The Music Library Management blog has moved!

Please visit:
and update your bookmarks.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

New release: build 20091128

Another week, another release!

Just a couple of little items... First I added a drop down box to choose the location of your music library. Before you had to type it in (remember that bliss can be installed on a separate computer, so this has to show the files on the computer bliss is running on).

I also improved the shortcuts generated as part of a Linux install.

Download from the downloads page.

Thanks to everyone downloading and buying so far. Your feedback is invaluable!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

New release: build 20091121

A new release is ready for download and installation/upgrade.

Unfortunately I was having a couple of wisdom teeth removed last week, so there were fewer fixes than expected! General anaesthetic plays havoc with the brain...

The big new feature is that embedded art can now be removed as well as added. As ever, you specify this as a rule. If you add art to your collection with art embedded inside it, and you have told bliss you don't want art embedded, it will strip it out for you. This is useful for working with players that don't support embedded art. Some people also don't like the duplication of the same image in every music file.

We also rearranged the 'installed' page. We've made it so it appears in a grid rather than a list, using up a lot less screen real estate. Here's a sample:

This gives more prominence to your art. Looks a lot better, hope you agree!

Finally we made some improvements so bliss retries its album art sources if the source reports a temporary problem. This makes the installation yet more 'automatic'.

The new release is available from from the downloads page on the website. Give it a try and give us some feedback.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

New release: build 20091114

We've uploaded a new version!

The primary fixes are to support compilations and albums with many different track artists. Some users were reporting that bliss was treating each track as a different album. We've fixed this now.

We also gave the Google image search some steroids; it now returns more than four results, and we also cleared up the nasty image overflow layout problem.

Oh, and we found a problem with installing art for one specific album. But don't worry... it's hardly a common album... an album called 'Revolver' by some band called 'The Beatles'. I'm sure that one didn't affect anyone... (Sorry!)

The new release is available from from the downloads page on the website. Give it a try and give us some feedback.

p.s. if you are upgrading your version of bliss, then the best way is to uninstall the old version, then reinstall the new one. Don't worry: your licence information and your existing settings will be preserved.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Discovering new album art with bad tags

Music files, like MP3s and other formats, contain 'tags' which indicate the name of the track, the album from which the track comes and so on. The quality of these tags in your music files affect the ease and accuracy of automated album art download. The ideal tags are to have the album name tag populated with just the album name and likewise for the fields that describe the artist.

In the real world, however, I encounter polluted tags all the time. Very common examples are extra characters to denote multi disc albums ("Disc one" or similar). More exotic variations exist, such as adding the year of release to the album name, or the record label.

These tagging approaches may be less than ideal, but they exist. bliss has to work with them.

bliss copes with existing 'bad' tags in two ways:
  1. It manipulates the tag to improve the likelihood of an accurate match
  2. It uses 'fallback' sources for art (such as Google) with a higher likelihood of match which are presented to you to double check
With these approaches bliss manages lots of automatic cover art installations. In addition, it works with your existing art. So, say if you have a rare recording with art not found on the Web, it will use that existing artwork to make sure your music collection follows the rules you've defined. Maybe it will embed the art in your music files, if it isn't already.

Give bliss a try by downloading and let us know how you get on!

Friday, 6 November 2009

First release

Over the past month or so our beta testers have been probing and prodding bliss to find any problems and provide feedback for new features.

I'm pleased to say I've just uploaded the first release of bliss open to the general public.

The release is available at our download page.

This version can:
  • Embed album art in all your digital music
  • Save a file, named as you prefer, in an album's directory
  • Constrain the album art downloaded to certain size ranges
  • Allows you to ask bliss to lookup new art for any existing incorrect art you have
So why use bliss?
  • It's fully automatic. That means its faster than manual approaches to installing album art
  • You work at a 'rule' level - you specify how you want album art installed
  • You can install it anywhere on your home network. Some users are already installing it on their home server, where their music is located
I decided that bliss would be licensed 'per fix'. This means you pay for batches of fixes to your music collection. I chose this because it enabled us to start with a low price, shows an obvious relationship between what you pay and the value you get, and also, going forward, you would only be charged for the work bliss does to your music. For those who want more freedom, there's also an unlimited fix option.

