If you’ve read any of my other entries regarding my opinions on the Macintosh, you know that I would like to switch from Windows to OS X, but I haven’t yet saved up the money to do so. In the meantime, I’m still plugging away in Windows XP Professional and fairly content with the “devil I know.” However, there is a program that I’ve begun using a few months ago that gives me a taste of what it is that draws me to the Macintosh. It’s elegant, easy to use, powerful and represents the best in class for this type of software. I’m of course referring to iTunes.
It’s More Than Purchasing Music
If there’s one thing that I’m consistent about, it’s the fact that if I like something, I’ll tell everyone I know (sometimes even those I don’t) about it and iTunes is no exception. Once I became familiar with the software it seemed like everyone I talked to, I had to mention the software to them. Many of my friends scoffed at trying the software because they said that they didn’t want to buy music online. My answer was simple, “Good! Then don’t.”, because that’s not what iTunes is all about.
Yes, it’s what Apple talks about, because they want you to buy music from the iTunes Online Store, but purchasing music online only represents a small percentage of what you can do with the software. So if you don’t like the idea of purchasing music online, then don’t let that stand in the way of trying iTunes.
Prior to listening to music on my computer with iTunes, I used Winamp 2. As a player it had great sound and having never experienced anything all that different with other media players, I was content to stick with Winamp. Well, that is until I tried iTunes.
With Winamp, I had to build playlists before I could listen to music. Granted, I could double click a file and Winamp would play the selected song, but if I wanted to listen to more than one song at a time I had to create a playlist. These playlists could be created by dragging and dropping files only the Playlist Manager, or by selecting directories. Personally I found this to be a pain in the butt. Unless I wanted to spend hours creating playlists, I was limited to how my music library was stored on my hard drive. By selecting “Play Directory” I could select all the music in a given folder, but that was about it. With iTunes, your music library is stored in an easy to browse and sort XML database.
Although some might think of this as a subtle difference, the results are liberating. I can select music by Genre, Artist, Album, or any combination thereof. For example, I might select the genre “Electronic” and all music under this genre (courtesy of the ID3 tag embedded in each file) is available for playback. I select the shuffle button, hit play and I have days of music randomly selected giving me the equivalent to having a personal radio station. Listening to “Electronic” too broad? Then I could select just a handful of artists to pair down the list. In the immortal words of Ron Popeil, “but wait, there’s more!”
If you desperately love playlists, you can still create those, but instead of having to browse your collection with explorer, you simply browse the database and drag and drop onto the playlist of your making. Want to “kick it up a notch?”, then create a “Smart Playlist”. With a “Smart Playlist,” you create criteria and the playlist automatically pulls music matching your criteria. It’s like Google for your media player! For example, you can create a playlist of only music from 1980 – 1989 and call it your “80’s Music”. After listening to it for awhile, you decide that there’s a lot of junk from the 80’s, so you create a new “Smart Playlist” that selects music from 80-89, but also only selects music that you’ve rated “3 stars” or better.
Anyone who has worked with databases will note that this is nothing but a database query. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t feel that technical and anyone can do it. It’s easy and a fantastic was to sift through your huge library of music to choose just the right music to match your mood.
