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 discontinued music players. But you don’t need to leave your music collection in the stone age, because you can build your own music streaming service with Plex.
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, whether it’s music or audiobooks. And since Plex is free, you can effectively build your own music streaming service without spending a dime. It’s that simple.
Plex supports playback of virtually every file format, even lossless formats like FLAC. And unlike those “real” streaming services, it has built-in visualizers, deep EQ settings, loudness options, and fading controls.
Of course, Plex can also add a ton of data to your music collection. It automatically applies cover art to albums, organizes artists with photos and bios, and evens show lyrics for music. Plus, Plex can tell you about upcoming concerts, and if you don’t mind critics, it can show you album reviews.
Plex can even use “audio fingerprinting” to help identify misnamed tracks, which is a big help if you have a massive, slightly-disorganized music library. That said, this feature works best with well-known songs, not bootlegs or obscure stuff.
You can turn any old computer into a Plex media server. It just needs a reasonable amount of storage space and a stable internet connection, preferably over 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 power-efficient than full-sized computers, so they should have a minimal impact on your electric bill. And while these products aren’t super powerful, they’re good enough for streaming 4K video, so they won’t have any problem streaming audio. (Note that both of these solutions require external storage.)
If you want something with a bit more flexibility or power, you should use a computer or NAS device for your Plex server. If you go down the PC route, I suggest using something small and efficient like an Intel NUC, though you can also just pull an old Acer or Dell out of your closet. As for a NAS device—well, they’re literally made to be servers and are often the best option for hardcore Plex builds.
All of the above Plex solutions can automatically backup data, though a PC or NAS is the best choice if data redundancy is a priority.
Now, if you want to test Plex before buying any hardware, you can always run the media server from your primary desktop or laptop computer. This will not affect your computer’s normal functionality, as Plex is basically just software that streams files from your computer to the internet. (I wouldn’t call this a long-term solution, though, as Plex can slow your computer when it’s active and will wear out your storage drives with heavy use.)
Once you’ve selected a device for your Plex media server, follow the platform’s quick start instructions to get everything set up. Again, this process is totally free; you just need to make a Plex account and patiently follow Plex’s instructions.
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Because you’re building a streaming service, you need to hunt down some MP3s, WAVs, FLACs, and other music files. That means ripping your CDs, buying DRM-free music through platforms like Amazon or Bandcamp, and removing the DRM from music you purchased on 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 easy, and if you already maintain a music collection for iTunes or another music player, then your work is done.
That said, Plex offers detailed instructions on this subject, and I’m going to summarize those instructions here for your convenience:
- Create a folder titled “Music.” This is the directory that Plex will use for music.
- Your “Music” folder should contain a unique folder for every artist.
- Each artist’s folder should contain their music. But don’t jumble the files together; separate each album into its own folder.
- Name each track of an album, placing the track’s number ahead of its name.
- Add metadata to every song in your library. This metadata tells Plex which artist and album a song came from, plus its placement on an album. (You can use a tool like MusicBrainz Picard to speed up this process, or just right-click each track and edit its properties.)
I should clarify that Plex automatically organizes and add metadata to your library. Even if some tracks in your collection are missing information, such as tracklisting metadata, they may work just fine with the service. But I’m not making any promises.
Now that your music is organized for Plex, you need to copy the “Music” folder to your Plex server’s storage drive. Then, you need to tell Plex where to find your music directory.
Open the Plex web client and go to Settings (the tool icon). Then, find the “Manage” section and select “Libraries.” Click the “Add Library” button and pick “Music” as your library type. Now, select the music directory that you made earlier as your source folder. Confirm your selection by clicking “Add Library.”
Your music collection will now fill your Plex server. This process may take a while depending on the size of your library, especially as Plex hunts down images and information for each artist, album, and track.
While you can stream audio from the normal Plex app or 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 integral for a good music streaming experience.
Plexamp is the official app, and it’s quite compelling. It offers multiple theming options, automatic playlists based on your library, gapless playback, adjustable EQ and amplifier settings, and offline listening. Plus, you and an equally-cool friend can pair your Plex libraries together through Plexamp to share music!
Unfortunately, Plexamp requires Plex Pass. That’s a $6 monthly subscription, or if you want a lifetime membership, a $120 one-time fee. Those who are new to Plex and don’t want to pay $6 should try Prism instead—just bear in mind that it’s only available for iOS.
The Prism app is free and fairly fleshed out, though it doesn’t create automatic playlists. The defining feature here, aside from free Plex streaming, is the ability to pull music and playlists from your iCloud library. If you try Prism and think it’s decent, I suggest upgrading to Plexamp.
Plex Pass unlocks the Plexamp media player, plus premium features like offline downloads and content restrictions for families.
Do you want to mix your personal streaming library with a “real” streaming service? Just link your Plex account with TIDAL! All of the music on TIDAL will appear within Plex and Plexamp, and of course, it will stream in hi-fi or lossless formats.
And if you have TIDAL HI-FI, linking your account gets you Plex Pass for free. It’s a killer deal, and of course, it’s the easiest way to add music to your Plex library without obtaining the files yourself.
To link TIDAL with Plex, follow the instructions on the Plex website. Note that TIDAL family plans aren’t compatible with Plex.