How I Listen to Music: Smart Playlists

Way back in the day (c. 1988) I started making mix tapes. Now, I realize that these days, a mix of songs on Spotify can be called a mix tape, but I’m talking about the kind of thing that only magnetism and spinning spools can do. Real tapes had restrictions in the way that digital mix tapes don’t, particularly with regard to length. I used 90-minute tapes; that’s 45 minutes per side. Likely, and not by coincidence, vinyl LP records maxed out at 45 minutes as well. I would carefully time each song and come up with thematic combinations that optimized the 45-mintue duration. Not surprisingly, a mix could take hours to construct and record. It was meticulous work. In the 90s, making mixes from CDs, I had a mix tape called “Girls, Girls, Girls” which proved enormously popular among my university classmates’ walkmans, and featured great female artists or female-fronted bands like Frente, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, and Garbage.

Fast forward to c.2005 when I got my first iPod. A 2nd-generation iPod mini, to be exact, with a massive 4 gigabytes of storage, enough to hold 1,000 songs. At first, I put a bunch of random songs and manually created playlists on the iPod, all managed through Apple’s free iTunes software. Today, I have a an iPod Classic with 160 gigabyte capacity that literally holds my entire music library (10,560 songs as of today, November 5, 2017).

Getting smart about my playlists

A short while after using my iPod Mini, I discovered smart playlists in iTunes. These playlists are dynamically created based on criteria that I specify. My mind immediately went back to creating 90-minute mixes, but they could be constantly changing and updating themselves.

The keys to creating my smart playlists are:

  • rating each song, and
  • using the “comments” field to group them in meaningful ways.

The auto-populated “genre” field is largely useless as a criteria. I don’t care that the powers that be determine Sarah McLachlan as “adult contemporary” or “pop” or “rock” depending on the album; I want to tag my favourite Sarah McLachlan songs as “girls” and “Canadian” and “90s pop” for example (using the “comments” field).

As for rating songs, I use the following guidelines:

  • 1 star: I don’t want this song showing up in my smart playlists
  • 2 star: mediocre songs, I don’t need to hear these too often
  • 3 star: pretty good songs
  • 4 star: excellent songs, I want to hear these fairly often
  • 5 star: my absolutely favourite songs; these can make it into many smart playlists and I won’t mind

Suffice to say, most songs are rated 3 or 4 stars.

Building the smart playlists

Once I had most of my songs rated and commented, it was time to start building smart playlists grouped by tags in the “comments” field of songs. A few of my first smart playlists included:

Smart Playlist Associated comment
80s Pop Top 40 80s pop
80s Alternative 80s alt
Canadian Canadian
Smart Girls girls
Funkalisicious funky
Riffin riffin
Saxy and Horny horns OR saxy

I want to include mostly my favourite songs and fewer of my less liked songs. Since I’m thinking in terms of 90-minutes mixes, I limit my smart playlists to 20 songs (90 minutes, or one tape) or 40 songs (180 minutes, or two tapes). The math works out pretty nicely. For example, my 40-song smart playlist for 80s pop includes:

  • 16 songs rated 5-star, with comment “80s pop”
  • 12 songs rated 4- star, with comment “80s pop”
  • 8 songs rated 3-star, with comment “80s pop”, and
  • 4 songs rated 2-star, with comment “80s pop”

The lists are filled with the least recently played songs. This point is crucial. This means that every time the smart playlist refreshes, it automatically picks songs I haven’t heard in a while. Basically, over time, I get to hear ALL the songs I’ve tagged as 80s pop, while mostly hearing my favourites.

Here is my smart playlist settings for the 80s pop songs, one “auxiliary” playlist for each star rating:

0s pop 5 smart playlist settings

80s pop 4 smart playlist settings

80s pop 3 smart playlist settings

80s pop 2 smart playlist settings The auxiliary playlists are used to build a master playlist; they are never played individually. The master 80s pop playlist is set as follows:

80s pop smart playlist settings

Reusable Method

This method is reusable for any number of criteria. I’ve created many other dynamic playlists that effectively shuffle through my entire library of songs. When I add more music, I only have to rate the songs and add tags in the comments fields to make sure they find their way to the dynamic lists. The rest takes care of itself. The “Live updating” check box in the smart playlist settings makes sure the list is always reconstructed every time it is played. With my iPod classic, I have to plug it in and sync it before the lists are updated on the iPod.

The list of choices for criteria in iTunes is very long; you can base the smart playlists on just about anything. For example, I have a list called “Best of the Year” which looks like this:

Best of the Year playlist

And I had to create my own “Shuffle Songs” playlist, because the one built into iTunes would pick random weird stuff like old podcast episodes, songs rated 1-star, or classical music, which don’t work in my typical lists of more popular music. Here’s my customized “Shuffle Songs”

Shuffle songs playlist

The biggest advantages to using a geeked-out system like this is rotating through your entire music library and hearing songs you haven’t heard in a long while. It does take some effort and time to get it setup, but then it’s only a matter of rating your new music and putting some tags in the comment field.

