By February 28, 2006

Suggestive Tunes

About a week or so ago I found out about Pandora. Pandora is a Flash-based streaming music site founded by some part mathematician, part musician brainiacs. What makes Pandora different from other online streaming services such as SomaFM is that Pandora utilizes algorithms and plain-old human hearing to profile music in order to suggest similar music for you to enjoy. Pandora asks you to type in one artist or song you like. I entered in “Mocean Worker,” and almost immediately started hearing music that I liked, but had never heard before, even on my beloved SomaFM.

What’s it look like?
The interface is built completely in Flash. This might be a problem for you if you use AmigaOS or some other Speak-&-Spell throwback operating system. You enter one musical entity and a default “station” is created for you. You can have up to 100 stations, but I haven’t bothered to make more than one yet. This is a neat way to customize Pandora’s suggestions to your mood. Working on something and just want vocal-less electronica? Create a “Work Zombie” station. Bashing murlocs in the face and need something more aggressive? Create a “Wrath of Doom” station. My current station is called “Relaxed,” and it seems to center around easy going trip hop or break-beat songs backed by vocals.

You can do a few things with the interface, but the most important feature is the simplistic Thumbs-Up or Thumbs-Down rating system. This is very similar to TiVo. If you Thumbs-Up a track, it will continue to play. Thumbs-Down something, and Pandora terminates the song and plays another suggestion. You will ban an artist if you give them two Thumbs-Down ratings, and they’ll never show up in your playlist again.

Live or die? You decide.

I’ve noticed that the first few songs in each listening session are more hit-and-miss. I accidentally terminated the session I’d had open for about four hours during the writing of this review. I restarted Pandora, and have Thumbs-Downed the first four songs. As each session goes by, the recommendations get better. At least, in my unscientifically based observations 😉

Where the hell did that song come from?
If you hear something that seems totally out of line with your previous recommendations, Pandora offers a (very brief) explanation of why the current song is playing. For example, “Victim Convenience” by The Faint sounded a little too Ministry/Industrial in comparison to my original recommendations. I selected “Why is this song playing?” from the contextual menu, and Pandora replied:

Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features electronica influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, unusual vocal sounds and many other similarities identified in the music genome project.

Well, I guess that’s a better explanation than “because we fucking felt like it,” but doesn’t really explain the technical reasons the song was recommended. I guess it’s all the same at the end of the day, but the inner nerd in me wants to know more about how the system works.

Expand your horizons.
After seeding Pandora with one song/artist, you have the option of adding more music to your station. About halfway through the life of my Relaxed channel I added Lamb and Weekend Players to my seed list. I got a more diverse range of music, but a lot more stuff I didn’t really care for. To be fair to Pandora, I would have Thumbs-Upped some of their recommendations would have if I had multiple stations set up. The suggestions may have been on-target scientifically, but didn’t meet my “Relaxed” station image.

Great music no one has for sale.
Pandora suffers from a similar problem as SomaFM. The music I like to listen to might be a one-off single from a local artist, or an import, or something I won’t otherwise be able to buy. It’s happened more on Pandora than on SomaFM. I don’t know if the ASCAP contract SomaFM has results in more “signed” artists in their playlists, or what. The music licensing business is three parts voodoo and one part common sense after a drug and alcohol bender. At any rate, sometimes it’s hard to buy the music that I’ve heard on Pandora. Pandora offers “buy from Amazon” and “buy from iTunes” links, but songs like “Grace” by Scheider TM are either impossible to find or wind up as very expensive imports. This isn’t really a fault of Pandora’s, but more of the underground/less-than-mainstream type of tunes I like.

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Pandora keeps track of the music you liked, and the music you could have lived without.

It’s nice to share.
Pandora allows you to share your station with other folks. The default mechanism is via email (a user will receive an email from Pandora with a link to your shared station). I went ahead and sent myself an email so you can just tune in directly:

DrFaulken’s Relax Station

So what’s the catch?
Pandora is free. Right now there are no ads if you are a subscriber or not, but Real Soon Now™ there will be ads in the free version. You can buy a subscription for $12/quarter or $36/year. I think $3 a month is a great price to pay for the service. Until the ads start trickling in, however, I will remain on their free service. Pandora is also only available in the USA, although you could probably find a way around that if you live outside the United States.

SONIC BOOM!

  • Tons of music from almost every genre (no classical or “world”): 300,000 songs from over 10,000 artists.
  • The “music genome” technology may not be explained in detail, but it works. I’ve already discovered a dozen or so new artists to investigate.
  • This is hidden in the “edit this station” functionality, but Pandora will keep track of all the songs you gave a Thumbs-Up or Thumbs-Down. This is a great feature for going back at the end of the day (or whenever) and seeing what you really liked.
  • Extremely reasonable price. The songs are encoded at 128kbps, which is nearly CD quality sound. It’s far better than FM broadcasts, and better than the low-bit version of SomaFM that I tune to.
  • Slick, Flash-based application means you can tune in from any computer with a Web browser, Flash, and a speaker/headphone jack.

Elevator Muzak

  • Depending on the music you listen to, it may be difficult to buy that song you just fell in love with.
  • The Thumbs-Up, Thumbs-Down system keeps Pandora interactive. While this is a good thing if you’re just futzing around on your PC, this means missed opportunities if you’re walking about and hear something you like. I felt like I had to pay more attention to Pandora than to my work, etc so that I could properly rate the songs it suggested. You can go back in your playlist and rate the songs you’ve heard, but that requires you to remember what song was what.
  • I’d like to know more about the technical underpinnings of the site, but I can understand why this might give up a competitive advantage.

Pandora.com, I suggest to thee:

Five out of five STFU mugs!

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2 Comments on "Suggestive Tunes"

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  1. configuratrix says:

    It’s asking me to register. Should I have to register to listen to your station? All I did was click on the link.

    I’ve thought about registering; I like the concept, just haven’t crossed the line.

  2. drfaulken says:

    Hrm, guess you will have to register — I should have tested that somehow a disposable Gmail address should do the trick. I hope you like it 🙂