Building Better Smart Playlists in iTunes (Part 2 of 2)

Note: This article is Part 2 of a series.  You can read Part 1 here.

Last week we went over Smart Playlists in iTunes and the basics of them. We learned what each checkbox does and how they can be used for simply playlist management. Our goal of this two part series was so that I could teach you, the reader, how to use Smart Playlists to control the music that gets copied to your iPod. Through using Smart Playlists, we can make something that would be a tedious process into something that is more easily managed. To give an example of what I am talking about, let us say that you have an iPod Nano that has 8 gigabytes of space on it. In turn, you also just ripped your entire CD collection that takes up around 30 gigabytes of space. The default reaction to this in iTunes is a dialog that says something to the tune of:

There is not enough space on your iPod to copy your entire library. Would you like iTunes to automatically manage the songs on your iPod?

If you click “Yes” then iTunes automatically copies a set of songs to your iPod. The songs are selected on numerous criteria including but not limited to recently played, ratings, and recently added. When automatically updating, you have very little control over what actually makes it onto your iPod. But with Smart Playlists not only can we control what we take with us, but we can do it in a way that is easy to manage.

Before we dive completely in, I would like to first mention that the playlists I go over how to create are simply examples. You can and should modify them to fit your needs. I for one do not believe in rating my songs because what I might not like one day I might love two days later so ratings to me are completely useless, but you might find that rating your songs allows you to create better playlists in a situation where you need to fit music onto a Nano or Shuffle.. Also, I assume that you have your metadata (ID3 tag) up to snuff and as accurate as possible. To learn more about ID3 tags, you can check out my article Building Your Digital Music Collection (Part 2 of 2). Now lets get on with it.

We are going to stick with the idea of having an 8GB iPod Nano in this little exercise, I will explain what parts you should modify to better suit smaller or larger iPods as we go along. There are basically five different types of playlists we’d want to have. Below is a table of those lists and why we would have them.

Playlist Reason Size
Recently Played Contains tracks we have recently listened to either on the iPod or in iTunes. Chances are if you have listened to a song recently you might be in the mood for that song so there is a high chance you will listen to it again. 2 GB
Recently Added Contains tracks we have recently added to the iTunes library. You are not ripping songs so they can sit on your hard drive unplayed. If you have recently added them you probably want to listen to them. 1GB
Least Listened to Tracks we have not played in a while. You can not always listen to the same stuff so you need to mix it up a little and throw some tracks you have not heard in a while back on. 1GB
Most Played Everyone has those songs that they just love. This is a playlist full of them. This way you always have your favorites with you. 1GB or 25-50 songs
Filler This playlist is created to be random filler on your iPod. Like I said earlier, you can not listen to the same stuff all the time. Playlists like this ensure that you will have music to rediscover on your iPod. 2-3GB

You might notice that I only use about 6-7 gigabytes of our total space. This so that you have extra space on the iPod to transfer files like documents, pictures, or other files around on your iPod. Now that we have a game plan, lets start making some playlists. Look at the screenshot below (click to enlarge), you will notice that these kinds of playlists do not have a lot in them.

As you can see, this kind of Smart Playlist does not require anything to complicated to get going. You can make it slightly more complicated if you have podcasts in your library, by adding a “Genre IS NOT Podcast” piece of criteria. Even with small additions to get rid of things like podcasts or videos the over simplicity of the Smart Playlist is not lost. The most important thing here is the “Limit to” option. You will notice that we set the “Limit to” option to 1GB (I know I said 2GB in my table, what is important here is the concept). This limits the playlist to 1 gigabyte of your most recently played items. This is probably the most important part about using Smart Playlists to manage your portable music device.

Let us move on to the second playlist. This one is of our most recently added songs. For my example I chose to do songs with a playcount, the number of times the song has been played completely, of less than 5. You might want to change this to a lower number (or maybe even a higher one, it is up to you). Just remember that since you play the song it will show up in the “Recently Played” playlist we create above.

You might notice by now that if you look all the way to the right that next to the “Limit to” check box and its settings is the “selected by” drop down list. As well as from that list we selected “most recently added” and for this example the “most recently added” options. These are some preset options that we can use to limit our selection of songs down without having to put in very much criteria in the top part of the playlist creation dialog. Now lets look at the “Least Listened To” playlist.

There is very little deviation from the playlist to playlist. We are only changing minor things to achieve a different goal. And as I have said before, we can complicate these a little. For example, in our “Least Recently Played” playlist we can add a piece of criteria that will eliminate songs that you skipped over so that they will not show up for a little while. The field we would use for this is the “Last Skipped” so we would do something like “Last Skipped is NOT in the last 1 month” and that would keep it out of this playlist for at least a month. So if you skip a song, it will not show up on your iPod for a little while. However, if you play the song in iTunes it would be added to your “Recently Played Playlist” ensuring that it go back on your iPod if you began to listen to it before the month was up. Hopefully, you are beginning to understand how these are connected to each other to ensure songs you want end up on the iPod and songs you do not want do not.

Our next playlist is the one titled “Most Played” and this one we are going to do something different in that we are going to limit on the total number of items instead of the amount of space used. Look closely at the “Limit to” option and you will notice that it is limited to “25 items” rather than 1GB.

Last but not least is our Filler list. This list is important important because it allows you to fill out the space already not used by the other playlists with songs not included in the other playlists. So this one is probably the most complicated example we will look at.

While the “Filler” playlist has more criteria than the other examples, it is simply the same kind of criteria with just the values changed. We simply tell the playlist to only select songs that are not in any of the current playlists ensuring that we do not get songs in the “Filler” playlist that are already in the others. This helps us get a nice mix of stuff on the iPod. You can modify the size of this playlist based on the overall total combined size of the other four playlists. A really good way to get the overall combined size of the playlists is to add them all to a playlist folder. You can create a playlist folder in iTunes by selecting File\New Folder. Once you have the folder created, you can drag and drop the playlists we have just created to the folder. After you have all 5 playlists under a folder you can then select the folder and it will show you all the songs from all five playlists as well as give you the stats on the folder and its included playlists. Stats like total run time and overall space used.

As I stated in the beginning, these are simply examples. A starting point if you will for you to hopefully experiment and come up with some playlists that will work for you. Another cool thing you can do with the folder that you create is you can create playlists outside of the folder that rely on the songs in the playlists under that folder, like the example I show below.

This allows you to create playlists based on the songs you know are going to be on your iPod and thus you never have to worry about running out of space due to creating playlists that you could use as the gym or at work.

I hope that you have learned something about Smart Playlists over these past couple of weeks. Smart Playlists are an incredibly powerful tool inside iTunes. We have only scratched the surface of how much you can do with them. You can create some incredibly complex playlists and just to show you what you can do, I will leave you with a screenshot of one of my Smart Playlists. This playlist is one that I use at work to keep me in upbeat music while I perform my many job functions. You might notice that I use the BPM criteria, the time criteria, and the genre criteria to dictate what goes into the playlist. The BPM flag is what ensure the song is upbeat enough, if I get a song I do not think is upbeat enough I go and look at it’s BPM and I modify the playlist to have higher low end BPM count.

Do you have a smart playlist you use and like? Please, post the criteria in a comment and share with me and the readers as I am always in the mood for some new playlists.

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