One thing about Apple's software and hardware offerings, including iTunes and the various flavours of iPod, is that everything is so well designed that it's really easy just to switch them on and go.
In general on a Mac, for most of us, most of the time, the standard tools and settings simply work. But by digging a little deeper into many of these programs, it's possible to get a lot more flexibility and control. iTunes is a very good case in point.
In this guide, we're going to just scrape the surface with a few suggestions for using tools already built into the program, plus a couple of applications and sites that can add to your experience of managing and listening to music on your Mac or iPod.
New Genius button
Before you start, make sure you've got the latest version 8 of iTunes installed on your Mac. Version 8 adds a new feature called Genius, which creates playlists for you based on a single song you've selected.
It's a great feature and works surprisingly well for an automated process. You can, however, be even more selective with your music pick and get iTunes to choose only your favourite songs. Many people use iTunes and iPods for years without ever rating a song.
What's the point of this function, and why on earth might it be useful? There are two very good reasons: to soup up your Smart Playlists and to improve the automatically generated Party Shuffle. Adding your own ratings will enable you to get more from both of these features.
You'll find instructions on how to rate tracks on your iPod and in iTunes, and on how to make a new Smart Playlist, in the two walkthroughs accompanying this article. Of course, if you have a large music library, it's going to take ages to rate every single track.
You could come up with a rough-and-ready Smart Playlist that singles out your most or least played tracks, or those that you usually skip when they start playing, and there are a few shareware programs that promise to automate the process. But any automatic list is going to leave a lot of room for error, so in the long run it makes sense to do this by hand, so to speak.
It's also been really interesting and enjoyable listening through our entire music library – that's just 30GB for us, but for some it's hundreds of gigabytes: good luck!
Rating can be the basis for some very useful Smart Playlists. In the step-by-step section, we've taken you through a very simple but handy one: a zero rated list that can help you prune your library. You've almost certainly got some songs in your library that you skip over every time you hear them starting. Why keep them?
Your hard-drive or iPod space is precious – okay, it's also pretty plentiful, especially if you've got a 160GB iPod classic, but say you have an 8GB iPod touch or a 1GB iPod shuffle: well, then the picture's quite different. You'll want to get the most bang for your buck. So trimming the stuff you really don't listen to is a good idea.
You might make a Smart Playlist that selects only the tracks that you've rated four or five stars, or narrow that selection down even further to include only songs that you've never skipped, or to exclude songs that you haven't listened to in the past two months. Now we're getting focused!
Or if you use your iPod to accompany an exercise program, you might find it useful to come up with a Smart Playlist of songs at a particular Beat Per Minute (BPM) rate – an article in The New York Times suggested 147-160 BPM for running, or 115-118 BPM for walking.
(It's not a good idea, by the way, to run or do other particularly jerky, bumpy exercise with an iPod classic or any of the older hard drive-based iPods, though you're okay with a shuffle, touch, or nano, all of which use solid state flash memory.)
If you subscribe to a lot of podcasts, you could use a Smart Playlist to show all the episodes you've already listened to in one place, from across your various subscriptions. Or, to help with the mammoth task of rating all your music, you could set up a 'Not Yet Rated' Smart Playlist. And so on…
It's worth investing some time and playing around with Smart Playlist criteria, because you're sure to hone your lists with practice – and that'll make them ever more useful.
Party Shuffle is a randomly generated selection of tracks from your music library.
You can influence the selection by specifying the source that iTunes uses, whether that's a Playlist to which you've manually added tracks (by dragging and dropping chosen songs from your music library) or a Smart Playlist that you've set up.
And you can choose to have Party Shuffle play your highest-rated tracks more often than others. So, with a bit of Smart Playlisting and Rating, you can easily improve the overall standard of your Party Shuffle.
Chances are that your music library contains some errors: misspelled artist or album names, inconsistent attribution of genres, missing information. BeaTunes ($24.95) is a very useful janitor for your iTunes library.
The program started life as a BPM detection tool for DJs, but it's evolved into an excellent all-round manager. When you first run it, BeaTunes 'inspects' your library and presents you with a list of issues, ranging from different versions of album titles to different release dates and offers solutions to each problem, so that, with one click, you can change the album name or date of all the effected songs.
BeaTunes can work out some other information for you, including tracks' BPM and 'Color': each song's colour is derived from what BeaTunes' author describes as a 'statistical profile' of the track, and gives you an idea of what the song sounds like.
This is useful, again, in putting together Playlists – the idea is that songs of a similar colour will sound similar, so you might want to put together a playlist of 'red' songs, or else mix it up by contrasting colours. It's an interesting idea, and certainly can present some good mixes of songs.
A full analysis of your library takes some time – our 30GB took most of two days to complete. To tell the truth, though a DJ could probably save a lot of time with BeaTunes's full analysis, for the average user it's probably overkill – but the Inspection tool is just great for cleaning up your library and keeping it in good order. And the Recommendations that BeaTunes offers for each track in your library are a good way to discover new artists and tunes.
Discover new music with Last.fm
The last thing we're going to mention is another good way to discover new music. It's an aspect of the social music site, Last.fm.
If you're new to Last.fm, the idea is that when you visit the site, you can make your own radio station by entering the name of an artist and clicking search. You'll then be able to listen to a stream of music by that artist and others producing similar music, so you'll pick up lots of suggestions for artists you might like to explore, and very often you'll discover people you've never heard of before.
It's like a very intimate radio show, where you get to set the tone and choose the tempo – and to some extent even the playlist, because you can skip over songs you don't like. There's an official Last.fm client and a few other options, too, so you don't have to connect to the site through your browser, but can have a client running in the background while you continue to work in other applications.
When you install the Last.fm software, it starts to upload to your Last.fm account a list of all the music you play in iTunes or on your iPod – which is known as 'scrobbling'. Your scrobbled music listening habits and preferences are then matched to your profile, which enables Last.fm to make recommendations of music that you might enjoy.
Pandora is a similar idea, based on the Music Genome Project, but unfortunately it's not available in the UK because of licensing restrictions. When you scrobble a track, it shows up immediately on your Last.fm page.
The social aspect of the site starts to come into play when you take a look at the music that other people who're listening to the same artist might like. You pretty quickly work your way into a web of recommendations and a rich sea of new music. And then, like other social sites such as Facebook, you can make 'Friends' on the site, and Last.fm will show you how similar your music tastes are on the basis of all the music you've each scrobbled.
The official Last.fm software is pretty universally held to be bloated, but there are alternatives around, many of them hosted on Last.fm's community extras site. Built-in scrobbling is another reason that CoverSutra makes such a great iTunes controller.
We've mentioned just a few ways to work with your music collections – they're a solid basis for digging deeper, but of course there's much more you can do. The iPod has revolutionised the way we listen to music, and perhaps its greatest feature is its simplicity and the intelligence of its design.
It's well worth taking some time to get to know its less obvious features, though, as well as those of its best pal, iTunes.
First published in MacFormat, Issue 201
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