The quest for the perfect playlist generator, part one

There is a secret to creating the perfect playlist.  It’s a complex process touched upon in Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” (and John Cusack’s performance in the film version).  A lot of variables are involved.  It needs to flow.  It needs to have cadence.  There are a lot of factors.

Sometimes, though, it’s too exhausting to build a playlist by hand, and in these cases, a good playlist generation system is in order.  It’s 2012, surely we have produced some way of creating a playlist or a mix that doesn’t suck.  Surely.

I have been questing for the best mix creator for years.  The complexity comes in when you factor in the fact that mixes should not just play stuff that you already know — they should, if they are good mixes, seamlessly integrate things you’ve never heard before (but would love!) in a way that fits with everything else.  This is something that just pulling from your existing iTunes library can’t do effectively (unless you have so much music that you’ve literally forgotten some of the stuff in your collection). I finally decided to put 4 services I use regularly to the test, head to head, and see which performed better: iTunes Genius (which is powered by Gracenote), Pandora, Last.fm, and rdio.  The experiment was fairly scientific: create a station based on the same song (or artist in the case of Last.fm and rdio), and see how well they created a mix that was more or less what I wanted to listen to.

Experiment 1: Yes – Leave It

Description: Yes’ album 90125 was a bit of an anomaly in their discography.  It still had prog rock elements of classic Yes, but also incorporated some of the 80s New Wave elements that were popular when it came out from bands like The Fixx, A Flock of Seagulls, and Genesis after Peter Gabriel left Phil Collins to take over as frontman.  As such, it’s a bit of both, and that’s what I was going for when I created this playlist.
Expectations: 80s synth-heavy rock a la Rush, The Fixx, Peter Gabriel, as well as more stuff from Yes’ collection (drawing mainly from 90125).[clear]

iTunes Genius

Playlist:

Yes – Leave It
Rush – New World Man
Van Halen – Feel Your Love Tonight
The Who – You Better You Bet
Foreigner – Double Vision
The Hooters – And We Danced
Pink Floyd – Learning to Fly
Led Zeppelin – In the Light
Def Leppard – Photograph
Journey – Who’s Crying Now
The Who – Bargain
Yes – It Can Happen
Queen – Keep Yourself Alive
Pink Floyd – Welcome to the Machine

Reactions: Surprisingly more hard- and classic rock than I had expected.  Since this is all stuff in my collection there was nothing I hated but I was a little surprised to see The Who (granted, later Who) and Van Halen in there.

Happy Surprises: I also didn’t expect Pink Floyd, but that was my own fault — they obviously fit the genre and were closest to what I was going for than almost anything else here.

Not-so-happy Surprises: The Hooters?? Queen??

Pandora

Playlist:

Peter Gabriel – Solsbury Hill
Barry Blue – Hot Shot (-)
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close to Me (+)
Nils Lofgren – Dream Big (-)
The Police – Roxanne (+)
Tub Ring – The Day the World Will End
Sparks – The Willys
Yes – Love Will Find a Way
The Eagles – Hotel California (-)
The Police – Every Breath You Take (+)
Jethro Tull – Saboteur
Manfred Mann – For You (-)
The Church – Under the Milky Way
Heart – Magic Man

Reactions: I used the thumbs to sort of guide this list, but not overly.  When something fit, I gave it a thumbs up (indicated by the (+)), when I couldn’t stand a song, it got a thumbs down (indicated by the (-)).  I was a little disappointed when Pandora just started feeding me The Police whenever I gave something a thumbs down.  Don’t get me wrong, Pandora, I love The Police, but that seemed a lot like pandering.

Happy Surprises: “Under the Milky Way”, though that really didn’t fit with the mix overall…

Not-so-happy Surprises: “Hotel California”?? Seriously??

Last.fm

Playlist:

Yes – And You and I
Jon Anderson – Ocean Song
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe – The Meeting
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Jerusalem
Steve Howe – Dream River
Camel – Earthrise
Gentle Giant – Knots
Genesis – Jesus He Knows Me
Yes – Close to the Edge
Yes – Yours is no Disgrace
Van Der Graaf Generator – My Room (Waiting for Wonderland)
Jethro Tull – Sweet Dream
Caravan – Nine Feet Underground
Rick Wakeman – Catherine Parr

Reactions: The selections in this mix that weren’t obvious Yes side- or solo projects felt like Generic Prog 101.  And that really wasn’t what I was looking for.  At all.

Happy Surprises: None, really.  This playlist sucked.

Not-so-happy Surprises: Almost everything that wasn’t Yes.  So, pretty much everything.

