Start To Finish Guide To Whipping Your Music's Metadata Into Shape

Most of us have spent years building up our digital music libraries, along with tons of missing, mismatched and incorrect tags on your music over that time. Here's a step-by-step guide for organising your entire library, once and for all.

Your digital music library is huge. Even if you only have an iPod nano's worth of songs, that's still a good thousand tracks — and some of you likely have closer to four or five thousand (or more). Today's media players — whether on your desktop or portable device — rely on metadata to organise and display all this music. If your metadata is disorganised, so's your music player. Unless you just started building your library, or have been ultra organised from the get-go, you probably have plenty of problems with your tags — missing tags, disorganised iterations of the same artist (The Beatles; The Beetles; Beatles, The), and even some albums that have no information whatsoever. Everyone's problems are a bit different, but here's a systematic approach to getting your library into shape, from start to finish.

Below we'll cover how to fill in the large gaps in your metadata (primary tags like artist and album), then we'll dive into more specific secondary tags (like genre or year), and lastly we'll tie up any loose ends that still haven't been taken care of.

Filling in Missing Primary Tags with Jaikoz

The first order of business is to get any files with missing primary tags (such as artist or album) filled in so that you can fine-tune them along with the rest of your library later on. There are a number of tools that do this automatically, and while none of them are perfect, Jaikoz (available for Windows, Mac and Linux) does a pretty good job. It's not super consistent in which secondary tags (like album artist or genre) it fills in, but that's all stuff we'll fix in the next phase anyway — the important part here is getting primary tags, like artist and album, filled in where they're not, and Jaikoz does a pretty good job of doing this without any trouble on your part.

The downside is that Jaikoz is only a free trial, and as such will only let you save tags to 20 songs per session. Previously mentioned Picard, which also uses the MusicBrainz database, does the same thing for free, but it's much more difficult to use — so much more difficult, in my opinion, that I'd rather restart Jaikoz for each album than try to wade through Picard's process. If you're familiar with Picard or want to try it out, feel free, but I won't cover it here.

If you have more albums than can be easily tagged with a few sessions of Jaikoz, you're probably in deep, and it's worth paying the $US20 for Jaikoz; if you're using iTunes, paying $US10 for previously mentioned Pollux, one of the best automatic taggers around (pictured to the left), seems like your best option. So to reiterate: If you're going the free route, we'd use Jaikoz; if you're willing to pay, the premium version of Jaikoz is solid; if you're willing to pay and use iTunes, you probably won't regret Pollux.

Pollux is simple enough to use that we won't explain how to use it here; instead, we'll offer a little more detail for the free Jaikoz method.

Once you've started up Jaikoz and opened the folder on your hard drive containing your library, select the files that have missing artist or album information (remember, only select 20 at a time or the tags won't be saved). To select the tracks themselves, you'll have to select files via the leftmost column of numbers in Jaikoz (see the screenshot above) — otherwise you'll just select that tag. While you're going through this, select any tracks you might be unsure of, too — this is probably less widespread now, but back in the early days of file sharing a lot of songs got out into the wild with the tags of completely different songs, so if you aren't positive that song from 2000 is the song it claims to be, you might as well throw it into the fray as well. Right click your selection and hit "Auto Correct". Jaikoz will do its thing and you should see completely filled in tags and album art in just a minute or so, along with a "C" in the leftmost column to show which tracks Jaikoz has edited. Hit the save button at the top of the window, close Jaikoz, and re-open it for the next batch of 20 that need artists or albums filled in.

Fill in Missing Secondary Tags with Mp3tag

If you have some albums that have at least one primary tag (preferably album) but are missing secondary tags (such as song titles or year), you can use previously mentioned Mp3tag to search for the rest of them. Mp3tag is technically Windows only, but works amazingly well in WINE both on Mac and Linux. Mac users unfamiliar with WINE should check out previously mentioned Winebottler, which will wrap it into its own, independent Mac app, with no extra configuration. Note though, that as a Windows program, it can't handle filenames with certain symbols, so any filenames with question marks or other non-Windows friendly characters will have to be changed — if iTunes organises your files for you, this isn't a problem as it already does this by default.

