Saturday, January 28, 2012

Audition: 16 tools for cleaning your iTunes library


beaTunes 2.1.16
Tagtraum Industries (www.beatunes.com)
Format: Mac; Windows
14-day trial; US$31.95
Rating: 3.5

beaTunes seeks to help you “build better playlists” and it does this through the broadest toolkit of any of these utilities. Firstly, its “Inspect” feature is the best on the market at looking for inconsistencies. It will take you through a wide range of problems it identifies on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if an Album only has one Artist, it will ask you if you want to turn off the Compilation flag. Or if it sees your library has tracks by “Beyonce” and “BeyoncĂ©,” it will ask you which spelling to use.

The beaTunes “Analysis” function will determine an array of characteristics about each song and save the data in ID3 tags, many of which iTunes doesn’t use. These are useful for DJs: as well as Beats Per Minute, it will determine the song’s key and “colour”.

On top of this, beaTunes uses the MusicIP fingerprint database to find missing basic track information.
Written in Java, beaTunes is not the most elegant of apps. While I love its inconsistency-seeking function, the interface for reviewing and accepting changes leaves a little to be desired.

Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes
Doug Adams (dougscripts.com)
Format: Mac
Donationware
Rating: 5

One of the great features of iTunes (at least under Mac OS X) is that it’s scriptable. This site is a treasure-trove of scripts. It is not always easy to find what you are looking for amongst the 475 plus scripts, but there are many scripts that ought to be part of every user’s arsenal. Start exploring by looking at the most popular downloads.

You can run the scripts from the AppleScript menu or via the free ScriptPal floating script palette.

Dupin 2.4.2
Doug Adams (dougscripts.com)
Format: Mac
Limited demo; US$15
Rating: 4

In addition to his collection of AppleScripts, Doug Adams has written a few iTunes-related apps including Dupin. The app goes through your library and finds duplicates based on the criteria you chose (Name, Artist, Time, Size etc). Recent versions even add some fuzzy matching including around time criteria. Dupin will then select which of the duplicates are “keepers” based on a range of settings such as Kind, Bit Rate and Play Count. Before deleting the duplicates, it will also consolidate the Play Count and Ratings information.

For a duplicate matcher, Dupin is an easy-to-use and effective app.

Hubi’s iTunes Scripts 1.9
hubionmac (http://hubionmac.com/wordpress/2009/12/hubis-itunes-scripts/)
Format: Mac; Windows
€1 Donationware
Rating: 4

This is a small collection of useful AppleScripts including a good search & replace and capitaliser. They haven’t been updated in ages, but are still practical solutions.

iVolume 3.6
mani.de (http://www.mani.de/ivolume/) or App Store
Format: Mac; Windows
Limited demo; US$29.95
Rating: 2.5

This app is one-trick pony. iTunes has a built-in “Soundcheck” function that is supposed to make sure all songs play at a similar volume. iVolume’s trick is to do this more accurately: it algorithmically calculates the volume perceived by the human ear for each song and then adjusts them accordingly.
With a beautiful user interface, iVolume is very configurable. If you are finding that you’re constantly turning you volume up and down with each song, iVolume is the answer. However, for what it does, iVolume is overpriced. It is now also available on the App Store for a slightly cheaper price.


























Jaikoz Audio Tagger 3.8.3
JThink (www.jthink.net)

Format: Mac; Windows; Linux
30-day trial; £20
Rating: 3

Jaikoz is one powerful application that performs a long list of functions. It uses the MusicIP database to help you to find missing info and to correct incorrect details. What’s more, it uses the same acoustic fingerprints to identify duplicates.

Jaikoz also looks up covers and lyrics and allows you to manipulate tags in lots of ways, including a powerful find and replace command. It will also put together a list of albums you have that are missing tracks.

However, Jaikoz is not a particularly accessible piece of software. It has a steep learning curve as you navigate through an array of sub-menus, split windows and tabs. I would only recommend it for power users who have plenty of patience.

MPFreaker 1.9 and Song Sergeant 1.1.2
LairWare (www.lairware.com)

Format: Mac
Limited demo; US$20 each
Rating: 2.5 and 2.5

LairWare has two iTunes tools with similar interfaces but complementary functions. MPFreaker scours your library (or a playlist) and seeks to find missing information from Names through Albums to Genre, Artwork and Lyrics, but not Artists. It is configurable it that you can tell it what to look up and whether it should overwrite tags, but you cannot choose whether to make changes on a track-by-track basis. So, you may end up with wrong info or Artwork.

