iTunes 7: second impressions

December 16, 2007
  • On my MacBook Pro, a little over a third of my 120GB hard drive is taken up MP3s. All encoded at 192kbps (MP3 not AAC for better compatibility). It’s a relatively limited selection of my collection of music, but enough to be going on with.
  • I’d be interested to know how people with larger music libraries use iTunes (er, that’s an invite dear reader to post in the comments…) I don’t like to scroll – something that Jakob Nielsen points out is common to the vast majority of web users. I dimly recall that in early useage of iTunes I had a long list of albums in the Source pane (this very second I’ve just noticed that the sidebar is no longer called Source, in fact it’s not called anything at all) and I found myself more frequently playing music from the visible section than the stuff hidden further down. So my iTunes setup is very much oriented towards ease of use. I don’t want to click folders open and closed in the sidebar and then have to click through to the album – I want to be able to see my top level choices as fully as possible

itunes 7

  • right away in front of me, but I also want to see album art properly. I know, I want my cake and eat it. (This is the reason I don’t use the Quicksilver iTunes interface – too much scrolling – all well and good if you know exactly what you want to play, but who does very often – my experience is that more than half the time I just fancy listening to some music, but don’t know what.) Here’s what I’d like to see:
    • Either an interface that reflected the current Finder column view so that you made your choice of Genre (or chosen alternative) then followed through to Artist > Album. I’ve sketched this out before, but with iTunes 7, my updated, preferred option would be:
    • The aforementioned column view or retain the current multi-column browser interface, but when the album (or playlist or whatever) has been chosen and is being played, coverflow appears to display all the cover against the lovely, rather dramatic – and slightly chilly – black background, plus to the side the details of the album including performers, production, etc. gleaned from the tab of the MP3 file or preferably from a separate, but linked file.
    • Then again, I’ve just spotted that this is possible, which is quite nice (thought note still the acres of wasted space):
  • Another iTunes view
    • Unfortunately, as soon I steer away from it or quit and restart iTunes the folder size reverts to the original, tiny version. Relevant tags: ‘irritating’, ‘frustrating’.
  • Whatever, coverflow really doesn’t currently meet my requirements, at least as far as I can see – when choosing coverflow, I’m forced into a consecutive list view in the lower pane, there’s no chance to access the genre/artist/album view simultaneously. Shame.
    • What’s also weird is that if I choose to play one album in the new ‘grouped with artwork’ view, it continues to play the next album in the list after the chosen one has finished. Not nice at all. It should stop at the end of the chosen album. This seems not properly thought out, but on the evidence of previous iTunes development, it may be a long time before it’s addressed.
  • Interestly Daring Fireball has just written this in a post about the shuffle: “My cheap little Shuffle is far and away my favorite iPod. It ends up that the shuffle mode’s randomizer does a better job picking music I want to hear than I do. When I pick music manually, I tend to keep picking the same music I just listened to yesterday, and I bore myself.” I don’t have this exact problem, but I’d like a more intelligent way of suggesting albums than the random shuffle approach.
  • The iTunes Store – like the screenshots of the movie store (apparently US-only until ’07) is a lively, colourful place – shame something similar can’t be done for iTunes – why can’t we have something like Last.FM’s Dashboard for iTunes with thumbnails of recently played album, long unplayed, random (or weighted) suggestion based upon what you’ve been listening to recently), etc – all from the tracking info iTunes already logs and customisable for the user.
  • Another improvement still lacking is that if you navigate away from the playing track to check something about another album, then switch to a different app and pause the music, you lose the current track entirely. This is another one of those basic things that seems daft to see in an app at version 7.
  • Still no interface for viewing lyrics (or whatever other data you’ve added) of the currently playing song without going into Get Information for the particular track and choosing the appropriate tab. Strange that this was added (in version 5?), but not fully exploited – could be a great feature, but currently seems like a forgotten impulse. Same goes for the ability to add multiple Artwork to each track.
  • iTunes does still seem to be more of a resource hog, still getting spinning beachballs from time to time and coverflow artwork sometimes takes a moment to load.
  • I’ve had to restart the app a few times to rid the interface of ugly blurring on the column titles, as illustrated below:

Blurred titles in iTunes 7

  • And finally, now that iTunes is a storefront for movies, TV, audiobooks etc, why’s it still being called iTunes? It’s similarly position to the UK’s now weirdly named ‘Carphone Warehouse‘.
  • All in all, I’m still underwhelmed. The problem with iTunes is that, yes, it’s fairly configurable, but I still have infinitely less choice in terms of interface than I do if I were buying audio playback hardware where a wide range of manufacturers and designers – from Bang and Olufsen to Amstrad (…) to NAD, etc – are all working towards the best marriage of sound quality and ergonomic design. Also the best (well you know what I mean) efforts of the creative visual teams behind the music are not being interfered with by the playback device – with a CD, I can still see all the details as intended (by the record company at least…) I wish I had the brains to be a programmer.

See also: Dan Hill’s post on iTunes 7 (favourite quote: “chances are that your album’s artwork won’t be in iTunes. (You can add it yourself, which is good, but not even I bother to do that.)” Er, no, neither do I, of course I don’t, who’d be that sad? Not me, no, no, no…

[Originally published on A Personal Miscellany]


Me and my iPod

December 15, 2007

iPod with Griffin AirClick hat

Following on from my iTunes post, I thought I’d note for posterity my iPod useage, in other words how I’ve adapted the out of the box setup. As you can see, mine’s a fourth gen. Photo iPod, white, 60GB:

Engraved on the back is ‘This iPod belongs to ….’ – makes it near impossible to resell, but makes it mine and if it’s ever stolen, I’ll gain a little comfort from the difficulty this causes. If it’s ever lost, my name’s relatively unusual and I can be traced.

    iPod screen with notes menuI’ve reduced the number of menu options to three – Genre / Notes / Settings. As with my iTunes setup, I use genres as a first step in deciding what to listen to – to me this makes much more sense that endlessly scrolling through album, artist or song titles. I’m not a fan at all of random selection. Notes – I’m a Quicksilver user and I’m always appending stuff to .txt files (to do list, what to listen to ideas, miscellaneous, ideas, shopping, books to read, stuff to buy, etc, etc). I upload these to my iPod on a regular basis. I no longer use my Sony Clie (can’t even find the damn thing!), though I still wistfully wait for a phone decent enough to take its place.

      Picture of remote

      Griffin AirClick. How does anybody ever put up with only using the controls on the front of the iPod? I didn’t get an Apple wired remote with my iPod, but my friend Dan was kind enough to donote his to me. I used that until recently when the connection became faulty. I considered buying a new Apple remote, but I never used the radio and baulked at paying £35. I started to look around at other options and stumbled upon a mention of the Griffin and snagged a new one via Amazon resellers for about £12. It consists of a unit that plugs into the top of the iPod (bottom for 5th gen), into which the headphones then plug. The remote is wireless so no more fumbling with wires, I just put the iPod in a pocket and don’t have to bother with it again until the CD ends. The remote has play/pause, back/forward and volume up/down. I’m also turning the music up or down because of the (welcome) changes in volume. And the unit makes a lovely little hat for the iPod. Which is nice. Suggested improvement to the remote would consist of a different transport for the buttons which are too wobbly, so that it’s necessary to remember to press firmly to ensure the button operates. I don’t always remember this and am sometimes annoyed at having to press more than once. A real ‘click’ would be nice.

        Shure headphone

        Shure EC3 headphones. Bought from someone Stateside for much cheaper than the English price, thankfully wasn’t nabbed for excise. Never even removed the iPod ones from their packet. Spent months trying to sort out the best way of wearing the Shures (the instructions said behind your neck and down your back – this didn’t work, was always pulling out). Then with a month to go before the two year warranty expired, one side stopped playing. The instructions on the new ones suggested another way of wearing them with the cord over the ear as before, but then snaking under the chin. Hey presto – perfect comfort. Which clearly shows how daft I am, that I didn’t think of this before. Sound is very good – much better than my previous Sony Fontopias. Could do with a bit more bass, but the sound is generally very well defined and the insulation from the outside world is more than adequate.