Rdio

Playlist:

Yes – Heart of the Sunrise
The Moody Blues – The Day Begins
The Moody Blues – I Am
Jethro Tull – Just Trying to Be
Yes – Fly From Here (Overture)
Pink Floyd – Is there anybody out there?
Jethro Tull – Cheap Day Return
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Promenade
Jethro Tull – Jack A Lynn
The Moody Blues – To Share Our Love
The Moody Blues – Sunset
Caravan – I Know Why You’re Laughing
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Affairs of the Heart
Yes – Siberia

Reactions: Pretty similar to the generic Prog Rock list that Last.fm generated without all the Yes-projects.

Happy Surprises: “Is there anybody out there?” though it wasn’t really a surprise.

Not-so-happy Surprises: No less than four tracks by The Moody Blues and three by Jethro Tull (which makes half of the playlist overall).  Also: “The Day Begins”…

Winner: iTunes Genius

Conclusion: This test really just illustrated that what I wanted was not exactly what I asked for, which underlies the whole problem with playlist generators in general.  Though none of the playlists were inaccurate, per se, I wasn’t really looking for a Prog Rock playlist of the genre that involves bands with multiple last names in the band name (for that matter, I really didn’t even want to listen to Yes beyond that one album).  There was no clear winner for what I wanted, but at least with iTunes Genius, there wasn’t anything that I hated, either.  I was a little surprised by the underperformance of Pandora since they put all their emphasis on their Music Genome Project which is supposed to come as close to reading my mind as any of these generators can realistically get.

Next up, we’ll see how well the players handle post-rock.

WASPREMIX Release date set for 11-11-11

The new remix EP from jazzsequence is done and ready for release.  The EP contains remixes by @Slighter and Plague artist @theRaygunGirls and was mastered at The Cell Studio in West Los Angeles.  This album will be the first-ever release that will be available to purchase on iTunes and Amazon (as well as Spotify and Zune).  We’ve been working hard on this release for the last several months and can say that we are truly proud of the result.

More updates will be forthcoming — we’re working on a promo video and music video in preparation for the release — but in the meantime you can preview some of the tracks here.

Magda — 32016 | Sara — 32109 | RJ — 30112 | RL — 32027 | Mari — 32018 (Murderers Raygunned Remix) by jazzs3quence

I want you to help me identify a murderer (Discoveries Remix) by jazzs3quence

Opening the door to hell (Tortured II Remix) by jazzs3quence

Google Music: The revolution you’ve been waiting for is (still) not here yet

A month or so back, Google announced its new plan to take over the world: Google Music.  No one was really sure what it did, but it was made by Google and it had something to do with music, so it had to be good right?  Oh, and there was something in there about syncing your Android devices…whatever that means.

Just like when Google said “hey, we’re going to give a whole bunch of people some of our brand-spanking-new ChromeOS tablets that haven’t actually been built yet,” or when they said “hey, we’ve got this new technology called Wave…we’re not really sure what it does, but we want you to test it for us,” I put my email address in the box to sign up for the beta.  Last week, I got my invite.

Here’s what Google Music (presumably) does:

You upload your music to the server (up to 20,000 files for free).  Once there, you can access, stream, and play it from pretty much anywhere.  The application is web-based, so it’s not platform specific (except for the Music Manager tool which runs on your desktop computer and handles the uploading part).  The interface is sparse bordering on unfinished.  The features are limited.  It’s sort of like a simplified iTunes if iTunes was what it was circa version 1 or so.  To be honest, I’ve barely used it, and this is why.

The first problem I had was that I couldn’t sign into the Music Manager application.  It said it didn’t like my password and locked me out.  I decided that this was most likely because my Google Apps password for my email address was different than the password I used for the same email address that I used for my Google identity everywhere else.  However, knowing this didn’t fix the problem.  Eventually, I found a bit of a hack/workaround by using my YouTube screenname (jazzs3quence) and the same password I use for my regular Google identity (which is also used by YouTube). This worked and it turned my YouTube screen name into a Gmail address ([email protected]) — an interesting trick.  A couple days after I figured this out, I got a response to my reported issue to Google saying that it was because my Google Apps account hadn’t migrated over to the new version yet.  I more or less ignored this piece of useless information since I had already managed to get it working.

