It’s just not enough to review it, anyone can do that.

Love them or hate them, Apple has a plan. Perhaps it’s global domination, perhaps it’s just creating beautiful products that work together. In any case, the newest things to hit the Apple ecosphere are the much talked-about iCloud service, and iTunes match.

In a quick overview: iTunes Match fixes the problem of syncing the music that you want to your satellite devices (in my case, the iPhone and iPad). Those devices don’t have as much space as your computer hard drive, and plugging it into your computer to sync, choosing which tunes to copy – really annoying. With iTunes Match, your devices sync over iCloud, and you see all of your music on, say, your iPhone. Pick the album or songs that you want to hear, and the music is loaded to the device for listening. There are more details, but that about covers the basic function for which it was designed. The major difference between iTunes match and the other guys is that iTunes doesn’t load all of your music up into the cloud from your computer. If they have your “match,” They push their own copy of the music to your other devices. The only music that they upload from your collection are tunes they don’t have, like your Metallica concert bootlegs or a particularly old Gene Autrey album.

With that fact in mind, there’s an interesting side-benefit: since Apple is loading the matched tunes to your phone from their servers, why not also load the music to your computer if you need it? Let’s say you ripped CD back in the dark-ages of digital music. You know, 2003. Then, a 128k .mp3 was considered pretty high-quality, and took up very little precious, expensive (for the time) hard drive space. Now we realize that 128k sounds like crap. Music pirates won’t even touch 128k files for free. Even music services like MOG stream at 320k, so you are now very aware that your 128k files suck.

But, darn it, you cant find that CD to re-rip it at a better quality. You’ve moved three times, and possibly loaned it to a nefarious neighbor that never returned it, then played it very loudly (and often) after you left the neighborhood. What to do?

Simply delete it from iTunes on your computer, and re-load if from Apple’s servers, just like you would load it to your iPhone. Since they are 256k AAC files, They sound miles better than that old 128k .mp3 drivel. Poof! Instant upgrade.

So, 25 bucks (24.99) sounded like a great investment to tinker with the service, and maybe fix a few old recordings. I not only synced all my music and did some album replacing, but tried some nasty cheating to see if I could trip-up the service.

After setting everything up and letting iTunes Match do its work, I can say that  iTunes match is not perfect. However, it’s no slouch. Using an algorithm similar to a program like Shazam, iTunes Match scours all of your music, matching your songs with Apple’s, then uploading anything that they don’t have from your computer to the cloud. Oddly enough, a few mainstream albums managed one or two songs that didn’t match, even though they technically should have. I have an Alan Parsons album completely matched except for the last song, and quite a few others that are in a similar state. There are all kinds of theories running around: lousy bit rates being too noisy to match; new, remastered albums not being a perfect sonic match to the original releases. Whatever. I’d say Apple’s about ninety-nine percent accurate, and that’s quite an achievement.

The biggest trouble that I had was with classical music. But (and pay attention) it wasn’t Apple’s fault at all. My problem with iTunes Match and classical is totally the fault of the music industry.

Too often, classical recordings are seen as commodities that can be passed off, shuffled and re-released over and over again. They are faceless pieces of music that are often only known by the composer who wrote them, not the conductor or symphony that performed them. One company releases an older recording that they purchased from another label. Five years later, they get rid of it, or go under, and someone else releases it. But, hey, it’s only a forty-five minute recording of a Mozart symphony, let’s add this concerto to fill-out the CD. A Barry Manilow album is always the same album, even if they decide to change the cover a bit. He released them with a certain title, in a certain order, and it will stay that way well beyond the day when Mr. Manilow is no more.

When iTunes matched one-half of an album, which was one concerto, it would not match the other half, which was a different concerto. Obviously, someone re-released half of the album that I owned on some other album that I didn’t, but iTunes recognized the songs, just the same. Another series of albums, the complete Beethoven symphonies, was re-released by another company, but given completely different covers, and were no-longer seen as a set, but individual albums. I guess when you spend your life in the bargain bin looking for inexpensive classical albums, expect a rocky time with iTunes Match. Once again, my classical woes were not Apple’s fault, and kudos to them for finding the works they had on their servers at all.

Lastly, as I do with all new techie things, I had to try to push iTunes Match to it’s limits, trying something utterly wrong to see if I could stump the service, and learn how things work in the process. To do this, I flat-out lied. I tried an experiment to see if a true Music Pirate could get away with murder. I picked an album that I don’t own, have no recordings of, or even really wanted (but that’s beside the point – its an experiment, dammit!), looked it up in the iTunes store and got to work.

Using an MP3 editor, I took a DIFFERENT album that I actually own, and changed all of the tags of the MP3 tracks and renamed them to match the artist, album name, album cover and track names. Would iTunes match see all the false data and give me a pass? Would Apple give me an album that I didn’t own? I Loaded my counterfeit album into iTunes, and asked the Apple music gods to match it…

…And Apple did. ITunes Match matched my fake album – with the actual album that it WAS – NOT the fake one that I tried to pass off on them. Sorry pirates, you’ll just have to steal your music from somewhere else and load it into iTunes. Even though iTunes had all of the wrong data that I forced down its throat, it still matched the individual tracks to the real album. Looking at those results, I walked away with the following insights:

iTunes Match is based solely on the sonic signature of the music tracks to make a match. It also leaves your titles, track order, etc. in tact. This makes perfect sense, especially if you didn’t like the name of the Thriller 25th Anniversary album and re-named it simply, Thriller, the way God intended it. It won’t confuse iTunes Match, which will still match the tunes, and leave the names the way you like them. The same goes for album covers (mostly, it did change one from my collection) and your own personal playlists or Frankensteinian album creations. I’ve made a couple of 80’s compilations with my own cover – iTunes matched the songs, and left my info intact.

So, overall, I give iTunes Match what I call an “Apple” A. Other people may complain about the less than 100% matching ability, and give it a “real-world” B, but I’ve been around the Apple universe long enough to know that there will be updates to address the issue and make it a non-issue. At that time, Apple will forget the issue ever existed, so they can tout how perfect it was right from the start. Even after Steve Job’s passing, the ‘reality distortion field’ is still firmly in place. It’s a part of his legacy. That, and some really cool ideas like iTunes Match.

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