellent work and kind support. Thanks to Mr. Spoon (dBpoweramp) for allowing Tonal to access the AccurateRip database. Thanks to Grigory Chudov, again, for allowing Tonal to access the CUETools database.

Thanks to David Chesky for keeping me motivated and confirming that “The sound is really nice.. !!!!”. Thanks to Kirk McElhearn for being the first user while he was busy reporting WWDC.

This is my 20th year working on the classical music database I dreamed of, my 10th year working on Tonal, and the epoch year of the new Tonal app. Thanks to music! Thank you all!

PS​

The initial launch covers Canada, the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. The reason is simple: users collaborate on one single music metadata database (currently English). Please give me enough time to think about how more languages should be added.

The playback quality of the old Tonal app was well received, I also found a post on Roon’s forum praising its playback quality. The new Tonal app shares the exact same renderer (only 4 SLOC in C). FYI.
 
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baoshan

baoshan

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For members of the ASR community who gave Tonal a try in 2018 and left feedback (positive or negative), I would like to offer a free redemption code to express my deepest gratitude (PM me with a link or screenshot).

I hope you can write an objective and positive review for the new Tonal app (no obligation), but in case of something you are unsatisfied with, please reach me first (via the “About Tonal” menu command).
 
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baoshan

baoshan

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Move to the desperate dealer subforum please.
My original thread was posted in this computers and streamers subforum. If this is not allowed, can a moderator helps me do that? Or can you tell me how to do that? Thank you.
 

Timmeon

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You should add beauty to your top principles and perhaps focus on designing a pretty UI. I don't give a shit about the metadata sources or 'experience' if I don't get any value from the interface. Navigating through artist bios with branches out to relevant artists and recordings aids in discovery. This is completely discarded by your 'local first' principal. I don't want to navigate folders based on parameters that are irrelevant to my listening experience (format).

I want anything from a player, it's to curate playlists and establish an ACCURATE profile based on my preferences, so I can discover new music relevant to my tastes.

Perhaps you need to pander to the magical thinkers as this is a niche market. To me, your marketing speak about sound quality is a turn-off.

Overall, your app doesn't seem to solve any real problems and I fail to see how it builds a unique experience by using a proprietary format and 'collaborative' metadata. What am I missing?
 

JCM800

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Intriguing pitch built on some good bedrock design principles. A new audio format sounds like a steep hill to climb, but the idea of something only counting when it’s lossless and complete is interesting. Lack of discovery will turn off some, but I for one make my own discovery out in the world, not within the walled confines of a player.

A potential feature for fans of this kind of experience might be listening notes and records. Something more than Last.FM play counts; for ex.: when you last listened, season of year, time of day, where you were, who you were with, some notes you jotted down at the time, etc.

As for you locals, y’all are way too harsh in your delivery of a few valid criticisms. And the knock that it isn’t beautiful is just silly. It’s a good looking player.
 

Rednaxela

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As for you locals, y’all are way too harsh in your delivery of a few valid criticisms. And the knock that it isn’t beautiful is just silly. It’s a good looking player.
Fully agree.

Also:

 

Vincent Kars

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Wonder why you consider somebody who Joined Mar 13, 2018 a newcomer
 

AdamG

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Keith_W

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1. There is no good reason to go with a proprietary format. What are you supposed to do if you want to try another player? Maintain two copies of your files, one in standard format and the other in .tonal?
2. Making your player unconfigurable by removing "settings" is a serious drawback and not a feature. Do you think your customers are a bunch of 5 year olds who do not know how to configure a player?
3. "Collaborating" on metadata is another way of saying "our proprietary metadata is incomplete and we want thousands of people working for free to complete it".
4. No mention of a remote control app from an iPad or phone = presumably does not exist.
5. "Constraints" is also a serious drawback and not a feature. If you have a lossy file, at least give the user the option to play it. Refusing to curate it at all sounds too much like dictating to the user what they are allowed or not allowed to play.

There are some positives. I like the "pay once, user forever" for a relatively reasonable price of $99. You fail to mention whether this includes lifetime upgrades or not.

Otherwise, this player sounds like an absolute trainwreck.
 

AdamG

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Fully agree.

