Sunday, August 2, 2009

How MusicMaster Mixes The Mix

We've already talked about how the songs are divided up into different Categories, and how these Categories control how often the songs repeat. The MusicMaster scheduling software takes care of several other things as it prepares a unique playlist for each day.

MusicMaster Oldies is an Internet-only radio station, but many of the same tricks that regular broadcast radio programmers have learned throughout the years still apply here. What may be the most important trick, especially for traditional radio, is making sure the songs play in as many different parts of the day as possible.

If someone listens at the same time every day, which happens all the time during the weekdays, you want them to hear as much variety as possible. If you play the same song in the same hour day after day, the listeners will pick up on that and the station will be perceived as being repetitive. On top of that, repeating that song takes up time that could have been used to play something completely different for the listener, giving the audience a chance to experience the depth of your music library.

Using the MusicMaster software, we make sure that every song plays in as many different hours as possible before repeating in the same hour. This is done using a feature called Optimum Goal Scheduling, and specifically a function called Optimum Hour Rotation. Simply put, this system constantly tries to select songs that have not been heard in this hour for the longest time, but have instead played in as many other hours as possible. Backing up this goal are some simple, but unbreakable rules that prevent any song from repeating in the exact same hour where it last played.

Even more important than hour rotation is the movement of songs throughout the day. If a song played at 10:32 last time, and it repeats at 11:10, the hour rotation goal and test would be satisfied, even though the song is repeating just 38 minutes away from where it last played. To keep the songs moving around as much as possible, MusicMaster Oldies uses another Optimum Goal Scheduling function in MusicMaster called Optimum Shift Rotation. Each day is broken up into eight different 3-hour wide time periods called Shifts. This goal tries to select songs that have played in as many other Shifts as possible before allowing them to repeat in the same Shift. This is backed up by another hard-and-fast rule that prevents any song from playing in the exact same Shift where it played last.

So now we've got the songs moving through the day, and also moving around throughout the hours of the day, and all of this tends to stir things up quite a bit. It helps to make sure that no two daily playlists are ever exactly alike on the MusicMaster Oldies channel. But there are other things to consider when building a great mix of music.

Putting your iPod on Shuffle gives you a random mix of songs, but it can sometimes do some annoying things. Well, they may not annoy you too much, since all the songs you put in your iPod are (probably) songs you absolutely love. You could hear them in any order and you'd be happy. But MusicMaster Oldies deliberately plays songs that you don't like. Why do we do that? We do it for the same reason broadcast radio stations do it, because we're broadcasting the same stream of music to many different people, and its pretty rare for two people to have exactly the same taste and preferences when it comes to music. A song that you consider a real clunker is probably a favorite for some other listener, and vice versa. It's a diverse world out there, and that's a good thing. It's why we have so many different types of music to sample and enjoy!

Still, we don't want you to stop listening just because you heard one song you don't like. The way we try to prevent that, with the help of the MusicMaster software, is to make sure that the next song after your clunker is one of your favorites. Of course, we don't know for sure that this will be the case, but if we create a really good blend of musical styles, eras, artists, and sounds, we stand a very good chance of achieving this goal.

MusicMaster software contains several other Optimum Goal Scheduling options and rules to help us maintain the best possible mix of song types. The first thing we consider is separation of songs performed by the same artist. That's because each artist tends to make songs that have a similar sound, and playing them too close together would sound repetitive. You may have noticed this when using your iPod on Shuffle. It can be annoying when you hear another song by the same artist just a couple of songs later. We use MusicMaster's Optimum Artist Keyword Separation to maintain the ideal separation between songs by the same artist. This not only keeps them from playing too close together, it also tries to prevent us from overlooking them for a long time, which can also be a bad thing.

For example, we know that the majority of oldies listeners love to hear songs by The Beatles. We try to play a Beatles song about once every couple of hours. Sometimes we go as long as four hours without playing a Beatles song, and sometimes we play them an hour apart. The separation of Beatles songs on MusicMaster Oldies, therefore, varies between about one to four hours. For the sake of the hard-core Fab Four fans out there, we would not want to skip over the Beatles for several hours or longer!

MusicMaster not only handles this job for the Beatles, it does the same magic trick for every artist we play on MusicMaster Oldies. Each artist's songs are spread out by an amount of time that is as close to perfect as possible, given the number of songs we play by that artist and the Categories we've used for those songs.

The Beatles are the most often heard artist on MusicMaster Oldies. Second most often you will hear a song by The King, Elvis Presley, whose songs are heard about once every 3 hours and 45 minutes. The Beach Boys are next at just under five hours apart. Ricky Nelson follows with about 5-1/2 hours of spacing. The Supremes are next at six hours, followed by Paul Simon (or Simon And Garfunkel) at about 7-1/2 hours, who are just about tied with The Four Seasons (and Frankie Valli).

Many artists started out in a group and later went solo after the breakup of the group. Some had solo careers before joining a group. Still others have done duets with other artists, who themselves may have been part of another group. All this can make it very interesting when trying to separate songs by the "same" artist, but the MusicMaster software takes care of all this for us automatically!

After artist separation, we also look at other factors that cause certain songs to have a similar sound. In the MusicMaster software, this is handled by assigning attribute codes to the songs. For example, we use an attribute code called Genre to control songs by their musical style. The Genre codes we use include things like Country, Garage Rock, Jazz, Bubble Gum, R&B, Early Rock & Roll, Surf Music, Novelty, Folk, Motown, Reggae, Swamp Rock, Teeny-Bopper, Modern Classic Rock, and many more.

We also use a Style attribute that identifies songs with unique characteristics like Non-English Lyrics, Live Recordings, Heavy Reverb Use, and so on. We also use attribute codes to control tempo, so we don't play too many really slow (or really fast) songs in a row. We use similar attribute codes and rules for Intensity, which can vary from acoustic to heavily produced.

The songs are also coded for Era because we don't want to get stuck for too long in a particular range of years. We also have attribute codes and rules for the Gender of the singers. There are still more attribute codes we use for informational purposes, such as to identify the instruments used on each song.

In the MusicMaster software, there are a many tests available that we use to control the blending of songs based on all these attribute codes. It helps us mix things up so we don't play too many songs in a row that have a similar sound. It may sound complicated, but it's really not difficult to maintain. As new songs are entered into the MusicMaster Oldies library, we just apply the attribute codes necessary to describe that song. The MusicMaster software takes care of the rest.

There are many more ways to control music flow and balance in the MusicMaster software. We use a bunch of the features for MusicMaster Oldies, but certainly not everything the software has to offer. As you can see, MusicMaster does a LOT more than your basic iPod Shuffle!

A very wise radio programmer once said that a good radio station is like a good salad. You've got a whole bunch of interesting ingredients that all taste good together. There are no ingredients that wouldn't taste good in a salad. But the secret of success is the quality of the mix. Every bite of your salad should have a nice blend of ingredients. You probably wouldn't want to eat all the lettuce first, then the tomatoes, then the cucumbers, and so on. In fact, if someone gave you a salad where the ingredients were NOT mixed up, you'd probably mix it up before you dug into it and started eating.

MusicMaster Oldies is a musical salad, and we sincerely hope you enjoy the mix! If you do, please tell your friends. If you don't, please tell the chef!

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