Creating a nested playlist in Windows Media Player

[2010 update: The functionality described below was disabled by Microsoft, so will not work in Media Player versions 11 (Vista) or 12 (Windows 7).] 


Windows Media Player has never been especially friendly to classical-music listeners. You can’t search on the high-level Composer field, downloaded metadata from AMG and other sources varies in quality from non-existent or garbage to muddled, and the labelling of important fields is misleading at best. However for many people, the most frustrating angle is that you cannot chain a sequence of tracks/movements together in a playlist so that they will be heard in the right order even when the playlist is shuffled.



While this cannot be done within the Media Player user interface, it can be “hacked” one playlist at a time using just Notepad.

Each sequence of tracks that you would like linked – say the movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 - must be saved into its own playlist. Within WMP this is done by selecting the tracks, right-clicking and selecting Add to > Additional Playlists…

Once this is done, the new playlist will show up under My Playlists in the left hand pane of the Library. An accompanying playlist file (.WPL) is also created on disc.

Locate your playlist (*.WPL) files. By default they are in the My Music\My Playlists folder. However if you have moved the destination folder for ripping tracks in WMP, then I suggest going to the menu, and checking the dialog File > Save Now Playing List As… You can discover the parent folder for My Playlists by browsing the hierarchy in the dropdown box at the top.

Now, it would nice if I could just drag one playlist to another and have the option of retaining the dragged item as a nested playlist within the destination. That is to say, you could put a bag of music tracks into another bag of music tracks. This is not available: if you do drag one playlist to another, it simply “empties the bag” and your tracks are left “loose” with the other tracks.

To retain this “bag within a bag” structure, you will have to do a bit of simple editing of the playlist file. Open up the desired master-playlist (outer bag) using Notepad (right-click: Open With… Notepad). Make a backup copy of this playlist file first to play safe.

In Notepad, you’ll see the list of tracks in a list like this:

    <body>
        <seq>
            <media src=”..\Artist1\Album11 Track1.wma”/>
            <media src=”..\Artist5\Album1\11 Track11.wma”/>
            <media src=”..\Artist3\Album1\20 Track20.wma”/>
            <media src=”..\Artist7\Album11 Track1.wma”/>
        </seq>
    </body>

You may see some cid= or tid= parameters specified after the track names. Don’t worry about those here. To add our new set of tracks (the inner bag) is as easy as creating a new line in this list e.g.

    <body>
        <seq>
            <media src=”..\Artist1\Album11 Track1.wma”/>
            <media src=”..\Artist5\Album1\11 Track11.wma”/>
           <media src=”Beethoven-Symphony5.wpl”/>
            <media src=”..\Artist3\Album1\20 Track20.wma”/>
            <media src=”..\Artist7\Album11 Track1.wma”/>
        </seq>
    </body>


You can see I’ve simply added the filename of the Beethoven Symphony 5 tracks. Don’t worry too much about where in the list as you can reorder it from within WMP.

Save the changes in Notepad. Close and reopen WMP.

Go to the master playlist entry in the WMP Library. You should see an entry with a [+] next to it that can be used to show the sub-entries. You now have a nested playlist that can be moved like a single track, and which will be shuffled as a single track.

Why I still don’t like iTunes

Yesterday I had to download the new version of iTunes? Why? Well I had a .MOV(Apple Video format) file that I wanted to watch, and when I tried to play it, I was told that my version of Quicktime had expired and I’d have to download a new version (v7) before I could watch this file. And for a few versions now, Apple has been bundling iTunes with Quicktime, so you’re forced to install both if you want Quicktime.

Curious to see what improvements might have been made, I started it up. It asked me a few questions, and I could quickly see the big reason that I was not going to use it: it will not work directly with WMA files. iTunes demands that all such files are converted to Apple’s proprietary (but not licensable) format from Microsoft’s proprietary (but licensable) format. It does not demand this of MP3 (another proprietary, licensable format) files. Most of my files have been ripped to WMA-Lossless and even if thought AAC was a lovely format, I simply don’t have another 100GB or so spare disk-space to accommodate converted files. [—]

Moving on…

I allowed iTunes to look for music files to add to my library. It didn’t look beyond my root drive, so I had to tell it where else to go to find the root folder for the files I keep on my local drives. All of those files are backed up elsewhere, so I felt safe running this experiment.

