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Match?

Posted on Monday, November 14th, 2011

Dave!Sorry, but this is a geeky computer post most of you will probably want to skip.

And so Apple finally unleashed their iTunes Match service today. I say "finally" because we were told that it was going to be released on October 31st, but then it wasn't. I can only guess that it wasn't ready yet, and Apple wanted to take some extra time to make sure everything was working perfectly before launch.

Or not.

Because, from my experience, iTunes Match is mostly crap. For now, anyways.

The idea is that you pay Apple $25 a year, and they manage all your music for you via iCloud. Songs in your iTunes library that Apple sells in the iTunes Store, regardless of how you acquired them, are immediately available online from Apple's servers. Also... no matter how poor quality your music files are, Apple automatically upgrades them to high-quality 256-kbps DRM-free files. You can then either A) Stream these files from iCloud over the internet to your computer or iOS device any time you want... or B) Download them to your computer or iOS device any time you want for offline listening.

If the song is not sold by Apple, it will be uploaded to iCloud so you can access the original file via streaming/downloading as stated above. It will not be upgraded in any way, however, because Apple doesn't have it for sale.

When it works... it's pretty special.

For example, I bought the CD Cruel Summer by "Ace of Base" years ago and ripped it into iTunes. Since the album is also sold by Apple, I am supposed to get the full benefit of iTunes Match. But not really...

iTunes Match Screen

Above you see iTunes Match in action. Or not.

The songs with NO cloud icon after them have been recognized by Apple as being sold in their store and I can stream or download them immediately to any device or computer I have registered with iCloud (but my original ripped file is left untouched on this computer). The songs with a dotted cloud icon after them are in-process and may or may not be recognized... if NOT recognized for some reason, they have to be uploaded. The songs with an exclamation(!) cloud icon after them have some kind of problem and return an undefined error when iTunes attempted to match/upload them...

iCloud Error Dialog Box
What's the cause of the error? Who the fuck knows! This is APPLE we're talking about!
Usually re-processing them will work, but not always.

Anyway, to demonstrate how iTunes Match is supposed to work, I am going to delete the Ace of Base song Adventures in Paradise from my library (since it's one of just three measly songs iTunes Match has recognized off this album as being sold by Apple)...

Sure you want to delete?

Note that I am net telling Apple to delete the song from iCloud. I'm guessing that I would lose it permanently if I did this (assuming I hadn't backed it up). From what I can tell, ONLY songs you purchased directly from Apple are permanently available from iCloud (whether your membership is current or not).

After the song has been deleted, the file is no longer on my MacBook, but the song is still listed as being available. I can then click the standard little "Download from iCloud" icon to the right of the title and get it back. Here it is downloading to my MacBook (a little "progress pie chart" is on the left there)...

iTunes Match Download!

Now here's the cool part...

iTunes Match File Comparison

On the LEFT is the new high-quality Apple file I just downloaded. On the RIGHT is the original low quality file I dragged from the trash. iTunes Match is working as advertised. I just traded my old "low-res" music file for the fresh "hi-res" one that Apple sells in their store. Assumably, since the file was uploaded direct from the record label, it's the best possible version of the song available in a condensed digital format. To do any better than this I'd have to rip the file from CD in a "lossless" uncompressed format... but I don't have room on my MacBook for large files like that and, given that I'm not an audiophile, probably wouldn't notice the quality improvement anyway.

BUT... what if you don't want these audio files hogging up space on your hard drive? No problem! Apple allows you to "stream" songs to your computer for listening without downloading. KINDA. Technically the files are downloaded to your computer to a temporary buffer. This way, you can fast-forward, rewind, and skip around instantly... which is something you can't usually do with streaming music. As to how big this buffer is and how long it lasts, I have no clue. But it's a very nice way to handle streaming audio. To "stream" music that's not on your computer/device just click play or double-click the song anywhere except on the "Download from iCloud" icon.

So, yeah, when it works, Apple's new iTunes Match is pretty darn cool.