Start up Mp3tag and open the folder in which your music is stored. Before you do anything else, select all your files and hit the save button for good measure. Mp3tag can read lots of different types of tags, but when possible, it saves all tags as ID3v2.3, which is the most widespread tag format for Mp3s — AAC files have their own tag format, so that won't change, but files with ID3v2.4 can give some media players problems, so I'd suggest it's a good idea to make sure you're using the best version possible. Saving all tags as they are will rewrite them in ID3v2.3, so you're starting off with a good base.

To auto-populate the tags of a given album, select an album and hit Tag Sources in the toolbar. You can pick anything you like here; but any should do just fine — I prefer Amazon.com, but MusicBrainz also has a very well-kept database. Both of these databases search by album, which is perfect. You'll be given a list of possible matches, from which you can pick the one you want to use. Hit OK and it will fill in all the tags it has. You'll have to do this separately for each album, so again, if you have a ton of albums to go through, you might want to just spring for Jaikoz or Pollux. But for a small to moderate number of albums, this works wonders.

Note that this will also add album art. If you have a lot of albums missing art, though, I'd recommend going into iTunes first and making sure that you've added all the art you can, since iTunes' "get album art" feature is quick and painless — but for albums that iTunes can't find, both Mp3tag and Jaikoz will automatically add art along with the rest of the metadata.

Batch Actions in Mp3tag

In some cases, there may be some things that auto-tagging doesn't fill correctly, or just times when you need to do something that isn't already provided by Amazon or MusicBrainz. This is where actions come in — actions let you define, via scripts or strings, exactly how you want Mp3tag to populate any given tag. We'll go through a basic example of how to create an action and how to use it efficiently, so you don't do any more manual work than you have to.

The example I'm going to use, because it's a popular one, is filling in missing "album artist" tags, which can cause problems for some media players — but everyone's situation is different, and you may have another batch action that you need to complete. Mp3tag is extremely versatile and powerful, and while I can't go through every possible scenario, this example should outline how to use Mp3tag's advanced features, as well as the most efficient way to perform manual batch actions such as this in the program, so even if you're doing something different, you can still utilise these strategies.

Even large batch actions aren't necessarily that straightforward — so the key is to work with the smallest amount of files possible. Say half of your music is missing the "album artist" tag. Most of these tracks have the same album artist as they do artist, but not all of them. The first thing we'll want to do is weed out the ones that do so we don't have to muddle through them later and do them all by hand. The best way to do this is sorting your files by tag, using the top bar. Clicking on a column will sort the files alphabetically (or numerically) by that column. You can sort by multiple columns too — say you wanted to sort by artist, and then sorted by album within artists. You would hit the album column first, then sort by the artist column — essentially going backward in the order you want them sorted.

In the album artist case, we want to sort by album artist, so we only have to work with the files that are missing the actual tag. Within this group, though, there are still files we want to weed out, such as compilations that often have "various artists" as their album artist instead of the artist of any given song. Compilation is not an ID3 tag, but iTunes does sort compilations into a separate folder — so by using "path" as our secondary sorting column, we can do all the compilations at once and then put them aside, saving them from being part of the batch action. If you don't use iTunes or a program that sorts compilations, you'll unfortunately have to do this manually later.

To do this, click on the path column, then click on the album artist column. Scroll to the half of your music missing the album artist tag, and then search for the block of files in the "compilations" folder. Select them all and go to the left side of the screen, where you can edit the tags. Under Album Artist, type in "Various Artists". This will populate that field for all your compilations. Afterward, you can click the "album artist" column again to re-sort, excluding those from the list of tracks without the tag. Now we can do our batch action.

Select all the files that are missing the album artist tag and go to Convert > Actions. Mp3tag has a bunch of "quick actions" built in, as well as a few more advanced actions — but we're going to create our own for this particular task.

When the actions window comes up, hit "new" and type in a name for the action group (like "fill in album artist"). Then click "new" again to add a new action to this group. For this action, all we need to do is populate the "album artist" field (called BAND in Mp3tag) with the information in the "artist" field — so our field will be BAND, and our format string will merely be %artist%. Hit OK until you get back to the main action window. Check your newly created action and press OK — Mp3tag should go through all your tracks and populate the album artist tag.

