Corral your classical music

If you’re a fan of classical music, then you’ve probably, at some point, become frustrated with iTunes and the iPod. Track information from the Web is inconsistent, pieces are difficult to tag and categorize, and imported songs don’t flow seamlessly into one another. But you can have your Mozart and enjoy it, too, with these simple tips.

Eliminating Gaps

Most audio players—the iPod included—can’t play music without gaps between the tracks. For many types of music, this isn’t a major problem. But for classical music (especially opera), it can be a deal breaker. Even a short blip between a recitative and an aria is enough to ruin the effect of G. F. Handel’s greatest works for the stage.

For listening in iTunes, you can turn on Crossfade Playback (in iTunes’ Audio preferences) and set it to 0 seconds—that does a pretty good job of keeping the flow. But a better workaround for iTunes and iPod playback is to combine multiple tracks into one. When you’re importing a CD, select a group of tracks and choose Join CD Tracks from the Advanced menu—this will cause iTunes to join those tracks into one long music file upon import. iTunes displays the tracks with a vertical bracket indicating that they’re to be joined (see top screenshot).

You can combine an entire CD or just parts of it. Say you want to import a symphony as one track, but the CD contains two symphonies. Select the tracks of the first and join them, and then do the same for the second—when you import the CD, each symphony will be a single, free-flowing track. The downside is that you lose the ability to listen to individual movements or arias without scrubbing through a file.

If you’ve purchased music from the iTunes Music Store, or if you’ve already ripped your CDs as individual tracks and don’t want to rip them again, then you have a few options. Jack Gill’s Track Splicer AppleScript lets you join unprotected tracks in iTunes (as long as they have the same format and bit rate). Alternatively, you can burn an audio CD from protected files and then reimport the tracks, joining the ones you want to. The second method may mean you lose some quality, but if you reimport tracks at the same bit rate, the loss should be negligible.

Tagging Classical Music

Having correct tags for your music is essential. As long as you have Connect To Internet When Needed selected in iTunes’ General preferences, iTunes searches the online Gracenote CD Database for artist, album, and track information when you insert a CD. The problem is that when you’re dealing with classical music, this information is often wrong or incomplete, or the tags show up in the wrong fields. To best manage your music, you’ll need to do some tweaking.

Many classical CDs show up as compilations. While many classical albums may actually be compilations, where the artists listed change from one piece to another, it isn’t always useful to classify them that way. So start by nuking the compilation tag. Select all the tracks on an album (either before or after importing), and then select File: Get Info. In the Multiple Song Information window, set the pop-up menu below Part Of A Compilation to No, and then click on OK.

Changing Track Names
Since the database often returns incorrect track names for classical CDs, you need to change these manually. In some cases they’re blank, and in others they’re totally useless: for instance, you may find Symphony No. 5 listed for all the tracks of that symphony. You may even find that the track names appear in the artist tags or in other odd places. Click on a track to select it and then press enter; or select a track and use File: Get Info to access the Info tab and alter the information.

Choosing the Correct Artist
One of the best ways to search for music is by artist, but the artist tag doesn’t have to be the actual performer. Since iTunes lets you browse only by genre, artist, and album, it can be useful to change the artist tag to the composer’s name; this way you can browse, say, all of your Schubert music by looking for his name in the Artist column. On the iPod, you can browse by composer, but if you want to organize your library in iTunes before syncing to the iPod, it helps to have the option to list music by composer.

You may want to leave the artist’s name as is: this lets you see, for example, all your recordings of Yo-Yo Ma at a glance. However, this can get a bit confusing when the name of a symphony orchestra and conductor shows up in several different ways: the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, could appear as Leonard Bernstein and New York Philharmonic; New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein; Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic [and other performers]; or NY Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein.

All these tags mean the same thing (except in the case of discs containing additional performers). Take the time to standardize them: choose the one you prefer (or create your own, such as NYP/Bernstein), and set this tag for all your recordings featuring this orchestra and conductor. Select multiple tracks, press Command-I, and change the artist tag accordingly.

Whichever solution you choose—actual performers’ names or composers—pay close attention to the spelling and ordering of these names: as far as iTunes and the iPod are concerned, Johann Sebastian Bach is not the same as J. S. Bach; or Bach, Johann S.; or Bach, J. S.

Tagging Works
Another way to tag your music is to change the album name to reflect the title of an individual work. Let’s say you have a CD of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, but it also contains a handful of other songs. Select the four tracks of the sonata and then set their album name to Concord Sonata (even adding the performer’s name after that, if you want). Tag the remaining songs with something different so a search turns up only the tracks you’re looking for.

Longer names of works can be problematic. For example, you could name a favorite recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony something like Symphony No. 3 - Bernstein to separate it from other versions you may have. But the iPod display doesn’t show enough text when you browse—you’ll see Symphony No. 3, but not the conductor’s name. If you have a lot of symphonies, and especially if you have multiple versions of some works, you’ll want to shorten their names: Sym No 3 - Bernstein, for example, is more iPod-friendly (see bottom screenshot).

Getting the Genre Right
All classical music is in the Classical genre, right? Well, not really. If you’re a fan, you know it has plenty of subgenres that can make it easier to organize your music. For example, should you classify a piece as Symphonic, Chamber Music, Piano, Lieder, or Opera? Would you like to be able to browse your library by Recitals, Baroque Music, or Organ Music? It’s a piece of cake. Just select a group of tracks, press Command-I, and type your own genre name in the Genre field. You can now browse your music more effectively both in iTunes and on the iPod.

Adding Comments
The Comments field is a catchall area for any tagging information that doesn’t fit elsewhere—a place to note the soloists for an opera or the recording date of a performance (rather than the CD’s release date). You can also add keywords useful for creating smart playlists. Say you have a lot of string quartets; add the words string quartet to the Comments field, and you can create a smart playlist that looks for tracks whose comments contain those words. Do the same for organ, viola da gamba, and other instruments.

Curtain Call

With a helping hand, the iPod and iTunes can be a great medium for organizing classical music. Once you realize how to overcome their constraints and discover the best ways to import and organize your music, you’ll never look back. You may use your CDs only one more time—to import them into iTunes—and then in the future turn to your iPod for all your classical music listening.

[ Kirk McElhearn is the author of several books, including iPod & iTunes Garage (Prentice Hall, 2004). He also reviews early and baroque music for MusicWeb.]

The Join CD Tracks command helps you combine several tracks into one, so iTunes won’t create those distracting small gaps between songs or play pieces out of order.By streamlining and standardizing album names, you‘ll have a better musical experience with iTunes and the iPod.

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