What the New Sort Options in iTunes 7.1 Mean

28 February 2007

Most of the changes in 7.1 are under the hood or buried in preferences. About the only visual difference is full-screen CoverFlow, which is very good to look at.

I thought I would focus on the new sorting options. iTunes has, since my first involvement in 2003, ignored The at the beginning of artist names when sorting them, as well as on the iPod. This is what you want, as it’s so common you disregard it when looking through a list. However, it’s only now, after years of haranguing Apple, that this feature has been applied to other common tags. These are Name (track name), Artist, Album Artist, Album, Composer and Show (TV Show).

When iTunes 7.1 first launches, it will examine your library and populate the sort tags wherever it finds one of the above starting with The, so you don’t have to do this yourself. Sort tags created in this way are greyed out but you can edit them. You can adjust any of the other sort tags to your liking.

I wondered why until I started to go through my artists. I recently bought a “Weird Al” Yankovic album. He was at the top of the list because his name starts with a non-alpha character. I edited his sort tag so that he was sorted as Weird Al Yankovic and he appeared in the proper alphabetic position. This also corralled that most eternal of all commonly misplaced artists, R.E.M., who, by virtue of their name containing non-alpha characters, caused them to appear at the top of the Rs. Any non-alpha character has the potential to mess up the alphabetisation. I also used this method to re-sort the numerical 10000 Maniacs as Ten Thousand Maniacs.

I was pleased to see that both my 5.5-Gen iPod and 2nd-Gen Nano both sorted these adjusted artists in the same way. The iPod must have had the ability to obey all these new sorting tags for a while because they work with no new software updates.

Before you think you have to tag tracks one at a time, there is a batch method. Select one track from an album. Get Info and edit the sort tags in the Sorting tab. Click OK. Select all the tracks from the album, right-click and select Apply Sort Field and then the appropriate field.

If you want to see the sort field, you can add it as a column (right-click the column header and select it from the menu). You can even click this field and enter sort tags directly. This is good for entering them for individual tracks.

Well, I’ve got a lot of work to do. On my iPod I’ve just noticed a stack of tracks that start with , , (, etc. Yes, I am going to strip off all those leading characters using the sort field.

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iLounge Steals Thunder

21 February 2007

iLounge has just posted a comprehensive article on managing iTunes videos. I’m a bit annoyed as they’ve covered a lot of ground that I had been intending to. Unlike my opinionated outbursts, however, they have written a well-balanced and well-thought-out summary of this subject. I don’t agree with everything they said, but I think it’s excellent for a thorough introduction to the subject. Read it, but don’t leave me behind thinking that I haven’t got anything useful to add.


Tagging for Podcasters

15 February 2007

Podcasters are notoriously bad taggers. Love the guys but they just don’t complete them and it’s annoying. I am constantly cleaning up after them.

Here I’ve discussed the relevance or irrelevance of all the tags in the iTunes Get Info dialog (Info tab) as they relate to podcasts:

  • Name: The name of the episode. Best when it’s descriptive. Some podcasters include the episode number, which is useful for me to complete the tags when they don’t!
  • Artist: A moot point, but it’s got to be some entity. I would use my own name if it’s a known brand, like C.C. Chapman or Anji Bee. I would use the name of a company if it’s published in their name, like HBO. Some podcasters use the address of their podcast site, like http://www.site.com. I don’t mind, really, as long as it’s always tagged and consistently named.
  • Year: Really, guys, it’s not hard to put this in.
  • Album Artist: Don’t use.
  • Track No. of Total Track No.: I think there’s a time to use these and a time not to. If you’ve got the type of show that rolls on, day after day, I think episode numbers (reflected by track numbers) are unworkable. There are too many shows. Examples of this type of show are Rocketboom and The Onion Radio News. If you have “official” and “unofficial” episode numbers, then don’t use a track number for unofficial episodes. It also doesn’t make sense to use the Total No. tag unless your podcast has a finite number of episodes, like a Podiobook.
  • Album: This should be the name of your podcast.
  • Disc No. of Total Disc No.: The only time you would use this would be for a finite podcast and usually it would be 1 of 1.
  • Grouping: Use if you like. Immaterial in this instance.
  • BPM: Hardly useful, even for a music podcast, as it would probably change over the course of the episode.
  • Composer: No use whatsoever. You’re the artist. Tagging yourself as the composer as well is not useful.
  • Comments: You can put notes here, but iTunes embeds the show’s RSS description in the file, and this is more useful in the Podcast library and on the iPod.
  • Genre: Okay, this one drives me nuts. I suspect that most of you define no genre for your podcast because if one is not tagged, iTunes will tag it as Podcast. This used to be useful because you could quickly find all podcasts in the combined music/podcast library by clicking Podcast in the genre pane. With iTunes 7, this is now redundant. iTunes knows a podcast when it sees one and segregates it into the podcast library. I notice almost all of the podcasts coming off an iTunes feed since the release of 7 have meaningful genres like Music, TV & Film, Comedy, etc. Please use this tag.

Special Note on Artwork

I’ll let all you video podcasters off because iTunes gives your podcasts “album art” by taking a frame a few seconds into the video and using that. Bonus points to video podcasters who bother to tag their episodes with custom album art.

As for you audio podcasters, here’s what an episode without art is saying to your public: “I’m amateur”, “I’m too lazy to create album art”, “I don’t know or care about it”. Some of you have already created album art. I know because you started using it early on, then stopped. Some of you have readily convertible artwork in your site’s design that could be used.

I know that the vast majority of consumers and even podcasters are unaware or uncaring about certain details like this. As a perfectionist I can’t stand it. The fact that it wouldn’t take a lot of effort to include artwork makes it all the more frustrating. I even offered to pay for stock images and design artwork for one podcaster’s show, which I would have also formatted for use on his site but he didn’t even respond. He still doesn’t use album art. That makes me mad. You might get offers like this and you would be mad to turn them down.

If you don’t want to listen to an obsessive who doesn’t have a life, then consider this somewhat more business-oriented viewpoint: If you develop a brand for your podcast, which includes a visual design, don’t you think it would strengthen your brand if your podcast looked like your site? Think about it.


Genre Talk

11 February 2007

Genre: the most arbitrary tag of them all. Guaranteed to evolve. Always in question.

The thing I hate about music is the inherent difficulty in classifying it, but if this weren’t the case, it wouldn’t be an artform, and that would be unacceptable. So the price of admission is to make the best sense of it that we can and to get on with the business of enjoying it.

Genre is in the main based on opinion. You might think a track is a different genre to someone else. I’ve found from personal experience that this is sometimes due to my own lack of awareness of certain musical styles.

I can only give you guidelines as regards genre classification, but I think they will aid you in that most senior of considerations, optimise the organisation of your music for retrieval on an iPod.

Refer to Source
If you don’t know, see what the original artist considers it to be. If they don’t say, then hit the big guns: Wikipedia, Allmusic and a general Google Search. Put all of the opinions together and decide based on averages.

Keep the Number of Genres Down
I used to specify “Rock”, “Alt-Rock”, “Hard Rock” and “Punk Rock”. The specific subgenres didn’t really help me create Smart Playlists or find music on my iPod, so I started to use less. I started to get so much “Alt-Rock” that calling it “Alt” didn’t usefully differentiate the tracks from “Rock” tracks. Also, if you only have a handful of tracks with a specific genre, then it’s not worth specifying them so precisely. Keep it simple.

“Soundtrack” and “Chillout” are Not Genres
I don’t care what you say, but these are not genres. Consider Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. It consists of funk, soul, R&B tracks. Consider Spiderman. It’s full of rock tracks. There’s a pop song or two in there. That disproves the “soundtrack is a genre” argument. Tagging a track as “soundtrack” will exclude it from searches or playlists that look for the genre that actually represents the track.