        [Originally posted on A Personal Miscellany]


Headphones

December 12, 2007

Sony headphones

When I bought my iPod a couple of years back, I didn’t even open the packet with the Apple headphones, but continued to use the Sony inner ear headphones I’d previously been using with my Discman. I thought they were pretty good.

Shure E3C headphones

Then I invested a fair amount of money in some better headphones, Shure E3Cs. They were a real pain at first – the wires are supposed to be snaked round the back of the head and over the ears, but the lead is too heavy for this and kept tugging the phones out of my ears. Fit is everything with this type of headphone. I eventually found that hanging the lead over my shoulder and inserting them in the more traditional way did the job. I was pretty much insulated from external sounds. A week or so ago, I noticed the volume on the left headphone was something between 25 and 50% of the other one. I did some web research and they’re still in their two year warranty. I’ve just sent them off for replacement. I have my fingers crossed that there’s no problem and that I’ll receive a brand new pair within a week or so. In the meantime, I went back to my old pair of Sony Fontopia, but found the sound awfully thin and lightweight. Which prompted me to finally break out the iPod ‘phones. I wore them today while travelling to and from Internet World, a webby trade fair at Earls Court 2. UGH!! the headphones I mean – the fair was fairly interesting… I won’t bang on about the sound quality as such complaints are pretty much a given – suffice to say ‘wet sponge/towel wrapped round head’, etc.

iPod headphones

It’s made me really, really appreciate the E3Cs – there may be better on the market now in their price range, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that spending the money on a decent pair of headphones is a worthwhile investment, particularly if you value things like sense of space (how the music is heard in what’s apparently called a/the? soundstage), bass, clarity, drama and so on. I’m no audiophile – I’m currently listening to Bullwackie’s All Stars’ Nature’s Dub through my Powerbook speakers (a sin I know, I know) – but I’m spoilt and will be pacing up and down, grimacing and gritting my teeth impatiently until I (hopefully) receive my replacement ‘bins’.

Until I can find the time to fix the **()&)!@!@ commenting, please email any responses to this or future posts to me: enquiries + the a with a circle round it + eleventhvolume + full stop + com. Sorry for the inconvenience and thanks.

[Originally published on A Personal Miscellany]


Last.FM: a couple of small criticisms

December 10, 2007

Image of Last.FM logo

I wake up after falling asleep on the sofa sometime around 8pm and it’s now 2 o’clock in the morning. Davis is curled up on the armchair opposite and there’s just the ticking of the clock in the near darkness to keep me company. I’m now not sleepy enough to head upstairs and don’t want to disturb Is by being unable to sleep, so in hopes of tiring myself out, I tippy-tap the following…

Much as I love to check on my Last.FM page (sad, but true), there are a couple of key pieces of data that it appears to fail to capture which has the effect of failing to accurately reflect listening habits. With its focus upon artists and tracks it doesn’t reflect my recent habit of listening to compilations such as the Fonotone Records collection of bluegrass/old-time music or my own iTunes pop mixes. This is because each of these feature a large number of different artists, only a small number of which might appear way down in the lower reaches of my ‘Top Artists – Overall’ list or briefly show in the ‘Weekly Top Artists’. If Last.FM captured album information and published similar charts as it does for Artists and Tracks, it would better reflect what I’m actually listening to and make more accurate recommendations. Similarly, because it fails to register track length, Last.FM promotes my listening to the brief, piano fragments of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives or the blink-and-it’s-gone, thrash-core of Naked City at the cost of the drawn-out minimal techno of Fluxion or the frozen tundra-scapes of Thomas Koner. The amount of time I spend listening to the latter may well exceed the former, but the Last.FM methodology favours brevity and quantity.