Also:

Well when the account holder reveals that they are here to sell stuff or to make money from our members, the rules change and they are no longer just a new member. He has been here since 2018 and should be aware of our Vendor Rules. A PM has been sent and we are starting the registration process where we will make the rules clear. We do treat Vendors differently and they are expected to follow the rules outlined in the rules section linked below. Thread will be locked until resolved.

 

AdamG

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Well when the account holder reveals that they are here to sell stuff or to make money from our members, the rules change and they are no longer just a new member. He has been here since 2018 and should be aware of our Vendor Rules. A PM has been sent and we are starting the registration process where we will make the rules clear. We do treat Vendors differently and they are expected to follow the rules outlined in the rules section linked below. Thread will be locked until resolved.

Update: @baoshan has registered and his account is properly Tagged and verified. Thread reopened.
 
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baoshan

baoshan

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Here are my late thoughts:

1. There is no good reason to go with a proprietary format.
Say I want to curate an audiophile music collection of a higher standard or larger scale. I hope my audio files are:
  1. Consistent as far as encoders and encoding parameters be concerned. I see such diversity as technically unnecessary. I prefer consistency when possible.
  2. Lossless only. Am I asking too much for an audiophile collection?
  3. Free of (these forever-changing) music tags. I came from the goal of designing a better classical music experience which is impossible with music tags alone. I hope you understand me on this point.
  4. Free of ripping errors. Some of my CD rips can not pass the AccurateRip verification (and have clicks/pops); some of them can be repaired by CUETools. I can launch CUETools inside a virtual machine but want something simpler on macOS.
  5. Complete discs only (I do not buy individual tracks). I can find tools to report missing or incorrectly ordered tracks, but I want something simpler.
  6. Duplication free. I can find tools to report duplications, but I want something simpler.
  7. Easily verifiable. I can find tools to check for broken audio files, but I want something simpler (e.g., macOS’ built-in md5 commands).
If you rethink the above goals, you will find that none is invented by me from scratch and most goals are targeted by one or more solutions already. I will not list these solutions to save you some time. The .tonal audio format is just another attempt that targets more goals simultaneously in a simpler (IMHO) way.

If some of the goals are real and .tonal solves (even a subset of) them, but “proprietary” alone is unacceptable. I can see that one is the real issue; let’s fix it by making .tonal open.

As a product designer, I ask myself to be honest: for every feature in Tonal, I ask myself if I really need it, or if it is just a marketing gimmick. Above is my answer to the .tonal audio format question.

What are you supposed to do if you want to try another player? Maintain two copies of your files, one in standard format and the other in .tonal?
I plan to keep only the .tonal files because the Tonal app can convert a .tonal file back to a .flac file (PCM) or a .wv file (DSD) plus a .cue file (because a .tonal file is a complete audio disc).

Tonal is not for everyone. Read my words as a community member sharing his thoughts and outcomes. I may be biased, but I am not selling snake oil: Tonal is coded against a series of clearly defined requirements.

2. Making your player unconfigurable by removing "settings" is a serious drawback and not a feature. Do you think your customers are a bunch of 5 year olds who do not know how to configure a player?
I do believe that simplicity, as in technology, has value. For a bit-perfect player, I believe these settings (in terms commonly seen in macOS apps) are usually unnecessary or even misleading (with reasons attached):
  • buffer size for decoded audio or memory play: a Schmitt-trigger-like comparison with time-based fixed or dynamic thresholds makes more sense than letting the user select between 8GB and 4GB.
  • interface format or integer mode: no scientific or measurable reason to offer multiple choices for the same source format.
  • IO latency or IO buffer: This is a must-have user-facing setting for pro-audio apps like Logic Pro, but for playback purposes, I see no scientific or measurable reason to let the users care about that.
  • Hog or exclusive mode: required for DSD or MQA.
Some settings may be necessary for the time being but may become unnecessary gradually in the coming years:
  • DoP markers
  • (DAC) model-specific handling (such as extra delays when switching between different sample rates or between PCM and DoP)
Please correct me if there are setting(s) with scientific and measurable meanings that must be kept.

3. "Collaborating" on metadata is another way of saying "our proprietary metadata is incomplete and we want thousands of people working for free to complete it".
Tonal reads embedded music tags to form the initial version of the metadata document during the import process. After that, the yellow editor takes over.

There are examples of successful collaboration, such as Wikipedia, MusicBrainz, or IMSLP. All collaborations have frictions but I have faith in the community. Tonal just provides the tools.

