Monday, October 29, 2007

The Audience Is Listening

I'm coming up on about four months of iPhone ownership, and think it is worth reviewing its various capabilities (or lack thereof). I'll break the posts up by general topic. I want to talk first about the music player, but I should probably begin with an overview of my listening habits.

The two broad categories of things I listen to are "podcasts" and "everything else". There are daily podcasts such as Mac OS Ken, The Bob & Tom Show, and Mac Tips Daily. Weeklies include Apple Phone Show, MacBreak Weekly, MacCast, Technocracy Radio, and 1st and 10, the Colts podcast. Then there are podcasts for TV shows like Battlestar Galactica. In general, I will listen to all of these before I move on to non-podcast content. Bob & Tom alone is 3 hours of content per day, so it is tough to find time for much else. When I do, I'll listen to new music, which I don't acquire very often, followed by stuff I haven't listened to in a while, and then lastly I'll spend some time applying ratings to my unrated tracks.

The system I have developed to manage all of this is heavily dependent on Smart Playlists and the corresponding metadata they are tracking. I do have some wishlist capabilities that I would like to see added, but for the most part, what I have works well.

I started using Smart Playlists in conjunction with star ratings in an effort to make my CD collection fit within my available disk space. Pretty much all of my CDs have at least one song that I can't stand, so I gave those songs a rating of 1 star, which meant I could delete the song. I created a Smart Playlist that grabbed all 1 star songs, and then it was easy enough to delete them. I could probably automate this, but I like having a second look at things before I blow them away. Driving music is 5 stars, really good songs are 4 stars, ok songs are 3 stars, and then 2 stars are my dumping grounds for things that I don't want to delete, but don't listen to that often. Since 99% of my listening time is spent with my iPod/iPhone, not my computer, the ability to mess with ratings on said device is a must for me. I key some Smart Playlists off of other metadata such as Play Count, or Last Played, but most of my lists have something to do with ratings. For example, I have a "I should really listen to this stuff" list that picks up everything rated higher than 3 stars, and hasn't been played in over 9 months. This is my guilt list; these are what I consider my best songs, but I haven't been listening to them in a really long time. I have a "New Music" list: Date Added is within last 30 days and rating is not 1 or 2 stars. I have "Best of XXXX" lists: Artist is XXXX and rating is greater than 3 stars. There really aren't any manual playlists that I depend on with any regularity.

My Smart Playlist usage expanded when I got into podcasts. There is an interesting quirk about iTunes/iPods regarding podcast playback: when you finish a track, it just stops playing. Bob & Tom is a 4-part podcast, so when I finish one part, I want it to go to the next part. Doesn't happen (or it least it didn't; I haven't actually tested this in a long time). The workaround was to create a playlist, then add the podcast items to it. When playing from the playlist, the player will proceed through the tracks as it should. This is something of a hacky workaround I think, but for my listening habits, I probably would have wound up using playlists anyway. Generally speaking, once I listen to a podcast, there isn't much reason to listen to it again. If I haven't yet deleted the podcast track, then it will still show up in the podcast view. So I created a Smart Playlist for each podcast that pulls in all unplayed episodes of that podcast. After I finish listening to a track, it disappears. And then I have a second Smart Playlist that collects all of my played podcasts into one handy place for easy deletion. Then I have additional Smart Playlists for "Daily Podcasts" that pull in the appropriate episodes, "Weekly Podcasts" for same, and so on. This whole process is essentially automatic. I refresh my podcast list, all new episodes go to their appropriate playlists, and I go on about my day. The only manual part is the deleting - and that's a choice I make on purpose - or if I decide that I want to keep a particular episode after it has been played.

From a music playing process standpoint, there is really only one thing I can think of that would remove any necessity for on-the-fly thinking on my part: ability to assign priorities. For example, I want to finish my daily podcasts before I listen to any weekly podcasts. Today I just select my "Daily Podcast" playlist and go until it loops, then manually hop over to the "Weekly Podcast" list. Sigh. That's so much effort. My DVR, both cable and satellite offer a similar option, solved this: by moving titles up and down a list, you assign priority. If there is ever a conflict of recording schedule, the title listed higher wins. So I would like something along those lines. If there are three podcasts available, play this one first, then that one next, then that one last. If this capability were robust enough, I could go through an entire day hitting nothing but play/pause as necessary, and never having to poke around in different playlists unless I just wanted to.

So that pretty much covers how I go about listening to stuff. The process has evolved over time, and my playlist rules get revisited occasionally, but for the most part, I consider my needs largely met. And that colors my expectation for my portable player. That will be the next post.

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