Fine-Tuning iTunes

iTunes RatingsIt was about 11:00p the other night when I sat down in front of my computer, ostensibly to add a few new songs to my iTunes database so that I could load them onto my iPod photo. While I was at it, I decided to grab the attendant album cover artwork too, something that I’ve been doing more frequently since buying the iPod photo — these models displays covers nicely if diminutively on their color screens. There’s no rational motivation for wanting the artwork, except perhaps as a small way to compensate for the complete dissolution of visual design as a component of music in the digital age… but I’m not bitter about that.

Cover Me

So I headed off to’s music section, the best kept secret for free and generally high quality album cover scans, and found the stuff I was looking for. Once there, I thought I might as well try and add artwork for some of the other songs in my library, too, especially some of the tracks I play most often. Not all of my music, thankfully, can be found at Wal-Mart, so I had to consult various other online sources for cover scans, jumping back and forth between two or three of them. Before I knew it, two hours had passed and I had added artwork to some three hundred tracks.

Music libraries bring out this level of fussiness in people. It doesn’t matter much whether a library is composed of vinyl albums or digital downloads, because people want to finesse them regardless of the media that carries the music. The intensely personal nature of music fandom leads some people to want to shape their collections in very particular ways, to take a completist’s approach to information that, in the long run, matters very little, except that it matters tremendously to them

Star Making

I know I⁏m encroaching on “High Fidelity” territory here, but I mention this because I’ve noticed it more and more since recently buying my new iPod. Now that I have its ability to assign star ratings to tracks when on the road, I’ve been able to rate tons of songs that I had never bothered with before. As a result, I’ve been investing this database with hours of customization that I’ll lose forever unless I carefully protect (and regularly back up) my iTunes library and its XML meta data. In a world where just about any music can be downloaded anywhere, meta information is one of the few things that has absolutely unique intrinsic value.

Synchronized Starring

Unfortunately, I don’t think Apple does a great job of recognizing how important that meta data is. For one thing, it’s hidden away in the Music folder of my Macintosh, so I’m not sure that, even if you’re diligent about backing up all of your documents, you’d remember to back that one up.

That data is also disappointingly difficult to transport. All of the ratings and album art I’ve added to my database are stranded on my PowerBook — my principal music library. I have a different iTunes music library at the office — it’s similar to the one on my laptop, though for specific reasons, it has many songs that I don’t have at home, and is missing many that I do. If I had identical music libraries, it would be easy to reap the benefits of the customization I have on my PowerBook while at work, but that’s unfortunately not the case.

It would be terrific if someone very sharp would write a piece of software that would allow me to take the two music libraries and, synchronizing over a local network, apply any ratings and/or art on my laptop’s iTunes library with my office machine’s iTunes library. Of course, that’s not the kind of software innovation that will make anyone a million dollars, but for people like me who like to waste their time finessing their collections, it would be a real boon.

  1. We can both relate, i have this little problem when adding new music ( i tend to always look for the main album cover of the song title or whole album.)

  2. I’ve also been hooked on adding cover art to my mp3 collection in iTunes. I’ve found Google’s image search does a fantastic job ( It usually finds covers for even obscure albums and lists them all as thumbnails along with the dimensions of the full images. Very handy!

    I don’t have an iPod (let alone an iPod photo) but I find the cover art useful when putting together compilations for friends. The mosaic of images iTunes puts together when you print a playlist is very nice.

  3. Khoi, that sounds like an awful quantity of energy to invest in a task that can perfectly be automated. There are many tools for finding album tracks. My pick (and recommendation) is… It works seamlessly with your iTunes and can do the job while you dedicate your valuable time to write in this wonderful site of yours. Congrats on its design (Best blog I’ve seen).

  4. Khoi, welcome to my world!
    There are many times that I’ve found myself burning the midnight oils in search of the best album art (or, in fact, any, for some albums!), or meticulously tagging my tunes. I think something like 95% of my 6000-song music library has the correct album art applied (based on the real cover, rather than what Amazon or whoever thinks the cover is). It’s an arduous task, but very satisfying in the end (and worth it if, like me, you insist on having the album art pane in iTunes visible at all times).

    With regards synching the libraries, you should just be able to use iTunes’ “Import…” option to directly import your library XML file. Alternatively, just overwrite one with the other… Not the most elegant of solutions, but it does work (for a given value of “work”) if you have everything in the same places on the two machines. As for synching the art, this is slightly harder – the art is actually stored inside the mp3 files, as part of their ID3v2 tags. Therefore, the only options with this are to copy the files or the art manually (or find some process to extract the art from the tags and move it).

  5. What I find interesting here, is that you designate really good metadata (and album art) value – and I agree completely. This could easily become a good selling point for purchasing legal music instead of downloading music with often poor, dowright shoddy or no metadata at all.

    For some reason I’ve never really gotten around to rating songs – partly it’s because I can never devote the nececarry time to it, and partly because while I might be crazy about Nick Cave and Johnny Cash right now, there’s no telling if I’ll still think of the same songs as 5-stars down the road.

  6. Hey Khoi, not unlike yourself, I’ve spent a number of hours on my music library. I’m so anal about it, everything needs to be perfect. In either case I’m losing focus, there is a program that has/will have the function you’re looking for right here:

    I haven’t tried it out myself since I don’t have the privilege of multiple Macs in my dorm, but I hear it works.

  7. I wonder how big my 40GB library would grow if I will add album art to every single file in there (and album art is not shared between files, which effectively means that all of my files are going to grow by the size of the album art).

    Better start stocking up an XServe for that.

  8. Yeah, I know. The way I look at it: it would minimize the physical space required to store all of my CDs and records without jewel cases and covers, too. But I wouldn’t want to do that. Design has a price.

  9. The album cover art is also a nice addition when using quicksilver’s “current track notification” feature.

    Like you, Khoi, I do most of my rating on the road. With a 45-minute commute, I’m progressing at a relatively decent pace through a 49MB collection.

    By the way, there’s a script available called fetch art which helped me “catch up” with the album art. It’s not always right, and I’d highly recommend running it on subsets of your library rather than the whole thing, but were it not for this script, I’d only have album art for a few tracks.

    One thing I don’t like about the iPod photo (I just upgraded) is that the album art adds another click to get to the ratings screen. Also, I wish the iPod photo would display the rating on the main track info screen, so I wouldn’t have to press the select button four times just to check if the track is rated. Alas.

  10. There’s a great feature in Windows Media Player that retags files with missing data and album art. If it can’t find a match, I have to find the album manually in their database. There’s another nice feature that imbeds the star-rankings in the files themselves, which helps out for sharing music across a LAN. Sadly, these features are off by default, but you can find them in the Library tab of Options. And yeah, this is apparently only for the Windows version. 🙁

    The funny thing is I usually assume Microsoft is second, third, or last to implement any cool ideas like this, so I assumed this was just a common feature in other music players. 🙁

    On the plus side, at least I have something marginally brag-worthy on my Windows computer to ease the sadness/jealousy I feel everytime I look at a Mac. 🙂

  11. This is slightly OT but the best way I have found to maintain my star ratings between upgrades, switching HDD’s, etc. is to add comments for all my ‘starred’ songs. So, all my 2 star songs would have an imaginative ‘2 stars’ in their comments field. Do this using smart playlists and you’ll never lose your ratings.

    It does means that if you change the rating it isn’t going to work without manually editing the comment…

  12. The easiest way I found to transport the rating between 2 libraries is to use the BPM field. Unless you’re a BPM freak DJ, it works great since you can sort your listings with the BPM info…

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