Xbox Music Pass and the Fail

My wife has recently been trialling some of music subscription services. As a Windows Phone household with Lumia 820’s for both me and the wife, she tried Nokia Mix Radio Plus first as she’d loved the free version. She wasn’t really impressed as it wasn’t really much better than the free one.

She moved on to Spotify next and I decided to try out the free 30-Day Trial of Xbox Music Pass. I had high hopes for Xbox Music Pass as I already love the free streaming for Windows 8/RT devices listening to the odd song on it. The cloud syncing feature is great for me too because it means on my work Windows 8 desktop I can access the majority of my music that’s at home and have it streamed to my work PC courtesy of the Xbox Music service. Being able to create playlists and Smart DJ playlists on my home PC and then have those available on the Xbox, my Windows Phone 8 device and my work Windows 8 desktop was pretty appealing.

After enabling it on my Microsoft Account, I first tried to create some Smart DJ playlists for some artists I’m enjoying at the moment thinking I could discover some new music. To name two artists I’m enjoying currently, Avicii and Gareth Emery, neither of them allowed me to create Smart DJ playlists. Not a good start considering a search of the Xbox Music Store reveals quite a few songs for both artists so it’s hardly like they aren’t indexed, classified or categorised. I figured I’d come back to this another day to test the true extent of the problem

I created a static playlist called Favourites and started adding music to it, only to discover that about a third of the songs I am enjoying currently aren’t available to stream on Xbox Music but require a purchase. What was most annoying is that it allowed me to add them to the playlist but then when playing the playlist it would skip over those tracks with an exclaimation mark warning instead of telling me from the offset before adding them to the playlist.

Why am I going to pay £8.99 per month for a service which doesn’t actually have a third of the music I am interested in? I know Spotify doesn’t have some of the value-add that Xbox Music does around Windows and Xbox features and integration but for an extra £1 per month I would actually be able to listen to whatever I wanted and not have to buy the songs.

I thought I would see what the experience was like on the phone with the playlist I’d just created. Opening the Music hub, I navigated to Playlists and after a few moments, the phone realised I now had Xbox Music Pass and showed me the playlist and I started to play it. Some of the songs were detected as already existing on the SD card of my phone from my conventional music library but the majority of them were streaming. I was started looking for the download option as I wouldn’t want to be streaming this over 3G when I left the house. I couldn’t find it.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the fact that I needed to go directly into a song to download it. Seriously? My playlist is only 20 songs currently, but what if it was 200 or more songs? Am I seriously expected to go to each song and select the download option? With Spotify, my wife can just download the playlist and all the songs within it are downloaded automatically. I’d go as far as to say that I think if she adds and removes songs from the playlist that it will probably automatically update what’s held on storage automatically too.

The other failing of the Music hub on the phone is that there is no option that I can find to show Storage/Cloud/Downloaded music specifically. In the Music app on Windows 8 there is the option to only view music in a certain storage location, especially useful on a phone if you want to only select music that is on SD card storage to prevent a big 3G usage bill each month. Searching for Music in the Xbox Music Store is pretty straightforward however really I think it takes too many screen taps to go from playlist to store, store to song selection and then back to playlist with the new song added.

The Windows 8/RT Music app has been getting a lot of attention recently with updates and I think it’s probably time that Microsoft turned their attention to the Windows Phone Music hub and gave that a matching overhaul to bring the features and UI of the two in closer alignment as it’s needed. I haven’t tried it on the Xbox yet, but I suspect that will probably suffer some of the same fates as the Windows Phone environment. I think if there are a lot of gaps and cracking in which artists you can and can’t stream or setup Smart DJ for then this also needs to be addressed.

It’s a real shame, because I want to like Xbox Music Pass and I almost want to actually give Microsoft £89 a year for a one year subscription, but with simple flaws like this, I just can’t, it’s not practical. I think Microsoft also need to look at making an Xbox Live Gold with Xbox Music Pass bundle where if you renew and buy the two together you get a slight discount.

Music Syncing and the Cloud in Windows 8

Quite, quite some time ago, I posted here (http://richardjgreen.net/2009/11/26/music-library-masterpiece-part-1/) about all of the work I had put into my music library like naming the files, folders updating ID3v2 tags and applying Folder.jpg and embedded album art to all the tracks.

