Music Collection Grooming

Music has long been a big part of my life, beyond just my (admittedly waning) guitar playing, I have been an avid collector of music. From my early days of buying LP’s (and kicking myself when several moves in the 1990’s caused me to donate my vinyl collection) to being an early adopter of the CD format while I was still in high school, my collection, while not huge by some standards, remains quite large.

In the late 1990’s I began digitizing my collection of CD’s ripping them on the crude platforms and tools of the day (mostly Windows, and a variety of ripping programs). A watershed moment came in 2002-ish when I bought a Mac Book (the original PPC chip version with the plastic outer cover) and an original, Gen 1 iPod, with the 5 gigabyte disk storage.

Suddenly, I was using iTunes to import or rip whatever I had, and jamming on my commute, on the train, on airplanes to the monstrous amount of music at my fingertips.

From then on, I bought a CD, I ripped it, and put it on my shelf, never playing it again. Then Apple started their Music store, and I often forewent the CD physical media, and just bought digital files. Then Amazon came out with their digital music sales, (and Google too) and I would move between the platforms buying what I wanted, when I wanted it.

That largely stopped circa 2011 or so. Two confluences of market changes happened. First was that mobile networks became ubiquitous enough, and – more importantly – fast and reliable enough, to drive the streaming services. Pandora first, then Spotify, then later entries by Google and Apple and Amazon, now most of what I listen to is streamed. Also, the subscription services have enough selection that I can almost always find what I want, when I want to listen to it (and even some “gems” that weren’t available on CD’s I bought – an example is the Alcatrazz Live Sentence album, the streaming version has several songs that didn’t make it to the mass market CD release).

Not surprisingly, my purchase of music has gone down dramatically since this tectonic shift in the market. Sure, I still buy some things. For a long time the Paul Gilbert albums weren’t on streaming, and there were other gaps that my eclectic tastes desired. (Look up The Stickmen on the MoonJune label as an example)

The Detritus of the ad-hoc collection

Naturally, through all this, there is some barely contained chaos. Different formats, messed up MP3 tags, missing album art, and plain garbage. A couple years ago, I spent a few long weekends trying to “fix” and clean up some of the chaos. But, after a lot of work, I would say that in general I was < 50% done. Not a great place, but it is time consuming to say the least.

Lately I have been diving into some music collection maintenance. Trying to bring some order and chaos to the digitizedI will have to say that it is a bit of a self inflicted mess. Some of the observations:

  • Some of my less than legitimate music (cough torrents cough) are really poorly tagged. Or not tagged at all. Alas, there is a subculture out there who seems to just encode all the tags in the filename. I guess if you are a linux person, using command line tools, this makes sense, but if you want modern devices to read and play, as well as allow hierarchical search, this is bad, mmmm’kay…
  • The MP3’s bought from Google, Amazon, and iTMS are all over the effing map with their tags. And quality of the music. Seriously, it is disgraceful.
  • Apple mp4 (aka .m4a) files sound better than the garden variety mp3 files. Not sure if this is due to the format, or the encoding, but while they tend to be a bit larger than a comparable mp3 file, they do sound better to my ears.
  • Curse the “compilations” category. It seems to be a grab bag os categorization, and a surprising amount of my collection “falls” into this morass. Still, not sure how to fix this besides some seriously manual editing.

Fortunately, there are some tools that help drastically.

For cleaning up the ID tags on mp3/m4a files, the Mac program Meta is a life saver. It is trivial to fix/tweak/add tags. I used this to address the multiple CD issues (where the albums didn’t use the CD number field), add and clean up album art, and to convert filename fields to ID tags. Golden, time saver, and reasonably priced (totally worth the $20 for the license. It has saved me HUNDREDS of hours fixing things)

If you need to bulk convert from say FLAC or WAV to MP3 or other formats, a simple app that I originally bought to make ringtones for my then new iPhone, Fission by Rogue Amoeba software. I bought this so long ago, I don’t recall what it cost then, but updates have been free ever since, and as a batch converter on the mac, it is painless to use. Sure it also does tag editing, but Meta is vastly superior in performance. If you are a windows person, you can use the Windows Media Player to rip CD’s, but alas, it creates by default .wma files. They are smaller, but I found that they had a lot of compression artifacts, and in general sounded “sucky”. Alas, there are a lot of really good programs for Windows that do a superior job – and a better job on higher end systems using multiple cores. What I have used, and recommend is the dbPoweramp. I bought it a long time ago, and it was a worthy purchase. Back when I bought it, it was Windows only, but now thy have a Mac version. I do not have a license for that, so I can’t comment on its quality on the mac, but for Windows, it is the BOMB.

Sometimes you just want to check the quality of a file, or even what it is, if it isn’t tagged or labeled. For that, I fall back to the ubiquitous VLC or Video Lan Client. It will play just about anything that you throw at it, and will tell you some of the funky details (this is key for rips you obtain from 3rd parties who sometimes do weird things in their original rip). A free download, every year or so, I toss them $5 as a donation. It can do so much more than what I use it for, as in, you can manage, and stream from it, but for my needs, it is top notch.

For playing music, I just use the correct app for streaming services (lately, that is Spotify, and Apple Music) or iTunes for local files from my collection. A future post will be about how it is straining to use iTunes for both Apple Music, and to manage my local collection. Actually that is a mess, but it is what it is.

Summary

A lifetime of various degrees of consistency and discipline with regards to my music collection leads to a fragmented, at times chaotic collection. That is fine in general, except when I want to find a specific track, and then the hunt across many platforms, drives, and repositories will drive me nuts.

I doubt that I will ever get it completely self consistent, but it is a goal…

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