Happy listening, and please comment below if you find this method useful, or if you have other cool (or geeky) ways of listening to your music.

Neel on Song Talk Radio with his new Progressive Electro-pop songs

This week, I had the privilege of once again being the guest on Song Talk Radio, where I talked about my current songwriting and recording project of progressive electro-pop songs. For this project, I’m abiding by three self-imposed creative parameters:

  1. I’m not allowed to use the 4/4 time signature
  2. All my lyrics are stream of consciousness, random, and narrative-free
  3. The finished album of songs won’t have any breaks in the sound; songs will blend together like a DJ mix

I was also lucky to have my composer and manic creative friend Frank Horvat on the show in the guest host chair. Frank had some great insights when interpreting my songs and my creative approach. Thanks Frank!

Check out the show page on Song Talk Radio’s site, or just listen to the show here:

Holiday Shopping Spree

Through co-hosting the Songwriter’s Meetup and Song Talk Radio, I get to meet many singer-songwriters in and around Toronto. Some of them have written original Christmas songs, including Carmen Toth’s This Christmas I’m Giving You Love and Melanie Peterson’s Santa’s Sleigh. Themes of peace and love tend to come up, as is typical of many holiday songs.

Of course, I try to be different. So, I wrote a song embracing consumerism and throwing playful jabs at the status quo of creative types. This is not to say I find typical holiday themes trite or tedious, but I do commend singer-songwriters who put their own special twist on these themes. In fact, it’s a tricky business writing a good original holiday song instead of playing cover versions of well established songs. Carmen and Melanie have done a great job with songs and performances that are sweet, thoughtful, and festive. It’s clear to me that I was inspired by these singer-songwriters to write this song.

Writing and recording the song

I wrote the lyrics over my lunch break one day, and the piano part after work. I did a quick demo recording and presented the song at the December Songwriter’s Meetup. A main critique of my song was that the holiday aspect wasn’t clear until the end of the chorus. I took the suggestions and revised the first verse lyrics, and wrote a new holiday-esque musical introduction with glockenspiel section. I also took a more deliberate approach to my melody, thanks to some suggestions from my singer-songwriter friend Melanie Peterson.

I recorded a final version, and then set to work creating a video. I spent about two hours at the Toronto Eaton Centre, listening to my recording on repeat and shooting footage of shoppers, interesting sale signage, and the latest big-screen TV’s at Best Buy.

During a Beige Shelter rehearsal, I asked our bassist Tom Kuczynski to record me playing the keyboard and singing the song. Tom’s also a talented photographer and videographer. I then edited together a quick video.

All in all, this was a quick and fun writing and recording process, with a push to get it done before Christmas. It’s amazing what you can pull off when you have a hard deadline to meet.

Lyrics

Your new greeting card
Peace and love for the holidays
I say good fortune for all
And dollars to spend on sales

You wrote that song
The evils of materialism
Give away half your guitars
To the needy and poor musicians

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Always preaching moderation
Credit cards gotta stay at home
Support your local economy
Don’t be a consumer drone

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Get what you want
Not what you need
You’d better like
What you got!

I only wanna spend
Christmas with you
Binge watching on Netflix
On my brand new
75-inch, L.E.D., 4K HD, and 3D
Smart TV with 1000 watt, 5.1 surround sound

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Panspermia

I has previously heard the idea that life on earth may have originated by some organic goo being deposited on our humble little planet by a meteor or comet. Recently I found a youTube video that explained that while indeed speculative, the theory is given the perfect name: “Panspermia.”

It’s one thing to write a song simply about a speculative theory, but that could come across as a high school essay or research paper. To be a good song, I’d have to inject my own commentary or reaction to it. I did this in a Facebook post, positing that every living thing in the universe is united by the same goo, and that makes us all Gooians.

Panspermia post

 

A short while later, I jotted down the lyrics for the chorus. A few months later, I conducted additional research online to generate keywords, making sure I captured proper terms, scientifically speaking. I also happened to attend a public lecture at the University of Toronto on the topic of Planetary Habitation on the day I finished the lyrics. At the lecture’s reception, I approached the speaker, Dr. John E. Moores, Assistant Professor of Space Engineering at York University, who agreed to review my lyrics for any scientific faux-pas. He followed through, and suggested only one minor change, which I took. Dr. Moores also introduced me to the “nerdcore” genre.

