Enhanced music listening on macOS

I was a big fan of the Simplify music controller for Mac (and its companion iOS app). Since it died I’ve gotten along without it, but I definitely miss my Sideshow jacket I’d built for it. So I’ve been on a quest to find new tools to enhance my music listening on macOS.

There are two areas of control I’m looking for: audio controls, including EQ and per-app audio settings, and improved music playback control, including Last.fm support for Apple Music (and not just to improve my Soundtrack page).

Minimum audio controller requirements:

  • Per-application settings for output device and volume
  • 10-band EQ per output device

Minimum playback controller requirements:

  • Last.fm integration and scrobbling1 (Spotify scrobbles on its own, but Music doesn’t)
  • Works with both Music and Spotify
  • Desktop artwork/info display
  • Menu bar track/artist display
  • System-wide keyboard shortcuts

So here’s what I’ve found.

Audio Control

Before I get to playback controllers, I want to talk about volume control and EQ. There are two good options here: Boom 3D and SoundSource.

Boom 3D

Boom has some excellent features for hi-fi audio and audiophile tools. It’s $20 to purchase, and also available from Setapp. If you’re a Setapp subscriber it’s an easy choice. If you have the disposable income to buy outright, it’s a little tougher choice. Read on…

Boom gives you 3D Surround Sound on any audio channel, improving the sound of everything from laptop speakers and headphones to high quality speaker setups.

Boom offers per-app volume control and boost settings. The effects are fairly intelligent, boosting loudness and improving EQ without causing distortion. Usually. I’ve run into some inconsistency, but overall it’s good.

Boom also has its own audio player, and has an iOS companion that allows music control on your Mac from your iPhone.

SoundSource

While Boom offers great tools for audio quality, I’ve found SoundSource to be a more ideal tool, and less intrusive to my system overall.

SoundSource is Rogue Amoeba’s utility for absolute control over Mac audio. It sits in your menubar and gives you per-app control over output device, volume, and even EQ and Audio Unit effects. I use Bartender to hide the default volume icon and just use SoundSource instead.

I find the layout of SoundSource superior to Boom. They focused less on making it beautiful and more on condensing a lot of controls into a small space while keeping them useable.

You can apply all of the various controls (EQ, volume, effects) to the system-wide settings, but I love being able to have separate settings for Spotify and Music, piping them through my Scarlett Solo and connected Rokit5 monitors with 10-band EQ while the rest of my system audio goes through my display speakers. It even has “Super Volume Keys” which let me have keyboard volume control over devices that normally wouldn’t, like my Scarlett Solo.

SoundSource also features “Magic Boost” which does a magical job of, well, boosting audio signals, universally or per app. Louder, fuller sound without fiddling with EQ. It’s not fine-tuneable the way Boom’s various boosts are, but it just works without any extra fiddling. Even better, though, is running my audio through my iZotope Ozone plugin using the Audio Unit capabilities of SoundSource. Just about any song running through one of Ozone’s mastering presets to my studio monitors sounds great.

Add the “pinnable” floating window and an assignable hotkey for fast access and it’s an invaluable tool for macOS audio control. It’s not cheap at $29US, but I’ve found it entirely worthwhile.

Music Controllers

So, back to controllers. Because I’ve been listening to a lot of Spotify and Apple Music “for you” playlists, I don’t always know the songs that play. I need some kind of easy way to get the current track and artist at a glance. There are a lot of options for that, of course.

So again, my requirements include compatibility with both Music and Spotify, integration with Last.fm, both menu bar and desktop track info, and at least a few configurable keyboard shortcuts.