Over the coming weeks and months I will be adding more features to bliss. In addition, we will be implementing features suggested in our UserVoice forum, so if you have an opinion, get posting/voting! I am aiming for a new release each and every month.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Automatic album art management with bliss

bliss is almost ready for release. Our intrepid beta testers and I have been throwing it all at bliss over the past few weeks. We've found some bugs and also the time to add some extra features.

I thought it was a good time to show you how bliss manages album art for my music collection

I want my music collection to contain album art. I want it all embedded in the music files, and I want it all saved in a file prefixed 'cover' (this is a Squeezebox thing). I don't care about the size of the art, but I'd rather have something.

All these requirements are defined in bliss's cover art 'rule'. Here's how it looks:
Now I click 'Apply', and away goes bliss! bliss finds existing art in the library and makes sure it is embedded. Sometimes there is no art, but it finds it automatically (by downloading it from the Web) and then embeds it...

Some it isn't sure about, because either the tag doesn't describe the album properly or it's a rare recording, so bliss asks me...

And it's done! That took a fraction of the time it used to take. No searching through Google or Amazon. No using a tag editor to embed the image I found in each file.

The best bit? If I change how I want my album art stored I just change the rule and let bliss do all the work!

Reminds me of a song...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Organising music files and directories

When building a digital music library, it is important to store music files in a consistent and useful manner.

Digital music is stored in files on your computer's hard disk, just like the documents you may create in Microsoft Word or the photos you take with your digital camera. These files contain both the music and the 'tags' that describe the music. When digital music is purchased via download, or purchased via CD and ripped, it is saved in such a file in a predetermined directory structure. For instance, when purchasing from the Amazon MP3 store the files stored in a directory for the album, which is stored in a directory for the music artist. For example, look how Ludovico Einaudi's beautiful Una Mattina record is structured when purchased from Amazon:

The tracks that make up the record are stored in a directory named after the record 'Una Mattina' which in turn is stored in a directory named after the composer 'Ludovico Einaudi'. This is how Amazon organises its downloads, but other configurations are possible when, for instance, you rip your own CDs.

At first, it's best to fire up your music player of choice and allow it to work out how your music is organised. However, at some point managing a large music collection leads to working with music at a file level. Sometimes it's a music player which cannot correctly interpret tags. Sometimes you just don't like the way the files are organised.

Rule based management is the best way of automatically organising a music library.

The same rules that govern tags, saved within music files, should also be adopted in structuring the very same files on your computer's hard disk. This leads to a consistent reflection of your music library within both your music players and also your file system. The rules should be expressed in general terms, for example:

Gives a similar structure as the Einaudi example above. The important thing is that the rule is automated so changing the format changes all of your music automatically. For instance, a flatter hierarchy could be achieved with the following rule:

Here, the artist is not recorded. In rule based music management changing the rule is all you need to do... the music is moved for you!

File structure rules give more benefits:
* Control over disallowed or undesirable characters in files (maybe you don't like spaces in filenames, for instance)
* How the structure should work in ambiguous situations (what artist directory to use for compilation records?)

Importantly, the file structure is still driven by the tags and the automatic rules governing the music library in general.

Managing music files is an important task in music library management and with large collections it is best done with automated rules.

Monday, 14 September 2009

What I've been listening to...

I listen as well as code, y'know. I've actually got a theory that programmers are generally music lovers. There's plenty of evidence of the connection between music and mathematics, and many of my previous colleagues have been avid music lovers with tastes spreading across many genres.

Anyway, what's been playing on the Squeezebox the past month or two?

I've enjoyed Metronomy's Nights Out. It's intelligent, adult pop music with some fantastic, catchy melodies. Particularly catchy are "My Heart Rate Rapid" and "On The Motorway".

After the Mercury Music Prize nominations were made I took a listen to a few nominees. I like Florence and the Machine's Lungs and The Horrors' Primary Colours. The latter is like My Bloody Valentine with a pop vocal laid over the top, a little like The Jesus and Mary Chain.

A bit old this one, but I've just caught up with MGMT's Oracular Spectacular. I love the laid back hedonistic message of Time to Pretend, sung through a pursed accent. Whenever I hear it I think of the cult movie The Warriors. I think the music shares a certain gritty yet stylised New York aesthetic.

