Review: beaTunes 2.1
Last week we ran a review of TuneUp, a program designed to sit alongside your iTunes, ready to analyse albums and individual tracks that don’t have the correct album information, artwork and so on. This week we’re going to look at the latest version of beaTunes, another companion program to iTunes with some similar features.
beaTunes (US$31.95) comes at the task of keeping your music collection tidy in a different way to TuneUp. So is this the only additional tool to iTunes that a DJ needs? Let’s look closer…
Why do I need extra software anyway?
As a digital DJ, your digital music collection is your currency. It’s your musical memory. It’s at the very heart of what you do. You are only as good as your music collection. And that doesn’t only mean the number of files, or the quality, or the rarity – it means how well you know those records, and how quickly you can get at the ones you want.
That’s why we recommend using a music library program like iTunes as well as your DJ software. But good as it is, iTunes doesn’t have all the features a digital DJ might ideally want in order to keep their collection in good order, and to get the most out of it. That’s why we’re also interested in additional software that can help you to manage and explore your music in different ways, and that’s where beaTunes, TuneUp, Tidysongs and all the rest come in.
Where it came from
beaTunes started off as a program to work out the BPM of music to help DJs, runners and gym instructors… indeed anyone who needed to play or make sets at a certain tempo. But it’s grown into something much bigger than that, while retaining its focus for the music enthusiast, rather than the mainstream iTunes user. It’s available for Windows or Mac, as an instant download from the beaTunes website. There’s a trial available, but it is of limited use as much of the functionality isn’t available. Fair enough considering that a lot of the work this software does for you will only need to be done once in a while.
A separate program
Unlike TuneUp utilities, which opens and sits alongside iTunes, this software opens separately. While there’s undeniably a cool convenience to having your music analysis and “fixing” software open and visible with iTunes, beaTunes makes good use of the extra space to make its features more accessible and less cramped than TuneUp. I prefer it this way.
What the program does can be divided roughly into three main areas, and we’ll look at them individually:
1. It fixes inconsistencies in your library
As a music collection builds, inconsistencies creep in. You could (will) have typos in your metadata, inaccurate genre information, files that iTunes thinks it has but which aren’t actually there, duplicates, badly labelled albums and so on.
These are an issue because you want all your dubstep, or all your Aphex Twin records, or all the tracks off an album, to appear properly. You don’t want tracks to remain “hidden” from you because they’re badly labelled.
And you also don’t want bad quality copies of music creeping into your iTunes collection leading to you inadvertently playing a poor version in a live situation. In short, you want to be alerted to potential labelling, sorting and duplication issues before they come back to bite you.
beaTunes has comprehensive scan and alert features that will take your iTunes library and tell you about duplicates, inconsistencies, missing album artists, bad sorting information and so on. It then presents it all to you and gives you options (fix it, ignore it etc).
It’s your choice what to change
It’s up to you to decide whether something needs fixing or not – for instance, you may want to keep whole albums and so not mind having duplicate copies of a track in your iTunes – but the program at least points out likely areas of concern.
Fixing a big collection can take some time, but it’s satisfying to have all these issues highlighted and to work your way through them. In practice, you end up flicking backwards and forwards from iTunes, making changes where they’re most appropriate, but that’s fine. When you’re finished, the program will save all your changes back to the MP3s’ metadata for you, which again can take some time if you’ve found a lot to be fixed.
2. It analyses your music and compares it to an online database to fill out missing information
Like TuneUp, beaTunes can analyse your music in order to fill in missing information regarding artist, title, genre, BPM, year and so on. It does this by referring to an online database of music (AmpliFind, formerly known as MusicIP) and comparing your fields (and in the case of BPM, working it out if it can’t find it online.)
It can also work out the key of your music as well as find lyrics and assign a “colour” to each song (more later). This latter set of “non-standard” information can be stored in the MP3s themselves if you want, which is a welcome addition in the new version. While iTunes won’t be able to show you the key, “colour” etc, this means the information is all safely assigned to your MP3 and whenever that MP3 is viewed in beaTunes, there it is.
(beaTunes has its own database of information about your tunes too, but this new way seems preferable as it’s one less database to worry about – and also your keys will show up in Traktor/Serato.)