Because MPFreaker does not use acoustic fingerprinting, it is most effective if most of your data are present.

Song Sergeant is MPFreaker’s younger brother. It deals with four issues: duplicates, inconsistencies, orphans and missing files.

Its “Duplicate” function is similar to Dupin’s. You can tell it which tags to consider, including song length and with a settable threshold variation. You tell it to “automark” one of duplicates to keep based on whether it has the most complete information, highest quality, a particular encoding type etc.
Song Sergeant’s “Inconsistency” function allows you to choose between similar Artists or Albums. While not as thorough as beaTunes, it has a better user interface.

Finally, the “Orphans” feature shows you files in your iTunes Music folder that aren’t in iTunes while the “Missing” function shows you tracks found in iTunes for which the media file cannot be found.
I had problems with Song Sergeant crashing on one of my test libraries. While the developer was able to track down the problem to a bad filename, he couldn’t help me to overcome this problem. So, I would like to see Song Sergeant to mimic MPFreaker and allow you to work on just a playlist, rather than the whole library.


MusicBrainz Picard 0.12.1
MusicBrainz (musicbrainz.org)

Format: Mac; Windows; Linux
Donationware
Rating: 2.5

This app uses the community-maintained MusicBrainz audio-fingerprint database. While not the easiest of applications to use, it does a solid job of identifying the basic information for your music. There’s also a plug-in system for extra tools.

Rapport 0.1.6
Matt Wright (www.sysctl.co.uk)
Format: Mac
Rating: 2

Rapport is closest to MusicBrainz Picard with a more Mac-like interface. It has been in development state for some time, and does not yet have as many features as Picard.

SongGenie 2.1.1 and CoverScout 3.4.1
Equinux (www.equinux.com) or App Store

Format: Mac
Limited demo; €23.95 or A$36.99 each
Rating: 3.5 and 4

This arguably overpriced pair of apps shares a gorgeous interface, displaying all of your albums using a Cover Flow view. SongGenie is charged with fixing missing and incorrect information, while CoverScout looks after Artwork.

SongGenie uses acoustic fingerprinting, specifically the MusicIP database, and corrects Names, Artists, Album, Track Number, Genre and Lyrics. While my tests showed it to be less successful than TuneUp in identifying songs, I do prefer SongGenie’s interface. You can quickly step through each song and selectively apply and ignore its changes—if there are multiple album matches, you can pick your preferred one.

CoverScout is far and away the best choice for fixing your album art. By default, it searches multiple Amazon sites, Google and Wal-Mart, but you can also use its built-in web search. Indeed, it also allows you to edit Artwork with rotate, straighten, crop and scale commands. Or you can use your iSight camera to take a photo.

Both apps are available on the App Store but, depending on exchange rates, may be cheaper direct from the publisher.


Tagalicious 1.1.1
The Little App Factory (http://thelittleappfactory.com/)

Format: Mac
50-track trial; A$22.95
Rating: 3.5

This app comes from a Sydney-based publisher and uses the AmpliFIND acoustic fingerprint technology. Tagalicious sports a great iTunes-style interface. It covers Name, Artist, Album, Genre, Year, Artwork and Lyrics, but surprisingly the current version misses a few tags notably Track Number and Track Count. I’ve also noticed that SongGenie (which uses the same AmpliFIND database) will still lookup lyrics based on Name and Artist, even if the song is not strictly identified based on its acoustic fingerprint.
The main window shows your iTunes playlists on the left with a list of tracks in the middle of the screen and a lookup window on the right that clearly shows your “Old Tags” and your “New Tags”, allowing you to select whether you want to make changes or not. It is a smooth interface that makes Tagalicious a joy to use. If it had Track Number support and used the MusicID database that TuneUp uses, it would probably be my pick.


TidySongs 1.632M
Cloudbrain (www.tidysongs.com)

Format: Mac
US$39

Rating: 2
TidySongs has some very positive reviews across the blogosphere as its website is quick to demonstrate. But it doesn’t stack up for me: in my objective tests, it scored well below similar applications. The core “Fix Your Songs” looks up songs based on the information already in the track. It is fast and shows what ought to be a useful confidence percentage, but I found it to be extremely inaccurate. It would often change correct information to wrong information.
The program’s “Add Album Art” works OK, but only if the other data are accurate. The “Find Duplicates” function is very primitive: like iTunes, it only considers Name, Artist and Album. The one simple function I do like is “Fix Genres” which allows you to select multiple Genres and rename them to something else.
TidySongs is written in Adobe Air’s runtime system and is a little cumbersome to install. My advice is to stay away from this one.