The second problem may only be a problem for me, which is the 20,000 file upload limit.  Presumably when this thing launches, you’ll be able to upload more for a fee.  I have between 30-40,000 music files, so 20k doesn’t really cut it.  The Music Manager program far from lives up to its name, not really providing a place to manage your music — it does what pretty much every other program of its ilk does, which is let you specify where your music files are stored (or import via your iTunes playlist).  However, if I’m limited to 20k, I’d like to be able to pick what gets uploaded and what doesn’t — the Music Manager doesn’t really offer a good way of doing this other than drilling down your directory tree and individually adding each folder.  Since I let iTunes handle my files, that means I have a separate folder for every artist (as well as artists iTunes doesn’t have a clue about and dumps in Unknown Artist).  Doing that for the equivalent of 20,000 files would be a glorious waste of time.  Once uploaded, you can delete songs, albums, and presumably entire artists from the Google Music interface, but I’m unconvinced that doing so would have any influence over whether that artist got uploaded again after it scanned your collection again and realized you had music by them.   Say I don’t plan on listening to Dizzy Gillespie on the Android device that I don’t actually own, if I delete Dizzy from Google Music, how do I know that Dizzy won’t get uploaded again before, say, Trent Reznor since it exists alphabetically sooner?  The only real way to be sure would be to exclude the Dizzy Gillespie folder, which, as I’ve pointed out, isn’t very manageable with a huge number of artists.

The biggest issue for me, though, came as I was trying to do work.  The Music Manager was chugging along in the background, up to 10,000-something of 30,000-something files, I was listening to iTunes (not Google Music) and trying to code.  I say trying because even though the Notepad++ application I use for coding is tiny, it was straining to do anything.  Alt+TABbing forced me to wait several minutes, and I was increasingly getting the Windows 7 gray screen of death on various windows.  When I finally manged to pull up Task Manager, I found the culprit: Music Manager was sucking up over 90% of my CPU resources.  This is essentially like the midget flame-eater telling the ring leader to step aside, he can take the show from here — screw the clowns.  Once I killed that process, my computer happily went along doing its normal business as if nothing had happened.  It even seemed to flip through windows perkily, like I’d finally been able to find that irritating itch that had been bugging it.  Granted uploading 10,000+ files is fairly excessive, and granted that uploading files at all can be fairly resource-intensive, why a program designed to run in the background can be allowed to use that much of my system resources is astounding.  I started wondering if maybe I had downloaded a virus — instead, the only virus I downloaded was Google Music.

The only positive thing I can say about Google Music is that, after picking your favorite genres from a ridiculously-simplified list of possibilities (for a musicophile like me, anyway) is that Google Music will come pre-loaded with some selections from those selected genres.  However, for the reasons mentioned above (namely having more than 20k files to start with), this really isn’t that helpful, especially considering the inclusion of artists like Cab Calloway (in the Jazz category) and C-40 (in the Hip Hop & Rap category) whom I have little-to-no interest in whatsoever.  (Also included in Rap was Kriss Kross which could be considered a keeper if only for novelty value.)  Meanwhile, checking on my Music Manager informed me that it had made its way to my collection of downloaded audiobooks, which I have absolutely zero interest in actually having on the site when every file counts.

Considering I don’t have an Android device, Google Music has nothing to offer me.  Even if I did, the platform is unappealing and without any features that I would consider essential.  Moreover, there’s nothing that Google Music is doing that couldn’t be done for at least five years or so with a little open source web app I discovered called Ampache, which you could use — with some configuring — to turn your desktop computer into a web server and stream your entire music collection to any device (assuming it could handle Flash, Shoutcast streams, or playlist files).  And since the debut of Ampache (which I discovered sometime around 2005 and it had been in development for several years before that), other things have cropped up that allow you to stream your music (or other files) to various devices like Wiisic, Orb, and dot.tunes, which take care of the server side of things to make it even easier to set up.

So, sorry Google, maybe you’re winning someone over, but I’m unimpressed.  Now get your stupid Music Manager the hell off my system and stop sucking up my processor power.  Thanks.

Genius

I’ve flipped back to iTunes as my default audio player.  I was avoiding it for a long, long time for a lot of reasons but when WinAmp randomly stopped playing OGG files (which I have a lot of), and I couldn’t fix it, I installed the Xiph QuickTime Components plugin and downloaded the latest version of iTunes.  And I have to say, having a functional playlist generator is nice.  Here’s why I was against iTunes in the first place and why I came back:

1. iTunes is a resource hog

It’s no secret that iTunes is a huge application.  When the download size is over 70MB compared against the comparatively miniscule WinAmp (currently sitting at 10.7MB, which is twice as large as earlier versions), you know you’re in for more than just something to play music on.  Additionally, the minimum system requirements for iTunes is about double the minimums of WinAmp almost across the board, including 1GB of RAM if you want to play HD video (I don’t, but that’s besides the point).  As a designer, my RAM is a precious commodity, and the last thing I want is my music player getting in the way of the resources required by my graphics application.  That said, I upgraded from 2 – 4GB of RAM recently, and upgraded my operating system from 32-bit to 64-bit Windows 7 at the same time.  The native 64-bit iTunes has yet to cause any problems with resources while I’m designing (although it gets a bit slow internally when it’s downloading art or updating Genius – but that’s mostly to be expected).