After a while, it added about 5000 MP3 files to the library – i.e. passing over the WMA files. While this was in process I noticed that the music file monitor for my iRiver portable device was getting excited about something and had started a lengthy reprocessing of my music files. Sho’ nuff, iTunes had not only touched all of my MP3 files (the file-system Date Modified tag was altered), but it had re-tokenized all of the Artist fields, so that instead of using the ‘;’ delimiter, it now used ‘/’. Was this *really* necessary? If someone at Apple thought that the latter was more aesthetically pleasing, then they should have ASKED ME. [—]

I was about to write about the lack of special views for Artists and Albums, but the Browse button, top right (looks like an eye) opens some top-loading panes that allow filtering by Genre, Artist and Album. These do allow you to multiply select items, to create filters ?, but there is no way to do this for Composer, which is a big drawback for those with substantial Classical and Jazz collections. [–]

Apple does not expose an Album Artist field, which is very helpful in filtering a large collection (even just scanning my list of [Contributing] Artists in WMP is time consuming). [-]

Like WMP, iTunes has trouble with tokenizing Artist fields. Except that after retokenizing all the artist fields in nearly 5000 MP3 files it still presents every track’s list of artists as one conglomerated string e.g. “Jo Partridge/Barry Morgan/Ken Freeman/Jeff Wayne/Ra” – and that string is truncated, without so much as a tooltip to show me the entire string.[-]

iTunes does not find, play or otherwise acknowledge WMV (video) files. Even if it didn’t play them back, I sure as hell would like library software to LIST EVERYTHING.

Minor quibbles

I hate modal dialogs that could be replaced with more graceful modifications of the current display. For example, click on “Music Store” in the left pane. I get a big Apply white right pane with “iTunes Music Store” AND overlaid is an ugly little dialog saying it could not connect and to please remedy the matter. Could that not have been incorporated as text in the main display area, like a smart 404 error page in an internet browser?

Ugly little Options dialogs that do not seem to be stylistically part of the program. For example, those for Library and Visualization Options don’t seem to be from the same program as the Get Info dialog.

iTunes doesn’t automatically discover video files in your My Videos folder.

No context-sensitive help.

Things I Do Like

This is not an exhaustive list, as the major problems above preclude any day to day use of iTunes for my collection. This is what I found after playing around with the software for about an hour as I wrote these impressions.

[++] The search facility is VERY fast. I like that it filters the view on the fly as I type in my search string. (WMP’s search doesn’t fly….it drifts…like continents). iTunes also includes the Composer field in the search scope, which WMP still does not do. If I keep adding words then I can quickly filter by multiple criteria e.g. “Porter Ella” is going to give me all Cole Porter compositions sung by Ella Fitgerald. I’m still waiting for a Picasa-like Google media manager that will offer me more advanced syntax like “Porter -Ella” i.e. all Cole Porter compositions NOT sung by Ella Fitzgerald. … And then, I would save that as a playlist (optionally dynamic).

[-]I did notice that it was relatively easy to have some text in the search box that generated a nil result (no tracks found), and there was no feedback elsewhere on the screen to indicate that a filter had been applied. It looks like you’ve lost all your music when this has happened.

[+] The “Show Duplicate Files” (based on both title and artist being repeated) filter is handy for house-keeping purposes. However it is handicapped by the lack of a “File Path” field so that I can see why I have a duplicate. I have to right click > Show Song File (or Get File Info), on each and every file to discover this information.

[+] Folder and Playlist customization. I tried “File > New Folder” and got a new top level item in the left pane. I kept trying to drag tracks there, but it wasn’t until I searched through the Help file for a while that I discovered that I could only put Playlists or other folders there. This is another area where embedded help would be helpful.

