Culture People

In memoriam: Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

There are already hundreds of tributes to Prince out there, with many more to come as people hear of his death, yesterday. I heard about it last night at dinner with friends, and was, for a long moment, rather inconsolable.

He was a musician that provided a fair chunk of the soundtrack to my life, and that of many others. I was a fan pretty much from the beginning – other Capetonians will remember those very expensive import LP’s we bought from that place in the Golden Acre whose name I can’t remember, and it was there that I found a copy of “Dirty Mind” in 1980, before Tipper Gore had an “explicit lyrics” warning pasted on to it.

I quickly filled the back-catalogue of his first two albums, and then bought everything else for a decade or two, until his output became too voluminous (and, to be honest, inconsistent) to keep up with.

In 1990, I was coaching tennis to bratty American kids (including one of GW Bush’s grandsons!) in upstate New York, and remember one night when some of the camp counselors and coaches were persuaded that it was a good idea to go and see Bryan Adams perform in Canada.

I stayed behind, because Bryan Adams, and because the rest of us had planned a party. We went to Forest Lake, smoked a joint, drank too much beer, and lay on the shore while a friend played Purple Rain at an absurd volume through his car speakers.

I did so last night also, but without the joint or the beer, although the whisky was good and plentiful. We played “Darling Nikki” too, at my wife’s suggestion, even though that’s the name of an adolescent crush that she doesn’t like being reminded of.

That’s a signal of how much his music means to many folk. And rightly so – younger readers and those who don’t know his music might not appreciate just how damn good he was.

All the early albums had liner notes that read “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”. He did everything, in other words. The legend had it that he could play 20 instruments by the time he was in his late teens.

He turned other people into stars too, or gave them some of their most memorable songs – Sinead O’Connor, with Prince’s song “Nothing Compares to U”, written for a band called The Family. The Bangles, with “Manic Monday”, Chaka Khan, with “I Feel For You”. “The Glamorous Life” for Sheila E. And there are plenty more.

Few other people would be able to maintain the falsetto he does in this performance of Purple Rain while simultaneously playing a ridiculously good guitar solo. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s just today – but it feels like nobody else could.

We’ll miss you.


[Geek alert] On metadata, MP3’s and Bliss

In a departure from my usual themes here on Synapses, I’d like to tell those of you who are obsessed concerned about their music library organisation about a program I recently discovered, called Bliss. (A spot of disclosure is in order right from the start: the developer of Bliss, Dan Gravell, was kind enough to give me a free license for testing purposes).

What Bliss claims to do is to organise your music library, album art and metadata, downloading the missing bits where necessary. Those of you who have your music in the cloud will know how annoying it is to have two albums by the same artist listed, with half the tracks in each,  because of some minor difference in the metadata. My library isn’t necessarily huge (12 000 or so songs), but contained enough of those sorts of issues to merit some attention.

Yes, there are other tools out there that do this (or a similar) job, and I’ve tried many of them. What makes Bliss different is that it runs as a background process, and once you’ve defined the rules you’d like to apply to your music, it will scan and correct any new music you add to the specified folder, as well as populate the relevant fields for existing music.

The rules themselves can be defined with a great deal of specificity, perfect for anoraks like myself. Do you want to enforce a minimum of two digits for track numbers, so track 1 becomes 01? What dimension and file-size album art is the minimum you’ll accept – and what should be regarded as too large? Bliss will automatically convert where necessary, and give you options if more than one image fits the album.

If tracks are not tagged at all, it generates an acoustic fingerprint, which is then used to find and offer suggestions for tracks and albums that that match the fingerprint. The walkthrough on tagging on the Bliss website gives you a good overview of how powerful the basic functionality is, but if you wanted to really get stuck in, or clean up tags that other software has inserted (iTunes is often a culprit here), there’s no end to the level of detail available.

Bliss tagging options

So, how well did it work? After running overnight, around 300 albums had successfully been edited to meet the standards I stipulated, without any human intervention whatsoever. This variously included downloading missing artwork, renaming files and directories, and find (or correcting) metadata. And, of all those albums now listed as “compliant”, I’ve only spotted one mistake, where a collectors edition of an album had ended being re-tagged as the standard studio album.

Another 100 or so were highlighted as needing attention, but as you can see in the screenshot below, the attention required often added up to little more than clicking a button to accept a recommendation.

Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 08.12.02

How much human intervention is required will largely depend on the parameters you define, so think carefully about how important something like “genre” is to you, before letting Bliss get started. Many of my albums were identified as non-compliant, simply because I had thought it a good idea to specify that all albums needed to be tagged as one of X defined genres. But because the existing library had so many more, idiosyncratic genres, this resulted in many prompts for attention. Re-running Bliss with the instruction to not care about genres decreased the human input required significantly.

A negative so far is that if you’ve got a significant library, the program takes quite a few minutes to launch (this will obviously vary not only based on library size, but system capabilities). So, it’s more suited to running in the background on a media server, where you don’t need to reboot and launch the program very often.

Then, I have still ended up with quite a few – probably around 50 – albums where I had to resort to using MP3Tag – a very good piece of free software – to fill in blanks that Bliss hadn’t (and, to correct the mistake mentioned above, where the album had been incorrectly tagged). But all in all, I suspect that Bliss has saved me many hours of effort in manually checking and correcting tags, and especially downloading artwork (seeing as my tags were already in fairly good shape).

If you want to check it out, Bliss is available for all major operating systems (Linux, OS X, Windows), and it allows 100 ‘fixes’ before asking you to pay anything. I’d suggest making a copy of a couple of albums, pointing Bliss at that directory, and seeing what it does in that controlled environment. If your experience is like mine, you’ll want to fine-tune your instructions to the program before letting it loose on your full library.

Then, if you like what you see – and I suspect you will, assuming you don’t already have a system in place – you can either purchase 1000 fixes for 10GBP, or unlimited fixes (including support for future versions of Bliss) for 30GBP.