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03 mai 2008

Peter Gabriel makes his peace with MP3 - and launches a site that second-guesses your taste

Back in 2003, we ran an interview with Peter Gabriel in PC World's sister publication >>FFWD, in which the singer, best known for his solo effort So, railed against "the mediocrity of MP3" saying, "I feel sad about is the acceptance of MP3 as the standard, particularly for young people".

The ex-Genesis front man was not anti-technology by any means; it's just that he preferred uncompressed, full-blooded discs to the quality compromises inherent in compressed downloads. To wit, his interview was to push a Super Audio CD (SACD) remix of his back-catalogue, and his enthusiasm for that higher-resolution disc format. SACD went no where, and personally I didn't miss it. The format did offer a fuller range of sound, but most of it at frequencies that only dogs and teenagers can hear. Nor did I particularly take to SACD's (or DVD-Audio's) 5.1 gimmicky surround sound capability. After all, you don't stand in the middle of a band during concert; you sit out front.

I was reminded of Gabriel's comments when I recently downloaded Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" from iTunes. I was inspired by the TV series The Seven Ages of Rock (just winding down on Prime) which carried an interview with Rolling Stone's David Fricke, enthusing about the thwack! of snare drum that introduces Dylan's signature tune. I downloaded the track, then heard a tinny "phssst" as it started to play on my iPod. Yup, mediocre.

Anyhow, Gabriel has now apparantly got over his aural objections to digital downloads. With others investers, he's poured $US5 milllion into, a new search engine-cum-service that learns your music preferences, then suggests tracks you might like from its catalogue of 5 million songs.

In its first iteration, The Filter "learned" about your taste through a combination of saving your searches through its search engine (which otherwise looks pretty much like Google or any other), plus a downloadable app that sifted through your iTunes or Windows Media Player playlists. This month, Gabriel and co. are extending The Filter to cover TV and movies too, and the musician sees them as complemenatry with the services musical AI. He reckons that if The Filter knows what movies you like, then it can make a reasonable stab at what music appeals - and vice versa.

It's a good theory, but on their blog, The Filter's developers admit "things on the site are a bit slow, sometimes ugly and certainly buggy" as it struggles to emerge from beta to a live public launch scheduled this month. I agree. It's often taken me two or three attempts to log-in as various bizzaro error message are spat out by The Filter's home page. But once you're in, it's now looking pretty slick and user-friendly.

Entering Gabriel himself as an artist, I found The Filter quite free-ranging, suggesting tracks from everyone from Beth Orton to Hawkwind, The Police and, horrors, James Blunt

There are easier way to discover what people with similar taste are buying, such as the "people who bought this also bought XYZ" lists that and others offer. And The Filter's constant requests for you to rate artists (and TV programmes and movies) using a sliding bar can become onerous. But you do get more options, such as to only recommend artists from a particular time, or close or far thematically from your favourite. It makes for a fun browse.

/ PCworld New Zealand

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