Image of Pandora recommendation window

While I’m on the subject, I tried out Pandora, Last.FM’s human-input counterpart (“Each friend told us their favorite artists and songs, explored the music we suggested, gave us feedback, and we in turn made new suggestions. Everybody started joking that we were now their personal DJs.”). This was a recommendation via the inestimable Dan Hill whose excellent New Music Experiences – which is just my cup of tea, though I’ve yet to finish it. However, I’m not impressed by it so far as, in response to my declared taste for Kraftwerk it suggests Throbbing Gristle, Front 242, David Carretta and Paul Van Dyk. These seem painfully US-centric in their (mis-)interpretation. Then I try creating a new station and entering Erik Satie as my first step, after indicating that he’s an artist rather than a song name I’m asked ‘Did you want the artist Erik Sanko?’. When I respond ‘No, search again’, I’m returned to a blank search box. Third time lucky, I try for Rhythm & Sound, I’m suggested Rhythm Masters… er, no thank you. Same goes for Prokofiev and Sergei Prokofiev. I have better luck with King Tubby, though I don’t like Pandora’s assessment that one of the music’s characteristics was “meandering melodic development”. Ultimately though, I don’t find most recommendations very useful and prefer to rely upon a mixture of intuition and personal research or friends’ recommendations.

[Originally published on A Personal Miscellany]


Retroplayer: not just another MP3 player…

December 8, 2007

Retroplayer – via Boing Boing – another excellent player interface. The app’s preferences allow the user to adjust distortion, skip and noise between 0 and 100%, it’s possible to lift the tone arm to move around the mp3 and the control on the top left corner speeds up or slows down the playback. The track title is displayed as the window title. My only wish is that it could be used full-screen as currently the player isn’t much larger than the above image. Essential stuff.

[Originally published on A Personal Miscellany]


Music Interfaces is moving!

February 15, 2007

Dear Reader,

I’ve gone and bought a proper domain and will now cease updating this version of the blog. Please come and visit Music Interfaces at www.musicinterfaces.com where I intend to continue posting about wonderful – and occasionally not so wonderful – music technologies!

See you there, Colin.


Last.fm: excellent concert notification

February 13, 2007

Screenshot of last.fm gig screen

I recently posted about iConcertCal, a free iTunes plug-in that sought to provide notification of concerts based upon the iTunes library. Last night, I was clicking around my Last.fm account and stumbled upon its own concert notification system. Very nice it is too.

It’s very Web 2.0 as all of the concert listings are user-generated. Users can enter concert details and indicate whether they’re attending or on visiting other users’ pages and spotting an already listed gig can join to be displayed as attending. Gigs are displayed in the left sidebar under ‘Events’ of users’ chart pages. Last.fm makes concert recommendations based upon your – and your musical neighbours’ – listening habits. Tick boxes allow users to choose from one or more of the following choices: ‘Events I’m attending’, ‘Friends’ Events’, ‘Recommended Events (based on my profile + location)’ and ‘All Events Near Me’. With all but the last criteria selected, I’m shown an impressive selection of concerts, many of which I wasn’t aware of, but would consider attending (John Cale, Lee Scratch Perry, 4hero, Theatre of Hate, Adrian Sherwood and Manu Dibango to name but a few). There are a few misses – the prospect of seeing The Killers or The Arcade Fire doesn’t interest me at all, but I suspect would a few of my Last.fm registered friends.

I’m also glad to see that since this functionality was first iterated in a very limited fashion, it’s now possible to see past events that you’ve attended and if they’ve been covered in users’ blogs, links are dynamically generated to those reviews.

I’m very happy to note that all of this information is available via RSS feed so I don’t have to keep checking back on the Events page, but can instead see it in my preferred newsreader. Unfortunately, I can’t link to my page for you to look at as you have to be logged in to see it, otherwise the URL defaults to the Last.fm homepage. I do think this is a brilliant addition to Last.fm and really deserves to be promoted much more widely than it currently appears to be. It could really drive traffic to the service. If you don’t already have a Last.fm account – now’s the time!