Finally, on the classical front I've been listening to Ludovico Einaudi's Una Mattina. This is a minimal piano album, delicately phrased and perfect for background contemplation music... although to be fair it deserves a lot more concentration than that!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

New website, and the beta begins!

We have just uploaded a new version of the bliss website containing more information about bliss and, importantly, how to get involved in the beta programme -

The beta simply downloads cover art from the Internet. When you start bliss, and after you point it to your music library, it will look for all the cover art missing in your collection and attempt to download it.

I've already posted that bliss works differently to most music organisers. As well as being rule based (not letting you interact directly with your music, yet) bliss can also be placed wherever you like and accessed via its Web based user interface. It is also designed to be run and left alone; it is capable of noticing changes to your music library and firing the rules you have configured as a result. So, for instance, if you store your music on a separate server, you could install bliss there, leave it running and access it remotely. You could upload new music to the server safe in the knowledge that bliss will notice the new music and make sure your rules are adhered to.

We are looking for two main things from our beta testers:
  1. Feedback as to how well bliss is monitoring the music library and downloading cover art
  2. Ideas as to how to improve bliss and take it to the point that it is a releasable product
In return for your time we are offering full licenses to use bliss and, once the product is released, a one year subscription to get all the new features released in that time.

You may ask why we are releasing a rather cut down version of bliss. It's a fair question. I've already blogged about some of the many, many problems that exist in music library management, so why not wait until we've solved all of them? The reason is that the simpler that bliss is initially, the quicker we'll have something validated and therefore a base on which to build, and build quickly. We also need feedback from you, music lovers and music library owners, as to the most important problems to solve first. After the beta programme, and once we have released bliss fully, we will be releasing updates once per month with new features.

Would you like to beta test bliss? If so, pop along to the signup page and enter your email address. We'll get back to you shortly with how to begin.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Rules: a new approach to music library management

I've made reference to 'rule based music library management' in previous blog posts. What does this mean? Fundamentally, rule based music library management changes the way digital music libraries are managed. Gone are the tedious, manual, error prone editing of music files. In its place, rule based management provides a fast, automated, consistent and correct approach.

The old way

Traditionally, digital music libraries are managed manually. The user decides how they want their music to be organised, works out what this means in terms of editing their music and then performs the editing.

For instance, you may decide they want to ensure all of your music fits inside eight defined genres. You must go through all of your music, ensuring each element of your library fits this goal. Later, if you want to add subgenres, or a new ninth genre, this means reorganising your entire library.

Popular software exists to manage music in this way, such as Mp3tag and Media Monkey.

How rule based management differs

Rule based management is very different. The user still formulates in their mind how they want their music library organised. However, they don't then go and apply this themselves. Instead, they describe their desired music library in the form of rules which govern the music on their behalf.

This reduces an enormous amount of the manual work involved in music library management. Indeed, large libraries require so much management it is the only approach that is feasible.

The obvious initial benefit is reduced time managing a library. Changing the way the music is organised is as simple as changing the rule. The rule then changes all the music on the user's behalf.

Further, rule based management eliminates inconsistencies and mistakes likely to creep in when manually organising a music library. To keep the library consistent the user must rigorously apply their desired policy to each music file in the library. Unfortunately, this is not one of the tasks humans are best suited for. We get bored and make mistakes (I know I do!). Software, on the other hand, is excellent at this, and thus software based rules remove the likelihood of making mistakes and introducing inconsistencies.

Practically, both approaches may be used. It makes little sense to ignore the excellent software already produced in this area. However, as music libraries become ever larger, our approach to managing them must change.

Rule based library management has a big part to play in the future of digital music library management.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Another interesting digital music blog

I've just discovered Digital Music Collector. The author is working on an interesting project called MusicGenreTree, a community project to construct a complete tree of musical genres with more information besides. It'll be really interesting to see how they get on.

