Organizing music on a computer
September 5, 2005 6:32 AM   Subscribe

How do you organize your music on your computer?

Shortly after I started digitizing my music, I ran into this problem of how to sort it so that it can be easily navigated. On one hard drive I have a folder for music, inside that is a folder for each artist, and inside that a folder for each album by that artist. Soundtracks are in the "Soundtrack" folder and random compilations (like Best of the 80's or whatever) are in a "Miscellaneous" folder. For mixes by DJs there is a folder for that DJ as if they were the artist.

But when it comes to ID3 tagging, this system sort of falls apart because there is only one "artist" field. A DJ mix by John Digweed for example will have about 14 tracks, all by different artists, but obviously I want to be able to find this album by looking for "John Digweed." What I have been doing for years is to use the "genre" field to hold the artist that I want the album associated with (so [DJ mix] Global Underground 19 has a genre of "Digweed, John" and Eat a Peach has a genre of "Allman Brothers Band").

The old Real Jukebox had an option to sort by genre->album, WinAmp3 had this same option, and Foobar2000 lets you sort by directory structure (which is by far the best solution I have found). But this whole system is obviously a kludge, and most media players don't seem to have these optioins, so what gives? How do you tag and sort your music so that you can find it in your media player of choice?
posted by Who_Am_I to Computers & Internet (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Stop pissing about with files and folders and use iTunes like a sensible person.
posted by cillit bang at 6:35 AM on September 5, 2005

what cillit bang said.
posted by bonaldi at 6:37 AM on September 5, 2005

I don't see how iTunes solves this problem. I'm still going to have to sort by genre->album to keep things organized, which means I still have to use the genre field as a second artist field. If I'm missing something, perhaps you could elaborate?
posted by Who_Am_I at 6:48 AM on September 5, 2005

itunes for Windows is still teh suck. In Windows I find it best to keep the "music" folder in thumbnails view, and simply have a folder for each album, with a graphic of the album cover on the folder. Feels like looking for songs as one might back in the caveman days. Getting more complex with the organization than that tends to be false economy.
posted by dong_resin at 6:54 AM on September 5, 2005

You can use the 'comments' field to score miscellaneous information, and you can create smartlists that include/exclude tracks based on "Comments field contains: John Digweed" or whatever.

That said, I wish there were a system for MP3s that let you easily add and remove mefi-post-style tags to them. I want to be able to highlight 200 mp3s and add the "Baroque" tag to them, then highlight half of those and add the "Choral" tag to them. The comments field is not that flexible, although you might be able to find an mp3 tagger that lets you do it with some trickery.

That said, I still use folders. I use iTunes because I have to, to get stuff on my iPod, but I hate it for organizing music. Big difference is that I just have one folder for each album, and folders are titled like "Artist - Album Name" instead of one master folder for each artist. I found it to be too much clicking to have to open each folder to see the albums by that artist.
posted by agropyron at 6:55 AM on September 5, 2005

You could put the extra information you need in the comments field and create a smart playlist in itunes that filters for said commented items.

Also, if you label the individual tracks as John Digweed / Artist X, itunes will find all the Digweed tracks if you search for Digweed, but only the artist X track if you search for that.
posted by selfnoise at 6:56 AM on September 5, 2005

iTunes makes it more or less unnecessary to sort the music yourself. As long as you tag everything correctly, it'll let you browse and sort by album, artist, genre, year, etc.

By the way, if you want two artists to show up in your searching, it'd make more sense to put one of them in the composer field. That way a search for "Digweed" will pull up songs on that mix, and you could put the original artists in the artist field. (Why did you put ABB in the genre field, though?)
posted by danb at 7:06 AM on September 5, 2005

Now why the hell didn't I think of that? That's an excellent idea, danb.
posted by selfnoise at 7:09 AM on September 5, 2005

The point who_am_I, is that you shouldn't be bothering with the folders and files at all, just using a proper organisational interface.

To solve your specific problem about Digweed, my solution is to give all those albums a genre of "Compilation". Then I click on the Compilation genre and just scroll down the "Album" list until I see the one I want. Likewise, I have a "full album" genre, which will limit the artist list to only those with full albums, which is v. v. handy for the iPod.

