iTunes tags demystified

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When you look at your iTunes library and see the names of songs, artists, and albums, you’re looking at tags —bits of information that are connected to your music files. These tags are essential for labeling, sorting, and finding your music. Without tags, your iTunes library would turn into a chaotic mess.

So where do those tags come from? When you buy music, videos, or audiobooks from the iTunes Store, those files are already tagged. When you rip your own CDs, iTunes checks Gracenote’s CDDB database and downloads tags to add them to your music. But certain types of files—your videos, for example—require that you tag them yourself, and sometimes even tagged files need a little tweaking. Here’s how to do it.

Some tags, such as Kind, Size, or Bit Rate, are immutable because they depend on file characteristics or on the music your files contain. And others, such as Play Count and Last Played, you can’t easily change. But you can change most of the tags in iTunes, and in many cases you will want to do so—to better organize your music, to set certain options, or to take advantage of features in iTunes and on the iPod. Here are several tags you may have missed—or at least misunderstood.

Tag Background

You’re probably familiar with the basic tags. If you choose a track and press Command-I (or select File: Get Info), you’ll see a window with several tabs, each of which lets you change some of the tags related to that track (except for those that appear in the Summary tab). The Info tab shows the most important tags: Name, Artist, Album, and so on. You can change any of these if your music is tagged incorrectly or if the tags are incomplete—for instance, perhaps Gracenote’s tags don’t match the CD you’re ripping, or you need to tag music that the Gracenote database doesn’t recognize. The other tabs let you change additional tags, as well as add lyrics or album art.

If you select several tracks and press Command-I, you’ll see a slightly different window. The Multiple Item Information window lets you change tags for all selected songs—useful for altering an entire album, for example—but affects only those tags that you can apply to multiple tracks (for example, you can’t change song names). Though you can’t change as many tags in this window, it combines the basic tags with some that the Info tab of the single-track window doesn’t offer. You’d use this window to change an artist name from Bob Dylan to Dylan, Bob; to add a Year tag to an album; or to add art to an entire album.

Compilations galore

A compilation album is one that contains tracks by multiple artists—for example, an album from a benefit concert with many performers. The Compilation tag is a simple check box named Part Of A Compilation (in the single-item window) or a Yes or No pop-up menu (in the multiple-item window). You want to set the Compilation tag so that you can work more easily with compilation albums in iTunes, or on your iPod if you enable the setting. Also, when iTunes checks the Gracenote database for album information, this is one tag that’s often set incorrectly.

In the General tab of iTunes’ Preferences, selecting the Group Compilations When Browsing option tells the iTunes browser (the columns that appear at the top of the window when you click on the eye icon in the lower right corner) to show a Compilations entry at the top of the Artist column. iTunes then lists all your compilations in the Album column following this entry (see “Sorting Compilations”). If you don’t select this setting, you’ll see tracks listed separately under each artist’s name, although you can still sort by album in the main iTunes interface.

The Compilation setting works similarly on the iPod. If you turn it on (Settings: Compilations), you’ll see a Compilations menu when you select the Music menu.

Got gaps?

When iTunes 7 added a long-awaited gapless playback feature, it allowed fans of classical music or classic rock to listen to albums whose tracks flow seamlessly together without hearing a half-second of silence between each track. At the same time, iTunes added a Gapless Album tag. So if iTunes already has gapless playback, why do you need this tag? It’s there for only one reason: to override the Crossfade Playback feature in iTunes. If you listen to music in cross-fade mode, in which tracks overlap for one or several seconds as they change, iTunes spots those albums tagged as gapless and makes sure their tracks don’t cross-fade. This setting does not affect iPod playback.

Since you generally set this option for an entire album, the easiest way to do so is to select all the tracks, press Command-I, and, from the Gapless Album pop-up menu, choose Yes (see “Gapless Albums”). For an individual track, you’d select the track, choose Get Info (Command-I), and then click on the Options tab and enable the Part Of A Gapless Album selection.

Back to the future

There are some kinds of tracks you might want to bookmark —so you can pause listening to them or viewing them and pick up again later at the same place. This ability comes in handy when you’re listening to an audiobook. The Remember Playback Position tag lets you set any tracks—music and video—so you can pick up where you left off.

But say you downloaded some podcasts in your iTunes library from a Web site or via another program (those downloaded through iTunes have this tag set by default). Just select a track, press Command-I, and go to the Options tab. There, select Remember Playback Position (for multiple tracks, you’d select Yes from the Remember Position pop-up menu). When you play these tracks in iTunes or on an iPod, they’ll remember where you stopped—the bookmark even gets synced between your computer and iPod if you’ve set your iPod to autosync.

[ Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his Web site, Kirkville. ]

Sorting Compilations: The Compilation tag helps pull multiple-artist albums together.Gapless Albums: Keep concept albums sounding as the artist intended, even if you use iTunes’ cross-fade feature.
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