Tune•Instructor 3.2
Tibor Andre (www.tune-instructor.com)

Format: Mac
Donationware
Rating: 4

This is a little gem. Like many other apps out there, it puts a little iTunes control in your menu-bar complete with Artwork and Lyrics pop-up. But that’s not why I love Tune•Instructor. Rather it’s for its library organisation function, which is, unfortunately, somewhat buried. There’s a good set of commands here including a capitalisation, nonsensical space remover and tag copy/swap. The search & replace function is outstanding, particularly as you can save “search-sets” of your regularly used fixes.

There are AppleScripts that replicate many of this app’s functions, but Tune•Instructor is generally easier to use. On top of this, Tune•Instructor has a basic Genre, Lyrics and Artwork finder.

TuneUp 1.8.1
TuneUp Media (www.tuneupmedia.com)

Format: Mac; Windows
US$49.95 for lifetime subscription; 15% discount available through the above link
Rating: 4.5

TuneUp is a little unusual in the way it works: it is a sidebar application that attaches itself to the right of your iTunes window. This distinctive feature has both pros and cons. The pros include that you don’t need to shift out of iTunes. The cons are that it uses up valuable real estate on, say, a 13” screen; secondly, many of the options are buried and so while you have good measures of control, the user interface requires you to make too many clicks.

First and foremost, TuneUp aims to “automagically” fix a range of data including Names, Albums, Artists, Track Number, Genre, Year and Artwork. It does this using the Gracenote MusicID acoustic fingerprint database, which seems to be the best there is. (It is a different to the Gracenote Media Database that iTunes uses to look up CDs). As a result TuneUp is very accurate.

Secondly, TuneUp does a very good job of suggesting cover art for missing tracks. It appears to use Google for this.

Finally, TuneUp’s Tuiniverse looks up a range of information related to the currently selected artist: a biography from Freebase (a Wikipedia alternative), YouTube videos, Amazon recommendations, Google news, eBay merchandise and upcoming concerts. There’s also a way to Tweet about every time you change a song—a sure way to lose followers!

Some of TuneUp’s features aren’t as smooth as I’d hope for but, all up, it is my favourite iTunes tidying tool.


iTuned: tips, techniques and tools for tidying iTunes tracks


Having a tidy iTunes Library is increasingly important. The name “iTunes” is a misnomer now that Apple’s free app also manages movies, music videos, TV shows, iBooks, audiobooks, podcasts, university lectures, ringtones, internet radio streams, voice memos and iOS apps. All up, it is an overabundance of media to organise—some of us now have terabytes of content.

This post provides some pointers on how to organise your iTunes Library. While some of the tips have broader application, the focus is on the medium where it all started: music.

Why bother cleaning?
I’ve seen (and cringed at) friends’ libraries full of tracks with no identifying information beyond a song Name like “09 smile.mp3”. How can they ever find what they are looking for?

With a bit of TLC, you can transform your library so that you can effectively search for your media. Moreover, you can then use advanced iTunes features such as Smart Playlists and Genius Mixes. For example, if you have set the Genre appropriately across your music, you can quickly play your Jazz standards. If you’ve applied Ratings, it is easy to screen out your less favoured tunes. If you have a full set of album Artwork, you might flick through your albums using the gorgeous Cover Flow view. If you’ve added Lyrics, you can finally decipher what Kurt Cobain was singing.

The value of a clean library is even more noticeable when you sync or stream your media to an iPod, iPhone, iPad or Apple TV: you will be able to use your device’s menus to rapidly find your music and movies.

If you buy all your content from the iTunes Store, you probably have a very clean library. But most of us mix in tracks ripped from CDs or, worse still, illegally copied from friends or downloaded from torrents. Your tracks may even be missing fundamental information like the Name, Artist or Album.

If your library is small and in good shape, then some manual fine-tuning will do the trick. But if you have a large, messy library, you’ll need to use a combination of iTunes functions, third party tools and elbow grease to train your library into shipshape.