This is just one example of a batch action you can do, but the general strategy for sorting by multiple columns works pretty well no matter what you're doing — the idea is to change only the tags you have to in any given batch action, thereby cutting down the manual editing for those songs that just won't take via automation as much as possible. Depending on your particular needs, you can make an action to do just about anything. For more information on scripting functions and strings you can use, check out Mp3tag's great help page.

Fine Tune Small Errors and Mismatched Tags

The last thing you need to do is edit any tags manually that are still incorrect. This is where you'd fix any files that you couldn't fix with a batch action — following the example we've been using, one instance might be albums by one artist but feature other artists on them. You'll need to fix the album artist tag for these artists yourself — which requires scanning through your library to find them manually, unfortunately, and renaming the album artist to whoever it's supposed to be using the left sidebar of Mp3tag. You can also do this in iTunes, and in most cases just as easily — in fact, if you're an iTunes user in this instance, it's probably easiest to go into iTunes and see which albums show up twice or more under album view, a good sign that iTunes is recognising them as by different artists.

This is also when you'll fix mismatched tags, such as the aforementioned Beatles example — unfortunately, unless you've bought Jaikoz or Pollux, this is all stuff you'll have to do manually, but like I said before: if there are more tracks than you can comfortably do by hand, it's worth the $US10 to get Pollux to just do it all automatically for you.

Clearly this is not the only way to organise your music library, but I can certainly vouch for this method if your library is at least sort of organised. Also, you may already have your favourite tagging tool that I didn't use here, and that's fine — like I said, I tried to keep this as cross-platform as possible, and there are a lot of programs, cross-platform or not, that fulfil the same functions as those presented here, and they're just as viable. If you've got your own favourite strategy for keeping metadata organised, let us know in the comments!


Comments

    Great post, thanks. Never, ever get my music library looking perfect, but this will get me closer. One other thing 'Cover Scout' for getting cover art up to scratch too. Very nice product for auto finding art, or for googling within the app for those hard to find covers.

    And if anyone knows a hack to make iTunes coverflow only show albums with cover art, please tell me. My biggest problem with cover flow is the number of musical note placeholders I have to look at.

      Hi mate thanks for the tip but Cover Scout seems to be mac only ...

      Anyone know a good window tool to get Cover art up to scratch only?

    You mention that Pollux is for iTunes only BUT it is also only for macOS (iTunes has been available on Windows since 2004)

    Also, if your library is small enought that you can process it in lots of 20 songs (Jaikoz free version), you don't need any of these tips anyway.

      Pollux is available for Windows and Mac, check their website.

    I use Picard from musicbrainz to find tags from unknown mp3's and then MusicBee to clean them up and add all the missing info including lyrics.

    I also use MP3gain to normalize them

    Plus 1 for MP3 Gain and Jaikoz. Good apps.

    Great write up! I used to use Media Rage but it never did everything I wanted it to do.

    It is shame that mac users have to use so many apps to update their music libraries. When I had a mac, I resorted to parralells and mediamonkey. Mac was a great experience, but mediamonkey just kept pulling me back to windows... shame.

    I cleaned, tagged and organized 35 gigs last year using musicbrainz Picard primarily, as well as mp3 tag&rename. Still a lot of manual work involved as well, but now the whole lot looks awesome in cover flow on my pc and phone.

    "Start To Finish" my ass. If you've got thousands of songs, who in their right mind is going to crawl through them at a measly 20 songs at a time?

    "Both of these databases search by album, which is perfect." - speak for yourself. Not everyone has their music in blocks of albums. The majority of my music collection is miscellaneous songs not necessarily associated with an album (although the songs obviously came from some album somewhere, but there aren't necessarily any other songs in the collection from the same album, nor should such an assumption be made). This is hardly what I would call "perfect."

    This "guide" is nearly worthless. I'm not saying that to be a jerk... honestly, I came to this article with high hopes and am seriously disappointed.

