Computer Audio 101: Fixing Your Metadata

Metadata. /ˈmetəˌdatə/
Noun:
A set of data that describes and gives information about other data.

For our interests, metadata is data about music, specifically about the music we own and play. Album Title, Artist, Album Artist, Composer, Track Title, Track Number, Year, Comments, Album Cover Art, and so on. Ideally when we rip or download, all of this data about our music's data comes along with it. But the odds are this is not always the case. Especially if you've ever moved your library or converted from a Mac to a PC or vice versa, and even more likely if you ever ripped albums as WAV files.

Unknown Album

Dealing with metadata can be frustrating and here I'm going to focus on my favorite application for fixing metadata—MP3Tag. First the good news: beyond the fact that I find MP3Tag works, it's also free. The bad news? MP3Tag will not work with WAV files (for obvious reasons or hopefully soon to become so) and it runs on Windows and Mac but here it requires the use of Wine.app.

Our metadata can get messed up for a number of reasons. The application you choose to rip your music is the first potential problem and one of the most common apps used for ripping, Apple's iTunes, has some quirks making it a less-than-ideal metadata editor which you'll only discover if you ever try to leave iTunes (feel free to think of iTunes as one of those ex-whatevers that turns into a fire-breathing demon once the relationship sours).

Enter MP3Tag

Let's assume you have an album that has lost some of its metadata. No cover art, no track numbers, no album name. I created this exact scenario by ripping a CD, William S. Burroughs' Break Through In Grey Room, in WAV format using iTunes (a surefire way to get un-sticky metadata). Then I copied that album folder to a different directory and voilà! No more metadata. The reason being, iTunes associates metadata with the WAV files rather than embedding it in the file (iTunes embeds metadata with AIFF formatted files which is one reason I recommend ripping to AIFF for Mac users) and stores this info in a separate XML file. So when you move WAV files, this association breaks and you're left with no data beyond Track Title which will have the Track Number prepended to it. No Album Title, no Artist, no Year, no Album Cover Art no nothing.

A Brief WAV Diversion
The WAV format does not support ID3 tagging which includes/embeds metadata in the actual music file. This data is added to the file so wherever the file goes, so goes its metadata. With WAV files, this is not the case. While there are applications that can embed metadata in WAV files, this method is not widely supported. In other words, your embedded metadata is only as useful as the playback application's ability to read it. I think it's safe to say that FLAC is the most widely supported lossless file format that supports embedded metadata. Since FLAC is not supported by Apple, harumph!, I recommend using the Apple's AIFF file format since it also supports embedded metadata if you live in Apple-land.
Since WAV files do not support embedded metadata, which is why MP3Tag does not support WAV files, I converted my recently messed up William S. Burroughs WAV rip to the FLAC format using dbPoweramp (see review).

The Fix, Or Scratching The Surface of MP3Tag

Once you've downloaded MP3Tag, launch the app and open your messed up Album. Once you do this you'll see how easy it is, much easier than typing but let me illustrate—click on that folder with the green circle on it (it also has a white check inside the circle which is very hard to see in this screenshot below but very easy to see in the app). This will open a window where you'll browse to your messed up Album and select it by clicking on the "Select" button. Once you do that, you'll see something that looks a lot like this:

There are a number of ways to fix your metadata with MP3Tag but I recommend trying the fully automatic version first. To launch the auto-fixer (my language), select all tracks, then select "Tag Sources" from the menu. You'll see a drop-down menu with tag sources. Pick one, I like to start with MusicBrainz because I've had good luck with it, and you'll be asked to enter the Album Name. Do so and if you're lucky the tag source you've selected will contain the metadata you're looking for. If it doesn't, try another tag source until you get a match. If you don't get a match, we'll talk about how to handle that soon.

Once you've found your match, select it and you'll see something that looks like this:

Now here's a step you don't want to miss—do you see those two scrolling fields on the bottom? The one on the left has the Tracks listed in order from your Tag Source's database. The one on the right shows your Files. You want to make your Files match the Tracks which should be as easy as clicking on the Filename header which sorts your Files by name. This should be easy since in many cases you'll find the track number prepended to the File Name. If this is not the case, you can sort both by "Length" which should match everything up nicely (of course double check in case some tracks are the exact same length). Once you've matched everything up and added any other information such as Year and Comments (I find "Genre" useless but that's just me), click "OK". Easy, no?

If the Tag Sources do not have your Album, you'll have to enter the metadata yourself. Again, there are a number of ways to accomplish this but I find it easiest to select all tracks and just type in the info. To add the Album Cover art, find it on the internet, copy it, go back to the MP3Tag window, select all tracks, right click in the Album Cover Art square in the bottom left of the window and select "Paste". Once you're done click the Save button. Easy, no?

back in iTunes (after being converted to AIFF, harumph!)

As you'll see, MP3Tag offers many more options for fixing up your metadata and I've merely skimmed the surface. Check out the Support area for lots of helpful hints.

And most importantly, if you end up using and liking MP3Tag, go back to their site and click on "Donate" and donate.

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