The Homebrew Approach

I started with a simple script I made for GeekTool. Run without arguments it returns a “SONG_TITLE by ARTIST” string for display on my Desktop. I put it down at the bottom of the screen where the Dock prevented windows from covering so I can always see it even with a Desktop full of windows and without Exposé. That worked pretty well, and the script is fairly complete, working with both Music and Spotify (determining which is running/playing), and offering controls for play, pause, next, previous, and volume, in addition to reporting current track, all from the command line. If that fits your needs, check it out. (I know, yet another command line tool for controlling music…)

My script solution failed to meet most of my requirements, though. Plus, I wanted more panache than I was willing to put into coding. After trying a few different apps, I narrowed the selection down to two: NepTunes and TunesArt.

NepTunes

NepTunes is a music controller that meets most of my requirements. It’s also free and open source, so if it meets yours, it’s a great choice.

NepTunes sits in the menu bar and has an album artwork display on the Desktop with configurable size settings. The menu bar icon can be hidden, if desired, but offers quick access to controls, related artists, and recent tracks. It does not offer track title/album in the menu bar.

It works with both Music and Spotify, scrobbling both, and loving a track in NepTunes will love it on both Music (if that’s what’s playing) and Last.fm. When it scrobbles to Last.fm, it can trim out non-standard parts of titles for songs and albums. Things like “(Live),” “[demo]” or “remastered,” normalizing the titles for easier matching. It can also scrobble podcast and iTunes U playback.

NepTunes offers keyboard shortcuts for just about everything. All the shortcuts I’ll need, anyway.

One feature that NepTunes (ostensibly) has and TunesArt doesn’t is related artists and recent tracks. You can quickly open up either of these in either music player. I actually couldn’t get this feature to work quite right, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me and I haven’t pursued any support for the issue, so at this point I assume it’s user error.

NepTunes purportedly has social sharing to both Twitter and Facebook, but I don’t think it’s actually implemented. It offers to share to both Twitter and Facebook and include tags and links to your choice of Spotify or Apple Music, but there’s nowhere to authorize either service and the menu items are greyed out. It’s ok, I try not to push my listening on my followers unless I’m really excited. Or drunk, but I quit drinking, so…

So, like I said, NepTunes covers most of my requirements, and it does it for free, so it’s a solid option.

TunesArt

I found TunesArt via the Mac App Store. I went looking because I wanted the menu bar song title/artist, and I wanted a few more options for artwork display. It offered all of the above and more, and it’s only $2.99US, so the price isn’t a dealbreaker.

Like NepTunes, TunesArt works with Last.fm, Spotify, and Music. It can launch with your Music player and quit when it does, or just hide the desktop artwork display when no song is playing. You can not only Love a track on both Music and Last.fm, you can also “ban” it (affects Last.fm).

Also like NepTunes, it can run in menu bar-only mode. It can’t hide the menu bar icon, but I generally wouldn’t want to, given its menu bar display is one of the reasons I picked it.

It can optionally show title and artist for the current track in the menu bar, and optionally scroll that when it’s longer than the default display. Additionally, you can include ratings and playback controls in the menu bar display.

The Desktop artwork has multiple themes, and you can build your own. It’s not as flexible as Simplify jackets were, and I won’t be able to recreate Sideshow in it, but it’s still open for creative design.

One other nice feature of TunesArt that I’ve actually been making a lot of use of is Lyrics and Artist Info display. I can double click on the album artwork to pop up a window with current track lyrics. This window can also be set to transparent and stuck to the Desktop to always display current lyrics.

TunesArt has configurable keyboard shortcuts for everything, so no complaints there. And if you’re into the social sharing, TunesArt can include album artwork in a Tweet, though without any links. Still a nice touch if you’re going to share your listening habits on Twitter.

My Picks

So, for enhanced music listening on macOS, my choices are SoundSource for audio control, and TunesArt for player control. I’d be curious what others have found, please share via Twitter or the comments!

  1. Scrobbling is what Last.fm calls it when an app lets it know what track is playing.

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Brett Terpstra

Brett is a writer and developer living in Minnesota, USA. You can follow him as ttscoff on Twitter, GitHub, and Mastodon. Keep up with this blog by subscribing in your favorite news reader.

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