4. No mention of a remote control app from an iPad or phone = presumably does not exist.
Remote control and other important features such as discoverability mentioned by Timmeon are missing. Because basic things are still controversial: the .tonal audio format, the music metadata language, and the configuration-free playback engine. I hope you understand I want to pitch these fundamental things first.

5. "Constraints" is also a serious drawback and not a feature. If you have a lossy file, at least give the user the option to play it. Refusing to curate it at all sounds too much like dictating to the user what they are allowed or not allowed to play.
Many free audio players can play lossy files (with many other features). Both the lossy audio files and the free players have great value. What really confuses me is why a paid app must be able to do all the things many free apps can do. What’s more important to me is what things only the paid app can do and why I should care.

There are some positives. I like the "pay once, user forever" for a relatively reasonable price of $99. You fail to mention whether this includes lifetime upgrades or not.
Upgrades are free until the next major version, which usually takes years to fruition. For every minor update, the main purpose is to make the app last longer. The website mentions that.

Thanks again for these good questions.
 
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baoshan

baoshan

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You should add beauty to your top principles and perhaps focus on designing a pretty UI. I don't give a shit about the metadata sources or 'experience' if I don't get any value from the interface.
Do you like the old version? For the new one, I gave it an anonymous but native feeling. Defining how it works is more important than defining how it looks, at least for the prime time.

Navigating through artist bios with branches out to relevant artists and recordings aids in discovery. This is completely discarded by your 'local first' principal. I don't want to navigate folders based on parameters that are irrelevant to my listening experience (format).
This is very important and fundamental. Please understand I need to pitch the more fundamental things (audio format, music metadata, and playback) first because Tonal is so controversial on these topics.

Perhaps you need to pander to the magical thinkers as this is a niche market. To me, your marketing speak about sound quality is a turn-off.
I rarely mentioned subjective sound quality performance except for the last fine note (I quote others for the only fine note). The audio stack, the configuration-free feature, and the low-footprint renderer are measurable engineering decisions: I am not too shy to describe them (again, I will not link that to anything subjective).

Overall, your app doesn't seem to solve any real problems and I fail to see how it builds a unique experience by using a proprietary format and 'collaborative' metadata. What am I missing?
  • Classical music metadata is a real problem. If you don’t feel the pain, please skip this one.
  • Collaboration on music metadata is a real problem, MusicBrainz is born for that (remember the old FreeDB?).
  • Keeping a music collection well-organized is a real problem, I have OCD that asks me to reduce entropy at all costs. If your music collection is well-organized without inconsistencies, please skip this one.
  • Fixing broken CD rips is a real problem. If you only collect hi-res music or don’t use Macs, please skip this one (CUETools is unavailable on macOS for the time being).
  • Accurate playback is a real problem. Have you encountered some $$$ apps that pop/click at the beginning/end of DSD tracks? If not, please skip this one.
  • Unnecessary configuration is a real problem IMHO. Please see my above post.
  • Data source availability is a real problem IMHO. I want my experience to be powered by transparent and lasting data, especially in the AI era.
There are no more problems I am trying to solve, only these for the initial version.

Thank you.
 

Snoopy

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So what is this software able to do that I can't already do with roon?

What about upsampling, EQ, convolution filters , HQPLAYER support?
 
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baoshan

baoshan

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So what is this software able to do that I can't already do with roon?
I am not a user of Roon, but I am trying to answer this question.

Below are some features that may differentiate Tonal:
  • Verify your red-book rips using AccurateRip
  • Repair broken rips using CUETools
  • Support .cue sheet with a single audio file (please correct me if Roon is capable of that)
  • SACD ISOs and DST encoded DFF files are supported (please correct me if Roon is capable of that)
  • Own your music metadata. The metadata you see in Tonal is available offline and CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licensed. See Keith_W’s critics No. 3 (which is a great point) and my response to that question.
Below are some designs that you may like or dislike:
Other design decisions I have explained are not repeated here to respect your precious time.

What about upsampling, EQ, convolution filters , HQPLAYER support?
Tonal is a bit-perfect player.
  • You may reject it because you need upsampling, EQ, convolution filters, etc.
  • Someone may prefer the simplicity of a bit-perfect-only engine.
Thank you.
 
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