It seems to be a science in itself to build up a music collection in MP3 format in a way that it can be played and searched with different programs and devices without the whole thing ending in chaos.
The folder structure is not important at all and also filenames are not important at all. Instead, it is important that the ID3 tags in the files are maintained as completely as possible. And the information should also be meaningful, because a double album should also be recognized as such and played in the appropriate order.
Unfortunately programs like Apple’s iTunes or Microsoft’s Zune software don’t help much with this. As long as you rip, play and manage the music with just one of these programs, it might be enough, but if you want something more, you will fail. So iTunes sets the tags for the CD number when ripping a double CD sampler, but then forgets to set the album artist. And after CD 1 and CD 2 get also another album name, the thing ends unpleasantly. Zune doesn’t do it any better, here the album artist is set nicely, but instead the CD number is missing. Both in themselves completely useless.
So you need a simple, free software like MP3tag to manage the tags cleanly. And if you want to have a little more options when ripping, you don’t have to use the functions of Media Player, Zune or iTunes, but you can look at fre:ac.
iTunes as well as Zune and WMP use ID3 tags in the modern ID3v2 format. While Apple only uses ID3v2.2 is used by Microsoft ID3v2.3 announced. For compatibility Zune also writes ID3v1. MP3tag writes ID3v2 by default.3, but iTunes doesn’t have any problems with that either.
First of all the following tags are important and should be filled in (I refer here to the names of the fields in MP3tag, not to the original names of the tag fields in the ID3 specification):
Title – the title of the song
Artist – the artist of the respective song
Album – the name of the album from which the song is taken
Track – the number the song has on the album
You should be careful not to accidentally include leading or trailing spaces in the tags. These are stored and mess up the sorting in the programs afterwards.
The use of normal notation increases the readability significantly, d.h. the exclusive use of upper or lower case letters doesn’t help to get a better overview and also looks shabby.
Tracknumbers are started normally from 1 and written as a number. There are people who give track numbers as 1/15, d.h. after the slash still the number of tracks. This information is not evaluated by the programs and is superfluous in my eyes.
As soon as the name of the artist is not the same over the whole album, so z.B. one song from "Armin van Buuren" and the next one from "Armin van Buuren feat. Sharon den Adel", the tag should be Album-Interpret tags are set, in this case to "Armin van Buuren". Together with the name of the album, the programs can thus recognize that despite different artists, all these songs belong to one album of one artist.
Sampler and CD sets
With samplers it is natural that the titles come from different artists. Here it has proven to be Album-Artist "Use "Various Artists.
For sets of several CDs there is the tag CD number. Here I don’t mean the number of the CD in my personal collection, but the number of the CD in the set. Start with 1 and also here a slash with the following indication of the CDs in the set is optional and in my opinion unnecessary.
An indication of the CD number in the album name is nonsensical. If you want the double album "Mirage" to be displayed as such, don’t assign "Mirage (Disc 1)" and "Mirage (Disc 2)" as album title, but distinguish the CDs by the CD number tag and leave the album title as it should be.
To better search and categorize songs, there are tags for the Genre, the Publication year and the Composers. I consider these tags as optional. The genre is not always really determinable and you can argue about it wonderfully. Publication year and composer are interesting items, but if they are not present because not known, this is no big deal.
The publication year is of course given as a four-digit year, the composer(s) in order, where the composer tag is a simple free text field. Exactly such a free text field is the comment field, which can be used for all kinds of nonsense, but not necessarily. In most cases it is superfluous and will not be used by the programs any more.
iTunes and Zune can read the cover images from music tracks, but do not necessarily store them in the music track again. iTunes, for example, only does this when you edit manually, but not when you automatically download covers from the web.
If you use MP3tag to put a cover image into one or more MP3s, you should limit yourself a little bit. A size of 600×600 pixels should be sufficient, JPG format is the most common and the file size should not exceed a few kilobytes.
You can put several cover images in one MP3 file, but it usually only makes sense to create a front cover.
Filenames and directories
If the tags are once cleanly set, one can bring the files into a suitable structure. With the converter in MP3tag you can automatically create the filenames from the ID3 tags. I recommend the following converter string:
$num(%track%,2). %artist% – %title%
This creates a two-digit track number, with leading zero if necessary, followed by artist and title.
The name of the artist and the name of the album are each created as single subfolders in the file system. If the album or sampler is divided into several CDs, the folders "CD1" to the end of the set can be found below the folder with the album name.
While editing with MP3tag you should have the files in a place not monitored by iTunes, WMP or Zune. This only confuses the programs.
Zune also monitors larger folder structures for changes during operation. If you insert music into a folder monitored by Zune while Zune is running, the data should be found immediately. If you are working with files that are already in a watched folder, it can be useful to move them to an unattended folder after changing the ID3 tags and then move them back to their original location.
The Windows Media Player scans the collection and puts some garbage files like AlbumArt*.jpg in the directories. In itself already quite unsightly, only it works thereby also still plentifully stupidly. If it finds a folder in which only one song has a cover image, this cover image will then be used for all other music in this folder – no matter if this fits or not. At a certain database size the WMP starts to go crazy and uses this cover image for every song without cover, no matter which folder it comes from.
Therefore, either avoid WMP or use it purely as a playback program without database function and without it searching the libraries and dumping its legacies into the directories. How to do it? You look for the file CurrentDatabase_372.wmdb at C:\User\<Name>\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Media Player and simply set the write protection attribute on it. The WMP continues to play everything, but does not get the idea to change anything in the music collection. The file is called in Windows 8 and 8.1 by the way CurrentDatabase_400.wmdb, but is still in the same place. The trick still works there.
If you have considered all this, iTunes, WMP and Zune and probably various other programs can read the tagged collection, display covers appropriately, show samplers and albums belonging together and play everything in appropriate order. And also the synchronization to the matching smartphone should now be no longer an issue. Then there is not much in the way of music enjoyment.
At most some more work to rip the CD collection…
Update 2014-08-08: wrong path of the WMP database corrected, info about database names under Windows 8.x added.