In the 1980s, the cassette tape ruled. And while the medium had its share of problems—underwhelming sound quality, constant rewinding and fast-forwarding, and the inevitable snag—it did pave the way for an entire generation of personalized mix tapes. You may not see tape mixes around much anymore, but the concept lives on in the form of playlists.
Creating a playlist in Apple’s iTunes is easy. Building a good one, however, is considerably more difficult. By following a few simple strategies, you can make sure that your mix will be the hit of the party.
Building a mood
To create a great playlist, it helps to think like a DJ. “The first and most important thing is to decide the mood you want to convey,” says San Francisco-based DJ Jason Knight. “Then decide if it’s appropriate for your audience.” In other words, when you’re putting together a romantic mix for your sweetie, Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around” (with its theme of karmic justice wrought upon a cheating ex) probably strikes the wrong chord.
So how do you create an appropriate playlist? Let’s say you’re throwing a casual dinner party for a few friends. “Begin by searching your library for music that creates a mood that’s uplifting, inviting, relaxing but not tired,” says Knight. “Generally you will want to keep the tempo down.” Of course, searching through a large library for just the right track can be frustrating. But adding mood information to your tracks’ metadata can ease the process.
Tag Your Tunes To begin, highlight a track in iTunes, press command-I, and select the Info tab. A good place to add mood metadata is in the Genre field, as this information is already subjective. And since you can enter multiple words into this field, you need not remove pretagged categories such as Jazz or Alternative & Punk. Simply tack on your own descriptor, such as Relaxing or Energetic.
Create the Playlist Once you’re done putting in your tags, you can easily locate tracks by mood. To find mellow tunes, for instance, go to your music library and type
relaxingin iTunes’ search field. This will reveal all the tracks you’ve tagged as Relaxing. Select the ones you want, and then choose File: Create New Playlist From Selection to create a playlist. If the songs you tagged don’t appear, make sure the Genre column is visible; right-click (or control-click) on the columns at top, and select Genre from the list. To build smart playlists based on mood, select File: New Smart Playlist, set the criteria to Genre Contains, and type your tag in the text box.
Keeping the beat
When you hear DJs switch seamlessly from one track to another, odds are they’ve matched the beats. DJs accomplish this by altering a track’s tempo so that when one song ends and the next begins, the tempo doesn’t change, and everyone keeps dancing. An easier way to do this is to queue up multiple songs with the same or a similar number of beats per minute (bpm).
Sometimes you’ll find a track’s bpm count included in the metadata, but more often you’ll have to get it yourself. To start, check BPMDatabase.com, which features beat information for more than 20,000 songs. If your song isn’t there, you’ll have to count beats. Doing so is easy, if somewhat tedious. Use a bpm counter, such as Oatbit’s free ltjBPM.
After you figure out a song’s beat count, go to the Info tab (command-I) and type it in the BPM field. Once you’re finished, you can create smart playlists based on tempo. For instance, you might want to make a high-energy mix featuring songs with bpm counts between 120 and 140. To do that, create a new smart playlist, set the parameters to BPM Is In The Range, and enter the numbers
140in the appropriate fields.
Getting outside help
What with counting beats and tagging songs, building a playlist can take a lot of time and effort. Luckily, plenty of free programs can help. Some are just good for inspiration; others will actually build a playlist for you.
The iTunes Store If you need some playlist ideas, look no further than the iTunes Store. iMixes (found by navigating to the site’s Music section and looking under the More In Music header for iMix) are playlists created by your peers. Look at Top Rated or Most Recent mixes, or search for a particular genre or song. If you like an iMix, you can often download all the songs in one fell swoop by clicking on the Buy All Songs button. (If you don’t see a Buy All Songs button, you can still buy individual tracks.) And if you’d like to upload your own iMix, select one of your playlists in the iTunes Source list, click on the arrow that appears to the right of its name, click on Create iMix, and follow the instructions from there.
If you don’t find any iMixes to your liking, go back to the Music section and check under the More In Music header for Celebrity Playlists and iTunes Essentials. Major musicians created many of the Celebrity Playlists themselves, and they often include hidden gems you may never have heard. The artist- and genre-based playlists under iTunes Essentials attempt to provide the most important tracks from an artist’s oeuvre or the defining anthems from a musical era (such as ’80s Pop).
Playlist Builders A different approach is to try a program that actually creates playlists for you. After you download MediaStrands’ free MyStrands, for example, it runs in tandem with iTunes, recommending songs you might like based on what you’re listening to at the moment. If you click on the Playlist Builder button (the icon resembles a stack of CDs) and enter song, artist, album, or playlist names from your iTunes library, MyStrands will use that information to create a custom playlist from your library of tracks.
Exabre’s free program The Filter generates a playlist for you based on seed tunes you select in your library. Simply highlight three songs in iTunes, click on the large F button in The Filter’s floating window, and the program creates a new playlist populated with songs from your library that it thinks will be complementary (see “Fast Filtering”). It can also recommend other songs you might like to purchase for your playlist from the iTunes Store.
Social Networking If you prefer to rely on the wisdom of others, look at services with social networking features. The free iTunes plug-in iLike uploads your playlists to iLike’s servers and stores them in your profile. Friends can view your playlists, play samples from those tracks online, and buy them from iTunes. Likewise, you can access your friends’ playlists to browse for ideas or, er, “borrow” the entire list.
FIQL.com also lets you upload and share playlists from iTunes. You can browse other users’ playlists, which often have tags for easy searching (Parties & Events, Brooding/Gloomy, and so on). And you can even save these playlists to your own account and play them back online for free, streaming them from Napster or Rhapsody (see “Discover New Playlists”).
Your playlist, your way
In the end, the point is to have fun with your playlist. A playlist is a reflection of its creator. The more of yourself you put into it, the greater the odds are that your friends and family will enjoy the results.
[ Mathew Honan is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. His work also appears in Wired and National Journal’s Technology Daily.]Fast Filtering: Simply highlight a few tracks in iTunes, and the helpful program The Filter will use recommendations in its database to create a new playlist populated with songs from your library. Discover New Playlists: FIQL is loaded with ready-made, custom-built playlists just waiting for you to discover. Better yet, with the click of a button you can stream its playlists from Napster or Rhapsody, completely free of charge.