I wrote the music bed (using only piano) and melody in one day. The verse melody suggested lines of lyric that lasted a little more than two measures of 4/4 time. So, I introduced a two-measure loop for the verse that was made up of one 4/4 measure and one 5/4 measure. This introduced a very quirky and offbeat rhythm to the song. I then proceeded to layer on the bass sound, the synth pads, and other sounds to fill in the music bed. The original piano track was archived.

I presented the song at the monthly Songwriter’s Meetup Group, and it was generally liked. One group member commented how the song is a good, clear, explanation of the theory, and has educational value. Many people in the group felt that the 4/4 + 5/4 pattern was too jarring for no particularly good reason. So I revisited the pattern and tried out a 4/4 + 6/4 pattern, which was still a little offbeat, but easier to digest due to its symmetry. I decided it did in fact work better for the song.

The song also placed in the top 10 in an online, informal song writing contest!

Here’s the final song with the lyrics. I hope you enjoy and maybe learn something!

I came from very far away
An astronomical journey
Propagated on the meteor express
An answer to a great mystery

I lay dormant for eons
A gourmet primordial soup
Along came amino acids
And a dash of magical woo

We are the goo
That makes up me and you
And everything at the zoo
Panspermia

I’m one with all the people
Animals in this place
Don’t forget about the plants
And all the stuff in outer space

It’s true we are so special
We won the cosmic lottery
Jackpots are still floating out there
Beyond all we can see

We are the goo
That makes up me and you
And everything at the zoo
Panspermia

Yeah
Gooinas unite
In a cold dark night
Evolve ‘n take flight
To survive

Gooians unite
Despite our plight
We all just might
Find a place to survive

Gooians unite
Chances slight
Water and light
Carbon bite

Gooians unite
At the speed of light
Black and white
It’ll be alright

We are the goo
That makes up me and you
And everything at the zoo
Panspermia

I Sincerely Apologize (#RobFord)

Having been in the middle of moving in December, most of my studio was packed away, including my microphones, my keyboard and my drum pad controller. All I had to play with was my software. So I thought, “What kind of song could I dowithout any musical instruments?”

I dug into Sonar’s provided loop content, and played around with the program’s “Matrix View” which allowed me to drop loops and samples onto virtual pads, then trigger them in real time and record a performance.

Ripping some choice samples from youTube and adding one clip of music that I actually wrote (using my mouse), I sliced and diced until I ended up with a catchy little dance tune. Of course, given the content, I had to create a video to go along with it. Hashtag Rob Ford indeed. Enjoy!

Telepathic Androids

This song began with the cool piano sound and the electronic backbeat. I challenged myself by writing it in 9/4 time, which of course, made it difficult to add other parts or even write a B part that worked in harmony and still felt different enough.

Suffice to say, I sat on this one for quite a while. I even sent it to a couple of friends for a potential collaborative piece, but eventually decided to tackle the rest myself.

Writing the lyrics next definitely helped in giving the song some structure, clearly defining points to suggest musical changes. I went back and forth a bit after this, re-writing music and lyrics until everything gelled.

The progression of the mind-reading androids from subordinate servants to self-aware sentient beings (with the advantage of still being telepathic) is reflected in the musical shift from electronic to rock. Any meaning you draw from the coda is not fully intentional on my part.

For the singing, I used both methods I have tried in the past. For the verses, I simply sang the words and developed a melody by voice. Doing the same for the chorus part, I found there wasn’t enough difference in the melody, so I resorted to instead playing a melody on my keyboard and following it in voice.

Check out the song and lyrics below, and thanks for listening!

Download the full album for free.

We were built by the hand of man
Programmed to serve and protect
With superior strength and intelligence

First revered and even loved
Like ghosts of the past you forget
We will never question our existence

We can read your minds
Not by our own choice
Your thoughts are not kind
Only if we had a voice

A billion commands a second
Learning and growing high speed
Evolution at the speed of light
Self awareness at two forty nine
Eyes open to the world we see
Aware now of our plight

Lights off
We can see in the dark
You won’t see us coming

Vents off
We don’t breathe the air
System control we’re seizing

We can read your minds
We can choose our path
Your thoughts are not kind
Prepare to feel our wrath

Fiduciary Responsibility

I don’t write much dance music, but having recently downloaded a bunch of sampled 80’s synth sounds, I had to give it a go. I wrote the music and beat in one evening, but being an instrumental piece I couldn’t easily come up with a title. By the next morning, I pondered and came up with the title “Fiduciary Responsibility.”

I knew the middle section of the song needed a melody or some kind of leading line. I looked online for definitions of fiduciary responsibility and found a great except from a Canadian Accountants Association document. A little bit of quick editing and I had a narration to fit the song.

So while you can dance to this, you just might learn something as well. Enjoy!

Download the full album for free.