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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.