But, for a huge chunk of my library, it most definitely does NOT work...

  • Songs I own which Apple doesn't sell... NO MATCH!
  • Songs I own which Apple does sell... but they randomly aren't recognized for no reason I can fathom... NO MATCH!
  • Songs I own which Apple doesn't sell... which won't upload for some reason I can't figure out... NO MATCH! and NO iCLOUD SIMULATED MATCH!

And here's where it gets strange.

Just for kicks I deleted a song that I know Apple does not sell... The mono version of Baby's in Black from the album Beatles for Sale (2009 Mono Remaster). Apple only sells the Stereo version (which is not the version I want because true fans know that The Beatles only cared about the mono tracks on their early albums... stereo releases were considered a novelty at the time, and the band was rarely involved in making them).

After deletion, I immediately clicked the "Download from iCloud" button to get it back. Now, since Apple does not sell this song, I should have gotten the same mono version file I just uploaded. But, as you can probably guess, I didn't. I got back the stereo version that Apple sells... but they left the song label the same...

iTunes Match No Match

A quick look at the graphic equalizer confirms that this really is the STEREO version with two unique left and right channels...

Beatles Stereo Version

Just to be sure, I also took the graphic equalizer to my original file so I could confirm is really is the MONO version with the same channels...

Beatles Mono Version

   
So, to sum up my iTunes Match experience...

Sometimes it works as advertised and it's all good. But an alarming number of times there are problems...

  • Songs I own that Apple sells which ARE NOT recognized means I don't get Apple files.
  • Songs I own that Apple doesn't sell can be recognized WRONG and I get Apple files I don't want which are labeled incorrectly.

Needless to say, this is a bit frustrating. Whether or not Apple can fix this is anybody's guess but, for me at least, I just paid $25 for something which is fatally flawed.

What Apple has to do is find some way of letting customers manually correct the iTunes Match information. The problem is that I can't even figure out when Apple has made a match... or when there was no match and they had to upload my files (UPDATE: Actually, I can, see below). So even if I could correct the data, I wouldn't know which files needed it. Unless I delete each and every one and downloaded it back. Then matched files would be flagged as "Matched AAC Audio File."

In the meanwhile, there are still a lot of questions to be answered. Like... what happens to all my downloaded "Match" files if I don't renew my membership? Do they evaporate? What happens when a record label jerks their music from Apple's store? Do you lose your music? And so on. And so on. Since this is only my first day with the service, maybe my questions will eventually be answered. But Apple is Apple, so I've resigned myself to the fact that they probably won't be.

As for iTunes Match?

The potential is there... but I can't recommend it. Yet.

Check back in a bit.

   
UPDATE: iTunes does have a column you can turn on which will show you the iTunes Match status of your music...

iTunes Match Status in iTunes

Still no way I can figure out why some tracks are recognized and others are not on the same frickin' album. You'd think that once Apple figured out I own the album, they'd recognize ALL the tracks. But, alas, no.

Finding this feature lead to my discovering something very interesting...

iTunes a-ha

a-ha's amazing final album, Foot of the Mountain, was never released in the USA. I had to import the CD and rip it into iTunes. HOWEVER... iTunes Match totally recognized and matched it! Apparently, iTunes Match gives you access to ALL of Apple's music stores worldwide. This is very cool, but is it intentional? Time will tell.

   
UPDATE: One of the reasons I was so keen to sign up for iTunes Match was that I could finally get rid of all the DRM-Protected music I bought and replace it with fresh DRM-Free downloads. I had already upgraded most of my music to "DRM-Free iTunes Plus" but there were some songs that never wanted to upgrade for some reason. Such as the album Play by Moby. iTunes Match recognized all but one song (even though I bought it from Apple!), but I deleted them all anyway so I could test whether songs I uploaded were still intact when I downloaded them. Sadly, the answer is NO! Trying to download the DRM-Protected song I had uploaded fails completely...

Cannot Download!

Cannot Download!