[_] Auto-Complete was, in general, much more useful than that in WMP, which is so broken as to be useless (who needs auto-complete for track numbers????)

In short, I cannot use software that

  • cannot natively handle the file format of the majority of my collection
  • makes major changes to my data without warning

    I have no desire to be tied into an Apple-, Microsoft- or any other- world. The two afore-mentioned demonstrate from their media offerings that they still have a lot to learn, although they are both much better than the Philips and Sony packages. I’d like to see a really competitive/competent offering.

  • Skype Zones


    I’ve been travelling widely through the UK and Western Europe in recent months and often longed for ubiquitous, or at least reliable wireless internet access. Unfortunately there is nothing available for the casual tourist or business traveller- UK telcos do not accept credit cards domiciled in other countries, and the rates are quite horrendous and /or you cannot roam from network to network.


     


    So I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Skype-Boingo offering known as Skype Zones. For a small monthly rate, you get unlimited access to a range of networks around the world, with connections managed by a small but ahem inelegant piece of software. A travelling colleague and I quickly identified a number of pressing issues when using their software in the field. Since no feedback/support mechanism is provided, I posted to Skype’s regular telephony forums, and quickly got a response from someone at Boingo. They asked that I send feedback to them directly … however they have not acknowledged a single email, so I’m posting my thoughts here.


     


    Hotspot data issues


    Outside of London, the hotspot directory proved to be woefully inaccurate. Some of the towns that did not have hotspots working were Stratford-on-Avon, Henley-on-Thames and others in the Oxford city area.



    The hotspots above either didn’t work or the ones listed in the directory were for other UK towns that were not even in the same county. Although I always use Country, State (ie ENG) and Town, I’m pretty sure there are no other cities with those .

    If you look for example at Straford-upon-Avon, it lists 5 spots, but two of them are actually in other cities (the zipcode is right but the city is wrong). This seems to be the main problem with the data. Of course none of the actual hotspots in Stratford actually worked…

    User interface bugs and design problems


    The UI really needs a complete overhaul so that there is room for useful information rather than decorations. If you’re in a hotspot or looking for one, you need to maximise the use of your time to find and utilize the hotspot. Any and all of these issues could have been quickly found from a field trial. Since the beta software doesn’t include any feedback mechanism, then I can’t call it a real field trial.


     


    1. the zone dialog needs to be resizable so that more spots in one location are viewable – too much space is wasted on decorative UI
    2. it’s not obvious that the location data is local to your machine OR that it can be updated from the Help Update Skype Zones software menu
    3. it would help greatly if there were some intelligence to let you find the nearest hotspots from a city/zip code (off line)
    4. If you request that Skype Zones connect automatically then it should log-in automatically as well (if you so request)
    5. Skype Zones doesn’t ever actually connect automatically – it ALWAYS asks, even if you’ve specified automatic connection
    6. other wifi signals may connect automatically even though you have specified only Skype should – the precedence rules set in Skype just don’t work
    7. if Skype loses connection then it should try to reconnect without asking you and then asking you to log-in again
    8. it shouldn’t keep telling you there are new signals and offering to connect you if you are already connected – in particular it shouldn’t offer to connect you to a network you’re already connected to!
    9. it shouldn’t put up modal dialogs if it can’t connect


     


    Feedback after looking for hotspots in Italy and France.

    The abbreviated “State” listings are really unhelpful as they are different to the states listed in the results. The software should also remember the location that you last searched in, instead of always defaulting to the USA.


     

    Beware Philips DMM

    While staying with some friends in the UK recently, I was asked to help straighten out their digitized music collection, and help with using a newly purchased Philips HDD120 MP3 player.

    I found that their PC reproduced many problems I had experienced with WMP 9/10 regarding overwriting of local metadata even with corresponding WMP options turned off. Microsoft is still in denial over this issue. Apparently Jim Allchin has read items in this blog but we’re still a world away from his WMP team addressing any of the issues which affect consumer data. When I say “affect”, it’s a euphemism for “destroy”.