(The actual "John Digweed" text goes in the Composer field, so it appears on searches)
posted by bonaldi at 7:15 AM on September 5, 2005

It's not perfect, but how about creating playlists for similar tracks. It's not as versatile as a proper tagging system and it requires maintenance, but it may help a little.
posted by Nick Jordan at 7:24 AM on September 5, 2005

It's not so easy to just switch to iTunes when you've built everything on a directory structure, particularly when you're dealing with tracks that, like classical music or stuff by DJs, don't really work well with the options available in iD3 tags. iTunes is also abominable if you acquire a lot of music that is, for one reason or another, not tagged well - if the artist for "Loaded" is listed as "The Velvet Underground" and the artist for "The Velvet Underground and Nico" is listed as "Velvet Underground", these albums will not be sorted together by iTunes. iTunes does not give you the option of dealing with things using directory structure and filename [and enjoys rearranging songs that you've loaded if they don't have iD3 tags the way it likes - try putting a bunch of songs into a folder as a mix, and adding the track number at the beginning of the filename {which WinAmp would deal fine with} and dragging them into iTunes, and you'll see that it rearranges the song order to be by artist name or track number or something entirely useless, unless you've gone and _also_ edited all of the iD3 tags.] So no, it's quite possible that for Who_Am_I, moving to iTunes would be much more work than dealing with his current kludged system.

As for what to do - one thing to consider would be putting the DJ as the "artist." The particular set of sounds you're hearing was arranged by a DJ; you could detail the original artists of the component songs in the song title or the notes sections of the iD3 tag. That's what I do. [After all, when you go looking for a particular DJ mix, it's generally more because you want to listen to something, say, Digweed did than because you want to listen to one of the artists whose songs was used, right? I mean, would you list the 'artist' in a cover song as the original composer, or the performer?] On the other hand, I've taken the opposite approach to classical music - for both iD3 tagging and directory structure, I make the composer the "artist" [since I'm generally looking first to hear something by, say, Beethoven] and if I have several different performers of a piece, create subdirectories for them in the directory devoted to that piece. Again, the notes field can be used for less important details.

Yeah, those are still kludges along the lines of your own, but you won't find any media player that deals well with cases where there is a difference between composer and performer, or cases where there are multiple artists. iTunes included. I find that having a sane directory structure [and a media player that deals well with directories and filenames] is, for me, the easiest way to deal with these complexities, and with the fact that a large percentage of my new music does not necessarily have consistent tags [but does have consistent filenames.]
posted by ubersturm at 7:28 AM on September 5, 2005

danb: I put the Allman Brothers Band in the genre field because I use genre as the main sort. If I didn't have something in all the genre fields, there would be albums missing when I sorted like this.
posted by Who_Am_I at 7:33 AM on September 5, 2005

As far as 'acquired music' go to

They have acoustical fingerprinting clients that will correct the tags of your music (still needs a double check by a human).

Very quick and pretty accurate.
posted by filmgeek at 7:38 AM on September 5, 2005

Put "John Digweed" in the "Grouping" field. With the Library selected, select View Options from the Edit menu and make sure Grouping is turned on. Then, to access all your John Digweed stuff, type his name in the search box.
posted by cillit bang at 7:42 AM on September 5, 2005

Winamp also lets you sort by directory structure under "sort by path and filename". I generally don't have more than one folder (artist) deep, though, so maybe the other program works better.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:45 AM on September 5, 2005

I hate all of those softwares that go organizing your actual file system for you. Thus I refuse to use them, and that includes iTunes or WMP or what have you. And with 30 gigs of mp3s you can be sure I've tried a lot of different ways. Here's what works for me, and it's pretty simple, really.

I break up the music in genre differences that matter to me.
For example, about half of my collection is electronic music of one sort or another, but I have three main categories which I stuff all of the electronica into: Industrial, Trance, Electronica (which is just every thing else). Each of those is sorted by artist then by album, so the tree looks like:

---Industrial (pseudo genre)
-------Skinny Puppy (artist)
-----------Rabies (album)

---Trance (pseudo genre)
--------Intermix (artist)
------------Future Primitives (album)

--Heavy (psuedo genre)
-------------Aenima (album)
------------So far so good so what? (album)

My collection of Douglas Adams audio books (and associated materials) get their own pseudo genre (clocking in at just under 3gigs of data)

You'll note that while Tool and Megadeth are really very different styles of music, they're both heavy and loud and full of angst, so I put them in the same pseudo genre.

My point is, that going all crazy with genre labels can really just be a waste of time, and letting the computer do it manually is just asking for trouble because CDDB data is not what you would call...uniform in it's quality. If you put stuff where it makes sense to you, then when you want to hear something, you'll know where to go for it.

