Tag Archives: iTunes

My Trouble With All Music Software

Recently I’ve had a bit of a go at iTunes. I was mad, and I said some mean things, and I meant all of them. Recently, they released iTunes 8, which adds a Grid view that lays out your music in a grid of album art. Which is exactly what Windows Media Player has done for yonks, but that’s a good thing! Everybody should rip off their competitors best features without being ashamed, I say. As long as the side getting copied from doesn’t get cocky about it (I’m looking at you, Apple!).

They also added Genius, which generates a list of songs that go well with a song of your choice. This is a brilliant feature! Well done Apple, I like it. It means I don’t really have to screw around with the rest of the crappy interface to listen to just start listening to a particular kind of thing. Yay?!

Anyways, as I was looking through the grid of albums, I came across Soviet Kitsch by Regina Spektor. I didn’t realise I had this album, and so I looked closer: turned out it only contained one song: “Us”. That’s the trouble, right there. One song does NOT an album make! I do not have a copy of Regina Spektor’s album Soviet Kitsch, I have Regina Spektor’s song Us. Yet no media player I have ever seen makes this crucial distinction.

I think the problem is that engineers and computer scientists love their neat little hierarchies. Artists “contain” albums, albums “contain” tracks, and that’s just the way things are. Isn’t it neat? This leads to those cute little absurdities where if the album name is missing from the track’s tags, it ends up clustered in this neat little “Unknown Album” pseudo-album with all that artist’s other poor orphaned songs. Even worse, in iTunes albums with multiple different artists listed in the tracks’ tags get automatically fragmented into multiple copies of the same album, each with the same album art; there’s a special “Compilation album” setting you have to tick to make them stick back together. Not to mention the Soviet Kitsch fiasco.

This is just absolutely stark-raving bonkers, in my opinion. I can kind of understand the neat little hierarchy when it makes sense; I have bought all four Coldplay studio albums, so clicking through Coldplay –> Rush of Blood to the Head –> The Scientist makes sense (on many levels, it’s a really good song). But I’ve also got an album listed called Death Will Never Conquer. It’s a little ditty they released for free on their website, and it’s stylistically close to Viva La Vida. That’s creating a spurious “album”. It’s no such thing, nor will it ever be. It’s not even an album fragment.

Essentially, our music software is built with 20th century assumptions about music in a 21st century world. Maybe a friend wrote and performed some music, recorded it and sent it to me. It’s not an album, it’s just a few songs here and there, but apparently it’s from her album “Unknown Album”. There’s just that ever-present assumption that songs come bundled in albums. That’s not the world we live in.

The other major issue I have is the assumption that if it comes packaged in a music file, if it has tags, if it came on a CD – it’s music, and should go into the Artist->Album->Track hierarchy. This isn’t true, either. What about say, learn-to-speak language CDs? Podcasts? Sound effects? All my media players say I have an artist called Jasper Carrot, who has an album Jasper Carrot Live, with the track Dangerous Sports. It’s not music, it’s a actually quite funny little comedy routine about Australian car insurance forms. Can I tell any of my music manager programs it isn’t music, that it should be still there and still indexed and still playable, just not treated like music? You bet I can’t.

There’s very little that bothers me more than when things are built on faulty assumptions, and seemingly every piece of music software out there is built on these huge great ones.

I don’t know what the solution is, exactly. But I have the feeling it revolves somewhere roundabouts working out what the real fundamentals here are – like what exactly the primary identity of a track is. Common wisdom (ha!) seems to be that the primary identity is the Artist/Album/Track name triad, but I would say it was the actual sound of the music. I mean, Under the Bridge is the same recording on Greatest Hits as it is on Blood Sugar Sex Magic, for instance. Conventional reckoning of the identity would have those two being separate, which is obviously wrong! I’d say a tougher question would be if it shares an identity with Under the Bridge from Live in Hyde Park, or that hideous All Saints cover.

