The Perfect Cafe Playlist

24 February 2009
Kash Cafe, Surry Hills, Sydney

Kash Kafe, Surry Hills, Sydney

The following plug won’t make any sense to people who don’t frequent the Surry Hills suburb of Sydney, but I’ll go ahead anyway. I’ve become friends with the proprietors of my favourite cafe, Kash Kafe, and it has given me the opportunity to devise a solution for someone with different needs to my own, which has been refreshing.

Let me make a number of assumptions: you play music only (no other audio type and no video). You use an iPod connected to an audio system that has a remote which gives you control over play/pause, fast forward/skip and rewind/skip back. The iPod is of reasonable capacity, i.e. 20Gb or more.

Let’s start with the desired music style. What do you want to play at your cafe? Chillout? Doof-doof? Rawk? Decide on a style. If your music library consists of nothing but that style, you won’t have to think about this first step.

Once you’ve decided on a style, you’ll need to filter that style of music out of your library. Easiest way to do this is by genre. For example, if you want chillout music, your first criteria will be Ambient, Electronic, R&B, etc. This is highly subjective (refer to my previous post on genre) but use whatever works for you. The selection will get more accurate over time.

The next factor is frequency. You don’t want to hear the same song every day, so we include a time-based criterion which excludes songs played within a certain timeframe. If you’ve got a lot of music, make it a month. If less, perhaps 1 week. While playing the playlist, if you notice that songs repeat a little too often, increase this timeframe. I’m assuming that a mixture of music, i.e. randomised, is desired.

You’ll want at least a day’s worth of music, so err on the generous side and specify 2 hours more than your open hours. If you don’t sync your iPod daily, then add one day’s worth for every day you don’t sync. For example, if you take your iPod home for syncing every 3 days, and each day you open for 6 hours, then you need 8 hours per day for 3 days = 24 hours.

Your selection of tracks won’t be perfect initially. Occasionally a raucous number will impinge on your quiet or a slow song will interrupt a perfectly thumping good time, depending on your taste. We need a mechanism to exclude these over time.

On top of it all, perhaps you only want songs that are above a certain rating. This presupposes that you have taken the time to assign ratings to a sufficient percentage of the songs to make it worthwhile, not easily done in a busy cafe! However, using a technique I will outline, you can get a general approximation of rating over time.

The Key

The key to my proposed system is the use of the forward skip functionality on the iPod. If you skip forward, this fact is recorded on the iPod and after syncing, in iTunes. The date and time the track is skipped and an incremental count is stamped on the song. From this information, certain assumptions can be made. The first is that the song is not liked or is not suitable for playing in the cafe. A small margin of error needs to be included to account for incorrect button-pressing or mood swings. If the skip count rises above a certain number, we can assume that you don’t want that song to appear in the cafe again.

Secondly, the lack of Skip Count but high incidence of Play Count (the song has played from start to finish) indicates that you like the song or that it is appropriate because you didn’t skip it.

Over time, songs that have been played through a certain number of times but skipped below a number of times are candidates for rating, which can be done on a number of songs in one action.

The busy cafe operator does not have time to rate songs on the fly nor to make decisions beyond “I don’t want to hear that now”. The skip forward button is all they need to increase accuracy over time.

The System

A set of Smart playlists are employed as it can’t be done in one playlist in iTunes.

Begin by creating a new folder called Cafe (File > New Playlist Folder) to keep these playlists together and organised.

The first playlist is entitled Cafe Music Genres. The purpose of this playlist is to gather together all the songs with the genres you want. The other playlists will use this pool of songs from which to create a day-to-day playlist. Select New Smart Playlist… from the File menu and configure thusly:

Cafe Playlist Source (Click to enlarge)

Cafe Music Genres Playlist (Click to enlarge)

The second playlist is called Cafe Music. This playlist adds the other criteria we need to produce the playlist that you sync to your iPod on your routine. Here I’ve assumed a moderate library (5000 songs) for a one-week repeat cycle and an 8-hour selection, which is assuming that 8 hours is a day’s worth and the iPod is synced daily. I’ve also filtered out any music videos that you might have, because you won’t be watching video. The Music Videos playlist is preconfigured when you install iTunes.

