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Take Control of iTunes and Mix Things Up With Smart Playlists

As we slowly move away from physical media, our digital music libraries continue to expand with music blog downloads, digital purchases and rips of our increasingly dusty CD collection. Libraries expanding past 10,000 songs are pretty common these days, and, much like e-mail and Web searching, smart filters can help you sort your tunes and manage your library. Arguing with friends over the best opening tracks on rock albums from the '60s? Want a personal list of your top-rated songs from 1974 to 1983 that you haven't heard in the past four months? Curious about your all-time top-played songs, or the tracks you've never given a listen? Smart playlists can build these lists on the fly -- you simply need to provide the constraints.

Fortunately, ID3 tags (the metadata that contains information like artist, bit rate, genre and year) offer a standard list of variables, and most of your purchases, CD rips and downloads should come with this information fleshed out. Your metadata should be well-kept. For editing on the fly, select the songs you want, and hit Apple + i (or CTRL + i for PCs) to fill in the data by hand. Make sure the year, genre and artist name are correct, as iTunes can be tricky, case-sensitive and punctuation-fickle. 'Beyonce,' 'Beyoncé' and 'beyonce' all appear differently.

Building Your First Smart Playlist

To start, let's build a playlist that shows the 250 songs you've most recently added to iTunes. Select File > New Smart Playlist, or hold down the option key (on Macs) or CTRL+ shift (on Windows) and click the '+' button at the bottom left of the iTunes window. Select Date added from the drop-down menu, then is after, and, finally, a date. Try January 1, 2009. Now, check the Limit to box, and type in '250.' For selected by, choose most recently added. Make sure live updating is checked, and press OK. Your new smart playlist, currently untitled, will show up in the left sidebar. Change the name to something you like, and you'll now be able to browse the freshest songs added to your iTunes. As long as you've checked Live updating, any new tracks or albums added to your library will automatically get sorted into your smart playlists.


Once you've got the basics, start experimenting. Try building a playlist of the newest 250 songs that you haven't played yet. (Set the date and item limitations as above, and then set plays to '0.') Create playlists for the '80s by setting the date range as 1980 to 1989. Find all your jazz tracks from 1954 to 1963 that you've played more than 10 times, or just build a simple smart playlist that mixes soul, R&B, Motown and blues genres. Merlin Mann's handy Music-only setup creates a shuffle-friendly list that excludes all podcasts, spoken word, sound effects and live streams. Base smart playlists off of this music-only list (or any other list) by selecting the playlist rule. Try building a constantly refreshing list of new, never-before-heard tracks and old favorites for your iPhone or iPod, limited by the size of your portable device's hard drive. You'll need to remember, though, that the quality of results is largely dependent on your metadata. If you've got a library full of dorm-room downloads from your Napster days, your results will vary.

Do we still use regular playlists? Of course! Mixtapes and party mixes still fill most of our iTunes sidebar. Smart playlists are just filters that let us quickly browse our collections while mixing things up, and they save us from picking through decades of rock just to find our classical or ambient collections. You could set those up as "dumb" playlists, but you'll be stuck micro-managing lists every time you add a new track or album. In an age where music libraries are getting bigger and bigger, smart playlists provide a fun way to rediscover songs and albums that we'd completely forgotten.

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