limiting tracks-per-artist in playlists

A middle-blog before my typical midnight post, dedicated to some tech content. Move along if that’s not your thing.

If you’ve read some of my banal iPod-related ramblings here before, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of using iTunes/iPod Smart Playlists to configure interesting musical selections. One of my favorite Smart Playlists I have on the ‘Pod is the “Unheard” list. A simple playlist that grabs all items where the “playcount” equals zero, and theoretically eases the task of making sure I’ve heard all those gems lurking in the back corners of my disk. The only problem with the playlist, and, in fact, with any shuffle-based playlist, is that it gets skewed heavy towards artists that are better represented on the iPod. Now look, I don’t need a lesson in statistics here, OK? I realize that, if out of 500 tracks on my iPod, 250 are the Grateful Dead, I’m going to see the Dead pop up pretty often in a true shuffle (as would be the case with my randomly-picked “unheard” list).

Problem is, I actually want to have every single Dead Dick’s Picks album on my iPod, just on the off chance that I can impress some Deadhead by saying “You bet I do” when they ask, passing the bong, “Hey man, do you have that ’75 Berkely gig, you know, the one where Donna Jean couldn’t hit the high notes in ‘Rain and Snow?'” And, I want each of the twenty-nine takes it took The Beatles to get “Hold Me Tight” right, not to mention all fifteen live versions of “Over the Hills and Far Away” Zeppelin performed on their ’73 US tour. I really do want to have all that on my iPod, all the time. I don’t want, however, the thousands and thousands of songs that pepper my iPod as a result of that fanaticism to “overpower” all the other stuff when shuffling. Here’s where you say, “Too bad Dave, you can’t have it both ways.”

Oh but I can! Here’s how I managed to limit the number of tracks per artist in a shuffled playlist.

First, make a smart playlist of all your music minus the overpopulated artists. I did this based on the catch-all criteria of track-time being greater than zero, and then filtered out the Grateful Dead, Beatles, and Led Zeppelin (my three most heavily populated artists). You could just as easily do it basing it off the iPod’s default “Music” playlist (which contains your entire library). However you do it, what you should end up with is a playlist containing your entire collection minus your most heavily represented artists.

Next, make a separate playlist for each of your overpopulated artists, limiting the number of songs to a reasonable number (I chose one hundred) chosen at random. Do this by using the “artist is” criteria along with the “limit to” filter. In my case, this means I have three playlists: Beatles, Zeppelin, and the Dead, each limited to one-hundred songs chosen at random from the thousands available for each artist.

Finally, create a new playlist that pulls music from the playlists you just made in the previous steps (you can use “in playlist” as a criteria for a playlist). You’ll need to make sure that you set the match criteria to “any” instead of “all” on that last one, or you’ll get a playlist with zero items. This newest playlist is essentially your entire collection, including your overpopulated artists, but limiting them to one-hundred (or a number of your choosing) tracks each. And, from now forward, instead of basing all your shuffle-themed playlists around the iPod’s default “Music” playlist, you can base them off of your new limited-representation list. Voila!

Postscript: If you do create sub-lists such as my one-hundred item random ones described above, you may notice that, over time, these playlists are not magically “refreshed” with new random tunes via iTunes. Despite the more-than-somewhat misleading name, “live updating” does not mean the playlist will choose a new batch of random songs, it means only that, when you add more songs to the iPod/iTunes that fit the smart playlist criteria, they’ll be accounted for and captured. If you’re looking to get some form of “auto refreshing” for your random tune selection (as I was, makes things more interesting), you’ll need to add some further elimination criteria to the playlist. I chose to add a criteria that “last played” is “not within the last” one week. This way, once a song is filtered into the playlist and you’ve heard it recently, it’s eliminated from the playlist and replaced with another (per the “limit to XX tracks” tickbox). Anyway, hope that helps.

You can likely think of all sorts of other limited-shuffle tricks you can do with playlist-combining, which makes using Smart Playlists a fun way to experience your music in different ways. Too bad Apple hasn’t added a way to “hide” certain Smart Playlists from showing on the iPod. It would be neat to be able to mask out the ones that are only “supporting” lists as building blocks to a final one (like the hundred-track ones required as interim input to create the final list above). Maybe with a new firmware, eh?

See ya!

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