Saturday, September 3, 2011
Reflection: Reviewing a Listening Paradigm
Just under twelve months ago, having just returned from the W.A. Odyssey, I posted a Reflection on The Music Pages concerning Hughesy's New Listening Paradigm. It was a time, in these parts at least, where New Paradigms were a topic of interest as Australian politicians worked through the implications of the August 2010 Federal Election, and it's interesting to return to the topic of New Paradigms now because, despite what's happening on the surface, there are deeper undercurrents in operation, largely out of sight.
As far as Australian politics goes, you'd probably be thinking that the Gillard government is currently going through its death throes, and you may well be right, and that they're having great difficulty getting anything done, which seems to be substantially wide of the mark.
They've actually managed to get a lot of legislation through the Parliament without anyone noticing, largely because everyone seems to have been watching the Abbot/Gillard media circus photo opportunities on the twenty-four hour news cycle.
So, you ask in your relentless quest for knowledge, what does this have to do with either Hughesy's listening habits (we were talking Hughesy's New Listening Paradigm weren't we?) or the world of music in general?
Well, for a start that reference to the twenty-four hour news cycle reminds me that we've undergone a major change in the way we consume/listen to music, and many of us might not exactly be working on a twenty-four hour music cycle, but if we're not it's probably because we have to sleep for a bit (assuming you don't have a speed habit, which means you've got three sleeps before Christmas or are looking to emulate Keith Richards and are looking to get through the decade without a kip).
Now, it might seem, on the surface, that not much has changed.
Certainly, if you're living next to a building site in these parts you'd be thinking that not much has changed as 4TO or HOT-FM blare out across the countryside, and, in that sense, not much has.
Commercial radio continues to be dominated by mass media dreck, but let's forgive the bastards for a minute and suggest that builders need a soundtrack, that they need to be able to hear it over the roar of sundry power tools and selecting a particular radio station and sticking to it cuts down on productivity issues related to constant changing of stations and arguments over whose musical taste is located in his nether regions…
Because they could, should they choose to do so, operate like some of us and have their own personal tailored to their own tastes radio station delivered through their preferred digital platform.
So as far as Hughesy's New Listening Paradigm is concerned, we're looking at the avenues through which we can manage the soundtrack that runs almost continuously from the ridiculously early hour when I get up while I'm in the environs of the office.
These days I tend to get started by catching up on the latest podcasts that iTunes downloads automatically, which usually fills in the time before the morning walk very nicely, and once I've had a chance to listen to as much of the latest news and current events as I can stomach it's time to cut the iTunes loose to provide the soundtrack for the rest of the day.
We're inclined to forget how much hassle was involved with listening to your own music back in the pre-digital era. Back before the five-disk CD changer, there were repeated and regular instances where the listener was required to physically walk over and add or remove recorded media from the player.
These days, of course, you add your material to your player of choice and let 'er rip.
Theoretically, you can go for twenty-four hours in shuffle mode without needing to change a thing, which brings the subject of organizing your music library into play.
Anybody who's visited the Little House of Concrete will be only too aware of the quantity of music on the shelves, and it probably comes as no surprise to learn that much of it has found its way onto the hard drive of the desktop computer, with selected subsets on the iPod and the iPad.
As far back as early 2008 I has around thirty-five thousand tracks on the hard drive of the old machine, and had actually heard them all at least once.
Then came the Great Computer Crash which didn't wipe out the whole library but did take out the associated metadata, which meant that the whole thirty-five thousand tracks (allegedly) hadn't been played.
The experience suggested thirty-five thousand tracks was just a tad excessive, and that the library needed to be substantially reduced, so over the next eighteen months some severe culling chopped it back by around eight thousand tracks.
But those tracks needed to be heard and sorted while the culling proceeded, which was, as you may have gathered, a major undertaking.
So how did we manage it?
The answer lies in the Smart Playlist side of iTunes, and worked on number-oriented playlists that the reader might care to consider if you need to sort out large quantities of digital music.
For a start you need a way to separate your latest acquisitions from all the other stuff in the library through an Unheard list (Smart Playlist Plays is 0) or a Recently Added list (Smart Playlist Date added in the last (say) six months Plays is less than 7, or whatever figure you specify). I like to have both, because Recently Added gives you a way to get to those recent additions after you've heard them once.
