Saturday, November 01, 2008

getting organized

Lately I've been trying to organize my various collections of media, starting with my mp3 files. It had been many years since I even thought about them so I figured I had better start from scratch looking for software to organize and manage them. Surely things had advanced greatly in that area by now.

One thing that had not changed in my mind is that the best way to manage mp3 files is to ensure that each one has a sufficiently filled out ID3Tag. If each file has a good tag, it is completely trivial to get software to read all those tags in and give you access to your music in incredibly flexible ways. If you are ripping CDs to mp3 then whatever program you are using to rip will most likely fetch track info from CDDB or FreeDB and you will probably end up with propely filled out tags. Sometimes however you may find that you have some tracks with missing or incomplete tags and these can be a pain to fix.

I had a number of tracks with incomplete or bad tags and it was going to take me a very long time to find the correct info and type it in. Fortunately, finding the correct info is alot easier with a site like AMG's and getting it into a tag was even easier with a program I bought many years ago. It was called Tag&Rename. I looked at alot of programs at the time and this one was clearly the best. It had all the functionality you needed for mass tagging and renaming and above all, it could scrape track info from AMG's site! I didn't have to type anything.

Alas, that functionality had to be removed as it was against AMG's TOS. When I updated the software I found that it now used Amazon for this source of data. Amazon is a good source for track info but it is not nearly as extensive as what AMG has. ID3Tag&Rename also provides access to which goes a long way to filling in the gaps. Where Amazon's data falls short is when you start trying to tag tracks earlier than 1990. Sure, you may find the album/track info but you will probably have to intervene to get the original release dates correct as they are more likely to list dates for re-releases or CD versions of earlier LPs.

If you want quick an dirty automatic tag filling you may want to try Winamp. I should mention however that I find much of Winamp completely confusing and should generally be considered a perfect example of how not to design a user interface. But once you figure out how to get it to fill tags though, it can do a pretty decent job. The show stopper for me unfortunately was I couldn't figure out how to tell it to save cover art to each track. I really hate the concept of putting a .jpg in a directory and hoping that it manages to stay associated with the tracks it is referenced by when I move them around and transfer them between computers and mp3 players. Some people will tell you that it's a waste of space to store the same image in 12 or 15 tags but the size is small enough to ignore and the savings in peace of mind is much greater.

Ultimately, I had to give Winamp a miss and replaced it with Media Monkey. I found this to be a more than capable music player and had a reasonably sensible interface. I especially liked the fact that I could tell it to recognize tracks by a check sum based only on the music data. This means it will not easily get confused when I need to fix a tag for example which more often than not will mean that I need to fix the file name as well. By having a check sum based on the data only, Media Monkey won't think it is a new track or think that the previous version has disappeared. My play lists will still be able to find and play the track when it gets to it.

File renaming is the second thing that ID3Tag&Rename does extremely well. It's another reason why you want to have properly filled out tags too. With a single click, you can tell this software (and many others) to rename all of your files using a specific pattern based on almost any tag attribute. It will also create any level of sub directories based on tag info too.

One final consideration for managing your collection effectively is being able to take it offline. If your collection is large, you probably want it backed up to removable media like recordable DVDs. Media Monkey makes some mention of this but I haven't played with it yet. I will mention that I was very please with a program called Music Library. It hasn't been updated since 2006 but I think this is because it's one of those few examples of software that picks one thing to do and does it right. Basically you would backup all of your music on to multiple CDs or DVDs and then feed them into this program one at a time. It will slurp up all the tag info and create a database of it. Once this is done, you can search and create play lists at will. What was really cool though is if you created a play list of songs that spanned 8 or 9 different discs and wanted to play them from your hard drive, it would prompt you for each disc in succession and copy all of the tracks effortlessly.

I used these programs to tag and organize not only all my mp3s but my wife's and kid's music too. They are now all neatly available from a network drive and are safely stored on a RAID 2 array with read-only access. I took a little time to show them how to create play lists and use them to sync to their mp3 players. It's alot easier for everyone. They don't have to worry about copying files around by hand and I don't have to worry about losing files :)

There are many other programs that are pretty good for these tasks as well, far too many to list or talk about here. If you know of any that deserve mention, let me know in a comment.

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