Towards some better SmartPlaylists in iTunes

Been a social week for me, catching up with friends as I get ready to depart America again. Also been the week in which I bought another / new iPod. So many people seem to have them these days; Apple, iPods and iTunes seem to make for pretty common conversations.

Some time ago, I wrote up my thoughts on how to leverage iTunes. I had wanted to rig it to play music smartly and semi-randomly, to, in essence, serve up a personalized radio station. My musical tastes are pretty eclectic, and our musical collection is a decent size. I wanted a way to weight how often I heard different music, to hear better songs more often but not at the expense of never hearing stuff from the rest of the archives.

It’s worked fantastically. However, my thoughts on how to do it have changed. Time for me to update it.

[UPDATED again: The good folks at 43 Folders have added some recent ideas on playlists -- too good to not mention and comment on.]

Genre and Rating: Your two best friends

I’m going on the assumption that you have iTunes loaded, and have music loaded into iTunes. Your two best friends, in trying this method of mine, are going to be the Genre field, and the rating / stars you assign to each song. The more data you have filled in about each song – artist, album, date fields, genre, actual name of song, etc., the more you can get out of Smart Playlists. But really, with my method, genre and rating are the two key one.

Take a look at your music collection. See how you’re doing on those two fields (and the other fields that show up in the iTunes library). Got gaps? You’re going to want / need to fill them in. Sorry about that. It’s just the truth.

One shortcut I use is to go to the Library, and soft by artist or album. From there, I pick out the one or few from the artist or album that are exceptionally good or bad and rate them accordingly, then give the rest a 3 star rating. It’s fast, it’s simple, and it’s good enough. In time, as I hear things more, I’ll adjust the rest to where they need to be on that 1 to 5 scale, but it’s triage if you’ve already got a decent amount of stuff in your library.

Getting started: Base Station

First, in iTunes, create a new folder. Call it what you will — I think mine is called something wild like “Ignore this.” You’re going to make a small set of Smart Playlists that you really won’t need or even need to see on a regular basis — you’re going to hide them in this new folder.

Go up to file, and select “New Smart Playlist.” You’re going to “Match (all) of the following rules:” and then to select:

My rating is * (one star)

Last Played is not in the last 45 days

and check the live updating box at the bottom.

When you click OK, it’s going to ask for a name. Call it 1Star45.

Go up to file, and select “New Smart Playlist.” You’re going to “Match (all) of the following rules:” and then to select:

My rating is ** (two star)

Last Played is not in the last 30 days

and check the live updating box at the bottom.

When you click OK, it’s going to ask for a name. Call it 2Star30.

Go up to file, and select “New Smart Playlist.” You’re going to “Match (all) of the following rules:” and then to select:

My rating is *** (three star)

Last Played is not in the last 21 days

and check the live updating box at the bottom.

When you click OK, it’s going to ask for a name. Call it 3Star21.

Go up to file, and select “New Smart Playlist.” You’re going to “Match (all) of the following rules:” and then to select:

My rating is **** (four star)

Last Played is not in the last 10 days

and check the live updating box at the bottom.

When you click OK, it’s going to ask for a name. Call it 4Star10.

Go up to file, and select “New Smart Playlist.” You’re going to “Match (all) of the following rules:” and then to select:

My rating is ***** (five star)

Last Played is not in the last 5 days

and check the live updating box at the bottom.

When you click OK, it’s going to ask for a name. Call it 5Star5.

Go up to file, and select “New Smart Playlist.” You’re going to “Match (any) of the following rules:” and then to select:

Playlist is 1star45

Playlist is 2star30

Playlist is 3star21

Playlist is 4star10

Playlist is 5star5

Playlist is Recently Added

When you click OK, it’s going to ask for a name. Call it Base Radio.

I know what you’re going to say — Recently Added? Yes. This is a smart playlist that Apple creates by default, and in it is captured the newest music you’ve added to your library (even the stuff that you haven’t rated yet). My logic in adding it here is, if it’s good enough that you’re adding it to your library, you probably want to hear it some. This will keep it fresh and in the base station for the first two weeks, before to drops to regular rotation play like every other song.

Adjusting Base Radio variables

These six Smart Playlists can all be dragged and dropped into that folder you created. You’re going to go and tinker with them only when you want to change the variables.

Imagine you only have four songs that you rate with 5 stars, but you’re just devoted to these songs and want to hear them all the time. Fine, change 5star5 so that it is not played in the last 1 day, and see if that helps. Too many 1 or 2 star songs still? Push their numbers from 30 and 45 to 45 and 60, and see if that helps.

Ideally, you’ll be able to tweak these numbers so that your radio station can play as much as you want, without running out of music in the que, and without hitting pockets of music you really don’t want to hear (like all 1 star songs).

These variables are going to need to be changed, really, with how many songs you have in your library. These set I’ve used here to illustrate how to do it, probably works best with somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 to 6000 songs. Fewer numbers of songs? Fewer number of days before the song should be played again.

Play with it. You’ll figure it out.

And hopefully you’re seeing that, if you change the rating of a song, it’s going to be heard more or less often. The iPod Shuffles won’t let you change the rating of the song you’re listening to on it, but you can do this while listening to a regular iPod (or working in iTunes). If you use the iPod, that change in rating will get passed back to iTunes the next time you sync the iPod. Very handy tool, if a song is getting too much or not enough play.

Creating your radio station(s)

Now that you have a base radio station, it’s time to make your station.