The same holds true for chillout. Chillout is an emotional response. The genres of music that evoke this are jazz, R&B, rock, pop, electronica, etc. My rule is “If it chills me out, it’s chillout music”, but because multiple genres can give this response, it’s not a genre in itself.

I’m big on chillout music. My favourite playlist is a Smart Playlist that picks 8 hours of chillout music at random. I usually play this all day at work. I achieve this by using the Comment field instead of using Chillout as a genre. Put a keyword like chillout in the Comment field and search on that. I also do this for soundtrack and live. This means you can preserve the actual genre while subclassifying.

Your Library Will Evolve
Music is dynamic. That means your library will change, and not just to add new tracks. Your knowledge of music constantly changes, so you find yourself updating earlier tags. I find that the tag that changes the most is genre. Use the genre tag to make your library more useful, not more complex.


Organising Your Music

5 February 2007

Organising Your Music 01

It’s important to keep your music organised because when it grows (and once you start collecting music on your computer, and especially if you get an iPod to feed, it will grow alarmingly) it will become inefficient to find items. Tagging is vitally important. Here are some quick tips off the top of my head.

Number one consideration is to optimise the organisation of your music for retrieval on an iPod. This is a good rule even if you don’t have an iPod. An iPod has a limited number of options to find music, so this frame of mind will make a lean and clean library.

For categorisation purposes, there are only 2 types of title:

  1. Album: A long-player (“album”), single, EP or compilation, all songs of which have been released by a single artist.
  2. Compilation: A release consisting of songs by different artists. Do not confuse with a “single-artist compilation”, which is a release consisting of songs taken from different releases, but all attributed to the same artist.

CDDB is full of illiterate contributions. CDDB (the service that provides track listings for automatic tagging of CDs) is a great resource because it saves a lot of time but never, ever trust the information implicitly as a lot of the contributors are illiterate. Always refer to the back cover of your CD for correct spellings and sequence of tracks. Be especially careful with various-artists compilations, as you will find even more inaccuracies as these titles are more complicated to tag.

Disc 1/Disc 2: It irks me that CDDBers insist on specifying Album Title (Disc 1) and Album Title (Disc 2). This makes two albums on the iPod, which is usually unnecessary. Here are the rules:

  1. If an artist releases a double album, then all the discs comprise that album, e.g. Curve’s The Way of Curve double compilation is a single release comprising content that spans two discs. Therefore, it’s a single album. Use the Disc No. tags (Disc 1 of 2, Disc 2 of 2) to separate them, not the album name tag. Enter the album name for all tracks as The Way of Curve.
  2. If an artist puts in the effort to give the second disc a different name, e.g. Pet Shop Boys’ Fundamental limited edition contained a second remix disc that they named Fundamentalism, the first disc is treated as a single-disc album and the second disc is also considered a single-disc album, with the different name.

Compilation Flag: The compilation flag (checkbox) is used to collect all the songs on a various-artists compilation into a single folder on your computer. Without using this flag, the individual songs are filed under the artist names. This leads to unnecessary overheads in folder structure. The compilation flag also makes it easier to find songs in iTunes and especially on the iPod, as they will appear in the optional Compilations menu. Please note that compilations by a single artist should not be flagged as a compilation, as this only applies to various-artists compilations. This is a common mistake in CDDB tags.

Keep the number of artists down. Think of your scrolling thumb. If you are a careless tagger, you will find that you will have increased the number of artist names markedly, which makes a much longer list to scroll through on an iPod. It also means that if you wanted to listen to an album by a particular artist, then you will miss some of the songs because the artist name is a little different. Again, the rules:

  1. A guest artist is always listed in the track name, not the artist name. E.g. Delerium’s Karma, track Silence: Instead of naming the artist Delerium (Featuring Sarah McLachlan), name the track Silence (Feat. Sarah McLachlan) and the artist Delerium. This will group all the tracks as Delerium’s album but will retain the featured-artist information. Use the standardised abbreviation Feat., which shortens the track name.
  2. Various-artists compilations of remixed tracks can be a nightmare to figure out. Here’s the first one I cracked: Verve Remixed. It consists of tracks from different artists and each track potentially had 2 artists: the original and the remixer. Here’s how I figured it out: The senior data is the source, the original artist. That means the artist name is the original artist (e.g. Astrud Gilberto). The remixer (because they need credit and it’s good to know) is mentioned in the track name, e.g. Who Needs Forever? (Thievery Corporation Remix). I added Remix to indicate that they remixed it and were not contributors on the original recording.

