Diablog: Getting Your Data in a Row

There you are, hunched over the keyboard, doing something that looks spectacularly painful. What are you up to, editing filenames?

Not exactly. I'm editing metadata. At your request, actually.

Meta what? At my request? Are you lapsing into obscurantism, as usual? Please elucidate.

Metadata is—or should I say are?—data about data. As it applies to a digitized music library, it's all the bits of information that help you find music on your iPod: artist, album, song title, genre, etc. MP3s usually have metadata in a standardized tagging format called ID3 (see Wiki). You complained that some CDs you ripped weren't showing up on your iPod in the expected places. So I'm editing the metadata in our music library. It's turned into what the British call a dog's dinner. In other words, a mess.

Is that my fault, mate? All I do is stick the disc in the computer and let it rip.

Well, sometimes that's not enough. Take all those classical boxed sets sitting on our shelves. Please! They seem neat enough until you rip them. Then you try to find the tracks in your library and half of them seem to be missing. Why? Because some discs have the composer's name in the artist field and some have the performer's. Or perhaps the composer is Chopin for some discs, and Frederic Chopin for others, and Fryderyk Chopin for still others. So many things go wrong with tagging of classical recordings that it's a challenge even to list them.

So you're making my iPod a more orderly place. Thanks for that. What's the easiest way to edit metadata?

You might install software just for that purpose, called a tag editor, especially if you need to do batch editing. To find a bunch of possibilities just search "tag editor" or "id3 editing" at download.com. But for little touchups, you don't need special software. You can do it with your operating system. In Windows Explorer, let the cursor float over the filename—which can be completely different from anything in the metadata, because the filename is not a tag—and you can immediately see artist, album title, and other things. Codec and bitrate are included, which I find useful. Right-click on the filename, scroll down to Properties, and select the Summary tab and you get the full list of tags: artist, album title, year, track number, genre, lyrics, track title, comments, protection status, duration, bitrate, number of channels, and sampling rate.

Can't I edit metadata in iTunes?

You certainly can. You can also do it in Windows Media Player and in many other music management programs.

It looks like a lot of work. Isn't there a way to automate the process?

Any good ripping program will tap into a database and grab the metadata automatically. Sometimes this can happen even if the source is not a CD. I just grabbed data off the net for some of the Bert Jansch LPs that I'd burned to CD-R and then ripped to MP3 with Window Media Player 10. Insert the disc, click Find Album Info at the top of the screen, then Search at the bottom. You can search by the name of artist or album. If you get a match, and the number of tracks on the CD-R corresponds to the official track listing, then click Finish and the metadata is bound to the tracks.

So you've got correct tagging and surface noise on the same tracks. Charming. Where does the metadata lookup come from?

WMP uses several suppliers including AMG, the All Music Guide, also used by MusicMatch. It's pretty reliable for pop and jazz, a bit spottier for classical. The class act is Gracenote CDDB, used in iTunes. Gracenote's Music ID can tag albums or individual tracks by analyzing the "fingerprint" of the audio waveform. Amazing. CDDB began as an open-source database though it's now proprietary. Some other databases, like MusicBrainz, are still open-source. I'm not wild about those. I once used FreeDB (reported dying but since acquired by Magix) to tag Sex, a CD by The Necks with a single 56-minute title track. The database identified it as "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish."

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.

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