Hope that helps.
posted by jaded at 8:10 AM on September 5, 2005

The thing about ID3 is that there isn't just one artist field. From the frames specification, you can see that there are 4 different levels of artist information:
  4.2.2 TPE1 Lead performer(s)/Soloist(s)
  4.2.2 TPE2 Band/orchestra/accompaniment
  4.2.2 TPE3 Conductor/performer refinement
  4.2.2 TPE4 Interpreted, remixed, or otherwise modified by

It seems to be such an esoteric metadata scheme, however, that very few programs leverage all of the possible information it can keep track of. Programming interfaces and toolkits will provide access to the entire spec, because programmers are always interested in feature completeness in APIs and such, but it's extremely rare (or unheard of?) to see a player cater to all of 80 or so possible fields.

It's because some lazy programmer said, when mp3s were new, "Who will ever want to associate more than one artist with an mp3?" that I have "Various Artists" listed as the artist for some tracks, and people have to kludge ridiculous things like "Full Album" or "Allman Brothers" into genre. If I have to keep my own notes for sorting purposes, they go into comments.
posted by boo_radley at 8:30 AM on September 5, 2005

Thanks guys for all your answers, there's some stuff here that I may try. I was sort of wondering if there was some killer organization schema that everyone else knew about that I was missing out on, but from the variety of replies I see that that isn't the case. I guess I'll keep doing what works for me (foobar2000). Oh, and I am giving iTunes another shot.
posted by Who_Am_I at 8:40 AM on September 5, 2005

iTunes can, at least on the Mac, be set to not organize your file system for you. I've disabled this so that I can import my music and use iTunes for what it does well, but use the filesystem for what it does well, namely, obey my organizational wishes.
posted by odinsdream at 8:45 AM on September 5, 2005

if the artist for "Loaded" is listed as "The Velvet Underground" and the artist for "The Velvet Underground and Nico" is listed as "Velvet Underground", these albums will not be sorted together by iTunes

Sure they will, once you edit the tags to be consistent, which takes about ten seconds the first time you add them. This is far less time than you'll spend locating or making the "right" folder for them.

Seriously, I don't understand why anyone would fuck around with making folders and stuff. You don't mean to say that when you're looking for stuff to play that you actually do that through the folders rather than through the MP3 player (iTunes or not)? That's insane.
posted by kindall at 8:45 AM on September 5, 2005

kindall, I have something like 160gb of music, and that increases pretty fast. Music's a pretty big thing for me, and I buy and download way too much of it. I fix/correctly assign tags on incoming music, but there are dozens of gigs that I haven't had a chance to fix. I started building my collection on this scheme at least six or seven years ago, and you're wrong - it is, frankly, easier to make sure that ripped/otherwise acquired tracks are named right and in the right order than it is to go back through everything and fix it now. Maybe in a stupendous weeklong bout of OCD I'll be able to use MusicBrainz and fix a significant portion of the stuff [although plenty of my music is obscure enough that I'll have to do it entirely by hand], but that's still a lot of work, particularly since I've found in the past that I really have to double-check those tags afterwards. Point is, if I dump my new music in the right directory to begin with [and I'm going to have to assign it to a directory no matter what program or sorting scheme I use, so it's not like that's extra work], I don't have to worry about whether the iD3 tags are perfect. Unfortunately, iTunes doesn't care about path and filename, and it balks at untagged or mis-tagged mp3s, so for my mixed collection, it [or any other music player that ignores path and filename] is an awful solution.

With regards to how I queue up music - the folders are alphabetical, so it's not like it's _difficult_ to find the correct folder. Certainly no harder than digging for the right stuff in a ginormous playlist of all my stuff, or digging through the list of artists in iTunes. The "Add Dir" function in WinAmp isn't hard to use, and I've never seen the need to bother with libraries. If I did, I'd be able to sort by path and filename in WinAmp anyways... but not in iTunes.
posted by ubersturm at 9:19 AM on September 5, 2005

Files and folders are the way to go -- it's far more portable, multiplatform, and future-proof than some weird database program.

The correct answer to your question is:
/usr/local/export/juarez/music/PrimaryArtist/Album/Album - 0# - ID3Artist - Track Name.mp3

Just about all tagging and rename programs can cope with this right out of the box. Within a directory, files sorted by alpha will be in album order. The directory hierarchy is browseable and can be modified to suit your needs, and symbolic links can address any crosslinking problems you might have such as "featured" artists. A recursive search with find . -type f will find anything.
posted by majick at 9:19 AM on September 5, 2005

majick brings up the other important point: my music needs to be easy to sort through for people who are browsing for stuff via FTP or streaming it onto the computer in my lounge, which happens to run linux. Correct folders and filenames make it easy to find and play things on _any_ sort of computer, with any sort of program.