If you’ve been into digital music for anytime, you’ve no doubt stumbled onto streaming music, which is often referred to as “Internet Radio.” Web sites, such as Shoutcast provide listings of Internet Radio stations that you can listen to, but you have to go to sites like these to find them. iTunes has built Internet Radio right into the software. Instead of having to use a web browser, you simply click on the “Radio” icon and a genre list is pulled up, select your preferred genre, such as “Country” and iTunes queries a web server to provide you with the most up-to-date listing of available Internet Radio stations. What could be easier? No longer do I have to bookmark my streams in my browser, iTunes takes care of it all for me. 🙂 The thing I like best about this is that for new users, or those unfamiliar with Internet Radio, this is a super easy way to get introduced to this fantastic medium. Sharing Music iTunes will also allow you to share your music with other users if you so desire. If you choose to share your music, then any other users on your network will be able to browse and listen to the music in your library. Originally iTunes allowed you to share your music across the Internet, but they’ve disabled that aspect of the music sharing. So, in order to listen to other user’s music, you have to be on the same local network. If other people at your office have iTunes, or if you have more than one computer at your house, or are at a local HotSpot, then you can share your music easily. Anyone sharing their music will simply appear in your list of music sources. I’ve used music sharing when I’ve been at a local coffee shop. I was listening to my own music, getting some work done, when I noticed that “Joe” was in my list of sources. There were a couple of other laptop users in the cafe, so I’m not sure who Joe was, but I was able to browse his music library and listen to what was stored on his laptop’s hard drive. I ended up discovering an album by [Coldplay] that I hadn’t heard before and enjoyed browsing Joe’s taste in music. Very, very cool. For those of you that would like to share your music with others on the Internet, there is a way around iTunes limitation. You can install RendezvousProxy on a Mac or PC and map a port locally for a remote iTunes user. Most people use this for listening to the music they have at home on their machine at work. It’s not hard to do and you can learn more about it [here], or here.
Although I have purchased music from the iTunes Online Store, I still tend to purchase CDs instead for my favorite artists. Digital music has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go. If you’re into liner notes for example, that information is not included in digital music. For that reason, I still purchase CDs and have over 600 CDs at last count and slowly, but surely, I’m importing those CDs into a digital format. This import process is typically referred to as “ripping”. To rip a CD, you simply insert it into your computer’s CD-ROM drive and iTunes automatically pulls the track information and artwork from the CDDB online database. Click the important button and the songs on your CD are converted into the digital format of your choice (AAC, MP3, AIFF, or WAV) and added to your music library. There are plenty of other software titles that do the same thing. There’s nothing really new here, except that I love the fact that it’s all integrated, oh and the fact that you can rip into AAC format. 🙂 A Word About File Types MP3 has become the staple of digital music formats. It was the first widely accepted compressed format for music and is still VERY popular. Just about every OS, including Palm OS (see Pocket Tunes) can play an .mp3 and the format shows no signs of going away anytime soon. What made .mp3s so popular was that is compressed digital music into a smaller file, so it was easier to pack more music onto a CD, or your hard drive. However, there were some issues regarding the compression technology, because Thomson wanted to charge for the use of the .mp3 format. They invented it, so they felt they should profit from it. So, in an response to the legal woes surrounding .mp3, another format was created by the Open Source community called Ogg Vorbis.’ve I never played with it and it seems to be a bit of a niche format. Then along came MPEG4 and now we have a new technology that’s actually better than mp3. The file sizes are smaller and the quality is better, so it seems like the natural successor to mp3. The only problem is that corporations are now involved and as a result things are a little bit more complicated. Microsoft has Windows Media Player which encodes and plays .wmm files, among others. Apple has iTunes, which encodes and plays .aac files, among others. Both .aac and .wmm are derived from the same MPEG4 spec, but each took their own path and included their own distinct Digital Rights Management (DRM). Why is this important? Well, because each company has a copyright on their respective format and not all players will play each others version. In other words, if you purchase music from Napster, you won’t be able to play it in iTunes. Likewise, if you purchase music from the iTunes Online Store, you