    Meanwhile, at Philips software department, a similar low standard and atmosphere of denial persists. I installed their DMM (Digital Music/Media Manager) software which accompanies their MP3 player. I also made a point of getting a more up to date version of that software from their website. I found that the software has a maddening problem (in addition to its maddening synch slowness) – it requires that the user be a Windows Administrator ie not use a Limited profile on Windows XP. Whereas most software can be installed once by an Administator account and thence be available to all accounts on that machine, the DMM software has to be installed individually for each account. There’s a twist though, if you install for a second account, then the software goes into uninstall mode, therefore ensuring it only works for a single user on the machine. Heaven forbid that a family have one PC and multiple MP3 players!

    Anyway, once you have installed the software, you cannot expect to revert to a Limited profile, because

    a) the software will not load past the splash screen.  It gives an error “The application can not start (OK)”  and then
    closes.

    b) the device is not recognized as connected (although Windows Explorer sees the removable hard drive)

    unless the profile stays as an Administrator. It seems that Philips does not recognize the security risks inherent in running every day as an Administrator, particularly if always connected to the internet via broadband.

    When I put this issue to Philips support initially their response (2-Sep-2005) was:

     Thank you for your recent e-mail.

    With regards to your query we can advise that the software may have
    been installed, while the computer was logged in on the Admin account,
    therefore the Limited account will not recognise the software as being
    fully installed.
    We would advise that you verify this, and if you find that the
    software has been installed on the Limited Account only, but you are
    still receiving this message, that you contact us, in order to resolve
    the matter.

    We trust that the information provided will be of assistance.

    Should you require any further information please contact our Customer
    Care Centre (details below) quoting customer reference number
    50-59047542.

    When I replied, with additional details (including item #2 above), and confirming the behaviour on 2 other PCs, the response (5-Sep-2005) was:

     With regards to your query we can advise that this is normal, the DMM
    software will only recognise the unit, if the computer is logged in on
    the same ‘Profile’ as where the software has been installed.

    … completely ignoring any of the issues outlined.

    I subsequently googled on “Philips DMM Administrator” to see if there were solutions listed by other users. The most edifying was the first hit from 10-11-2004, which may predate the release of the device in question, and certainly goes back some versions of the DMM software:

     Recently I spoke to an ex collegue, who left our company for Philips research in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. He had been running around the consumer product labs for 3 months, and he told me this story about the development and marketing of the HDD100:
    “They had just made the first version of the player, and now they (the developers) had to ram together some software to make it at least work, so they would be able to show something to the marketing guys. What they came up with was more a ‘proof of concept’, not intended for the consumer at all. Some big hotshot saw that it more or less worked and said: “That’s good enough, put it on the market “. The developers protested, but to no avail. The software, which was in an alpha stage at best, became the official software as we now no it.”
    So don’t blame the developers, but blame the big bosses at Philips that gave us this software for a device that cost me 500 euro (I was an early adopter):
    -You have to have administrator rights to be able to run the software.
    [etc]

    Update: Philips (Sep-6-2005) now parrot back my problem report:

     With regards to your query we can advise that in order for the
    application to run properly you would need to execute DMM under a
    profile with Administrator Rights. If you are unsure, we suggest that
    you consult with your Network Administrator.

    We trust that the information provided will be of assistance.

    Should you require any further information please contact our Customer
    Care Centre (details below) quoting customer reference number
    50-59047542.

    Although their software has been updated this year, it appears Philips have no intention of addressing this usability/security issue. And how many home users have a Network Administrator to consult? … and wouldn’t such an Administrator want all the accounts they support set to Limited??

    Update Sep-7-2005. Philips write:

     With regards to your query we can advise that there are no security
    issues and that it is not dangerous running your operating system
    using an Administrator profile. As you are fully aware the software
    does require an Administrator level profile to install the software.
    It is the same to run the software as you need be logged in to a
    profile with Administrator rights for it to be able to execute the
    application.
    [My italics]

    Compare, for instance Michael Howard’s (Microsoft Security Engineering) basic mantra:

     I’ve said this many times, but I’ll say it again, “Running with an administrative account is dangerous to the health of your computer and your data.” So, whenever someone says they must operate their computers as administrators, I always try to persuade them it’s not the correct thing to do from a security perspective. That said, every once in a while I meet someone who has a valid reason. For example, I use one of the computers in my office to install the latest daily build of Windows, and I need to be an administrator to install the OS. However, and this is a big point, I do not read e-mail, browse the Web, or access the Internet in any form when running as an administrator on that machine. And I do not do so because the Web is the source of most of the nasty attacks today.