OK, I'll shut up now. I got into a discussion about this with someone else the other day, so all this stuff is pretty fresh in my mind.
posted by ubersturm at 9:34 AM on September 5, 2005

oh, and I forgot my standard answer whenever this question comes up: try wxmusik
posted by boo_radley at 9:34 AM on September 5, 2005

One quick word on ID3 tags and directory structure from someone who just woke up. Look into specific ID3 tagging software for moving around large amounts of data. I'm not sure what there might be like it in the Windows world, but here on my Mac, I have a program called MP3 Rage that is invaluable in keeping me sane. Not only does it let you modify groups of ID3 tags at a time, it will also rename your files by ID3 tag, rename your ID3 tags by filename/directory structure and, here's the cool part, MOVE your files by ID3 tag structure.

This way, once you've decided on another way from someone's suggestions here (and once you've finished all of your tagging), you can change your whole directory layout and naming conventions with just a couple of button clicks. It's helped me out a lot as I decide I can be more organized from year to year and change my structural ideas.

Again, sorry I don't know of an equivalent for Windows, but I'm sure it's out there somewhere...
posted by Moondoggie at 10:02 AM on September 5, 2005

I know that this is not the most "pc" (hah!) answer since people seem to dislike windows but Windows Media Player has both Artist and Album Artist fields. So, you take and album like "The Outernational Sound" by "Thievery Corporation". The Album Artist is "Thievery Corporation" and each track is then tagged with the artist who performs ("1 = David Snell, 2 = The Gimmicks etc...). This is applicable to soundtracks too - Album Artist is "Soundtrack" and then Artist is "Whatever artist sang that song". The folder structure is based on album artist, not artist.

This is my biggest annoyance with every music player except for media player. It seems like such a simple solution and I do not understand why it has not been incorporated into more players.
posted by GrumpyMonkey at 10:19 AM on September 5, 2005

Sure they will, once you edit the tags to be consistent, which takes about ten seconds the first time you add them. This is far less time than you'll spend locating or making the "right" folder for them.

You must have an odd machine. On mine, creating and naming a directory takes at most a second. Dragging the directories to the right spot takes another, maybe, two. Much easier than fussing with id3 tags for downloaded stuff.

Seriously, I don't understand why anyone would fuck around with making folders and stuff.

The same reason for mp3 files as for any other kind of file. To keep things organized and easy to find using any software and without relying on a single database program to never, ever, ever barf.

You don't mean to say that when you're looking for stuff to play that you actually do that through the folders rather than through the MP3 player (iTunes or not)? That's insane.

I wanna listen to an album, I click a couple times, then right-click on the directory and hit "play in winamp." I wanna listen to an artist, that's one fewer click. Why is that crazy?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:52 AM on September 5, 2005

I use a file/folder tree structure for my music, I find it much more useful than anything else, and it's also far more portable than any software-specific method, and it means you don't have to rely on ID3 tagging if you don't want to.

The way I manage this specific issue is by using the DJ's name /compilation album name/whatever as the artist name, and using the actual artist's name followed by the track title (separated by a dash) in the title field. You can set up CDex to do this for you, including how and where you want the track number shown. Sometimes you have to mess about slightly with the ID3 tags (if you use them), but you only have to do this once.

So, for example, it shows in Winamp as: The Rebirth of Cool Phive - 09 - Portishead - Revenge of the Number
posted by biscotti at 11:01 AM on September 5, 2005

I don't know if anyone is still reading this thread, but I have to mention J River Media Center as a great media player although it's not free. The library browser allows you to scan through your collection and see the album covers which for me is analogous to flipping through a shelf of CDs to pick out something to play.
posted by monkeyman at 1:27 PM on September 5, 2005

I absolutely, positively loathe iTunes. I keep my collection sorted in folders as follows:

D:\Music\artist name\(release date) album name\track # - song title

I rip new albums with cdex and make sure things I download are tagged correctly with Tag & Rename. my mp3 player is a Rio Carbon and the music manager software that came with the package is excellent. it has everything I liked about iTunes and nothing I hated.
posted by mcsweetie at 5:14 PM on September 5, 2005

kindall, I have something like 160gb of music, and that increases pretty fast.

Well, yeah, that's WHY you want to use iTunes. Because it handles that much better than YOU ever could.

To keep things organized and easy to find using any software and without relying on a single database program to never, ever, ever barf.

Well, if it does, no big deal -- it's easy to rebuild.
posted by kindall at 6:35 PM on September 5, 2005

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