Google Play Music: goodbye shuffle, hello Instant Mix!

Music and mixes

I just love it when technology comes up with something that genuinely surprises me! I had this the other day when I was trying out Google’s cloud music player on my new Nexus 4.

Listening to music has typically involved either setting up a manual playlist or randomly shuffling through something you or someone else has put together. There is now a highly accessible “third way”, hiding within Google’s new offering.

My first impressions of the system, when I gave it a shot, were good:
1) The service can hold 20,000 songs for free, plus any you buy from Google (and you can buy more storage, I believe)
2) Quality is very good – 320kb/s mp3 is hard to tell from lossless
3) The process of uploading music to the service was largely painless, and they seem to have found the artwork too – a nice touch
4) You don’t need to worry a lot about the mechanics of getting music on your phone
5) The player itself is light, pretty and functional
6) It even does gapless playback properly!!

It didn’t take very long for me to get a load of albums uploading, and then start tyre-kicking the system as the songs appeared on my phone. (And my son’s phone too; we set up a Google account for the family, to allow sharing of music and paid apps).

Creating an instant mix

After I had played some music, I noticed that the system had scattered some juicy-looking auto-generated playlists around the catalogue; soon after this, I realised that I could get the system to queue up a selection of music, known as an “instant mix”, based on any track as a seed. This is really sweet, especially for a no-effort answer!

I gather that iTunes Genius does this kind of thing and has done for a while (but I hate iTunes and its bulky, slow ways and hideous music management). Also, on my Squeezebox I have used something for quite a few years now called MusicIP that does something similar and well, albeit requiring all tracks to be processed before it works and being rather inaccessible to anyone who hasn’t been feeding their inner geek. This, though, was really sweet: upload, generate playlist, no fuss, no delay!

I read a slightly old review comparing different playlist generation approaches, which used a “WTF” measure to rate playlists (ie how many tracks might generate “WTF?!” expletives due to jarring..!); at that point, Google’s approach came out behind Apple and another (who the author worked for). Personally, I quite like a few “WTF” moments, especially given the convenience of the facility, so I won’t hold this against it for now. I’m glad people keep on top of these things to this level, though: that was a good read!

The bottom line, though, is that this feature is so powerful that it is actually dragging me back slightly from Spotify on my phone: while there is a huge amount of music on Spotify, which I love, it doesn’t (at least to my knowledge) allow any kind of curation or recommendation of this kind, suggesting things I might like based on style and so on. Perhaps “social” is supposed to do this – or maybe there’s already an app covering this ground – but Google’s built-in capability, combined with the fact that the music it is drawing from is on albums I’ve bought, and therefore by definition are more likely to want to hear, is very compelling.

There are only a few things I think they should look at:
1) It would be nice if the player could “smart cross-fade” (ie when going between non-consecutive tracks)
2) Support for replaygain would be very nice indeed
3) … er … nothing else troubles me day-to-day at this point, really

Go on, give it a go! What is there to lose?

Finally, do you have any thoughts in this area that you think might be interesting as alternatives, or ways to improve how this might work?

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