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Cleaning House in iTunes

Leaving aside all the legal and ethical considerations of downloading unauthorized music from the Internet, one of the things that’s always bothered me is the horrible metadata that most shared tracks seem to have. It’s entirely common to end up with files with barely descriptive names and completely blank ID3 tags for the artist and album. I hate that. I also dislike the duplicates that can results from accidentally importing tracks multiple times, which is all too easy with multiple people sharing the same library, as Tonya and I do. Call me a neat freak, but I can’t stand a messy database, and the iTunes Library is essentially a database of track information.

It was time to clean house.

Clearing Duplicates — I started with a new feature in iTunes 4.7: the Show Duplicate Songs command in the Edit menu. It’s a little brain-dead, in that it appears to match only on track name, but it’s better than nothing. iTunes identified over 200 duplicate songs, most of which were legitimate duplicates stemming from greatest hits albums, covers by other artists, or poor song names. Ideally, the Show Duplicate Songs feature would evolve to give the user additional control, so I could, for instance see only songs with the same name, artist, and album, and only then if they were the same length. Nonetheless, it was useful for clearing out a few complete duplicates.

Identifying Unknowns — After removing the duplicates, I was still left with 121 tracks that had incomplete metadata and thus offended my sense of order. Some were authorized tracks I’d downloaded from artist Web sites, others were tracks I’d downloaded because I own the record albums, a few were samples from various venues, and a number were entirely unidentifiable (even when I listened to them).

I didn’t want to put the effort into listening to each track with incomplete metadata and manually updating the tags. Instead, I downloaded Jay Tuley’s free iEatBrainz utility (1 MB download), which attempts to match the musical fingerprint of a track in iTunes with one in the MusicBrainz database, a Web-based database of fingerprints and metadata for over 2.5 million songs. It’s a clever idea and I was curious about how well it would work.

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I selected the 121 tracks in my library that lacked artist or album tags, and then I fed them to iEatBrainz to see if it could find a match. It wasn’t exactly speedy, and its fingerprint matching algorithm wasn’t terribly accurate, but in the end, iEatBrainz managed to present me with what seemed like correct metadata for 54 of the 121 tracks. Many of the rest it couldn’t find at all, and for some it guessed completely wrong. But hey, 54 out of 121 is way better than nothing.

Filling in the Blanks — I was still left with a nagging feeling that the metadata in my iTunes Library wasn’t as complete as it could be. iTunes ships with a sample smart playlist called "60’s Music" that looks for tracks whose year is between 1960 and 1969. But although I have a lot of music from the Beatles, Doors, and Simon & Garfunkel, that smart playlist contained only 41 tracks. For whatever reason, when I’d ripped my CDs years ago, the CDDB didn’t give me the year information. And, of course, I was lacking artwork for most of my albums, the ripping of which predated the appearance of that feature in iTunes.

I’d come across LairWare’s $20 MPFreaker, and decided to give it a spin. MPFreaker promises to fill in the blanks in your iTunes metadata, downloading better information from online databases. MPFreaker can fix nearly everything related to a song, including title, album, artwork, genre, year, and track number. You can feed MPFreaker a few songs manually, point it at a playlist, or give it your entire iTunes Library. I was unsure of what it would do, so I started with a few songs, tested a small playlist, and then I finally bit the bullet and ran it against my library. In each case, MPFreaker worked fine, although I was careful not to check the Overwrite checkbox for each of the pieces of metadata that MPFreaker can update, figuring that any data I already had was fine.


MPFreaker performed wonders, adding year and artwork information to many – though not all – of my songs. It wasn’t particularly fast, but considering I had handed it 4,100 songs to check, I was neither surprised nor bothered. One slight oddity did present itself; after the first run, my 60’s Music smart playlist had grown to over 200 songs. But when I created another smart playlist to see how many tracks still lacked year information, there were nearly 900. A second run of MPFreaker picked up year information for a number of additional songs; I’m not entirely sure why.

As long as you’re careful not to overwrite data mistakenly, and you don’t mind the occasional low-resolution artwork, MPFreaker is a fabulous utility for cleaning, regularizing, and filling in the blanks in your iTunes Library. You can try the demo on three songs per launch; otherwise it’s a 2.4 MB download.

Now, if you don’t mind, I need to go listen to my database.

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