won’t be able to play it in Winamp, etc. Things get a bit easier if you don’t purchase music. If you prefer the AAC format that Apple has developed, then iTunes can encode into that format if you so choose and Winamp and a few other media players can play it. iTunes will also record into .mp3 if you want to keep your library in that specific format, but by default it will encode in .aac. Personally, I like AAC, so I’m planning on importing all of my CDs into that format. Since I can play the music with Winamp, I’m not 100% locked into iTunes, so it’s flexible enough for me. Beside, the file sizes a MUCH smaller and much higher quality. If having the ability to play your music from the widest number of players and operating systems, stick with MP3. iPod and Burning CDs Ok, so you have all this music on your hard drive, what if you’re not sitting at your computer? Well, if you purchase an iPod, you have the perfect companion to your music library. In fact your entire library can actually LIVE on your iPod and you can use iTunes to play it through your computer. However, I don’t have an iPod (yet), so I can’t really wax poetic about the merits of an iPod, so I’ll leave it at that. However, I do have a CD player in my car, so I can talk about that. 😛 Like most people, I don’t have an .mp3 capable stereo system in my car. Instead, I have the standard CD player that came with the vehicle. That’s OK though because iTunes can burn my music onto a CD and I can play it in any standard CD player. 🙂 I simply insert a blank CD-ROM drive (which is capable of burning CDs of course) and I can burn any playlist onto CD. iTunes also lets me know if my playlist goes beyond a single CD and will give me the option of burning onto multiple CDs. Very handy if you’re doing an archive, or taking your tunes on the road. I’ve heard that the error correction isn’t all that great, but I haven’t made a coaster yet using iTunes and it’s become my default CD burning software. Managing Your Music Maybe you have a terra byte of digital music (.mp3, ogg vorbis, real audio, etc.) already, or only a couple of songs. Whatever the case may be, at the heart of the iTunes software beats the pulse of a librarian, ready to manage your music at your discretion. If you enable the option, iTunes can easily manage the folder and renaming of individual files for you, quickly and easily. iTunes uses the ID3 tags found in your digital music to file everything in it’s appropriate place. This is great if all your ID3 tags are consistent, but if you’re a big Kazaa user and you have a lot of files already, you may want to hold off on having iTunes manage your music until you’re sure your files are ready. I had about 15GB of digital music already when I began using iTunes and when I saw that it could manage my music, I had to give that some serious consideration. Before iTunes, I would create the folders manually and then edit the ID3 tags via Winamp until I had an album’s worth of music in pristine condition. Well, at least that was my intent. In reality, I had about 30% of my music collection in pristine condition and the other 70% was hit or miss. By enabling iTunes to manage my music, I knew that things would get messed up in a hurry. Although I had all the right music in the right folder, the ID3 tags would tell a different story. Since that’s what iTunes uses to manage your music, I knew that 70% of my collection would get re-filed and I would have to fix it. I was feeling caviler that day, so I said “What the hell.” and enabled the option. Just like I suspected, the bulk of my collection was scattered to the winds. My folder for the artist BT was split from one folder into about 20, since there were ID3 tags with BT, B_T, Brian Transeau and every other imaginable combination. So my music collection was hosed right? Wrong. 🙂 The Dream Library Although I’m painting a somewhat scary picture, iTunes made it so easy to clean up and re-organize my music. The interface allows me to selects groups of music and edit them globally, or edit each file one by one. For example, when I saw that all my BT music had a ton of Genre listings ranging from Pop to Electronic to Trance, I simply selected all of the music listing BT as the Artist and then in one step, changed them all the Electronic. So although my library was in disarray, I was easily able to re-organize it rather quickly. Now maybe your tags are much more consistent. If the bulk of your collection consists of music ripped directly from CDs you own, then this process would be much easier for you. However, if you’ve been a big fan of Kazaa, or the old *cough* Napster, then the process may take a little bit longer to clean up, as it was in my case. Also, you don’t HAVE to let iTunes manage your music. You can still do that by hand if you like and iTunes will just rock along. So take a look at what you have in your current library and then make your decision. No Assembly Required For me, I like the fact that I can use one piece of software to manage anything regarding my music, instead of 3. Before iTunes I would rip using MusicMatch or CDex and then I would clean up the tags in Winamp, or more recently with Tag&Rename and then I’d listen to