2. iTunes does weird things to your music collection

I’ve had my own directory hierarchy for years.  Music Folder/Genre/Artist/Album.  However, there’s several inherent problems with this, not the least of which being when you have over 30,000 music files, organization is a bitch.  And then there’s the genres themselves, which I kept deliberately general (Alternative, Jazz,  Indie, Punk, Rock, Soundtrack, Rap, Electronic, etc…) – does Nine Inch Nails go in Goth or Industrial?  Does Guitar Wolf go in Punk or Japan?  Is Lady Sovereign Rap or Electronic?  I may not like iTunes messing with my folders, but then, if I can’t find the artist I’m looking for because I can’t remember if I put them in Indie or Alternative, having the artists filed alphabetically starts looking pretty appealing.  And what is my own, personalized directory structure really getting me, anyway, other than headaches?

What’s more, I’ve recently started using the Grouping tag to handle sub-genres – so the Genre field in my tags are the more general genre, and Grouping is for the forks and sub-categories like Dream Pop or Indie Electronic or IDM or Alternative Folk or Death Rock or Shoegazer, and this seems to be working pretty well.  The other thing that’s cool about using the Grouping field is when you have a variety of interpretations of a sub-genre…Alt Country is a great example of this — is it Alternative? Country? Indie?  I use it for Rockabilly, where I stash my newfangled indie Rockabilly Revival and Psychobilly artists alongside the originals like Wanda Jackson, The Collins Kids, and Elvis.

3. iTunes doesn’t automatically update your library

Probably my biggest complaint ever with iTunes has always been if you’re going to take over my entire music collection, why the fuck do I need to manually add new music?  This has been fixed (in fact, it was fixed in iTunes 9).  Now there’s an Automatically add to iTunes folder in your music library folder, which is all the more reason to just let iTunes handle your directory structure for you.  Adding new music to that folder, it gets gobbled up by iTunes and automatically added to your collection.  Which is exactly how it should be.  No more dropping down in File –> Add folder to Library bullshit.

4. Apple is a huge corporation that just wants your money

Yes, but, isn’t everyone these days?  WinAmp may be an independent contractor, but it’s still sporting the Aol logos everywhere, and it’s not exactly the scrappy underdog it was, you know, 15 years ago.  And anyway: so what?  I hate to break it to you anti-Apple-everything geeks, but Apple actually makes some good products.  They may be overpriced ripoffs of other stuff that already exists, but they’re really good overpriced ripoffs of other stuff that already exists.

And here’s why sticking with iTunes is actually probably a good thing:

1. Genius fucking works

Seriously, WinAmp’s Gracenote-powered playlist generator was awesome…for the five minutes that it worked.  Then it sucked.  Sure there’s alternatives, but isn’t it nice to have something built-in that just works?

2. Automatic fucking updates

What’s the worst thing about software updates?  I’ll tell you: it’s having to go to the fucking website and download/install a new version of the software you already have installed.  Really?  It’s 2010 and we still need to install our own updated software?  Most Linux distributions do this for you, you just need to say “uh…okay…” when an update is available.  Java does this, too, along with a bunch of other, more intelligent pieces of software, like FileZilla and uTorrent.  Apple, too, has been doing this for years for their Windows users (and automatically bundled in the Apple Updates for Mac users), and I think it’s awesome.  Why more software developers don’t build this in to their applications is baffling.  Get over it.

3. Smart playlists

Smart playlists are effing brilliant.  It’s like someone crawled into my head and extracted precisely what I’ve been wanting to do for years.  I want to listen to this type of music but not this stuff over here, and if you could add this artist, that would make it even better…Sometimes I don’t want a Genius playlist, but I don’t want to go through and manually build a list to listen to…with smart playlists you can tailor them to just about any freaking thing you can imagine, and here’s where things like Grouping and all sorts of other tags come in handy – Indie Rock from the 90s? Check.  Alternative rated 4 stars or above? Check.  All the stuff I haven’t listened to recently?  Sure.  Or, my favorite, everything with “snow”, “holiday”, “santa”, “winter”, or “christmas” (excluding audiobooks titled SnowCrash, thank you very much)?  Instant holiday playlist.

Like it or not, iTunes is solid.  Big, but solid.  Stupid icon, maybe.  Why fight it?  What’s the point in using some super awesome, uber-customizable little app (Foobar comes to mind) that almost does everything you want?  Now, that Ping thing…that’s another matter entirely…