Go up to file, and select “New Smart Playlist.” You’re going to “Match (all) of the following rules:” and then to select:

Playlist is Base Radio

After that, it’s up to you. There are two ways to approach it, I suppose — what to have, and what not to have. I usually do the “what not to have” method, so I’ll explain that first.

My radio station has entries like:

Genre does not contain Spoken

Genre does not contain Children

Genre does not contain Christmas

Genre does not contain Comedy

Genre does not contain Country

Genre does not contain Easy

Genre does not contain Techno

Genre does not contain (and I leave the last field blank; no genre listed, no play time)

Click OK, and name it something like @Art (and the @ symbol up front actually moves it up to the top of the playlist list, for some reason).

Call it the kitchen sink approach — this radio station will play anything and everything, except those genres listed. It’s going to play an eclectic mix of music that is as eclectic as my music library.

Doing the opposite is a little bit harder. But possible.

Clumping artists

There are some other easy tricks to be done, too.

Create a new Smart Playlist, with “Match (any) of the following rules:” and then select, say, something like this:

Artist contains U2

Artist contains Cure

Artist contains Clash

Artist contains REM

Artist contains R.E.M.

Artist contains Jam

Artist contains Bow Wow Wow

Artist contains Squeeze

Artist contains Echo

When you select OK, call it something like “91X”.

Go up to file, and select “New Smart Playlist.” You’re going to “Match (all) of the following rules:” and then to select:

Playlist is Base Station

Playlist is 91X.

With that, you’ll just get songs from the artists listed in 91X, but in keeping with the intervals of Base Station settings. It’s a good way to theme up the Base Station some, without disregarding the algorithms you’d already created. “One” by U2 would be in 91X playlist, but if it’s played recently, it might not be in Base Station. It has to be in both for this to work.

Of course, this also works if you say something like:

Match (all) of the following rules:

Playlist is Base Station

Genre is Jazz

So, there you have it. Better Smart Playlists. Go forth and update your genres and ratings, and then go conquer the world.

Off-topic but worth mentioning

A couple of off-topic things that will enhance your iTunes experience. Co-joining tracks — neat trick. Hate it when classical music gets cut up when you transfer it over from CD, and wish it played as one long track? How about that copy of The Who “Live at Leeds” that you have, that you want to always hear as the complete concert and not jumbled up segments? Apple included a trick for that.

Insert the CD. Then select all of the tracks (CTRL-A or Apple-A) on the CD, go to Advanced and select “Join CD Tracks.” When you then go to import the CD, it will import as one file, not many.

And, for what it’s worth, I tend to import things in the MP3 format. This is my music we’re talking about here — heaven forbid I someday decide to use something other than my iPod; MP3 is a standard format that just about every player and every application recognizes and knows how to use. Importing as an MP3 file is just one small investment against having to re-import the music later into some other format (and yes, this is a pet peeve of mine).

Also, your music and your ratings. If you use iTunes to back up your music, it will write with it your ratings information. So, it’s kind of a two step process. Well, three.

Got a DVD burner? No? That’s step one. If you’re a music nut and plan to load your music collection into iTunes and your iPod, invest in one. They are cheap these days — a Sony external DVD recorder costs in the neighborhood of $80 these days.

Step two. Go to your music library, and click on Burn Disk. If you have more than a disc full (CD or DVD) of music in your library, iTunes will break it up and write it onto several CD’s / DVD’s. Backing up your whole library like this is one of those “I should do this every six months” kinds of things.

Step 3. You’re going to need to make one more smart playlist. There’s only one variable: “Date added is after” and then drop on the date on which you completed Step 2 (unless you added more music that day, which case use the day prior). I usually call this “Needs to be backed up” and I move it into that “Ignore this” folder. This is just a snapshot of the music you have not backed up at all — if all else fails, back this up from time to time (like after you load and rate all of your holiday music this winter).

Every time you do Step 2, update the date used in Step 3.

Late Additions

43 Folders has added some recent posts about smart playlists for power users. Yes, I realize that they are a very Mac and OS X heavy site, but that’s because, well, Mac’s and OS X rule.

I love their ?Music Only? for your iTunes playlists entry. They are right, in that their answer for “Music only” is indeed ugly — but it looks to work. I’d probably clean it up some but would plan on using it as another filter layer after the star screening and after the Base Radio smart playlist. Base Radio II, maybe.

I very much like the New and Unlistened To option much better than the recently added. I would probably change the numbers to Playcount is less than 6 and Date Added is in the last 14 days, so the song gets a few chances in the first few weeks before either timing out or playing enough to go back to its regular mix.

From Revenge of the Smart Playlist: 5 tricks for packrats & power users, I have to say that Basic Culling idea is a very good idea for catching things that would fall between the cracks. Holiday music would fall into there, I would think, but if I found a song by, say, The Clash, I’d be very very worried.

And Old Podcasts is spot-on — an absolute must. To be honest, I always thought Podcasts needed their own playlist altogether — not rated, and play count is less than 1. After that, the podcast can probably be deleted.

And, to be honest, I’ve never tinkered with skip count as a variable. But seeing it here and seeing their ideas for how to use it, yeah, I can see using it. Not sure how yet — I’ll come up with something. I think that what it needs is Skip Count is Greater than X in the last Y days — really, cumulative skip counts just aren’t that sexy. Skip it a bunch, then you realize that your rating it all off for the song, and you change it. The skips stay logged. Rrrr.

Anyway, 43 Folders — good site. Good ideas on iTunes.

One thought on “Towards some better SmartPlaylists in iTunes”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>