Car infotainment systems are pretty fancy these days, full of information that helps us go about our lives. Their databases contain maps of entire countries and lists of everything from hospitals to charging stations to restaurants. But there’s another database that may be lurking in your car that you’ve never thought about; indeed, you probably never even knew it existed. Today, I’m going to tell you about this obscure database, which is almost entirely pointless, and I’ll even educate you on how to update it. Indeed, yours is probably well out of date!
If you’re driving a car from the last couple of decades, there’s a fair chance that it’s able to tell you what song you’re listening to, whether it’s from the radio, a CD, or even playing from a USB drive or your smartphone. We recently covered how radio stations transmit data on the currently playing song, but what about those other sound sources? Thankfully for all of us, a company called Gracenote found a solution to this problem.
Gracenote stemmed from an earlier open-source project called CDDB, which spawned in 1993 and worked with a computer application called xmcd. xmcd was a piece of software that would let users play audio CDs on their computer. xmcd was built to work with CDDB, which stood for Compact Disc Database. When playing a disc, xmcd would read the “Table of Contents” (TOC) on an audio CD. This had no metadata on the artist, album name, or track names; it simply laid out the number of tracks, their lengths, and where they began on the disc. The vast majority of CDs had a unique TOC, however. Thus, xmcd could use the TOC as a fingerprint to search the CDDB database, which would return track and artist names for the CD. Users were able to submit data for discs unknown to the database, building it into a rich resource over several years.
CDDB was later commercialized, becoming CDDB LLC in 1998. It was eventually bought out and became known as Gracenote. As the digital music revolution was taking off, Gracenote’s ability to provide media metadata to users was of great value to many companies. As CDs grew more and more irrelevant, the company also developed a technique of “acoustic fingerprinting.” Rather than determining a CD via its track layout, this used an algorithm that could generate “fingerprints” for individual songs. The company initially relied on its MusicID system which implemented the Philips algorithm, which creates fingerprints based on the energy content of various frequency bands in a song. It later developed other algorithms for fingerprinting, too. It’s the same kind of technology used by Shazam for identifying a song from a few seconds of audio.
The system as implemented in vehicles is fairly straightforward. A stream of audio playing on the infotainment system is run through Gracenote’s fingerprint algorithm. The fingerprint generated is then compared with the Gracenote database to identify the song. Metadata on the artist name, track name, and so on, can then be displayed on the infotainment screen. This method works on any audio source, whether from CD, auxiliary port, or a USB stick full of MP3 files. Indeed, it can work on radio sources, too, though some automakers don’t bother, preferring to display data from the Radio Data System in those cases instead.
Naturally, it’s entirely possible to query the Gracenote database over the Internet. However, for a car, that would require an active cellular data connection. That’s only become common in recent years, and not every owner chooses to sign up for connectivity services. As an alternative, Gracenote has instead allowed automakers to locally store a Gracenote database in a vehicle’s infotainment system. This is stored on flash storage or hard drive built into the car’s infotainment system. The car can then query the database at will whenever necessary.
It sounds like a frivolous feature, right? Who cares if the infotainment displays song title and artist data when playing a CD? But here’s the thing. In the late 2000s, some automakers started letting users rip entire CDs in their cars, storing the music on the infotainment system so it could be played later. This meant that you didn’t need to drive around with lots of CDs or use a CD changer. Of course, such a system is unworkable if you don’t have artist and track information for your ripped music. Otherwise, how will you know what’s what? Gracenote’s database was the solution to this otherwise intractable problem. After all, it’s hard to imagine owners sitting in their car for hours, typing in tons of track names on a dodgy scroll wheel or touchscreen interface.
The problem with this local database concept is that it’s frozen in time. The system works great if you buy a new car in 2010 and only ever listen to music up to 2009 or so. But let’s say you have that car for a year or two. You get big into Portugal, The Man, and you buy In The Mountain, In The Cloud in 2011. Or maybe you jump on the rise Taylor Swift in the Red era (that’s 2012). Well, you’re out of luck. Those discs came out after your car’s Gracenote database was made, and so it has no idea what those songs are.
The solution to this problem is obvious. The car’s Gracenote database must be updated regularly! But how? Well, it varies. In an ideal world, it would be something simple that dealers did at regular service intervals, though I haven’t found much evidence suggesting that was ever the case. In fact, most automakers leave it up to owners to update Gracenote if and when they feel like it.
Update procedures vary between automakers and between generations of infotainment system. Often, quite drastically. Most commonly, infotainment systems are set up to allow Gracenote updates via USB drive. For example, Mazda and Toyota both support this function for some of their duly equipped models, both publishing their latest updates in 2022. Mitsubishi allows user downloads, but it’s performed via burning a CD, with the latest update circa 2017. This involves downloading an update file, putting it on a USB stick, and plugging it into the right port in the car. From there, it’s usually as simple as selecting a menu item in the infotainment system’s settings to perform the update.
Of course, when a simple procedure can be needlessly complicated and put in the hands of dealership technicians instead, sirens start going off at BMW HQ. In cars using the CIC infotainment system, BMW hid Gracenote updates behind a secret service menu. The updated database itself was delivered to the vehicle via an officially issued DVD handed out to dealerships. It’s largely the same process BWM used to send out navigation system updates. However, the Gracenote updates were issued separately on their own media. In my research, I actually found some users sharing torrent files for Gracenote update DVDs allowing owners to perform their own updates at home.