For the latter, I would definitely say no. I would hope you, dear reader, would too, otherwise I’m not sure we can get along.

I guess my point is that this is tough messy problem currently being solved in a simplistic and ham-handed manner, and that everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves and try and work together to do better. Maybe just baby steps at first – like if you have less than say, 50% of an album, just don’t show it up in a list of albums. If someone searches for that album specifically, show it. Easy. Practically trivial to implement too. Sadly though, I doubt anyone from Apple or Microsoft will ever read this.

Anyways, if you have other suggestions, or know of media players which work in the way I’ve described, leave a comment!

iTunes

So I bought an iPhone, and mostly I’m enjoying the heck out of the thing. It’s a wonderfully designed device, and Apple’s hardware guys need some kinda pay rise and general public adulation. The software guys… well, they’ve done some stuff that’s pretty sweet – finally allowing native apps is a godsend, some of the stuff that’s being done is brilliant; my current favourite is an app that listens to a song being played using the iPhone’s microphone, and then tells you what song it is. Fantastic! Some stuff on there is pretty dire though, like apps that turn your screen white to act as a torch costing £0.60. Good value for money, guys.

There are some things which are considerably more retarded, like the total lack of copy & paste, or that when you’re setting up an email account, the setup wizard (for lack of better terminology) doesn’t have options for things like port numbers or SSL settings, so when the phone attempts to guess these details from what you’ve put in, it can spend a hell of a long time wildly guessing before it decides it can’t do it, allows you to save the settings, and then allow you to fiddle with the advanced settings in another menu. Another odd email-related niggle is that the error message for a mis-configured outgoing email server (SMTP) is to tell you that the email address you’re trying to send an email to is invalid. Thanks for making me have to do some psychic debugging, guys.

Never mind. What I really wanted to talk about was iTunes. I’ve finally had to install it after years of being a Windows Media Playing scumbag, and… really, what’s the fuss been about? It’s a total piece of crap! I mean, seriously, this is version 7? Version 1 must have been a car crash!

First thing that’s getting on my nerves is how the App Store has been jammed into iTunes in what looks to be about the shoddiest hatchet-job I’ve ever seen. What I especially like is if you right-click on an App and select "Get Info" the Info tab includes (albeit greyed-out) fields for such useful infomation as "Album Artist" and "Composer", the Options tab has settings for "Volume Adjustment" and the "Equalizer Preset". I wish I was making this up.

Second: Apple. I have a music folder already. You evidently know this, as you have created an "iTunes" folder inside it. And an "iTunes Music" folder inside that. You seem to have entirely missed the point of the Music folder. Here’s a tip: it’s to keep music in, not iTunes’s settings.

Third: The store. It’s dog slow, and nearly impossible to find what you’re looking for. Browsing for apps is horrific. It’s better for music, it seems, but it’s still horribly slow, and the layout just feels terribly cluttered and hard to use. It also lets me do stupid things like switch to the US store, find something I want, then try to purchase it, only to be told my account’s only good for the UK store. Great, but I was logged in all along, couldn’t you have told me before? Why even let me see the US store? Would there be any horrible DRM-related consequences to trying to create a US account? I really, really have no idea. Painful, miserable experience.

Fourth: How the hell do I drill into my library by artist, or by album?! All I have is the ability to look at a huge list of songs. Oh right, you have to click the little eye symbol by the Eject button in the lower corner. Of course! That’s incredibly obvious. How did I not think of that.

Fifth: When it imported my library, it didn’t actually ask which folders I wanted to import from – it just grabbed everything, including non-music auditory detritus lurking in my personal folders, and now I’m going to have to clean it all out of the library if I want my signal/noise ratio to not utterly suck.

Honestly, I can count on two fingers the iTunes features I actually like, which is shuffle by album, and randomly play songs by the same artist/album together in shuffle.

Are there any redeeming features? I’d really love to know.