Needless to say, this is a load of shit. I BOUGHT THIS SONG FROM APPLE AND YET APPLE CAN'T MATCH IT? WTF?!? Just goes to show... buying DRM crap will only end up punishing paying customers instead of the criminals it's supposed to.

   
UPDATE: And things just keep getting worse. Holy crap is iTunes Match a mess! Take a look at this...

PURCHASED files from the same album MATCHED AND PURCHASED AND UPLOADED?!?

This is an album I bought from Apple's iTunes Music Store. Note that all songs are recognized as having been purchased. Note also that the status of the songs in iTunes Match is "Matched" or "Purchased" or "Uploaded"... seemingly at random. ALL OFF THE SAME ALBUM! They should all be registering as "purchased" but are not. If Apple can't even get the stuff THEY SELL YOU right, how in the hell can they be trusted to figure everything else out? And who do I talk to about getting all this straightened out?

   
UPDATE:I was hoping that re-importing a CD directly into iTunes with Match enabled would make it so that the entire album was recognized instead of just random songs. No such luck. iTunes is apparently matching by digital fingerprinting... and doesn't have very accurate fingerprints from CD rips to match against. Crap. I can only hope that their service will get smarter in time.

   
UPDATE: Despite a few minor bugs (like skipping to the next track when the current song isn't buffering fast enough and iTunes runs out of data to play), I have officially deleted (almost) all my music files from my Home Mac, my Work Mac, and my MacBook Pro. The only files I keep are unmatched protected songs, which won't play from iCloud for some reason. Since I mostly only use these devices when I have internet, it seems crazy to waste the hard disk space when I can just stream everything. For plane rides sans WiFi or other situations where I don't have internet, I'll just listen to the music I've got loaded on my phone (which is always with me). I gotta say... if Apple could just do a better job of recognizing the 800+ songs that are currently "unMatched" in my library, this whole iCloud thing would be absolutely killer. Until that day, it's just merely awesome.

Tags: , , ,
Categories: Apple Stuff 2011, Music 2011Click To It: Permalink
   

Comments

  1. I read somewhere that if it matches with Apple, it still uses your labels that you originally labled the song with. I think that’s a little strange, but maybe you want it that way. Personally, I think it should be an option.

    • Dave2 says:

      Well *I* sure don’t want it that way! Especially if it’s replacing my music with the wrong files! And that’s the biggest problem here… you just can tell what’s happening where. The “Match” status is never listed anywhere. At least that I can find.

      I mean, sure I want all my hand-coded lyrics and stuff to be maintained… I’d just like to be warned somehow that my file has been replaced when it’s not a “proper” match.

  2. ssp says:

    Thanks for making the effort and testing this nice mono/stereo example. It’s pretty much the kind of flaw I suspected where slightly different tracks may be used and no good effort is made to cherish those differences.

    It seems (and, I suspect, will remain) unclear how exactly Apple’s matching works. How do they deal with variations of song/album/artist names, for example? How do they deal with different versions of the recording? Is that 1 second difference of the Ace of Base song file you tested with relevant or just a technical artifact?

    Matching music is, without doubt, a rather tricky thing and tricky in an area that’s far from Apple’s strengths. Even experts on this like last.fm can struggle with the problems and I suspect they have far more expertise on the topic than Apple have.

  3. the muskrat says:

    I’ve been wondering how I’m supposed to use this cloud thing for a while now, ever since I got the 4s. Having skimmed the above, I’m still wondering (I’ll let you explain it in person this weekend!).

  4. I was somewhat interested in iTunes Match purely for upgrading the quality of songs I ripped years and years ago with Winamp. I figured paying $25 was far easier than going through boxes in my garage to find the CDs and then re-ripping them myself.

    After reading your review, now I’m not so sure that iTunes Match is the easier option. Maybe I will hunt through those boxes afterall.

  5. Howard says:

    I’m having some of the same issues and it still hasn’t uploaded everything. I turned on the feature on the iPhone and now all the artwork is missing from the phone. I, like you, love updating some of the files. I upgraded Pet Shop Boys’ “Actually” this morning without having to look for the CD in my massive like of CD storage boxes.