Thankfully for BMW owners, later models got with the times. Newer cars with online connectivity allowed querying the online Gracenote database, though it wasn’t always a perfectly functional system.
For a laugh, I contacted a few dealerships to see if any could update my BMW’s Gracenote database, though none responded at the time of writing. I also reached out to Andrea Petersen, who works as an independent service advisor. “We have not performed this update on any vehicles according to our history or the techs,” Petersen told me. I suspected it was something that was almost never done in the wild, but I’d love to have chatted with more dealer techs to get a better picture.
Indeed, through researching this piece, I’ve continually been amazed at how many people had even heard of the feature. To me, I figured it was so obscure it would have been almost never used. And yet, almost every automaker seems to have used it at some point. Meanwhile, there are hundreds or thousands of forum posts of people talking about it! Everywhere I looked, people were giving a shit about Gracenote!
Not everybody loves it, though. Hilariously, sometimes when an update fails partway through, it corrupts Gracenote on the infotainment system. This is great if you hate the feature, but it’s very annoying if you enjoy it. Indeed, some people chose to disable Gracenote because in some cars, the system would ignore perfectly valid ID3 tags on MP3 files and guess incorrect song titles via the Gracenote database instead.
So, let’s imagine a worst case scenario. You’ve ripped a bunch of new music to your car, and none of it was in the vehicle’s onboard Gracenote database. You’ve got hundreds of tracks all named “Track 1” and “Track 2” and so on. So what do you do?
Well, there was a hilariously manual fix for this issue. By my research, Infiniti offered this, and Nissan, via their Music Box infotainment systems. I’ve not seen it from any other automaker. You could do a small personal update to your car’s Gracenote database in some models. As seen on Infiniti’s website back in 2014, you could use a special infotainment menu item to dump details of all your tracks with missing names to a CompactFlash card or USB drive depending on your vehicle. The storage device could then be plugged into a PC running a Gracenote app, which would query the online Gracenote database and populate the song titles. The storage device could then be placed back in the vehicle to update the database with the specific data for those tracks. Oh, and it was PC only. If you were a Mac user, well, you were out of luck.
Other automakers may have offered similar tools, but I grew short on leads to support this theory. Automakers tend to wipe old tools and details about earlier infotainment systems from their websites pretty regularly. When you’re looking for details on tech that’s over five years old, sometimes you have to rely on forums and then bounce yourself over to the Wayback Machine like I did here.
It bears noting that Gracenote didn’t just stick to audio fingerprinting, either. The company did a lot of work in making cars and music play nicely together. It all goes back to when cars started coming out with voice recognition in the 2000s. The idea was that you could tell your car what song you wanted to listen to. For that to work, it needed accurate metadata for those tracks. Gracenote actually developed a technology it called MediaVOCS to help in this area. It was charged with taking in voice input like “Play AC DC” and figuring out that meant the songs on your iPod that were tagged “AC/DC” or “AC-DC.” It could even handle nicknames like “Snoop” for Snoop Dogg or “CCR” for Credence Clearwater Revival. Somehow, though, one suspects this would be limited to mainstream international acts. I’d love to try out a car with MediaVOCS and see if it could correlate “Dunies” to Dune Rats or “Sizzle Grizzle” to Sincerely, Grizzly, but I suspect not.
Gracenote wasn’t just limited to filling in artist and song names, either. In some cases, the Gracenote metadata included information on song genres or similarities between bands. It opened up the possibility for auto-generated playlists right within the infotainment system itself. The company boasted of this functionality all the way back in 2011, allowing songs to be grouped by genre, era, or place of origin. Of course, one suspects the auto-generated “80s” playlist to be more accurate than a request that your car play you the greatest hits out of Phoenix, Arizona. It all comes down to what songs have what metadata, after all. I’d love to test it myself one day. Sure, you’d expect it to play The Beatles when you ask for the sound of Liverpool, England. But will it play you American Football if you ask for hot tracks from Illinois?
Researching this piece, I’ve honestly been blown away by how cool Gracenote’s tech is. I realize now I’ve never heard of it because I’ve been driving 20-year-old beaters my whole life like a true Autopian. If anything, it’s been a wakeup call that there is always more to learn about cars. In this case, I’d missed something that was hiding out in the open. Gracenote’s figures suggest the tech is in 250 million cars, and 36.7% of new cars sold today. I’d actually heard about Gracenote in the ’90s, and CDDB, and used it on my computer. But until last week, I had no idea it was in cars!
So, now that you’re well-educated on the matter, you’ve got no excuse. Jump online, or head to a dealer, and update your damn Gracenote database already! Chances are it’s a decade out of date, or more. What if you’re on a date, and they want to pop in their new copy of Kid Cudi’s Insano on CD? Well, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find a 2024 Gracenote update for your car, but you’ll probably be safe if they pop on Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD from 2018. And won’t that be something!
Image credits: BMW, Nissan, Chrysler, Mazda, Ford