Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I want to bite the hand that feeds me

Slow day and I haven't posted for awhile and so for some god-forsaken reason I thought I'd share how I process music these days on the trusty ol' iPod. Ideally I'd just hit random and everything would come up in a perfectly spaced manner and then this post would be over, but of course it has to be much more complicated than that.

You may say "Why, Pat, why must you be so random? Whatever is wrong with listening to entire discs? I don't even know you anymore, man!". Fair. Easy response is that I don't want to have to figure out what to listen to every forty minutes or so. Slightly deeper response is that I love the spontaneity of radio but hate what actually ends up being radio programming. And to get to the core of the matter I have a fascination with the theory of randomness and the ways that it manifests itself, whether through fate, divination or even quantum mechanics; and even more than that the ways that order might be discerned in the midst of randomness. Not having a particular aptitude for mathematics past intermediate algebra and/or Excel formulas I have to rely on more layman and pragmatic ways to indulge this fascination, and putting together the perfect daily random song generation system is about as close as I can regularly get to that.

I do not believe the theories that Apple has any kind of complicated algorithym that determines what comes up when one hits shuffle on their iPod, mainly because I do not see any reason that a company that has the goal of maximizing a profit margin needs to do anything more complicated than assigning each file a number and then generating a random number to play next. That said, boy do the same numbers seem to come up more often than I'd prefer and conversely many numbers I really want to hear come up seldom if ever. Thus, the need to improve on the standard.

First of all I have a master playlist (creatively enough called "A List"). This currently consists of around 6,000 songs (I think there are closer to 10-12K in our entire iTunes library), and is populated in part with: Any new songs over the past few years I've done this, everything by artists I'm still interested in hearing, all music club selections, and generally everything in my library that I don't think will make me groan when it comes on. Mistakes have been made of both inclusion and omission I am sure. That's just too many songs for me to rank in any kind of rating system, so how we choose what gets played out of that list is based on number of plays.

This is where smart playlists come in. I have nine of them, each populating with 20 songs when I sync. They are:
New Music: Songs that have been added in the past 30 days and have not been played in the past 3 days.
0-9 15 days: Songs that have been played up to nine times, and that have not been played in the past 15 days.
0-9 60 days: Songs that have been played up to nine times, and that have not been played in the past 60 days. This is great for catching those songs that you totally forget about.

The songs with zero to nine plays are somewhere around 55% of the master list as a whole. I was surprised to realize that it was that high.

8-19 15 days: You get the general idea by now.
8-19 60 days

Those are probably the least populated, around 15-20% last time I checked.

19-30 30 days
30+: Songs with more than 30 plays that have not been played for 7 days.
These are the classic gold that you never mind having pop up, so the interval isn't as big.

The final two lists are:
Past Year: Songs that have been added in the past year (I forget the interval here). Helps to make the general tone of the station more current.
Random: Any song from the master list (forget this interval too) that are not on any of the other lists.

So all of those lists are combined under a master list called appropriately enough "Radio Radio". My iPod is checked to have that be the only playlist that syncs (though I do have some particular artists/genres checked in case the mood strikes). Every day after work when I charge the songs that played that day drop off the various lists and are replaced by new entries. When I start listening in the morning I just start up "Radio Radio" on shuffle and boom, a new playlist every day.

Now to be sure there are some iPod quirks that come up. For one thing there definitely seem to be "Artists of the Day" where you'll get five or six songs from the same artist, even weirder it almost seems to progress down the artist list roughly alphabetically, so if one day is heavy on Spoon the next is far more likely to be White Stripes or Wilco rather than say Beck. Also there are still some things that the iPod just seems to love (Southern Rock Opera, I'm looking at you. And even new stuff, after adding the Zappa earlier in the month I've had 6 plays of "Dong Work For Yuda" yet there are songs from 2009 with zero plays. The joys of randomness). But all in all it makes my daily drudgery just a little less so.

But now I've got too many songs getting over 30 plays so am going to have to revise and am wondering if play counts are enough anymore. And that begs the question of you, the blog audience: Suggestions? Ideas? Theories?


  1. Hmm. So you're saying that I should carve an improved iPod out of mahogany? It might just work!

  2. You might find it hard to believe, but this was the edited version. The first one was longer.


  3. Awesome. I must think on this.

    In the meantime, I feel this is as good a time to recommend this as any -- Episode 42: The Moment Before Zero.

  4. So, I am trying some of those things you do right now. Do you give lessons?
    Maybe a seminar at the Red Lion? I understand some, but my no means all, of what was written. Or maybe I understand, but don't realize that my understanding is actually applicable to what was written.
    I think I do everything but the sync.
    I will study and get back to you.

  5. I haven't noticed the alphabetical artist bit. That's kinda crazy. Sebastian Jr's (my ipod has a name, don't tell me yours doesn't) version of random baffled me until Ed told me that random skews towards your play counts. Then I just gave up trying to understand and just hit skip a lot. If a song has been skipped more than 10 times, it's deleted from my ipod playlist, even music club picks. I'm not so sentimental.

  6. Jim, I'll be happy to explain it further to you if you are interested in setting something like that up. I didn't get into all the steps involved. As you have discovered.

    Marcy, I don't get the alphabetical artist if I'm just going straight shuffle -- I just notice it in this setup as a sort of bias over time, not a strict everyday thing.

  7. For the record, I have not noticed any bias in my random other than towards randomness that seems to defy randomness.

  8. Do you have anything on your ipod that isn't on your computer? I not know that isn't particularly easy, but I still manage it somehow. And in that case, how do you prevent syncing from taking it off your ipod. And what if you computer has way more music than your ipod can handle? How does it decide what syncs on to it? I don't want to screw anything up or lose anything. So many questions, so much to learn.

  9. Jim: You can switch it to manually sync, but I don't remember how (I'm in front of a PC now). But that's what I do. Which was good, because my computer crashed and had to be rebuilt, and lost all the music. But it's still on the iPod!

    Pat: I still got nothin' on this thread. But I now believe it's because I manual sync, and therefore only create manual playlists. You are an iPod ninja.

  10. Yeah, I have always manually synced, but in the back of my mind i suspect that I'm missing some super easy way to do things. My tendency is to make things just a little bit harder than they really need to be. It's a quirk, but soooo charming.

  11. Jim "Rube Goldberg" Wilcox!


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