Preliminary steps
The first thing I’d recommend is—assuming you have the space—storing all your music together on a single internal or external drive. The settings for this can be found if you go to the “iTunes” menu; select “Preferences…”, and click on the “Advanced” tab. There you can choose the location where your media will be stored. You should also select a couple of options. Firstly, turning on “Keep iTunes Media folder organized” will make sure that all your media is appropriately named and arranged in folders. Secondly, switch on “Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library”—that way, when you import any new media, it will be automatically coped into your consolidated library. Finally, to make sure any stray media files are copied to your library, go to the “File” menu; select “Library: Organize Library…”; turn on the “Consolidate Library” option, and click “OK”.

In recent versions, iTunes has another useful option. While the app used to intermingle different types of media, it will now separate them into high-level folders (“Music”, “Movies”, “Mobile Applications” etc). Simply go to the “File” menu; select “Library: Organize Library…”; turn on the “Upgrade to iTunes Media organization” option, and click “OK”. If it is greyed out, you have already done it!

Now, at least, you will have all your files in one place with a well-ordered top-level folder structure. But there’s so much more tidying that can be done if you want to be able to efficiently use your media.

Basic information
At the very least, I suggest that each track needs a Name, Artist and Album. If you want to listen to an album in the way its creators intended, it is also worth using Track Numbers. Additionally, it is constructive to set Genres, so that you can find types of music.

If you are importing your music from a CD into iTunes, it will automatically look up this information as long as you keep on the “Automatically retrieve CD track names from Internet” option found under the “General” tab in “Preferences…”.

But you may have tracks missing this basic information. If you’re making the effort to get these right, I’d recommend setting yourself some standards. I try and aim for some consistency in the way I use these fields: appropriate capitalisation; no stray spaces and, of course, I put the track numbers in the Track Number field, rather than the Name.

Different people use Genres in different ways: some prefer to have fewer broader labels (Pop, Jazz, Classical); others opt for more specific descriptors, for example differentiating Vocal Jazz from West Coast Jazz. What you do here depends on your tastes and the width of your collection. But I’d encourage you to be consistent and avoid Genres such as “Other” or “Miscellaneous”.

Sometimes, all of the information is there, but in the wrong place. For instance, the Name is in the Artist and vice versa. Or the Name is a tangled “Lou Reed – Berlin – 10 Sad Song”. Rather that manually changing every track, you can use AppleScripts. You install these in your user Library/iTunes/Scripts folder and select them from the AppleScript menu in iTunes. There are plenty of scripts available on the Internet. I recommend Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes and Hubi’s iTunes Scripts.

An alternative to using AppleScripts is an application called Tune•Instructor. Accessed from the menu-bar, it has a number of tricks up its sleeves including search & replace, capitalisation and tag swapping.
There are also some handy tools that take your library and make suggestions on how to make tracks more consistent; e.g. merging “Police” into “The Police” or “REM” with “R.E.M.”. Song Sergeant does this, but only for Artists and Albums; beaTunes covers a broader range of tags including Genres.

Finding missing details
What do you do if some of the basic information (like Name or Artist) is missing? You can do searches on sites like Amazon or the iTunes Store to try and ascertain missing information. But that can be awfully time-consuming and you might not be able to identify the track. Better still: use one of the many tools that will do it for you. Most will work automatically, but I’d always advise some manual proofing.

These tools fall into two categories that work in one of two ways. The first category includes tools like MPFreaker and TidySongs. They look for gaps and then use whatever information is already present to assist in a search; they’ll then suggest plugs for the gaps. For example, if an Album-less track is named “You Can Call Me Al” and the artist is “Paul Simon” the software will probably suggest the album ought to be “Graceland”. The problem with this method is the song could also be from the “Concert In The Park” live album.

Applications in the second category are smarter. These include beaTunes, Jaikoz, MusicBrainz Picard, Rapport, SongGenie, Tagaligious and TuneUp. These tools rapidly analyse each song and generate an “acoustic fingerprint”, a concise digital summary that they then match against a database. If you’ve used the Shazam, SoundHound or MusicID song recognition apps on an iPhone, you’ll have used similar technology.

The different tools referred to here use a couple of different databases to look up the missing data. Most use the AmpliFIND (formerly MusicDNS/MusicIP) and/or MusicBrainz database; TuneUp uses the Sony-owned Gracenote MusicID. Surprisingly and frustratingly, the data in these databases are not always internally consistent, but they tend to be pretty good.

