In the age of streaming, maintaining a personal music collection is often a lost cause. Opening Spotify is just easier than transferring files between devices or dealing with crappy or abandoned music players. But you don’t have to leave your music collection in the Stone Age, because you can build your own music streaming service with Plex.
Wait, can you use Plex for music?
Plex is best known as a movie streaming platform. It lets you stream your video collection to any device inside or outside your home, and its fantastic interface automatically fills in the gaps by providing cover art, summaries, and other information for your video files.
But Plex isn’t just for movies. You can also use the service for audio, be it music or audiobooks. And since Plex is free, you can effectively create your own music streaming service without spending a dime. It’s so simple.
Plex supports playback of virtually all file formats, even lossless formats like FLAC. And unlike those “real” streaming services, it has built-in visualizers, deep EQ settings, volume options, and fade controls.
Of course, Plex can also add a ton of data to your music collection. It automatically applies album art, organizes artists with photos and bios, and even displays music lyrics. Additionally, Plex can tell you about upcoming gigs, and if you don’t mind reviews, it can show you album reviews.
Plex can even use the “Audio Fingerprint” to help identify misnamed tracks, which is a big help if you have a massive and slightly disorganized music library. That said, this feature works best with well-known songs, not bootlegs or obscure stuff.
What do you need for a Plex server?
You can turn any old computer into a Plex media server. It just needs reasonable storage space and a stable internet connection, preferably via an Ethernet cable. But as always, I suggest using an NVIDIA Shield TV Stick or a Raspberry Pi 4 microcomputer.
The NVIDIA Shield TV and Raspberry Pi 4 are much more energy efficient than full-size computers, so they should have minimal impact on your electricity bill. And even if these products are not Great powerful, they’re good enough to stream 4K video, so they’ll have no problem streaming audio. (Note that both of these solutions require external storage.)
If you want something with a little more flexibility or power, you should use a computer or NAS device for your Plex server. If you’re going the PC route, I’d suggest going with something small and efficient like an Intel NUC, although you could also just pull an old Acer or Dell out of your closet. As for a NAS device, well, they’re literally designed to be servers and are often the best option for hardcore Plex builds.
All of the Plex solutions above can back up data automatically, though a PC or NAS is the best choice if data redundancy is a priority.
Now, if you want to test out Plex before buying hardware, you can always run Media Server from your primary desktop or laptop. It won’t affect your computer’s normal functionality, because Plex is basically software that streams files from your computer to the Internet. (However, I wouldn’t call this a long-term solution, as Plex can slow down your computer when it’s active and will wear out your storage drives under heavy use.)
Once you’ve selected a device for your Plex media server, follow the platform’s quickstart instructions to set everything up. Again, this process is totally free; you just need to create a Plex account and patiently follow the Plex instructions.
NVIDIA Shield TV Pro
Add your music collection to Plex
Because you are creating a streaming service, you need to search for some MP3, WAV, FLAC and other music files. That means ripping your CDs, buying DRM-free music through platforms like Amazon or Bandcamp, and removing DRM from music you’ve purchased from iTunes.
Once you have a digital music collection, you need to organize it for Plex. Otherwise, the service will just show you a mess of random tracks. Organizing your music is very simple, and if you already maintain a music collection for iTunes or another music player, your job is done.
That said, Plex does offer step-by-step instructions on this, and I’ll summarize those instructions here for your convenience:
- Create a folder called “Music”. This is the directory that Plex will use for music.
- Your “Music” folder should contain a unique folder for each artist.
- Each artist’s folder should contain their music. But don’t mix the files together; Separate each album into its own folder.
- Name each track in an album, placing the track number in front of its name.
- Add metadata to every song in your library. This metadata tells Plex which artist and album a song is from, as well as its location on an album. (You can use a tool like MusicBrainz Picard to speed up this process, or simply right-click each track and edit its properties.)
I should clarify that Plex automatically organizes and adds metadata to your library. Even if some tracks in your collection are missing information, such as track listing metadata, they can work just fine with the service. But I make no promises.
Now that your music is organized for Plex, you need to copy the “Music” folder to your Plex server’s storage drive. Next, you need to tell Plex where to find your music directory.
Open the Plex web client and go to Settings (the tool icon). Next, find the “Manage” section and select “Libraries”. Click the “Add Library” button and choose “Music” as the library type. Now select the music directory you created earlier as the source folder. Confirm your selection by clicking “Add library”.
Your music collection will now populate your Plex server. This process can take a while depending on the size of your library, especially since Plex searches for images and information for each artist, album, and track.
Use Plexamp or Prism apps for streaming
While you can stream audio from the Plex app or the normal browser client, the experience isn’t great on mobile devices. That’s why I suggest using Plexamp or Prism. These apps look super slick and feel like “real” music players, so they’re an integral part of a good music streaming experience.
Plexamp is the official app, and that’s pretty convincing. It offers multiple theme options, automatic playlists based on your library, gapless playback, adjustable EQ and boost settings, and offline listening. Plus, you and an equally cool friend can link your Plex libraries via Plexamp to share music!
Unfortunately, Plexamp requires Plex Pass. It’s a $6 monthly subscription, or if you want a lifetime subscription, a one-time fee of $120. Those new to Plex and don’t want to pay $6 should try Prism instead, but keep in mind that it’s only available for iOS.
The Prism app is free and quite fleshed out, although it doesn’t create automatic playlists. The defining feature here, aside from free Plex streaming, is the ability to rip music and playlists from your iCloud library. If you try Prism and think it’s decent, I suggest you upgrade to Plexamp.
Optional: Link Plex with TIDAL
Want to mix your personal streaming library with a “real” streaming service? Simply link your Plex account to TIDAL! All music on TIDAL will appear in Plex and Plexamp, and of course it will be streamed in hi-fi or lossless formats.
And if you have TIDAL HI-FI, linking your account gets you a free Plex Pass. It’s a killer deal, and of course, it’s the easiest way to add music to your Plex library without getting the files yourself.
To link TIDAL to Plex, follow the instructions on the Plex website. Note that TIDAL family plans are not compatible with Plex.