From there, I have a number of numerical Smart Playlists (named, predictably, One, Two and so on) (Smart Playlist Plays is whatever number you're looking at).
That's handy when you've been doing and adding the contents of all those CDs that come on the front of magazines like Mojo to the library along with everything you've bought or downloaded.
Downloaded material, in particular, can vary markedly in sound quality and performance and those CDs on the front of magazines can contain a certain amount of material that's surplus to requirements, and unless you're in a position to give that Unheard playlist your undivided attention there's every chance things you don't really need to keep are going to slip by unnoticed.
The numbered filters make it increasingly likely you'll catch the little devils, particularly if you've checked the Controls: Shuffle By Albums option). Not sure about the contents of the CD that came with Mojo? Well, here you go. Something like William S. Burroughs doing a number called Ich Bin Von Kopf Bis Fuss Auf Liebe Eingestellt (Falling In Love Again) might slip past once, but keep the playlists for the lower numbers as low as possible and you'll catch days the little devil eventually.
For that reason, I try to keep the lower-numbered playlists as small as possible.
It also means when you acquire something new you can hear it several times in fairly rapid succession, assuming Unheard, Ones and Twos are kept to an absolute minimum. I've found that you don't necessarily want to be working from Recently Added, since iTunes doesn't always download albums in the appropriate running order.
At the other end of the spectrum, you want some playlists that deliver good stuff you feel like hearing on a consistent basis. After deleting the stuff that doesn't quite meet your exacting standards you're still going to have a lot of material that's short of stellar quality, but judicious use of the Forward button in Shuffle mode will see the wheat separated from the chaff as you go along, and the higher you get in those numbered playlists you tend to find the dross turning up much less frequently.
I have a smart playlist called Top 1500 Most Played (Limit to 1500 items selected by most often played), individual artist best ofs (Artist contains whoever and Plays is greater than whatever you think is a fair thing) and similar genre-themed list (Genre contains whatever and Plays is greater than the number you've chosen in the previous instance). I've found it pays to increase the relevant numbers every so often as you go along as an extra way of filtering out the also-rans.
In between those two extremes, the numbered playlists (Plays is whatever) let you run through recent acquisitions in sequence provided you 're operating in Shuffle by album mode.
Those things take time, however, and in that article eleven months ago I noted that Ones were right on 1500, Twos were 10037 and falling) with Threes on 10079 and rising, which meant I was playing my way through the Twos, and once the counter hits the 10000 mark I was going to the next one up, looking for things on the Recently Added playlist that I needed to review.
Now, at the start of September 2011 on a Sunday morning when I'm about to hit the garden for an hour or so once I finish this, I've got the situation where there's an uncertain quantity of downloaded material (I haven't expanded the ZIP and RAR files yet) and a new Ry Cooder on the horizon, Unheard is sitting on twenty, including a Hatfield and the North EP that'll be the subject of some written activity in the future, while Ones number forty, including a Velvet Underground bootleg that's not likely to be played again, assuming it survives at all).
The Twos playlist that was sitting over the ten thousand mark a year ago now numbers exactly two thousand and will be gradually whittled further, with Threes and Fours hovering around the upper end of the ten thousands and everything above that reduced to a conveniently round figure that ends in a couple of zeroes.
Having worked through the lengthy process that has produced the result I've just finished describing, and with a couple of sources for new music filtering stuff into the bottom tier of the heirarchy, it now means that I might just be able to finish a couple of reviews that have been started at various points over the past six months, and should be able to get through the process of reviewing new acquisitions in a much more timely manner...
All of which means when that Ry Cooder Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down arrives on the hard drive it'll be played a couple of times in fairly rapid succession, and will subsequently work its way through those numbered playlists to the point where my favourite tracks find their way into the Top 1500 Most Played and there's a review here in the Music blog and over on the website as a backup…
We've got a few reviews and similar items in the process of being worked up at the moment, so if there's a sudden flurry of activity hereabouts, the astute reader will know what to attribute it to…
Posted by Hughesy at 7:26 PM