Finding new music you like is hard. If you’re not completely enmeshed in a community that happens to perfectly match your taste, you’re sure to be missing stuff you’d like, and only Top 40 pop is reasonably represented in the mainstream.
That’s probably why big names like Amazon, Apple, Last.fm, Pandora, and even the top record labels invest heavily in tools that suggest songs and artists you might like, based on databases they piece together from your listening or buying preferences.
Walknote brings its own recommendation algorithm to the table, coupling it with your iTunes music library and an attractive interface. It’s unlikely to surface many obscure gems by artists you haven’t heard of before, but between its genre-sorted recommended mixes and tight integration with YouTube, Last.fm, Amazon, and the iTunes Music Store, Walknote brings just enough to the table to be useful.
Knowledge is Power
As with most recommendation algorithms, Walknote benefits from more information. It automatically pulls song data from your iTunes library (you can change which library it uses), and also has an option to manually input a number of your favorite artists. I found the recommendations are biased toward your manually-elected favorites and whoever the two or three most represented artists are in your library.
For instance, I had lots of recommendations based on my fondness for Sugarcult, The Clash, and The Cure, seemingly because of the sheer quantity of songs I have by them. But I wouldn’t call myself a fan of The Clash at all. I like some of their music, sure, but it’s pure coincidence that I have several of their albums.
I only have one album by rapper Kendrick Lamar, however, and as many recommendations showed up based on him as on Jay Z — by whom I have more than 50 songs, presumably because I explicitly stated that Lamar is one of my favorites (and did not do so for Jay Z).
This is good, in as much as the app adjusts its brute-force suggestions based on your more nuanced “favorites” input. But I haven’t seen any way to tell it, “hey, I don’t like that artist you suggested,” or, “I know I have music by Rihanna in my collection, but those three songs are just an exception — I don’t really like her stuff in general.” I’m getting ahead of myself, though, so let me step back for a moment before I explain how this one thing hamstrings the app.
Brute Force Recommendations
Walknote takes a few hours to process larger music libraries — mine includes over 17,000 tracks, and it seemed to be four or five hours before the import bar in the Processing tab disappeared in lieu of a statistic boasting 938 recommended tracks. The app checks every day for new releases by artists in your library — also a slow process when you have a big collection.
This all happens in the background, invisible to you unless you seek it out. I wouldn’t quite call it seamless, though, because the Home tab only refreshes when the app boots up — so you don’t actually find out whether Walknote found new recommendations until you quit and re-open, then painstakingly look through the new releases and Recommended Mix panels.
There are three artists spotlighted atop the Home tab each day and 30 recommended mixes across the central panel — broken into genre groupings that are presented with a nice rounded square of four album covers, drawn from recommended tracks.
Clicking on any of these takes you to the playlist view, which features a vertical pane displaying the Recommended Mix and a main pane that shows either a music video or a band image — with a mouse-triggered overlay of artist info and links to iTunes, Amazon, Last.fm, and YouTube. The music itself, meanwhile, is drawn from either iTunes or YouTube — so you get short previews on some and full tracks on other songs — and automatically continues down the list.
It’s very well presented for the most part, with lots of images, large text, and fairly-intuitive controls — even if it is hard to gauge why the app chooses one preview source over another. Although I can’t fathom for the life of me why the space afforded to the middle and lower panes does not match the space they require, which leads to unsightly vertical scroll bars that harm the aesthetic.
The new releases panel at the bottom of the Home tab shows album art and album titles for the 50 newest albums by artists in your library. In a bout of inconsistent design, clicking on these opens the iTunes album page in your default web browser. Hoping to preview the tracks right in Walknote, as you normally would? You’ll have to use the search field.
It’s the little things that Walknote gets wrong. It looks good and has a great workflow…until these minor issues start to stick out. I stumbled across a niggling problem every time I started to like a feature. Walknote frustrates precisely because it gets so close to doing things right. It’s like the designers forgot to finish their job.
Did no one ask at any time, “What if someone doesn’t like a recommendation? What if they’d like to choose their preview source? What if they already have this album?” The longer I used Walknote, the better my suggestions got, but songs I don’t like kept showing up in every mix — often by the same artist — and I could do nothing about it.
Boon and Bane
Musical tastes change. We fall in love with genres and styles, then grow out of them. What you listened to at 20 probably isn’t the same as what you’ll want to hear at 30, and you may decide that your teenage self’s musical preferences are altogether far-too-loud after you’ve had offspring of your own. Or maybe you won’t, but chances are at least something you obsessed over at one point in your life won’t register as an interest at another.
Walknote makes no real allowances for this. Unless you regularly prune your digital library to suit only your current preferences, it will throw out suggestions that fit a former you rather than the you of today. The suggestions do improve over time, gradually introducing you to new sounds that you’ll come to love — especially if you are diligent in specifying “favorites” — but these odd ducks keep sneaking in.
And like an old lover turning up on your door unannounced, that’s sure to cause friction.