Don’t be lazy. If you don’t have an internet connection when you rip a CD, tag the CD manually. If you click the CD in the source pane and Get Info, you can fill in most of the tags that apply to all the tracks such as artist name. Then you can tag the track names one at a time. It doesn’t take as long as you think. Don’t rip an untagged album as you will not remember the names and you’ll end up with unorganisable music. A bonus to correctly tagging a CD prior to ripping: if you subsequently insert that CD, iTunes will remember the tags and will not have to consult CDDB.

I’ll pepper the blog with the occasional rule deluge like this. I hope you study what I’m saying here. I’ve had to organise tens of thousands of tracks, not only my own but also a number of friends’, so I know what I’m saying. Even if I say something you don’t agree with, I hope at least that you understand that there is a certain finesse required to make sense of this subject. Music is art and in a sense, violates order. It has been one of my greatest challenges to bring order to something that often defies it.


Album Art Basics

1 February 2007

Album Art Basics

Ah, album art! That beguiling, physical representation of sonic substance! I can’t stress the importance of this art form enough. That’s why I devoted a whole site to the subject.

The question is begged: How do I get album art into iTunes?

Well, it’s been incredibly easy from the very first version that supported it. Until version 7, you had to supply your own. You could scan, like I do, or get images from the web. Some applications attempted to automate this process for you.

As I’m a perfectionist, I still scan my own art. This is old school and entirely legitimate. Here is how to apply album art to tracks:

  1. Obtain the album art.
  2. Usually you would apply album art to a whole album at the same time, so select the album tracks:
    1. Select the album name in the right-hand pane of the browse area (you might have to select Show Browser from the View menu), or
    2. Select all the tracks of the album in the main track list.
  3. There are two methods for applying art:
    1. If artwork already exists that you want to replace, select Get Info from the File menu, or press Command-I (Mac) or Ctrl-I (Windows). Drag the image file into the Artwork field. Click the OK button.
    2. Drag the image file into the Artwork pane in the lower-left (you might need to show it first by selecting Show Artwork from the View menu).

That’s it!

Version 7 brings a new option into the fold. iTunes can now check the iTunes Store for your album and download and apply artwork if it finds a match. Caveats: Your tags must be precise and sometimes it won’t find a match. This process can be done when importing from CD or manually later.

To have iTunes do this automatically, select Preferences from the iTunes menu (Mac) or Edit menu (Windows). Keyboard equivalents: Command-, (Mac), Ctrl-, (Windows). Click the General tab. Check the box Automatically download missing album artwork. Click the OK button.

To manually download album artwork, select a range of tracks (usually an album), right-click (Control-click on a Mac) and select Get Album Artwork. After a pause, you will either see artwork in the Artwork pane in the lower left, or nothing, depending on whether it can find a match.

To remove downloaded artwork, select the tracks, right-click and select Clear Downloaded Artwork.

Personally, I prefer the non-iTunes-Store method, for two reasons: 1) the artwork from iTunes is a bit small, over-compressed and often poorly colour matched, 2) iTunes downloads artwork but does not embed it in the audio file; it puts it in a downloaded artwork folder in your user folder. This means that if you move the file to another iTunes library, there will be no accompanying artwork. I found this out the hard way.

So there’s no excuse for the iPod owners I see on the street with the latest hardware and no artwork. This is especially tragic on 5th-generation iPods, as album artwork on these looks stunning and there’s so much screen to fill!