Organize Your mp3 Collection: Adding Tags

My house is a mess, I can’t remember where I put my sunglasses, but my mp3 collection is close to immaculate.

Call it an attempt to bring order to some part of my life. But I’ve spent years fine-tuning the tags and organization of my mp3s, and I think I have it down to a science.

iTunes library

Is your mp3 collection a mess? Do you not know what album a song came from, much less what the name of the song is? Can you not make decent playlists? Here’s how to bring sense to your collection.

Step 1: Fill in missing tags

Each mp3 file has metadata associated with it – that is, information about the file. These are called ID3 tags, and they describe each song using such fields as:

  • Song name
  • Artist
  • Track number
  • Genre
  • Year
  • Song rating

There are other fields such as disc number (for multi-disc sets), composer, conductor, album artist, and a comments field, but more about that later. The key is to fill in as much of these as possible for each mp3. Luckily, there are tools that can help you with this, many times as a batch so you don’t have to do it individually. Read more about these tools. I use MusicBee, which doubles as a great mp3 player if iTunes is not your thing.

id3 tag info

An example of id3 tags for a song.

Some tags such as track number and artist will be easy to fix; others, such as missing song names, will be more difficult to retrieve. You may have to listen to the lyrics of the song and Google it to find out what the name of the song is. One good resource for finding missing song and album information is allmusic.com, which lists entire discographies for almost any artist who has released an album. Wikipedia is also a good resource; most popular groups have a discography entry that lists what songs are on each album, and what year they were released.

Be sure that you consistently type the names of the artists in the artist field; for example, use “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers” all the time, not “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” or even “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.” Many mp3 players will see these as different artists, which will mess up your playlists (again, more on that later).

While you’re at it, go ahead and add things such as disc number (90% of your albums will be only 1 disc, so it’s disc 1 of 1). Add album artist; this is important when you want to listen to one artist who may have been in several bands. For example, I’ve labeled all Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers albums with the album artist “Tom Petty,” since he had several solo albums as well. This way I can create a playlist of all Tom Petty songs, regardless of whether he was solo or with the Heartbreakers. (Most of the time the album artist will be the same as the artist.)

About that Genre Tag…

genre list

My genres. Yours will be different.

Ah, genres. Everyone has his or her own opinion. One person’s definition of rock may be alternative to another. Add to the fact that there are multiple subgenres – surf punk – dream pop, baroque pop, indie rock, post-punk, shoegaze – and you start to realize what a mess this could become.

Don’t worry too much about the genre tag, unless you want to create playlists of your favorite genre of music. I have 29 different genre tags, and have even made up my own (such as “Pure Pop” – Beatlesque pop that is too mellow for power pop). I’ve combined country and bluegrass, jazz and vocals, and ambient and electronic because I don’t have a lot of that music.

But what about R.E.M.? Are they alternative or rock, or adult alternative? Is the Cure goth or post-punk? Again, it depends on your taste in music. Just be sure you consistently tag these and don’t let them get away from you – you don’t want 60 different genres…or maybe you do…

Rate Your Songs

This advice is not for the faint of heart, but trust me: It’s the best thing you can do for your mp3 collection. Go through every song and rate it one to five stars. This may take forever depending on the size of your collection. Some will be easy; for instance, you already know to give the Beatles’ “Yesterday” five stars; so go through your collection once and assign a rating to all songs you know. For most songs, though, you’re going to have to listen to them to assign a star rating. Here’s my criteria:

  • Five stars – one of the greatest songs you’ve ever heard
  • Four stars – an outstanding song
  • Three stars – I could listen to it again, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a friend.
  • Two stars – not one of their best songs. Grates on my nerves a little.
  • One star – Oh my God. This is awful.

Use the half-star rating if you’re not sure which group to put it in. (Yes, I have some songs that are one-half star.)

There are several advantages to this, one of which I’ll talk about later. The immediate benefit, though, is that it weeds out many songs and albums which have been in your collection for many years, and you haven’t listened to them, but after rating them, you may realize that they suck and don’t belong in your collection anymore. Click. Delete. You’ve just streamlined your collection – and saved disk space.

Album Art

If you really want to get fancy, make sure all of your mp3s have album art associated with it. If you’ve ripped your own CDs, it should populate this for you already. But if you have bootlegs and rare albums, you may not have any artwork associated with it. Use Google or allmusic.com to find the album art, and simply paste the art into the associated field. It’ll look so much cooler when you’re playing your music.

Coming up next: Organizing compilations, singles and incomplete albums

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