Hands on: Mufin brings music discovery to your desktop


Oct 15, 2008
source ars

The music discovery market is heating up, and Web-based service Mufin has just unveiled a standalone music player to better compete with iTunes' Genius feature, Pandora, and the rest of its opposition. The Mufin Player wraps the company's self-professed unique music discovery tools into a typical desktop media player, so Ars donned some headphones to compare Mufin's engine to the current kings of music exploration.

Currently only available for Windows XP and Vista, the Mufin Player does exactly what one would expect on first run—it begins scanning the local drive for music to import (an iTunes import tool can bring along your playlists as well). Once the process is done, you are then presented with a fairly standard music player UI, and Mufin's discovery tools—based on what are now fairly common criteria like rhythm, tempo, sound density, and instrumentation—get to discovering. Start playing a track, and a "Similar Music" bar above the player controls will present similar tracks either from Mufin's database or from your own library. Throwing a bit of a wrench into the experience, however, is that clicking to find out more about an artist or purchase a track (if that is even possible) opens up a window of your default browser—not a different area of the Mufin Player.

Interestingly, you can sort your own library based on Mufin's perceived similarity between your tracks. But since the "taste" or accuracy of any music discovery service can make or break its appeal, we put the Mufin Player to task against Pandora and iTunes Genius with Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Aeroplane."

The first three similar tracks that Mufin returned were Matisyahu's "Chop'em Down (Live)," The Robocop Kraus' "You Don't Need A Doctor," and Cheap Trick's "You Say Jump." The first two were interesting and somewhat accurate recommendations, though Cheap Trick seems a bit out of place when paired up with RHCP.

Pandora, one of the most famous (though unfortunately troubled) music recommendation services, returned similarly interesting tracks. Based on the Music Genome Project, Pandora claims to harness the exhaustive analysis of "hundreds" of musical aspects—rhythm, arrangement, lyrics, vocal harmony—to power its discovery engine. The first three songs Pandora returned for "Aeroplane" were Queens of the Stone Age's "No One Knows," Helix's "The Storm," and Locomotive Breath's "I Can't Feel Nothing (Part II)."

iTunes Genius, for our final comparison, offered what were easily the least ambitious recommendations, though its discovery system is decidedly more crowdsourced than Mufin and Pandora. Instead of deep musical analysis, Apple uses the power of playlists and listening habits that it anonymously collects from willing iTunes users (as well as iTunes Store purchasing habits) to help you discover new music. The first three recommended songs (that are way too easy to buy from the iTunes Genius bar) are Beck's "Where's It's At," Stone Temple Pilot's "Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart," and Soundgarden's "Spoonman." According to iTunes users, the 90's Seattle sound (and whatever Beck is) go well with RHCP's LA funk roots.

After our comparison and some other quick browsing, Mufin's discovery engine did indeed return some interesting, though occasionally puzzling, results. Unfortunately, other aspects of the Mufin Player can dampen the overall experience. For example, since Mufin offers no music store of its own, purchasing tracks requires shuffling off to retailers like Amazon and iTunes. The frustration of importing our iTunes library, finding an interesting track with Mufin, and then being sent to iTunes to purchase said track was certainly not lost on us during testing.

The Mufin Player offers other perks, such as an AutoPlaylist feature that lets you create playlists from your library that are populated with similar music. Interestingly, Mufin's technology also works on tracks that are not in its store catalog, or even in any catalog, for that matter. The Mufin Player can analyze independent artists, and music that you create yourself, adding another layer of utility for those who are not always in the mood for finding new mainstream music.

The Mufin Player itself performs reasonably well, but other minor quirks, like seeing "275024.mp3" when previewing a recommended track, show that the player could use another coat or two of polish. Still, with Pandora being (mostly) locked up in a browser and iTunes offering less-than-ambitious track recommendations, a standalone player like this is a smart step for Mufin to take. With a little more attention to detail and perhaps even its own DRM-free music store, Mufin could some day carve out a respectable niche as not just a website, but a well-rounded music discovery service.