Cafe Music Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Cafe Music Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Additionally, the following playlist will show you all the unrated songs that you “like” (based on number of times fully played and a low number of skips). Select all the songs and select File > Rating > (desired rating) to rate them all at once. They will disappear from the playlist as they have now been rated. You can check this from time to time as songs appear.

To Be Rated Playlist (Click to enlarge)

To Be Rated Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Here is your neat little package of playlists. Click each playlist and drag it into the folder:

Cafe Playlist Folder

Cafe Playlist Folder

Once you’ve set up the system, other than a small amount of tweaking at the start, it should be good to use daily without further interference. I hope this system inspires operators of cafes and similar environments (hairdressers, restaurants, etc.) to provide a better mix of music.

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iTunes Free Song of the Week: Get the DRM-Free Version

21 February 2009
iTunes Plus Free Songs of the Week (Click to enlarge)

iTunes Plus Free Songs of the Week (Click to enlarge)

Despite the move to iTunes Plus for new songs, the free song of the week has been offered in 128kbps DRM format. Songs of the Week are presented as a single-song album. What I have discovered here in Australia, for at least the last month, is that the free song has also been available in a 256kbps DRM-free version. Instead of getting the free song, click the artist name in the “breadcrumb trail”:

iTunes "Breadcrumb Trail" (Click to enlarge)

iTunes "Breadcrumb Trail" (Click to enlarge)

Look for an album with the same artwork as the free album. Ensure that it is an iTunes Plus album:

iTunes Album

iTunes Album

In that album will be the same song but in 256kbps and also free. Get that version instead:

iTunes Plus Free Song

iTunes Plus Free Song

I guess it will take a while to transition away from the old free song arrangement. Perhaps these have been decided on months in advance and so we still see them until they run out.


Managing the iTunes Plus Upgrade Process

3 February 2009

If you haven’t modified any of the tags for the music you previously bought from the iTunes Store, then the tags for the Plus replacements should match. The Plus tracks will have a new Date Added but otherwise will appear the same. The average user will be unaware of the change.

Fiddlers like myself will get into trouble if they simply do an upgrade as the tags won’t match. I always make sure my purchased music has a release date, that the album name and track number is correct (free song-of-the-week titles are usually wrong). I complete the tagging of music videos (usually they have a name and little else). I may replace the album art with one of my superior scans. You get the idea. Here are my recommendations for upgrading, all of which I followed in my own recent upgrade.

Download on a Different Computer or Library

My library is on my desktop machine. I downloaded on my laptop, which I use as a workspace to tag music before I merge it with the main library. The laptop is authorised for my iTunes Store account as is the desktop. The songs to upgrade are tracked by the Store from its own records, not based on the presence of any tracks in the library you are working with, so you can download to a different computer, even if the original songs are not there.

Alternatively, if you don’t have a secondary computer to work with, you can create a new, separate library to download to. Quit iTunes, then relaunch while holding down the Option key (Mac) or Shift key (Windows). This will bring up a dialog where you can choose an existing library or create a new one. Create one on the desktop for ease of finding in a later step. Log into the iTunes Store, click the iTunes Plus link, buy what you want (you can select what you want to upgrade now–you’re not forced to upgrade everything) and download it.

Merging with the Main Library

In this step you’ll add the new files to the existing library for checking against the originals.

If you’re using the double-library approach, quit iTunes and relaunch while holding down Option or Shift. Choose the main library. Once iTunes has launched, create a new static playlist called iTunes Upgrade. Open the iTunes library folder on the desktop. Burrow down to the iTunes Music folder and drag that folder into the new iTunes Upgrade playlist. If you downloaded on another machine, get the files across by any convenient method and drag into the playlist. As soon as one track has finished copying, hold down the Command key (Mac) or Control key (Windows) and click the checkbox next to the name. This will uncheck all the tracks and prevent them from being synced to your iPod or Apple TV before you’ve finished editing them.

