MPD – A Brief Guide

The Music Player Daemon, aka MPD, is a great little application to handle music on your linux computer. Until recently (when Linux really started to take off and gain popularity), MPD has been notoriously difficult to get to work properly. I decided to write this small intro to MPD after having used it for about 6 months. This is a little guide to it to get you started on using MPD as your music manager.

The World of MPD

First, what MPD is:

  • MPD keeps track of your music library. It does this by defining a music directory, to which you can easily add symlinks to all the various places where you store your music on your computer.
  • MPD tracks changes to your music library (any time an mp3 is removed, or a new album added, you simply update the MPD database file — which takes three or four seconds at most).
  • MPD can store playlists.
  • MPD can play songs, and output this information to various devices, such as your physical speakers (usually via your alsa sound drivers, but it can be any audio driver on your system), or even a http port for remote web listening (via icecast).

What MPD is NOT (what most people get confused about):

  • MPD cannot by itself determine: which songs are played and in what order. Nor does it come with any controls such as PAUSE, STOP, NEXT TRACK, etc. MPD, quite simply, can either: play a song, or do nothing while it is running. MPD’s behavior is controlled by clients, such as GMPC, Sonata, etc (my personal favorite is ncmpcpp).

The downside of this dichotomy between what MPD is and what it is not, is that you must install two applications to get the same functionality as any standard multimedia player like iTunes. However, there are many, many advantages of splitting up music-playing from music-controls. First, mpd will hardly crash and will be error-free due to its simple nature. Second, you gain the ability to access your large music collection from other computers in your home network without much fuss. This means that you can do things like: make your laptop act as a remote control for your desktop’s music output (the desktop’s speakers), or even create multiple MPD instances for specific purposes simultaneously (e.g., alsa and also icecast output).

Typical Setup

For most people, they only need one instance of MPD running and have it configured so that it plays songs directly to their computer speakers. So their MPD configuration file will look something like this (comment lines removed to save space):

music_directory "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/music"
playlist_directory "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/playlist"
db_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/mpd.db"
log_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/mpd.log"
pid_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/"
state_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/mpdstate"
sticker_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/sticker.sql"
user "shinobu"
bind_to_address		"" # bind it to this computer's IP address if someone on the LAN wants to use this mpd
port				"6600"
save_absolute_paths_in_playlists "yes"
follow_outside_symlinks "yes"
follow_inside_symlinks "yes"
audio_output {
    type			"alsa"
    name			"Exelion ALSA output"
    format			"44100:16:2"	# optional
    mixer_device	"default"
    mixer_control	"PCM"
replaygain			"track"
volume_normalization "yes"
filesystem_charset		"UTF-8"
id3v1_encoding			"ISO-8859-1"

It’s very straightforward. All of the essential files and folders are customized and defined in the config file. (My mpd directory is .mpd-untracked, since these files/folders are not tracked by my git folder containing all of my dotfiles. See my previous two posts for more info on that setup.) The config file itself resides at /home/shinobu/syscfg/mpd/cfg-alsa — a customized path and filename, which is referenced each time MPD starts on bootup (in my .xinitrc file), with the command “mpd /home/shinobu/syscfg/mpd/cfg-alsa”. MPD will daemonize itself when it is called, so calling it from your .xinitrc file without the “&” argument at the end of the line is OK. Notice how the above configuration avoids running into permission problems, since everything resides under a normal user’s directory.

I then start up ncmpcpp, which by default looks to the mpd host as localhost and port as 6600 — matching the (default) values in my MPD config file above. And it all works rather beautifully.

Multi-MPD Setup for Music Sharing

Back when I still used iTunes (about 3 years ago), I remember it had this neat feature to share your music with anyone on your local network. You can do the same thing with MPD. The trick is to add a separate MPD instance for this feature. I myself have this multi-MPD setup on my desktop, with one MPD for alsa-only output (as seen above), and a second MPD for icecast-only output. Icecast, by the way, is a more general solution not wholly related to MPD for sharing music over the internet — we can use icecast since it plays rather well with MPD (UNIX philosophy FTW!). Since my desktop has a second MPD instance so that it works with icecast, my laptop can now take advantage of the huge music collection that I have on it, remotely (well, as long as I’m on the home network in my case).

Here’s my MPD config file for icecast output:

music_directory "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/music"
playlist_directory "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/playlist"
db_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/mpd.db"
log_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/mpd-icecast.log"
pid_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/"
state_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/mpdstate-icecast"
sticker_file "/home/shinobu/.mpd-untracked/sticker.sql"
user "shinobu"
bind_to_address		"" # bind it to this computer's IP address if someone on the LAN wants to use this mpd
port				"6601"
save_absolute_paths_in_playlists "yes"
follow_outside_symlinks "yes"
follow_inside_symlinks "yes"
audio_output {
    type			"shout"
    name			"exelion HD mpd stream"
    encoding		"ogg"			# optional
    host			"localhost"
    port			"8000"
    mount			"/mpd.ogg" # i.e., "" is the live stream
                                           # (provided that MPD is actually playing a song)
# See 'source password' in /etc/icecast.xml for password                                           #
    password		"hackme"
# Use 'bitrate' or 'quality'. Use 'bitrate' for static bitrate, or 'quality' for variable.         #
# Use one or the other -- not both!                                                                #
# bitrate                     "128"                                                                #
    quality			"10"
# 'format' is the audio format of the stream. The first number is the sample rate in Hertz (Hz);   #
# 44100 Hz is equal to cd quality. The second number is the number of bits per sample; again 16    #
# bits is the quality used on cd's. The third number is the number of channels; 1 channel is       #
# mono, 2 channels is stereo.                                                                      #
    format			"44100:16:2"
    protocol		"icecast2"		# optional
    user			"source"		# optional
    #description		"My Stream Description"	# optional
    #genre			"jazz"			# optional
    #public			"no"			# optional
    #timeout			"2"			# optional
replaygain			"track"
volume_normalization "yes"
filesystem_charset		"UTF-8"
id3v1_encoding			"ISO-8859-1"