    Just today I went through my ~350 000 song music drive and cleared it out. Here's what I did.

    You can use foobar2000 in windows to find junk metadata (including comment text like "Ripped by leet haxxor team alpha" as well as useless headers like and that people sometimes add to the mp3 file alone with useful stuff like Artist, Genre and Track Title.

    If you load the whole archive into a playlist by dragging the folder into the application and then right click on the column headers and go to columns>more, you can make custom columns for different metadata. I made one for the comments metadata by clicking "add new" and entering "comments" for name and "%comment%" for pattern without quotation marks. Percentages signify metadata names.

    Click close and then right click on the column headers again and go back into the columns sub-menu. This time select your newly created header from the list and it should pop up somewhere to the left or right of the other column headers. You can now sort by that as well as seeing what's inside every file without having to go into the properties of them individual!

    After clearing out most of the comment data, I deleted all the useless metadata titles.

    press ctrl-a to select all the tracks at once. Right click and go to properties to display the metadata for the whole folder. It may take a few seconds to load if you have a lot of files, but once they're up you'll be able to see every single metadata header used by any file in the folder.

    Once you have that display up, you can go back into the custom columns menu without closing it, which lets you make four or five new custom column headers (I named them 1 to 5) and select the headers that look the most popular (eg ) that you know you don't need. Once they're set up, just sort by each of those headers one by one and press -home- and -end- to go to the start and finish of the list to find the files with that metadata. Eventually you'll be able to go back to the metadata for the whole folder and be left with only what you want.

    ---If you have very few files---
    the process is much easier. Because it wont take the hours and hours it would have taken me to change the data for every file in one go, you can just select all the files and go to properties (as explained above) and click on the name of each metadata item you don't want and press delete. once you select "OK" it will go through every single file in your library and get rid of them.

    You can also use foobar2000 to change files that have been LABELLED IN ALL CAPS by selecting the songs or album and, in properties, right clicking on the Artist or Album or whatever thing has been written in all caps or lowercase and click "auto-capitalise"

    If you have your tracks in the right order you can also give them track numbers automatically with a an option in the same menu.

    I also transcoded all my flac tracks into mp3s using the program. All you need is the LAME mp3 files that you can get freely off the internet.

    The one and only thing I need to use itunes for anymore is embedding album artwork. foobar does it by just using the folder.jpg file in the same directory as the files and I cant figure out whether it has the function build in or not.

    Hope this is helpful to someone. It took me forever to streamline this process to the point where it was actually worth doing.

      I use foobar2000 for labelling too! It does have an album artwork feature, it's under tagging (might be the mass tagged component).

      I've been sorting and labelling my music collection for years using foobar, mainly because there's a simple scripting feature associated with the tagging. While all my music is bought on CD, having a few thousand discs has probably taken a few hundred hours in labelling (especially if research is needed on what piece it actually is for classical music).

      Another trick I use in foobar2000 is I add extra tags, like opus or instrument, which allows me to label the title more easily with scripts.

    I use tagr on mac, it doesn't do automatic tagging but is solid and works for basic tagging, which is good enough for me. And I get artwork from albumart.org or google image search, not fully automated but okay for me :)

    Thanks for the guide!

    I ripped my entire CD collection some time ago, about 500+ CD's, of which 30% is classical music.

    I found media monkey (only available for Windows, unfortunately) to be the absolute winner here. It supports pretty much everything you mentioned in this guide including batch-tag and auto-tag using catalogues from the web.

    It takes some time to get used to it, but it really does worth the effort. The combination I found to be the best for categorisation is to work with the tree view and use drag & drop to standardise values.

    Suppose you have genres for "Alt. Rock" and also "Alternative Rock", you could drag all the files from "Alt. Rock" and drop them into the "Alternative Rock" genre and media monkey will update the file tags.

    Using this technique on all the different aspects (genre, artist, etc.) will get your library nice & tidy in relatively low effort.

    Oh, one last thing: media monkey has a free edition that supports a lot, and is probably enough for most users, but to really get the best of of it you'll have to purchase a license. Nothing too expensive, though, so no worries.

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