Again, you’re looking at quite a while to analyse all your music collection here, and this is probably a “set it running and leave overnight” task… or over a weekend! But once it’s done it’s done, and then you can elect only to analyse new stuff when you launch in the future.
Choosing what beaTunes should correct after analysis
There are lots of options here as to what should be checked, and this level of complexity means that as long as you’re confident in what you’re doing, you can really do some pretty powerful analysis on your music collection in order to get everything shipshape – and add some interesting extra stuff too. It’s truly lovely to see badly ripped mix albums with “various artists” on every track suddenly be populated with missing data in front of your eyes for the very first time. I watch a Mixmag cover CD from 10 years ago do just this and was delighted to finally put a name to some of the more obscure tracks on it.
It’s worth noting that the key detection, while accuracy-wise just as good as Mixed in Key (the industry-standard program for key detection), isn’t done using Camelot notation. Basically Camelot notation makes it easy to know what songs will harmonically mix together, and has unlocked the power of mixing in key for many DJs.
It’s a shame that this isn’t an option as it would make the key detection more useful to many people. Also, no key detection system is failsafe – I noticed it analysed the instrumental and the vocal versions of a track that were otherwise identical and gave them both different keys.
No album art feature
The big omission here is album art. It’s doubly curious because one of the program’s less useful features (a set of Amazon album charts with affiliate links to buy) features album art. They ought to incorporate sourcing album art into what is otherwise a pretty complete feature set. It’s true that iTunes can look up album art for you but it isn’t particularly good at it, and indeed is pretty hopeless with individual tracks.
3. It can auto-generate interesting playlists
This is the program’s stated aim. Now you’ve got all the metadata, BPMs, key and “colour” information associated with your files, beaTunes can go about its playlist work for you. (“Colour” is best described as “tone” or “mood”.)
If you’ve ever used iTunes playlists to assemble party sets, you’ll know it can be quite hard to get a good mix of music going. Then Genius came along – but Genius seems to me to blatantly put genres and decades together in an unimaginative way.
beaTunes comes at it differently and with wildly better results. By using a combination of the above-stated information, it can create what it calls “matchlists”. Like Genius, you give it a tune (or two or three) that you wish it to make a playlist around, and it does its work, ready for you to hit “go” in iTunes.
These playlists cross decade and genres, and can give you some surprising musical jumps that work really well. In other words, it can give you inspiration for your DJing. It can breathe life into the dustiest, darkest corners of your record collection. It’s like a slightly mad but inspired mate coming around and playing all your tunes, with you jumping up every now and then going: “Woah, I never even knew I had this record!”
What’s more, you can split your screen in two and flick through your library, playlists or folders in the top half, and the software will show you songs that it feels “match” the currently selected song AND your exact filtering criteria in the bottom half of the screen.
All of the criteria can be adjusted for the playlist building/song matching process, so you can give weight to BPM, colour, length, genre, even “Amazon similarity”.
You do need to analyse ALL of your collection, including key and BPM info (if your DJ software or MP3s already have this information via Mixed in Key, their own analysis etc you can tell beaTunes to keep it in its own database so as not to clash), but once you have – and especially if you’ve been collecting music for many years and played many types of DJ sets – it just blows the collection wide open again.
As mentioned earlier, you can browse Amazon genre album charts and buy music through affiliate links. It’s clunky on my Mac and while I can understand its inclusion for monetary reasons, I won’t be using the feature.
There’s also the ability to post playlists to your blog (this time, adding your OWN Amazon affiliate links – now that’s neater! 😉 ).
Whereas TuneUp, reviewed last week, is a nice tool to have stood next to your iTunes if you’re a music consumer, I think beaTunes is a better pick for DJs. It is less flash, but more powerful in areas that matter to DJs. It not only lets you scour your collection putting all kinds of things right, but also allows you to act on that information using its powerful matchlists.
One of the downsides to digital music is that it is intangible. Anything that lets you get more of a feel for your music as a body of work has to be good. By using iTunes alongside a more specialist piece of software like beaTunes, the savvy digital DJ has an awesome set of tools to craft fantastic DJ sets, mixtapes, radio shows and party mixes.
If beaTunes had album art support it would be pretty much perfect. As it is, it’s still an essential addition to the software arsenal of any digital DJ with a music collection of any size or depth, and who wants to squeeze the maximum amount of inspiration out of that collection.