In my tests using a library with a range of different problems, the acoustic fingerprint tools far outperformed the others. While it has some shortcomings, my favourite tool is TuneUp—in my tests it had the highest accuracy combined with support for the most types of tags and an easy-to-learn (but not perfect) user interface.

Advanced information
Now, at least you can identify your songs with their complete Names, Artists, Albums and Genres. iTunes actually stores many more details for each track. Some of these data are stored in what are called “ID3 tags” inside the song’s file; these include the Name, Artist, Album and Track Number. Other metadata are stored in the various iTunes Library files found inside your iTunes folder. Album art can either be stored inside the file or in an impenetrable array of Album Artwork folders.

If you select “Get Info” on a single track in iTunes, you’ll see a dialog box with the many data you can edit, particularly under the “Info” tab.

While many of the details are self-explanatory, some are not. For instance, the Disc Number should be used for multiple disc albums. So, rather than naming an album “All Things Must Pass (Disc 1)” and “All Things Must Pass (Disc 2)”, the better approach is to name both discs “All Thing Must Pass” and set the Disc Numbers as “1 of 2” and “2 of 2”. iTunes will automatically keep both discs in a single folder and retain an appropriate play order.

BPM stands for “beats per minute”. I’d expect most people to leave this blank. If you are DJ, however, setting the tempo of each track could be useful. Fortunately, beaTunes can automatically determine and complete the BPM information.

What about the “Part of a compilation” checkbox? The best idea to do is to mark it on for discs that have multiple artists (and keep it off for “best of” retrospective albums from a single artist). The reason for this is that iTunes stores discs under artists’ names. If a multiple-artist album is not marked as a compilation, you’ll end up with an underlying folder structure with lots of single-track discs. 

To confuse us further, back in version 7, Apple added an Album Artist tag (as distinct from the standard Artist tag). For a single-artist disc, this might be the same as the Artist but can also be used for, say, storing and being able to find a U2 tribute album under U2’s name.

The “Grouping” tag is designed to be used for movements within a classical composition.
Under the “Video” tab (which confusingly still appears even if you have selected a song), you can set information relevant to TV shows including Season and Episode Numbers.

The next tab along is “Sorting”. The various Sort tags are used if you want to manually override the way iTunes sorts tracks. For example, while iTunes understands the English articles “The” and “A” and will sort “A Night At The Opera” under “N”, you could optionally do this with “Les MisĂ©rables”; but, generally, you can leave these all blank and let iTunes do its thing.

Next comes the “Options” tab. Here, among other things, is where you tell iTunes what type of media the file is. You can individually set a Volume Adjustment for the track, or use a utility like iVolume to do it automatically. You can also give your track a Rating from zero to five stars.

The final two “Get Info” tabs are “Lyrics” and “Artwork”. If your songs are properly named, iTunes might be able to find the Artwork for you when you use “Get Album Artwork” in the “Advanced” menu. You can also copy Lyrics and Artwork from your web browser and paste them directly into these tabs.
But who has the time do to such heavy lifting? You are better off using a tool to do this. While Jaikoz, MPFreaker, Tagalicious and Tune•Instructor cover (pun intended) Artwork, I’d opt for TuneUp or CoverScout for Artwork. Lyrics lookup can be done by a range of applications, notably Jaikoz, MPFreaker, SongGenie, Tagalicious and Tune•Instructor.

Duplicates
It is easy to end up with duplicate songs in your library, for example, if you have imported the same CD twice. To save space, you may want to delete one of them. It is a little harder to know what to do when you have the identical version of a song on different albums, say the original album and a “Best Of” compilation. Alas, iTunes has no “alias” function like the Finder. Some users prefer to keep both versions, so they can listen to the albums with integrity. Others figure they’d rather sacrifice this for speed and space and keep only one version.

iTunes has its own “Show Duplicates” in the “File” menu that will show you the tracks in your library that have identical Names and Artists. It is too rudimentary: it will equate songs of totally different lengths. The command becomes a little more useful if you hold down the Option key: the item becomes “Show Exact Duplicates”: now Album and Track Number must also match before the tracks are classified as duplicates.

Once again, there are third party utilities that make the job of identifying duplicates easier. While TidySongs and beaTunes help the process, better tools are Song Sergeant and Dupin. Jaikoz and TuneUp also identifiy duplicates based on acoustic fingerprints.


Coda
I realise that most users are not going to invest the time and money to make their iTunes Library spotless. But for those pedants like me, using some or the entire medley of techniques here will make using iTunes a more productive and satisfying experience.