Monday, May 25, 2009

Free your music collection

Warning: No Poker Content Whatsoever

I am not an early adopter of most new technology. I prefer to have most things mature somewhat before I go spending my hard earned money. Music is the exception. When I first heard about MP3 technology, I leapt in with both feet and my eyes closed and it was the greatest thing I'd ever heard. I instantly got the concept, even though it took my friends, and the general public, many years before they understood. Take your entire music collection, convert it into electronic files and watch as the hardware industry created a plethora of ways for you to listen to that music. Instantly. At your fingertips. No more shuffling for the right CD. No more skips when someone bumps the stereo. I intuitively figured out that this would change the music landscape, for the better.

My first MP3 player was the Diamond RIO PMP300. It was translucent green, held 64MB of music (upgraded from the original RIO's 32MB) and had about a 24 song capacity. I paid $250 for it back in early 1999 and people thought I was NUTS! But any hesitation I might have had was washed away the first time I went skiing with it. As the crystal clear air washed over me going down the mountain, with Boston's "Rock and Roll Band" blasting in my head, I reached a nirvana moment. No longer would my music appreciation be limited to my bedroom. No longer would skipping portable CD players keep me from listening to the soundtrack of life while I was living it.

It took a few years for the world to catch up but they did, big time. In the intervening years, I've built up quite a music collection and digitized all of it. Even better, since the music is portable by definition (no matter what Sony tries to do), I've integrated other people's collections wholesale. I've done a lot of trading of collections with people and have no problem with simply dumping an entire hard drive worth of music into my collection to mingle. Given how easy it is to sort through your collection with ITunes, or other worthy media players, it always fascinated me how reluctant most people are to do this. After all, media storage is super cheap, so space isn't the issue. Most people will tell me, "I would never listen to what you have so I don't want it." To which I like to reply, "Who cares?!?" Since it doesn't cost anything to store the music, why wouldn't you want it, even if you probably will never listen to it? Maybe your spouse will, or a friend, or it will come in handy at a party? Maybe you'll be curious and want to explore a new genre? If it doesn't cost anything to store, why not have it? I still don't understand.

Of course, there is one little problem. MP3 files display their song information (Title, Artist, Track number, Album Title, etc..) through tags embedded in the song file itself. This tag information is notoriously unreliable if you haven't purchased the song through a standard channel (like ITunes). In the early days, all of the tags were done manually by different people, which meant that a single song could be tagged hundreds of different ways. It made it impossible to tell at a glance which song was which, and that made song organization a nightmare. The industry understood this and there are now song libraries out there, like Gracenote, which can be accessed by software to lookup song information in a single location. The uniformity of the information is what's important. If all the software is looking at a single database, there is only a single point of failure and you can rely on a song being tagged the same from software to software.

Until now, though, tagging a song was still a relatively manual process. There was no way to tell if a song, let's say "Whipping Post" by The Allman Brothers, was really that song. You would have to listen to it, identify it, look up the corresponding information in the database, and have the software update the tag details. If you have 30,537 songs (my current library size), this could take forever.

With this in mind, it was a few hours ago that I was looking through LifeHacker.Com (one of my favorite websites) when I came across an entry for Best MP3 Tagger. First prize went to a piece of software that is changing my life as we speak. It's called TuneUp and it's a companion for ITunes. The way it works is that you drag files from ITunes into it's window and it creates an acoustical profile of your song, like a fingerprint, and then matches it to the Gracenote database. In just a few seconds, it identifies the song and allows you to save the updated tag information. The drag and drop interface, combined with the ridiculously awesome accuracy (it even gets the album art!) and the ability to batch load hundreds of songs at a time makes this the best piece of software I've purchased in years. You know all of those classical music pieces you might have that aren't really tagged well or have the wrong composer or movement? No problem. It actually knows which piece, which movement, which orchestra, which composer and which conductor. How about those Russian songs I downloaded whose tags were in Cyrillic? No worries. This thing found out that they're Vissotski and it even knows the English name of the songs and the album title. How about those hundreds of tracks I have that have no tag information whatsoever? A breeze. TuneUp blows through them and finds out who they are, what album and what song.

All of a sudden, I have access to thousands of songs which were in my library but not really accessible to me. It's a mind blowing experience and all of a sudden I'm giddy about music again. With just a few hours of work, my music will have consistent genres attached, consistent artist names (no more Led Zeppelin and Lead Zeppelin mistakes) and accurate album titles. The consistency will enable me to browse genres easily, to discover country or R&B songs I'd never heard. Or maybe browse my collection by Year Released and get a chronological walk through pop music history. Or perhaps create a playlist of just albums released from 1990 - 1994, so I can relive my college years.

I have goosebumps.