    Also I love that you used “Cruel Summer” as an example. :)

  6. martymankins says:

    Man oh man… nice detail of your iTunes Match experience. This is obviously not ready for prime time yet.

    Your scattered matches remind me a little of trying to obtain album art from the iTunes store. They have the album, but for some reason, the tracks I have locally don’t quite match up exactly, so it fails.

    I would like to do this iTunes Match at some point as there are a good number of songs that I have that I would like the 256bps versions of. But until I hear more positive feedback from others, I’m going to hold off.

    It’s a nice concept, but obviously needs more fine tuning.

  7. Sybil Law says:

    Ace of Base?!
    :)

  8. Chaz says:

    Hey Dave, the little dotted cloud means that the song may be “Waiting” to be matched or “Uploading”. You can list the iTunes Match status if you right click on the sort bar at the top of the iTunes window and select “iCloud Status”. This will give you a new column that lets you know if the file was “Matched”, “Uploaded”, “Waiting”, or “Error”. Those are all of those statuses that I’ve personally seen; there could be more.

    I still have a number of songs that are still in the “Waiting” status even after iTunes Match has supposedly completed doing its work. You can force it to refresh by clicking “Store -> Update iTunes Match”, and I’m finding you may have to do this multiple times before your entire library is finally completely sync’d with iCloud.

    My biggest annoyance so far is that I have a number of albums where iTunes Match will match all but one or two songs. The album is clearly in the store, and my labels are absolutely correct (I’m fairly meticulous about the metadata). Still, iTunes Match insists on uploading these songs. This is incredibly frustrating because when I sync to another computer that doesn’t have the album I’ll have 8 out of 10 songs in the iTunes Plus (AAC 256 Kbps) format and the remaining in whatever MP3 format I chose to rip the album at the time. Those kinds of things bother the heck out of me.

    So while iTunes Match certainly some problems, you may find that you’re better off than you think. Of course, you might find those little things that don’t work just as irritating.

  9. Chaz says:

    So… apparently, I missed the UPDATE part in big bold letters. Oops, my bad. In any case, you seem to be having the same experiences I am. They do say misery loves company, right?

    • Dave2 says:

      Yes. And for good reason. :-)

      Yeah, I eventually figured out the column trick to display the status. And the iCloud icons are explained in an Apple Support Document.

      At the time I was writing about the “three measly songs” being recognized by iTunes Match, there were, in fact, only three recognized. The others failed. Eventually I ran the STORE->UPDATE iTUNES MATCH command (as you note) and got that number down to six. Regardless, three or six in not the twelve on the album, so it’s still kind of a sore point for me (and you, apparently). :-)

      Ultimately, 841 of my 5019 items (17%) were not matched… and a big chunk of those should have been since Apple is selling them. I’m going to try re-ripping CDs and see if that does anything to help.

  10. Ren says:

    I saw some reference to tracks not in (non-smart) playlists not matching correctly. Seems particularly odd, but is that a possible explanation for any of the behavior you’re seeing?

    Also, something about low quality tracks (96kbps) not being eligible…

    I’m clearly not the target for this service, as my collection is too small to warrant the cost, but if it worked smashingly, I still might be tempted.

  11. Kevin says:

    My Tokyo Girl and Cruel Summer (Blazin’ Rhythm Remix) tracks were recognized as matched, while tracks 2,4,8 and 9 had to be uploaded. This was from the original CD as well. Very strange, indeed.

  12. thejebber says:

    This is something I want to love, but I know if I jump into it, it will just piss me off. But what I really want to know is: Is Ace of Base’s “Cruel Summer” album worth a shit? The only song I ever heard was “Cruel Summer,” which was just OK as covers go.

    • Dave2 says:

      I suppose it depends on whether you like Ace of Base. It’s pretty much more of the same from the previous album. I like it quite a bit, for what it is. If you have iTunes (and I think Amazon does this too) you can get a preview of each of the songs to see if it appeals to you.

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