Promising Prospect: Tunatic

Have you ever been listening to the radio and wondered what song was playing? You wait until the song is over, hoping the DJ will grace you with the title before starting the next track—sometimes you’re lucky, other times you listen intently for several songs afterwards and still never get the answer. (Which raises another question: Why do DJs talk incessantly when you’d rather hear music, but when you want them to say something, they fall silent?) Some radio stations provide “now playing” info on their Web sites, but not all.

Given that this is such a common occurrence, it was intrigued when I came across a piece of software whose sole purpose is to tell you what song is currently playing on the radio. But when I read that the software claims to perform this feat by actually listening to your radio and recognizing the track, my first reaction was, “Yeah, right."

And yet Wildbits’ free Tunatic v1.0b does just that: After launching Tunatic, you hold your Mac’s microphone near your radio’s speaker, click the “search” button, and wait for Tunatic to identify the song.

Tunatic ready
Tunatic searching

If Tunatic can figure out the song—when successful, this takes anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds—you’ll see the song title and artist. (You’ll also see an arrow that looks much like the ones found on the iTunes Music Store; clicking this arrow takes you to the Wildbits Web site, where you’re provide with a number of links to purchase products relating to the song: You can download the track from iTunes, buy a ringtone for your phone, buy the album from Amazon.com, find lyrics or sheet music, and more. I suspect this is how Wildbits pays for development of the free application.)

Tunatic results

How does this magic happen? You can find more information about how Tunatic works by visiting the Tunatic Q&A page, but the gist is that just as iTunes searches an online database of user-submitted CD information to get track info when you insert a CD, Tunatic compares the music it “hears” with an online database of user-submitted “audio fingerprints.” Knowing that Tunatic is basically a search engine sort of takes the mystique out of it, but it’s still pretty darned cool if you ask me.

(Track information gets submitted to the Tunatic server by users just like yourself, using a utility called Tunalyzer. This app scans your Music folder, analyzes any tracks not already submitted to the server, and creates song profiles for them. It’s your way of giving back to the Tunatic community.)

So how good is Tunatic at recognizing songs? It doesn’t find everything, but I was surprised by how well it did during my testing. I pulled out my trusty iPAL radio and started browsing the FM dial, stopping whenever I found music. I then let Tunatic try to figure out each song. In 20 minutes or so of station scanning, Tunatic successfully identified a broad range of music:

  • Do They Know It’s Christmas by Band Aid
  • Wild Night by Van Morrison
  • December by Collective Soul
  • Come A Little Closer by Dierks Bentley
  • I Don’t Want To Be by Gavin Degraw
  • Leave It With Me by Alexander Zonjic
  • Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones
  • Spiderwebs by No Doubt
  • Bust A Move by Young M.C.
  • Holiday by Green Day
  • You And Me by Lifehouse
  • My Best Friend’s Girl by The Cars
  • Better Life by Keith Urban
  • Last Christmas by Wham
  • Life In The Fast Lane by The Eagles
  • Shake by Ying Yang Twins
  • Used To Love You by John Legend
  • I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramotes
  • Let Me Down Slow by The Rolling Stones
  • Policy Of Truth by Depeche Mode
  • Feel Good, Inc. by Gorillaz
  • All Night Long by Lionel Richie
  • Call Me The Breeze by Lynyrd Skynryd
  • Groove Is In The Heart by Deee-Lite

(I didn’t choose the above music—no offense, Alexander Zonjic and Babs fans—these truly were songs encountered while randomly flipping through stations.)

I was also amazed that Tunatic successfully identified all but one track—a total of over 70—in an “80s Mix” playlist played through a set of iPod speakers. A number of the tracks in this playlist were actually fairly obscure.

Granted, since track info is only as good as the MP3/AAC tags maintained by the users who submit the info, track information isn’t always perfectly accurate. For example, the Ramotes track noted above was actually called “Sedated” in the Tunatic database, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n Roll” had the artist listed as “80’s Hits,” and Deee-Lite was misspelled as “Delite.” But the info is usually good enough to help you find the song on iTunes or Amazon.

On the other hand, Tunatic couldn’t figure out these tracks:

  • Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer by Jack Johnson
  • Grown Up Christmas List by Barbara Streisand
  • An obscure Earth, Wind & Fire track
  • Any songs on one of the local Spanish-language stations

In cases like these, you’ll get a message telling you that you’re out of luck.

Tunatic failure

(Tunatic can also tell you if your microphone isn’t working properly or if its gain is set too low.)

In general, I found that Tunatic has trouble with the very latest songs—which haven’t been entered into the database yet—as well as obscure tracks (including alternate versions of some popular songs) and genres such as classical, jazz, and tracks in languages other than English. (There's no inherent English bias going on here; it's just that Tunatic users have submitted mostly English-language tracks to the database. If you want to increase the number of non-English tracks in the database, grab a copy of Tunalyzer and lend a hand.) And, sorry, you can’t hum a song you heard earlier in the day; Tunatic has to listen to the actual song to recognize it. Still, I was impressed by how well the application did what it claimed. The next time I hear an unfamiliar song that I like while I’m working, I have a tool that can help me name that tune.

Tunatic is compatible with Mac OS X 10.2 or later and requires an Internet connection.

  
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