Editing the Tags

Now you’ve got two sets of files: the original 128kbps protected files and the new 256kbps Plus files. Sort the playlist by Album and find the first album in the main body of the library. Change the tags of the Plus song to match that of the Protected song if necessary.

Empty the trash. Click the Plus song and delete it. Don’t empty the trash. Right-click the remaining original protected song and select Show in Finder (Mac) or Show in Windows Explorer (Windows). This will open a window with the actual file location of the song. Drag the Plus file out of the trash and put it in the song folder. Throw the protected file in the trash and empty it.

Now you’ve broken the link to the song in iTunes because you’ve deleted the file but not the database record. We do this to preserve the Date Added value, because this cannot be changed unlike other values such as Date Last Played.

Click on the song and Get Info. iTunes will tell you it can’t find it and ask if you want to locate it. You do. Navigate to the Plus version in the original location and click the Open button. Now you’ll see the Get Info dialog for that song. iTunes will also update the record to reflect that the song is now 256kbps but other metadata such as Last Played, Play Count, Rating and of course, Date Added are unchanged.

Special Considerations

This is the main procedure. You may find that the original tracks are no longer available and you may be offered an alternative, or (theoretically) they will be ignored in the upgrade process. For more on this, refer to my earlier post.

Be careful with the Finder/Explorer hack, especially the step where you choose the “lost” file. If you choose the wrong one you’ll change the record in iTunes and you’ll have a duplicate on your hands. Fixing it is messy. You would have to select the two duplicate records and delete them, which will put the file in the trash. Drag it back into iTunes and you’ll recover it to the original album, but you’ll lose all that lovely metadata for both the original song and the one you were trying to map. You’ll have to also drag the song you were trying to map to into iTunes.

Summary

I’ll admit that it’s a bit of work and if you have bought an awful lot of songs it probably isn’t worth it, but for perfectionists like myself who haven’t bought much, I think it’s a good idea from the perspective of maintaining valuable metadata.


Using the iPhone as a GPS in iPhoto ’09

2 February 2009
At the Bus Stop

iPhone GPS Test: A Flickr Photo Set

I’ve posted about this before, but what I failed to mention back then was the GPS data could not be embedded in a non-iPhone photo in iPhoto ’08, so the original photo (which usually looked bad, because it was taken just for the GPS info) would have to sit in the library. It didn’t really help, so I deleted them.

Now, of course, iPhoto ’09 has embraced GPS data and the iPhone has potentially become useful again as a GPS source. To test this, I set out yesterday with two cameras, the iPhone and a Sony DSC-U30, which is a tiny camera about the same volume and weight as the iPhone. The two cameras were a pretty good match–both 2 megapixel with similar fixed focal length, both using the JPEG format.

I took a photo of the same scene from the exact same standing location using both cameras, firstly the iPhone and then the Sony. Unlike my earlier experiment, this time I intended each version to be a “keeper”. I wanted to try to reproduce the same visual look for each. Here are the results.

To tag a non-GPS photo with the GPS location in iPhoto ’09, import the photos from both iPhone and camera and merge the two resultant Events. Find and select both photos, then click the info button on one of them. Click the location field and the New Place… menu item. This will open the map. Optionally, move the iPhone’s pin if you’re not satisfied with its accuracy, then click the Assign to Photo button. Even if you didn’t move the pin, this is necessary. Then close the Get Info dialog. Both photos will now have the same GPS tag. At this point, if you’re just using the iPhone as a GPS source and don’t want to keep the photo, delete the iPhone version.

Summary

This will not be viable if your camera is somewhat large, like an SLR. You have to juggle both cameras. If you use a holster like I do, then it is easy to put the iPhone away quickly to devote your handling to the other camera.

If you have to move around quickly, like shooting sports, then this won’t be usable either.

The best solution is to use a camera that has a built-in GPS or a camera that has a GPS attachment that writes directly to the file. Next best is to use a GPS tracker that records where you are over time and can be used to merge the GPS data with the photos. This is the path I am researching at the moment. The iPhone, however, does provide an experience that is surprisingly less clunky than I expected and will do in a pinch. Read the rest of this entry »