November 2, 2009

Linux and iPods: Do the Banshee Shuffle

My family has a couple of those tiny little audio players called the iPod Shuffle. It is a bare-bones 1/4" x 3/4" x 1" solid-state wonder that can store and play about 250 songs. They are great for use when working out or doing chores.

Vista finally went belly up on my wife's duo-core AMD-powered HP laptop. Naturally, being a Linux guy, I never bothered with building a recovery partition (or what ever it's called) in case of disaster and failed to notice that no Vista CD was included in the welcome package. I also thought that we might have a disk going south. How would a recovery partition help me, in that case anyway?

In a fit of rage I backed up everything of value, booting from an Xubuntu USB stick, then repartitioned the disk. Out with Vista, in with Xubuntu. The disk turned out to be just fine and the machine is now significantly faster and much more reliable.

Of course we needed an iTunes replacement and Banshee turned out to have all the features we needed to maintain the Shuffles.

Here's a rundown on the application.

Shuffling With Banshee

Use the Synaptic package manager to find the Banshee application. I installed version 1.4.3-3ubuntu2. Simply check the box to install, then apply and Synaptic will do it's thing. You might also want to monodoc-banshee-manual. Podsleuth will be installed automatically along with banshee because it is needed to query information on device configuration and the songs that are loaded.

 Banshee InterfaceOf course, Banshee can't work without songs. Take a look at Figure 1 to see the layout of the user interface. Assuming you have some .mp3 or .ogg files on your laptop, go to Media on the main task bar and select Import Media. A small pop-up window will appear asking for the top most directory with your music. Although, my music is in my /home/music directory, Banshee wouldn't go down to that level so I simply chose the Home directory. The program will then scan through all directories under your home directory and index every music file.

Something you might want to do before starting this whole operation is get rid of duplicates in your music collection. I found that I had multiple instances of the same song, in different directories. I even had .mp3s, .wavs, and .oggs of the same song.

Duplicate songs cause Banshee to give you multiple instances in the playlists it generates and it can be a little confusing as to exactly what you have in your collection.

Click on the All Artist item in the middle Banshee pane to bring up all the songs in your collection, in the right hand pane. You can sort the music list by name, artist, album, and time, in the right hand music list pane. You can also click down through the middle pane and sort according to your artist. At the bottom of the middle pane you'll find album covers and you can click on those to show songs in a particular album.

Attach the Shuffle to the docking station and plug the USB connector into your laptop. After a short time, the Shuffle will show up on the left hand pane in Banshee. It will have a name like rob-ipod, depending on what the device was called when it was initially configured. You may also get a new file manager window, but you can just close that one.

Putting a file on the iPod Shuffle is simple. Left click and hold on a song that you like and drag it over to the iPod item, in the left Banshee pane. You can grab multiple songs by holding down the CTRL key, when making your selections.

Banshee will grap your song and convert it to the format used by the Shuffle, then download it to the device. A progress bar will appear at the bottom of the left hand pane to show what is happening during the conversion and downloading process.

 The Banshee Capacity Guage.If you click on your iPod device, you'll also see a capacity gauge at the bottom of the middle pane. My iPod shows 849.5 MB of space for my music, since it's a 1-GB model. The gauge also shows the number of songs on the Shuffle, the play time, and the total file space used. Figure 2 shows the screen with the gauge and songs.

Click on the music directory, under your iPod device, to see what music is already on your player.

Rip And Roll With Banshee

Banshee can play songs, like any other audio player. Double left click on a song to listen. The volume control is a tiny little speaker icon in the upper right corner of the program window. Click on the icon and a slider will appear, that you can adjust. Move it a little at a time and wait, because my installation seemed to have a quarter second lag before the volume changed. You might also need to make an adjustment to your regular audio mixer, to get the sound right.

The program can also rip songs from a CD. In the past I used GRip, but Banshee pulls together the whole rip, encode, and download process into one program.

Put the CD in the tray and after it spins up a little audio CD menu item will appear in the lower part of the left hand pane. Left click on it to show all the songs on the CD. Roll over the audio CD menu item again, left click and select Import Media. Songs on the CD will be imported into your music library and if Banshee can find the metadata will also populate the song listing, album, artist, and cover art.

If it can't find the CD metadata, you will get an album by an Unknown Artist and tracks numbered 1, 2, 3, and so on. This can cause a lot of confusion, if you rip a couple of CDs and none of the this data gets populated. You do have the option of editing the track data and while it will get the job done, is tedious and a pain. I looked around on the Web and it seems that there had not been a solution to this problem, as of the end of 2008.

Playlists can easily be created by dragging and dropping songs. Right click on the Music Library menu item in the left pane and select New Playlist. Give it a name and it will appear on the list. Select an artist and open their song list. Next, grab a song and drag it over to the newly created playlist. Once, you get the playlist the way you want it, use CTRL-a to highlight all the songs, then drag them all over to the Shuffle. They'll be converted and downloaded to the device. When the process finishes, right click the iPod menu item again and eject the device. Pull the Shuttle out of the dock, plug in the headphones and enjoy your songs.

Banshee seemed to be able to rip and encode a CD, while still converting and downloading to the Shuffle. The test machine was a two-year old HP DV2000. It has 2 GB of RAM, a 1.something-GHz duo-core AMD chip and an Nvidia video chip that shares 128 MB of the main memory. Ripping and encoding do take some processing power so it is advantagous to have a fairly powerful machine. The CPU usage on both cores ran at near capacity during encoding.

Cleaning Up Your Shuffle

Got a little dirt on your Shuffle. Clean up is easy. Or, at least that is what my daughter seemed to think.

Roll the headphones up and cram the whole works in a pants pocket, then send it through a normal cycle in the washing machine. Make sure you take it out and run it through the dryer. Ten minutes ought to do it. You'll know it's done when you hear it clanking around the dryer drum, after falling out of the pocket. Let the thing cool down for half a day or so and you should be good to go.

Of course, you probably shouldn't really clean your Shuffle this way. Yes, it did actually go through the washer and dryer. All the songs played normally and the earphones worked fine. Well, I noticed that several of the songs with questionable lyrics were missing...cleaned up as it were. Just kidding, the songs were all there. I tend to be an over-protective father.

Think of what the world would be like if we could only get laptops, netbooks, and other electronic devices that were as robust and durable as the Shuffle player.

Wrap Up


Switching from Vista to Linux isn't as hard as it used to be. Using devices, like an iPod Shuffle, is actually a pretty easy task. I found Banshee, especially with it's built-in ripping features, was about as good as it gets. I wasn't all that impressed with iTunes, anyway.

Give Banshee a try and see what you think. And, as we move forward into the miniature digital device age, make sure to check those pants pockets before doing the laundry.

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is a emerging technology consultant, writer, and portable computing expert. Early adopter tech trends, seminars, and writing projects are his stock-in-trade. His mission is to deliver exceptional value to his clients. Links to many of his articles appear on his Web site at

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