Saturday, January 28, 2012

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 Misérables”; 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.

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.

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.