Maybe bliss could categorise music according to this tree? In the post Defining a standard music genre tree the author describes three existing genre trees available on the Web (and I added a fourth, allmusic, in Genre: separating your 'epic doom metal' from your 'free funk jazz'). It would be great to be able to pick the tree of your choice, and have all your music categorised against it automatically.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Genre: separating your 'epic doom metal' from your 'free funk jazz'

Here's a sample of the genres currently reported in my music library:

Alt. Rock
Alternative Pop
Alternative & Punk
Alternative Rap
Ambient Pop, Space Rock
Art Rock

Dance & DJ
Dance Hall
Drum & Bass
Easy Listening
Electronica & Dance
General Jazz

Hopefully it's clear that genres here are, well, a mess. If I want to browse my collection of electronica I not only need to view the albums in the 'Electronic' genre but also those in 'Electronica & Dance', 'Electropop', 'Electro' and more... and that's ignoring 'General'!

Poorly categorised genres make it more difficult to select the music you want to play.

There are many reasons why the list above makes life difficult.

The 'I give up' and 'just plain wrong' problems

These are albums and tracks that are just incorrectly tagged, or tagged so generally as to make the tag meaningless. This can occur when the tags are looked up from a public database with incorrect data.

It is common for community created music databases to have incorrect genre information, and these mistakes end up in your music library.

There isn't much of an excuse for this; the genre, simply, should at least vaguely describe the style of music.

The 'hip hop' or 'acid-dubstep-revival' problems

Genres often appear at wildly varying levels of detail. Most music genres have sub genres, sub-sub genres and... you get the picture.

Now this isn't 'wrong' per se, but it does make your music collection more difficult to browse and it does look plain ugly.

Genres populated from community databases have inconsistent levels of detail.

Typically I find myself wanting different levels of granularity at different times; it entirely depends on what I want to listen to. Thus, while having very general genres such as 'rock', 'pop', 'classical' and so on may look tidier, they don't provide the detail you sometimes need.

A further improvement rarely found in automatically tagged music is to specify multiple genres. The approach to this depends on your music player of choice and the underlying file formats being used to store the music. When a piece of music is tagged both with a general and a specific genre it means you can both browse for general and specific styles.

Using rules to gain control over genres

To gain a correct and consistent view of your music collection it is important to use both an authoritative source and to specify a consistent level of detail to be applied across your collection.

Authoritative, reviewed sources are available such as allmusic and MusicBrainz, both of which have more accurate data than the other commonly used databases such as CDDB and FreeDB. Furthermore, allmusic offers a comprehensive genre tree which, ideally, one could adopt to categorise their library.

Once you have decided how you want genres to appear, its time to put this into action. This is where you realise you have 10,000 tracks to tag, and you better get each one right. Best put the coffee on, it's going to be a long night!

Using authoritative sources for music information should be enforced via rules over your entire library, because editing the music directly is both tiresome and prone to mistakes.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Other audio management blog posts...

The Silver Onion, a potted technology blog of-all-things-interesting, have started a series of blogs about audio management. It'll be interesting to read their views as to the problems of managing large music libraries, and any suggested solutions they have.

They start with an informative post about music formats. I think I am guilty of assuming this knowledge when I write, so if you are confused about terms like 'FLACs' and don't know your OGGs from you MP3s then this is a good place to start.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Dealing with multi disc albums

Standard album tagging, such as the tags automatically populated by your favourite music player, work all well and good if your albums follow the one disc per album approach. However, as soon as you hit albums with more than one CD (such as George Harrison's hauntingly joyous All Things Must Pass) things begin to get messy.

Two key limitations of tagging digital music are exposed here. The first is the inconsistency of album title tagging. Typically, the album name is decorated with text such as "Disc one", "Disc 1", "Disc A" (more abstract that one) of "Disc I" (the Romans are coming!). Let's call it the 'disc label'. There are more variations on this theme, and the common effect is that if you have any number of multi disc albums you will have a mish-mash of disc label formats, sometimes even within the same album. For instance:
  • All Things Must Pass (Disk 1)
  • All Things Must Pass (Disk 2)
  • Shine 7 Disc one
  • Shine 7 Disc 2
Arrgh! It's enough to expose your inner obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Of course, you may also be of the mind that you don't want the disc label in the album title at all. Purists may say the album title should be just that.

If the visual inconsistency wasn't bad enough, a second limitation is that it also makes working with your music more difficult. Searching and sorting collections becomes harder.