the music in Winamp. Granted, I could have just used MusicMatch for the whole process, but I didn’t like the player all that much. I chose those three programs because each one did one particular aspect well. MusicMatch ripped well, Tag&Rename cleaned up ID3 tags well and Winamp was a good player. Throw Kazaa in the mix and it gets more labor intensive. With iTunes, I just use one program for handing all those tasks. Let me walk you through an example. Let’s say you have a file of an obscure 80’s group that broke up almost before they released their one album. You downloaded the .mp3 using Kazaa because you can’t find any other method of purchasing the song. All you have to do is drag and drop the file into iTunes and it easily creates the folders and adds the song to your library. But wait, the file doesn’t have the right name of the artist. Instead of “Ebn-Ozn“, it’s listed as “Eb Oz”. You right click on the file, change the name and while you’re at it, you add the album artwork, enter the correct genre, year, etc. and presto the file is renamed and the folders changed automatically. It’s that simple. And Yes, You Can Buy Music Like I said earlier, you don’t HAVE to purchase music from the iTunes Online Store, but more than likely you eventually will. Once you fall in love with how easy it is to import, burn, manage and of course listen to music with iTunes, you’re sure to purchase a song every now and again. 😀 Using the wonderful interface that you’ve grown accustomed to in browsing and listening to your own music, you simply click on the “Music Store” icon listed in “Sources” and you’re instantly in the iTunes Online Store. With it’s integrated web browser interface, you simply browse and/or search your way though the millions of songs contained therein. You can preview any song and then choose to purchase single songs, or entire albums. Most single songs are $0.99 and albums average $9.99, depending on the number of songs contained on the album. After you’d decided on what music to buy, you can either do one-click shopping, or use a familiar shopping cart style and the purchase process is a piece of cake. Once purchased, your music downloads into your library with proper ID3 tags and album artwork. If you’re into music, this can be like crack and get out of control in a hurry. 🙂 Often times iTunes Online Store will offer exclusive content or early releases. I ran into this with BT’s release, “Technology EP“. It was slated for release later in April, but went online on April 6th. I was faced with the quandary of waiting 2-3 weeks for the release of the EP, or I could purchase it instantly online through iTunes. Add to this equation the fact that the CD included a video and other goodies and I was face to face with a serious dilemma. So I did what any self-respecting BT fan would do, I purchased both. 😀 My point is that with unique and exclusive content, purchasing music can be a lot of fun and a real advantage for those artists that you’re serious fans of. Although the iTunes Online Store has been restricted to browsing via iTunes exclusively, the Downhill Battle Peer-to-Peer Legal Defense Fund has created a script that can search the iTunes Music Store via the Web. It’s not as nice of an experience as it is in iTunes, but you can finally see what iTunes users have access to without installing the software. :O Streaming Your Own Music About the only think you can’t do with iTunes at the moment is stream music over the Internet. Well, if you’re a Mac user you can thanks to Nicecast, but there isn’t currently a solution for Windows users. If you’re a Winamp user you can stream any music you’re listening to via Shoutcast, but it’s not a very simple process. It’s not that it’s hard, but it can be a bit of a kludge for first timers. Streaming music isn’t all that common for the average user, but personally I’d like to share what I’m listening to with friends and unfortunately I can’t do that at this point. 🙁 Hopefully the nice guys at Nicecast will come out with a Windows version shortly. It’s So Easy To Fall In Love This turned into a MUCH longer entry than I had intended, but it’s a clear testimony of just how powerful iTunes is. There’s almost nothing you can’t do in managing and listening to your music and yet Apple has made a program with an intuitive and easy to use interface. The things you can do with your music may be very powerful, but to the end user, it’s a walk in the park. It’s not that the power is hidden from the user, just the complexity. Winamp 5 has come out recently and offers similar features to iTunes, but I find the interface a little clunky and not near as well designed and implemented. In that same vein, there are plenty of other software solutions out there, such as Real and MusicMatch, but IMHO none are as elegant and easy to use. If you happen to be a fan of other software, feel free to “educate me” in the comments. 😉 If you’re using something else to manage your music, I’d strongly urge you to download and play with iTunes. As long as you don’t enable iTunes to manage your music library, there’s no harm in giving her a test drive. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how much fun it is to use. 🙂