Thursday, June 09, 2005

Digital Dirty Laundry: Part 1

One of the defining aspects of the broadband colture is media at our fingertips. Most of us have MP3 collections, but not all of us do a good job keeping things organized. Here’s a tutorial of the essential steps you need to turn your scattered folders of unintelligible files into an efficient music library.

This first installment forces you to think about the basic concept of music organization. Don’t worry about actually moving files yet and renaming files manually. Don't waste your time doing that. Just get an idea of the basic concepts first. All of those boring tasks can be automated to some degree. I’ll discuss those methods in Part 2.

1. Get your bearings

First, figure out where your music is stored on your computer. Is it all in one folder or scattered across your hard drive(s)? Try and move everything to a central location first. If you have more than one hard drive, try to avoid storing them with your operating system files because if your computer crashes, say goodbye to your music collection. [I prefer using an external hard drive].

Next, figure out what your needs are. You can really go crazy pruning everything. What is it that YOU want out of your music collection? Some people want great playlists, some people want amazing listings of all their songs in a searchable database, others want album artwork, some want their MP3’s in separate folders, some want everything by genre. Figure out what you want.

If you use a music application like iTunes, then where you store your music usually doesn’t matter. But if you are like me and you want a bit more control, you probably have a lot more exposure to the actual music files sitting on your computer. Know what that means? You need to start thinking about folders and file names.

2. Folders: An Introduction to Directory Structure

Here’s one of the more important steps. Think about how you want your music stored. Got 500 songs? Put them all in one folder; you’ll be fine. Got more than that? Things start to get burdensome if the list gets too long. Here are the two most popular folder schemes:

\MP3 Folder\Artist Name\ (in this scheme, all your songs by Pink Floyd regardless of what album will be in the same folder)
\MP3 Folder\Arist Name\Album Name\ (in this scheme, every album gets its own folder. I personally dislike this method because there is just too much clicking just to get to one song. I prefer the folder scheme above.)

3. File Naming: The Big Question

Once you’ve figured out where you’ve going to keep your music, now you have to figure out what you’re going to call each file. Now, before you go crazy worrying about having to do all of this renaming by hand, don’t worry about it for now. There are plenty of tools that automate the process for you. Relax and just think clearly. Here are the most common naming schemes and how they look combined with the directory structure in step 2:

Track Title.mp3 [e.g., “Breathe.mp3”] (here, your song file is just the name of the song. This is a very dangerous way of naming songs because if things get mixed up, you’re out of luck. I would NOT recommend this scheme)
Artist Name - Track Title.mp3 [e.g., “Pink Floyd – Breathe.mp3”] (This is a very common scheme. I used this scheme for about five years. I still like its simplicity and ease of use. Filenames using this method stay pretty short and they are easy to read. The downside is that you’ll get every song in alphabetical order only)
Artist Name – Album Title – Track Number – Track Name.mp3 [e.g., “Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon – 01 – Breathe.mp3”] (I think this is the choice for most advanced users. The downside is that filenames can get very long, but most modern computers can handle that with no problem.)

So just a quick recap. At this point your music collection theoretically exists in one folder, and that one folder is divided up into subfolders. Each subfolder is named after an artist. In each subfolder are your mp3’s from that artist and they are all named in a certain way. Here’s an example of the entire file and directory structure, but please keep in mind you can change this to anything you want:
MP3 Directory Structure and Filenaming Scheme Posted by Hello
4. The Parallel Universe of ID3 Tags:

As noted in an earlier posting, ID3 is the name given to information stored WITHIN your music files for album, artist, track number, track number, genre. You can fill in as few or as many of these fields as you want. Music that is downloaded from most major vendors come complete with almost all of the fields correctly filled in. But many songs either have wrong or missing data.

Here are the basics. ID3 tags are totally unrelated to your filenames. So if you have the most immaculately named files, your ID3 tags can still blow chunks. It works the other way too: if you have great ID3 tags, your file names can be atrocious.

Chances are if you use iTunes—which is completely dependent on ID3—or if you use a music application that has some kind of database feature like MusicMatch Jukebox, Realplayer or Winamp (I prefer Winamp), you will need to have your ID3 info up to date.

You should now have a good idea of what you want your own music collection to look like. The next major issue is how you’re actually going to achieve this.

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