Part of the answer is labeling consistency. If I want the disc label to appear in the album title then I should be able to choose the format of the full album title. This would then apply to all multi disc albums, rather than having to work through all my music and apply the rule to each album. I'd be able to set the format along any of the following lines:
  • Number format - numeric digits, numeric text, roman numerals etc
  • Disc label - CD, disc
  • Use of wrapping parentheses
  • Position in the label - prefix or suffix
  • Turn off disc number labeling altogether
Applied to all of my albums, this gives a simple, consistent and coherent representation across my entire collection.

The second issue is best addressed by specific tags that tell your music player how to treat the different discs. For instance, they say explicitly that a given disc is part of a set of discs. These tags already exist and are in wide use:
  • TPOS - used in ID3v2 (and, thus, in MP3s)
  • DISC and DISCNUMBER - used in Vorbis comments
  • Other non standard player specific approaches also exist.
I should be able to declare whether any of all of these tags are adopted and inserted into my music library. This makes working with multi disc albums a much easier process.

By formatting disc number labeling in a consistent way and applying specific disc number tags to my music collection I get both a visually elegant and more useful music library.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Cover art in the digital age

On 15th June 1979, New Order released Unknown Pleasures. Much is known of the subsequent impact and influence of the music, but almost as highly lauded was the cover art on the record sleeve. The designer, Peter Saville, had added the record to the long line of music album covers that stand both of the music, complementing it, but also as a work of art in its own right.

There are many other examples. Sir Peter Blake's cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is one, another is Andy Warhol's cover for The Velvet Underground and Nico. The point is that music's packaging is an important aspect of a record's artistic contribution. While it might be the music we hear and remember, a record's artwork should complement and enhance the overall artistic experience.

But considering the nature of digital music; distributed with no physical form, it stands to reason that the popularity of digital music formats may see the death of cover art. If there is no physical form to distribute, where does the art go? Indeed, Peter Saville himself has opined such a thought. Yet, it doesn't seem to be going away. Digital music players continue to show album art to sate our visual appetites, just as our aural ones are satisfied.

It seems cover art is viewed as important by music lovers, whether their music is vinyl or MP3.

And yet despite this popularity, problems remain.

One of the chief issues is inconsistency of approach across digital music players. Some players expect artwork embedded in the digital file containing the music itself. iTunes works in this way. Some require the images to be stored separately. Different music file formats, which store the music in different ways, also treat the cover art differently. The players that support each file format maintain different ways of retrieving the art from each file format.

This leads us to the complex conclusion that the 'right' way of managing cover art depends on both the music players you use (including portable players), the file formats you use and the combinations therein.

'Tagging' tools exist that know how to write into the digital music files and allow you to replicate the scheme required by your player(s). This means, where a whole album needs to be changed, many individual edits of each track in the album. This is laborious, time consuming and prone to error.

Then there's also the problem of getting the art in the first place. Some players have an automated download facility built in but this is often unreliable and depends on the quality of any existing tagging of the music. Others do nothing and it is up to the user to retrieve the artwork.

bliss solves the cover art complexity problems.

bliss manages cover art by working in the background and looking for music that has no artwork already associated. It does not require you to tell it to look for artwork, it will do it for you. It attempts to download the artwork that is missing, making a best guess and if not sure will present you with a few options. It uses the MusicBrainz database to achieve a high degree of accuracy. It saves the artwork in the manner which best works with your music player, or potentially in multiple different ways if you use more than one player. Furthermore the bliss interface allows you to work with your music, not music files. This means changing the cover art for an album, should you want to do so, is a case of selecting the album and not a loosely connected bunch of computer files as some other tools mandate.

bliss allows a highly reliable cover art experience with zero effort from you.

Welcome to the music library management blog!

Welcome to the music library management blog!

I run a company called elsten software limited, based in the UK, and we build products that make your digital life easier.

Our first product is bliss, a tool that manages your digital music library. bliss works automatically to categorise, correct, organise and complete your digital music library. bliss saves you time by working proactively and completes your library by ensuring your music is correctly named and categorised.

bliss is still work in development, but we hope to launch a beta testing programme soon. When we do, we will announce it on this blog.

The initial intention of this blog is to discuss the problems that bliss solves. We'll discuss displaying cover art, genre taxonomies, the problems of representing multiple discs and more.