    Philips’s subsequent messages have been:

     With regards to your query we can advise that you should contact our
    customer service helpdesk on the following number should you wish to
    discuss this case further.

    I have called them on earlier occasions, and found their staff scrambling to find any documentation for their products beyond the bare-bones help included with DMM. I’ve suggested that any solution can be outlined easily in an email, rather than a lengthy, expensive (and probably unproductive) phone-call.

    I searched the web for more background on this software and keep encountering end-users who have returned the product because they cannot get around the errors I’ve outlined. Philips are out of touch with their customers.

    September 14 – Philips offer a magic solution i.e. ignore all earlier parts of the conversation and start repeating earlier incorrect advice. Reminds me of a similar recent thread with iRiver tech support.

     With regards to your query we can advise that you simply need to
    install the software on the specific profile that you would like to
    use the Programme on.

    English = English(US)?

    All over the microsoft.com site I see confused, misrepresented directives for English language versions of Microsoft products : “must be running English(US)”.



    For example, Windows XP Powertoys: “PowerToys will only work with US-English regional settings.” Which regional settings? All of them, one of them? What would happen if one or more were set to English(UK) or some other English locale? Nothing I suspect, but there is a terrible confusion over locale vs location vs language.



    The Windowsmedia Player v10 readme says: If you reside in another country or region [to English(US)], we recommend that you wait for the version of Windows Media Player 10 for your country or region to be released before installing. Here’s news: there are no versions of Windowsmedia Player localized for English locales outside of the United States.



    Even Microsoft Office is not exempt from this foolishness; many downloads are said to be for English(US) only. Here’s one pulled up at random for a Word 2000 French Speller update, which is titled French Proofing Tools Update for English (US, Canada) Office 2000 even though the update applies to all English language Office installs.

    Allchin: minor WMP update this year

    Thomas Hawk passed on news of a minor update to Windows Media Player.



    While we’re both hopeful of performance improvements for larger media libraries, my main hopes are that they will first address

    • overwriting of metadata, track file-names and even deletion of tracks which has been evident since v9 was in beta
    • user control over album art so that correct art (like other metadata) is not overwritten by WMP when it decides your art is wrong: 1 2 3
    • album updates and search 1 2
    • linking of error IDs to online resources

    Allchin says no WMP fixes until Longhorn

    Thomas Hawk dined with Jim Allchin, and extracted the following titbits:



    Microsoft is building the next version of Longhorn Media Center to accommodate much larger digital libraries. As some of you may have read in the past I have had some performance issues with my large .mp3 library. Longhorn will be better able to handle very large digital libraries. Having 500 photos or so in a folder will render quickly and the media player should be able to easily accommodate 100,000 + item media libraries.

    Jim did acknowledge that there still were some issues today with Windows Media Player and I shared with him the fact that earlier that day Chris Lanier had blogged that his collection of WMP web help articles now had seen over 1 million views. Jim said that they are working on many of these issues but that a new version of WMP and fixes would not be out until Longhorn.
    [My emphasis].



    I wonder how much user data – files and metadata – will be destroyed by WMP by then? Will the Windowsmedia team actually act constructively regarding user feedback on bugs that they have ignored through two previous betas? Does this translate to fixes for Windows XP and long overdue fixes for Windows 2000

    Online store opens in New Zealand

    Six months ago, I changed my Windows User Input Locale setting from English (Australia) to English(New Zealand) to evade the ghastly online stores that had invaded my desktop. When these stores turned up, the album reviews and track listings available through the windowsmedia.com database (the *only* database accessible to WMP users: it’s not CDDB and it’s not user configurable) were replaced by some really poorly presented rows of unrelated albums generated from the od2.com fugly thumbnail catalog that the vendor wanted to sell. Over the last 6 months, I can confirm that the presentation of this catalog hasn’t become any more professional. The ninemsn suggestions are still laid out in a stupefyingly primitive manner.