As you can see, much of the configuration is exactly the same as my first MPD config file. You’d want it like this, since you’d want it to use the same music collection and list of playlists. (Well, if you had a private stash of music you didn’t want anyone in your LAN to know about, you’d point to a different music folder.) So the music directory, playlist directory, and database file are all the same. However, you’d want a different set of logfiles for this second MPD instance, so those values are changed. The same goes to the pid and state files. The port number is 6601, so that it doesn’t conflict with my first MPD. The final difference is the audio output, which is set to “shout” and not “alsa”. The “shout” output works with icecast, and the values in here, like port 8000 and “hackme” as the password, are taken straight from the default icecast intallation’s xml file (/etc/icecast.xml — of course, you can call icecast with a different config file location than the default one).

It’s important that you make this second MPD output solely to icecast. If you put in alsa output here, you’ll end up with two different songs playing simultaneously on your desktop’s speakers! (Aside: MPD is perfectly capable of outputting to multiple audio outputs, so you could, if you wanted, make one MPD instance output to both alsa and icecast — suitable if you’re the only one at home and you want your music to “follow” you to all the computers connected to the LAN.) As for icecast itself, you can also call it from your .xinitrc file, after your mpd-calling lines, like so: icecast -b -c /home/shinobu/syscfg/icecast/cfg.xml. The -b flag daemonizes icecast (required since you’re calling it from your .xinitrc file), and the -c flag merely points to the correct config file location. My icecast config file looks like this:



        <alias source="/" dest="/status.xsl"/>


Here, the value for the <source-password> tag must match the password specified in your icecast-MPD’s config file. I’ve left it to the default “hackme” here for demonstration purposes — you should change it to something more secure (better safe than sorry!). My password is like @#$k23lsdf9. Make sure the directory in <logdir> exists. As for the <webroot> and <adminroot> directories, copy them straight out of /usr/share/icecast/web and /usr/share/icecast/admin, and place them into your custom location. This will take care of those annoying permission errors that users often face.

Now, on your remote computer, such as your laptop, you need (1) an MPD client, and (2) a music player, like mplayer, to intercept the raw .ogg music stream from your desktop with the icecast-MPD setup. In my ncmpcpp config file on my laptop, I have custom values for the mpd_host and mpd_port fields to be my desktop’s IP address and 6601, respectively (matching the values in the second MPD config file above). So when I fire up ncmpcpp on my laptop, it connects over the LAN network into the music collection residing in my desktop, all with the magic of MPD. Once I activate the ogg stream by playing a file, I can then access this stream with mplayer — specifically, with mplayer -ao alsa -softvol -volume 10 -volstep 1 -prefer-ipv4 I have this long command aliased, of course, to a hotkey in my XMonad configuration file. And within a couple seconds, I get a top-quality, ~500 kbps ogg stream right on my laptop (the quality setting in my MPD config file, set to “10”, is the maximum quality supported by the ogg format; 500 kbps, or a little over 60 KBps, should be nothing on your home ethernet LAN).

So here’s what’s happening with this second MPD instance on my desktop, configured with icecast output: MPD keeps tabs on what my music collection consists of from port 6601, and “plays” to port 8000 — converting my current mp3/flac file into an ogg stream, which is then served by icecast. From my laptop, I then connect to this MPD by the desktop’s IP address and MPD port of 6601 with ncmpcpp. Then, once I tell MPD to start playing, I can then access the ogg stream with mplayer on my laptop. Mplayer simply looks to When icecast on my desktop receives this request from my laptop’s mplayer, it gives the go-ahead and essentially acts as a bridge between my desktop’s icecast-output MPD and my laptop’s mplayer. Mplayer then takes this ogg stream, and outputs it onto my laptop’s speakers using the alsa drivers.

Here’s a picture to describe what’s going on. (The latest LibreOffice Drawing app is really a pleasure to use!)

So I hope this post proves useful to people who are new to Linux and are struggling to get MPD (and especially with Icecast) to work.

EDIT July 17, 2010: Prettier/simpler graphic uploaded.

UPDATE April 7, 2011: Cleaner source code format; fixed some typos; updated graphic.

UPDATE November 1, 2011: Grammar fixes and some rewordings. I’m delighted to say that even after 2 years of using MPD, I still use the setup described in this post. Talk about configuration stability!