Friday, March 25, 2011

Cover Flow: Finally a reason to love iTunes

So last night while poking around on iTunes I finally discovered Cover Flow. Or maybe I should say I re-discovered it. I had initially come across this animated interface when it was initially integrated into iTunes 7 back in late 2006. Back then I was using iTunes to manage my entire music library-- a precarious solution to say the least. Now anyone who's spent time around me knows that my list of grievances with Steve Jobs' ubiquitous media manager are numerous. (Lack of support for FLAC, no customizable skins, crap visualizer, memory hog, lousy for track tagging), but being the owner of two iPods, I had little choice other than to use their app for all my .mp3 sorting needs.

When I first triggered Cover Flow to see what it was all about, I was underwhelmed. For those unfamiliar with how it works, in the simplest terms Cover Flow essentially presents the cover art stashed in the ID3 tag of your mp3 files as a collection of miniature LP sleeves that can quickly be browsed through. In theory it seems like a cool idea, but logistically for large music collections it's a nightmare. At least half of the 25,000+ .mp3 files in my library had no cover art at all, and of the ones that did, much of it was incorrect. Disgusted, I quickly switched back to list mode and remained there for the next four years.

However the temporary loss of my main workstation a couple of months ago necessitated a switch to a new machine. This interim machine, while blessed with a powerful Intel Xeon processor, lacks sufficient drive space, capping out at 100MB. Clearly I only needed to copy music that I absolutely could not live without in the short term. Well, I needed to get the blog up and running again anyway, so the decision was made to just copy over music that was being or was about to be shared on the blog. I would get back to my massive main collection when the old workstation was up and running again. The music was summarily copied over to the new machine and dumped into iTunes. Everything was working as it should, when somehow I managed to jack up the way the program sorted albums. It now insisted on only sorting by something called "Album By Artist". What the hell was this shit? Angered by Apple's insistence on telling me how to organize my tunes, I furiously started going through options in the menu bar. This is how I rediscovered Cover Flow.

What's this? All my album art was in place and looking tight on my 36" bedroom LCD screen. I paused to consider why this was. Clearly the time I had spent track-tagging music for the blog had paid off. Instead of a gigantic collection of poorly tagged files from sundry sources like on the old machine, this was a tightly managed collection a tenth of the size, with all tagging and artwork meticulously prepared. Only with such a library does Cover Flow truly shine, but when it does it is simply the best method I know to digest digital music.

Much is made today of the soullessness of .mp3s and the death of LP and CD art. Now it has been brought back to life. As I listened to the songs playing, I found myself compelled to quickly forward from track to track, watching with amusement as the mini-LP sleeves rapidly flipped back and forth between tracks. Most digital music organizational software displays artwork at about one square inch, if at all, so it was nearly a revelation to see it displayed at over three times that size. The time I had spent picking out appropriate artwork for all my old "records" had finally paid off, as I was rewarded by minor details that would have otherwise gone unnoticed: The Parlophone "pound" logo on my mono UK Revolver, the different elements of the Their Satanic Majesties Request cover mural, the deep green background and action illustrations on And Then Along Comes... The Association. For the first time ever listening to digital music, I was rewarded with the same charge of positive electricity I receive whenever I flip through my old vinyl.

It occurred to me that Cover Flow, when used in a well-tagged music library, brought back the record collector sensibility to the digital age. In retrospect, it's not much of a mystery why this is so. While simply downloading music off of the internet is an instant gratification, there is no sense of accomplishment associated with doing so, the way there is when one discovers a lost gem amidst the dollar vinyl bins at the Record Shack. Most of us know and cherish the feelings associated with making a new vinyl "discovery" at the store, then going home and cleaning the record, giving it a spin and finally sorting it alphabetically amidst one's collection. It's the juice that keeps record nerds like us powered up, and the reason we drop so much money on an "obsolete" medium. What makes Cover Flow so great is that it gives a bit of that same feeling over to the digital realm. The time you spend properly tagging and "arting" your digital music file becomes akin to time spent digging through crates. Flipping through your "records" is your hard-earned reward. Except Cover Flow offers up one feature that real world collecting generally can't. If you're the sort of person who is into making their own compilations and mixes, including customized artwork, it is really groovy to see your own cover designs mixed in amongst all your old favorites. As a designer, it gives you a real sense of the quality of your own art. It's one thing to whip up a cover in Photoshop, make a little thumbnail and tag a file with it, but it's quite another to see how it looks as part of the band's canon. Trust me when I say you'll quickly get a sense as to which of your covers are worthy additions to the world of album art and which ones aren't up to par, or just flat-out suck.

Anyway I hope I've convinced you to give Cover Flow a try, even if you normally hate iTunes as I do. I am certainly going to attempt to make everything I upload here "Cover Flow" friendly. If any of you have tried this or would like to get into it, we can discuss tips or techniques in the comment section.


  1. What you said!

    (It also helps that Apple has expanded the assortment of albums for sale on the ITunes Music Store, because iTunes will automatically download cover art for albums in your collection even if you didn't purchase those tracks from the long as the store has that album available.)

  2. Cool! I forgot to mention that iTunes has that "find album art" feature in the menu bar too. I guess the only problem with that is you may wind up with the art for the wrong issue or pressing of a particular album. I'm going to play around with it next time and see what kind of results I get!