Friday, July 21, 2006

Pandora Internet Radio

Yahoo's LAUNCH.com has been a bit stale ever since Yahoo! unveiled its pay service called Yahoo! Music Unlimited, so I was naturally looking for something new. In my search, I came across a very interesting service created by the Music Genome Project. Started in 2000 and made up of tech-savvy musicians, the Project created Pandora Internet Radio, which helps you find and listen to music you like. The group's mission statement:
Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song - everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records - it's about what each individual song sounds like.

Over the past 6 years, we've carefully listened to the songs of over 10,000 different artists - ranging from popular to obscure - and analyzed the musical qualities of each song one attribute at a time. This work continues each and every day as we endeavor to include all the great new stuff coming out of studios, clubs and garages around the world.
Granted the whole "genome" thing is a bit hokey, the concept itself is still interesting. Although perhaps not technologically identical, it reminds me a little bit of the various audio "fingerprinting" projects started on http://www.musicbrainz.org.
To use Pandora, all you have to do is enter in the name of an Artist or Song, and Pandora does the rest. I tried to enter in some songs with some very specific sounds, just to test it out. I tried: (1) Guided by Voices' song "Game of Pricks"; (2) Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Graveyard Train"; (3) Neil Youn's "Guitar Solo 5"; and (4) Hooverphonic's "2Wicky." The suggestions were dead on target and I've come across quite a few new artists and tracks that I would not have otherwise heard.
Pandora is not just a database that spits out suggestions, it's a full-fledged streaming internet radio with phenomenal sound quality. The sound is vastly superior to LAUNCH.com and other streaming sites, which usually stream at or near 64 or 96kbps. Pandora, on the other hand, streams at 128kbps. And the songs don't stream constantly; they download at full speed at the beginning of the song so that it doesn't skip out suddenly. This is what internet radio should be; it is an absolute pleasure to listen. And, best of all, there are no advertisements interrupting the music.
And by far the greatest advance over LAUNCH, when you "skip" a song, the music smoothly fades out and the next song begins almost immediately. Compare this to LAUNCH, which goes into convulsions every time you hit the next button, making that annoying IE "click" noise about fifty times before the next song loads (and you'll be lucky to get album art or any information displayed).
Pandora's interface is quite smooth. There is no separate download or program to install; the player is, like LAUNCH, embedded in a web browser. It works flawlessly on both of my computers running Maxthon (IE 6.0 based). I have not tried it with FireFox or Netscape, but feel free to comment and let me know if it does.
When you hit the "Minimize" button at the top of the player, the player dislodges itself from the main webpage. The player opens up in a smaller IE window -- a lot like LAUNCH. While this is a good feature, it seems bizarre that you need to hit the "Minimize" button to get this. The other problem is that if you unminimize the window--that is, restore the player back into the main webpage--the player completely restarts and you lose the song you were just playing. This was a shame as I was right in the middle of Creedence's "Keep on Choolgin" (amazing song, by the way).
Something missing from the interface is a time field, letting you know how much of the song you've listened to and how much is left. That's a small price to pay at this point, but it will be quite annoying if they don't take care of it soon.
Pandora lets you pause your music, adjust the volume, email a station to a friend, and skip to the next track. A limitation not readily apparent, however, is that Pandora does not let you "skip" more than 6 tracks per hour PER STATION, which is fine because you can just quickly enter in the name of a new song or artist and create a new station.
You don't need to register with the site in order to use Pandora, but registering allows you to save all your previous stations, which is quite convenient if you want to use Pandora at home or at work. Registering is painless.
Pandora apparently offers a version of its service that you must pay for, or else you have advertisements displayed. However, I have yet to really notice any obstructive advertisements. If you open up the normal webpage and are playing music through that, all you really see is a box ad that advertises Pandora itself. This is not a problem at all because I usually keep the jukebox open in the background anyway.
I urge you to give this site a try. Let me know what you think. For more information, visit http://www.pandora.com.

4 comments:

gby said...

Works perfectly on FireFox. Nice review, how do you find this stuff?

A.H. Rajani said...

I find the best thing to do is subscribe to a bunch of e-mail newsletters, especially CNet News.com. I usually find out about cool things through there, and then run searches in Google based on similar technologies.

A.H. Rajani said...

You will have noticed that I have added a section to the sidebar that displayes the five most recently "bookmarked" songs from my Pandora account. Apart from it being useful to launch or create your own Pandora station, I sort of like the way it looks as it displays album art and relevant song information.

I may consider removing the Flickr badge or converting it to something else, as the sidebar is getting a bit busy.

A.H. Rajani said...

I received a response quick response from Lucia Willow, a Listener Advocate from Pandora:

"Just so you know...if you look carefully at the bottom of the album art, there is a track timer bar. It's tiny, but useful!"

I went back and looked at the player, and what do you know, there is a tiny 1 pixel tall line that runs along the bottom of each music entry that represents the time elapsed in the song.

While I stand corrected that there is indeed a timer, I still think a timer needs numbers and shoudln't be practically invisible. Nevertheless, thanks to Lucia for the help.