The updated version of the Windows 8 Music app includes a feature now where if you allow it to scan your music library and match songs to those in the Xbox Music Store then you can get streaming access to those files on any other Windows 8 or Windows RT device linked to your Microsoft ID.

This is a brilliant feature, truly great as it means I can, for example, have my full library at home and my core listening taste available physically in the office for tune-out project work listening, then if I want to listen to something out of the ordinary, Xbox Music will allow me to stream it as it knows I already own it from either physical CD ripped or from another download service like Amazon MP3.

The problem is, I used Amazon as my data source when I updated all my music previously, and it appears that some of the album and track titles, mainly around versions and editions varies between the two which means that not all of my music has been detected and as such isn’t all available in the cloud.

Bummer. Music Masterpiece Mk. II I sense in the works.

As for the feature as a whole, I think it’s missing one thing to complete the picture. The ability to stream music which was matched on your Windows 8 PC to your Windows Phone 8 device and your Xbox. That would complete the holy three screens and the cloud trinity for me.

Music Library Masterpiece: Part 2

As my music library undertaking continues to get the better of me, I thought I’d post about a few things that have happened since I last wrote anything:

1: FLAC Vs. MP3 and CBR Vs. VBR

I have spent a lot of time reading about FLAC Vs. MP3 and come to the conclusion (with the help of GoldWave and some Bandstop filters) that I can’t tell the difference between an MP3 and a FLAC file, but let’s be clear here. When I say MP3, I don’t mean some tatty old 64 Kbps file that was thrown together the day MP3 was invented. I’m talking about an MP3 which was ripped from a FLAC file at VBR –V0 using LAME encoder.

Using the Bandstop in GoldWave and some research online, I found that the MP3 has audio data all the way up to about 20,000 Hz, which is the point at which all I start to hear is echoes  and silence which means that the extra 20MB of disk space occupied by the FLAC just isn’t worth it.

I used to rip all my old stuff in CBR 320 Kbps until I read an article online discussing the finer points of CBR Vs. VBR which lead me to realise that VBR –V0 gives the same if not better quality audio for smaller file sizes due to the variable element of it. What I think mislead me with VBR in the past is that a VBR –V0 file reports in Windows as the average bit rate of the track and not the maximum. A Texas song I have here for example shows itself as 266 Kbps but the waveform within the file proves it has the same info as the CBR 320 Kbps file.

2: Stereo Vs. Joint Stereo

It’s too complicated to go into here, but basically LAME encoder uses the better of two algorithms which means Joint Stereo  is as good as the forced stereo.

3: I think I hate Windows Media Player – Still undecided though

From my last post you will know I’m taking a lot of time to get the 500×500 px high resolution artwork for all my albums so that they will look delicious on my Zune and possibly Windows Media Center or Xbox in the future. To my disgust today, I noticed that a lot of my artworks are now 200×200 px and that a lot of the AlbumArtSmall_??????????????.jpg files have returned. My only assumption is that this is the doing of Windows Media Center when I re-added all my music to it for the purpose of streaming to the PS3.

Not impressed to say the least. Although the MP3’s have the 500×500 px versions embedded still, the folder.jpg version is still important. The next step is to re-apply the high resolution versions and then mark them as Read-Only to see if this stops Windows Media Player changing them.

Music Library Masterpiece: Part 1

Do you ever get the feeling you’ve bitten off far more than you should chew?

When I first start running I read that listening to music over 130 BPM is ideal because the music helps to keep you going, whilst listening to low BPM music will slow you down. I discovered a great program called BPM Analyzer which scans your MP3 and WMA files and adds the BPM to the ID3 tag on the file.

My plan was to do this, and then create playlist based on music over 130 BPM, however I hit a problem. Some of my MP3’s wouldn’t scan. From a previous lesson with iTunes and MP3 corruption, I grabbed a copy of MP3val to validate the MP3’s for errors. Sure enough lots of MP3’s had errors, some of which couldn’t be fixed.

The big thing here though was what I noticed during the repair session – The filenames on my MP3’s where all disorganised not to mention the folder structure and tagging. My mission therefore was to organise and sort my music library.

Read the Full Post