Saturday, August 11, 2007

Station Building 101: Getting Started

A good Pandora station is one which frequently plays music that you like. That goal is subjective, and, furthermore, the tools that Pandora provides to achieve that goal are indirect at best. Thus, particularly discriminating or compulsive listeners can find building a station in Pandora to be frustrating. With a little bit of understanding and patience it needn't be.

The first thing that you need to understand is that Pandora considers ALL aspects of the genome when assessing the similarity of tracks. That is, the player tends to weight fairly equally qualities like tempo, instrumentation, voice registry, lyrical content, and song structure. If you try to create a station which only focuses on any one of those qualities, you are pretty much doomed to failure. For instance, you could construct at station with every song you know that has a 5/4 time signature, and Pandora will almost completely fail to find other songs which have a 5/4 time signature.

On the other hand, because Pandora weights all these musical qualities fairly equally, it does a fantastic job at finding songs within fairly narrow genres. The reason Pandora works well for genres is that tunes within a genre tend to employ similar tempos, instrumentation, lyrical content and so on. Thus, a good place to start is to pick some genre you like and try to create a station for that genre.

You might think that using the smallest number of tracks as seeds for a station would result in the most focused station, but, unfortunately, if you look at the Backstage page for each track you add and do not agree that the six listed similar songs are what you are looking for, then you will not be satisfied with your station. If your station has few seeds, then you will hear the listed similar songs a lot.

Furthermore, pruning by thumbing down from a small set of seeds only results in a different small play-list from which the player will still deviate. One station builder added the individual track of Abbey Road and gave over three thousand thumbs down with no thumbs up, and was still giving thumbs down at the same rate as at the beginning.

For a station to work well there seems to be needed a minimum number of tracks as seeds and thumbs-up. I find that having at least four artist seeds is a good place to start, and if a genre is fairly homogeneous (like, say, Ska), then the more, the merrier.

If you do not know a lot of bands within the genre you're creating, you can generally find more by using Pandora's station search function to find what other listeners have grouped together. You will be looking for stations clearly focused the same genre. You will find some stations have every band and the kitchen sink (particularly the ones started prior to the release of Pandora's Quickmix feature), and you will need to ignore those stations. If you haven't heard of a band, it's generally a good idea to look at the Backstage artist page for the band to confirm that it is indeed within the genre.

Once you've got a good base of artists for your station, you will naturally discover other artists within the genre as you play the station. Be aware of scope creep, however. A single thumbed-up reggae track can infest your station with reggae (which is only a bad thing if you were aiming for some other genre). Do not be afraid to give a track a thumbs down even if you like it, if it does not fit the kind of music that you want the station to play as a whole.

And there you go. Pick four similar artists, add them to a station, and enjoy.

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