    Tonight I noticed that Digirama had opened as the NZ Music Store, and I thought I may have to reset my locale to English(Belize) (which at time of writing, was still spared the incursion of online stores). Fortunately, the View Album Info function has not been relinquished to the the OD2 fugly thumbnail server and you can still get album reviews from the windowsmedia.com.

    If that is lost, I guess I’ll be grabbing my scuba gear, sand-fly ointment and heading for Belize…

    Bundling of Proofing Tools

    Michael Kaplan blogged on this subject.



    It’s very true that the costs of producing any of the language tools can vary enormously from one language to the next. In general, I expect that the smaller the language-base, the greater the cost. This is due to there being less choice resources available to choose from in terms of say lexical resources, voice or handwriting samples and computational linguists. Frankly, if you have a population under about 10 million, how many people do you really have devoted to collecting and analyzing the necessary data for creation of these tools?



    [Digression]

    In smaller or less-developed countries, the pattern is for interested parties: government, educational and media organizations to pool such resources to create a standard set of spell-checking, thesaurus or possibly voice-recognition tools. They can then tailor them to different APIs for Microsoft Office, OpenOffice or other platforms.



    There are also some specialist companies who deal with the unique issues of low population language bases or even creole populations. I am sure that some of these are done as a labour of love by modern-day Samuel Johnsons.



    For the record, there is not just a single spell-checker for Office and multiple “dictionaries” for each language. Each language has a unique spell-checker (and grammar-checker and thesaurus and hyphenation and …) DLL that comes paired with equally unique “LEX” files which store linguistic data. There is not even a single “LEX” format: it’s really just a Microsoft convention for naming the resource files that accompany the checker-engine DLLs. And since Microsoft ships DLL/LEX sets produced by many other companies, the LEX format will vary according to the imagination and computational skills of each of these companies.

    [/Digression]



    Nonetheless there are definitely issues with making even the Proofing Tool sets available to the market. Each version of Microsoft Office sees a new version of the PT CD released. The versions of Office and the PT CD must match at installation time but you can subsequently upgrade Office and the older PT elements will still operate. Unfortunately, older versions of the PT CD generally disappear from warehouses long before their product lifetime has expired, and even the Microsoft online store struggles to keep them in stock. For several years I had to send an email to a senior member of the Microsoft Word team to ask them to prompt distributors to keep these items in stock. I hope that Microsoft can figure a way to make these tools available over the web.


    How much worse will Windowsmedia online database get?

    I’ve remarked before on a case of Windowsmedia reporting different album information according to whether or not you click the “Find Album Info” or “View Album Info” buttons in Windows Media Player v10. Today I picked up a copy of the latest Verve remixes, and threw it into the computer to rip to Lossless WMA.



    WMP didn’t automatically pick up the album details, but when I clicked the Find Album Info button, it showed the correct album “Various Artists – Verve Remixed, Vol.3″ … but no track information was included (or album art). Which makes me wonder why AMG even bothers to put the information into the database. I ran a search on “Verve Remixed” but did not find any other records for this, Volume 3. So I returned to the original record, edited the tracks manually and uploaded the details.



    Out of curiosity, I clicked the “Find Album Info” – this time I get a different record returned which has all the track titles (but still no album art). Note, these are NOT the ones I uploaded, as I included the remix information in the titles.


    It makes me wonder further, if Microsoft and AMG et.al. collectively can’t give a damn about maintaining these databases or getting the search code to work, why WMP is not opened up to allow access to other information sources. Since WMP is an integral part of Windows (as we hear so often and so strenuously from Microsoft), doesn’t the tying of album-links to a single database basically amount to the same thing as smart-tags redirecting one to a proprietary Microsoft back-end?