Tips to build and manage your digital music collection (I)

This post has no other interest than sharing my knowledge in the hope that it may be useful to you. I have acquired quite a bit of experience cherishing my dearest hobby: fine tuning my digital music collection while listening to it.

But, why using your computer to manage your music collection in the first place? Assuming it is mostly made up of CDs, like mine, building a digital library allows you to:

  • Save physical space (you don’t have to sell or give your CDs away, though. You can store them in the attic for the time being.)
  • Have instant access to all your music.
  • Take your entire music collection wherever you go.
  • Explore and rediscover your music in an unlimited number of ways.
  • Easily and conveniently transfer your music to your portable devices, like your smartphone.

The first step is choosing the right software. While there is a variety of freeware and shareware applications in the market, I made my personal choice many years ago: iTunes. Although I have not always loved all upgrade changes, it has never disappointed me when it comes to its powerful database capabilities. It is a natural pick for those who own Apple devices, and I honestly think it is the best free software out there to manage you digital music, even if you are not interested in buying from iTunes Store (I hardly ever do). It is intuitive and easy to use and you can make it as powerful as you wish by adding  third party AppleScripts (only available for mac users, as far as I know). Also, a feature of iTunes I have recently started to use has become a key factor for recommending it if you own an Apple device. I’ll explain it in a moment.

Tip #1: Rip your CDs using a compressed lossless encoding format

FLAC, Apple lossless (ALAC), APE, are examples of compressed lossless audio formats. They manage to compress audio files to about half of their original size while preserving all the data. In my case, the choice is Apple lossless, because it is the one supported by iTunes. FLAC is very popular, it is open source, and it would be my choice if iTunes played it. But it is important to know that ALL of them preserve the audio quality of the original.

Why do I recommend lossless, when 95% of my music library is mp3 192 kbps? Well, if I had to start my collection now, that is what I would use. Mp3 192k is transparent, and it saves you a lot of space in your hard drive (especially for a library that holds 50000 tracks like mine), but with the availability of storage we have nowadays, there is no need to compromise the audio quality  of your archived music (my trained ear detects slight compression artifacts once in a while when listening to those compressed tracks, so I am starting to reencode those CDs using ALAC.) But what about mobile devices? They do have limited storage space. It still does make a lot of sense to use AAC or mp3 for them. The good news about it is that you don’t have to choose between lossless and lossy, because you can have either one or the other where you need them.

Tip #2 (iTunes and Apple devices): Convert your music to AAC on the fly when syncing

Here is where that interesting iTunes feature comes in. Check the “Convert higher bit rate songs to ____ AAC” box when you sync your portable device. Tracks will be automatically converted from lossless to AAC to take up less space and they will still sound great. This allows you to use different bit rates depending on the storage space available in your devices. As an example, I choose AAC 128k for my 16GB iPhone (good enough for casual listening) and AAC 192k for my 160GB iPod Classic (which is excellent audio quality), so I can benefit from the advantages of lossy formats without compromising the quality of my archived music. In order for this feature to offer the best results, it is important to rip your CDs to lossless to avoid applying a lossy compression twice (at the time of ripping and when syncing). You are most likely to hear compression artifacts if you use this option with already compressed tracks.

Tip #3 (iTunes): Use “Grouping” to add keywords

Tagging is the key to an efficient database. Most of the tedious tagging is done automatically when you rip a CD, because iTunes connects to an online database to fill in the main fields. There is, though, a field that is rarely used – Grouping. It allows you to group together the different movements of, say,  a concerto. Thus, you may have three track titles named 1. Allegro, 2. Andante and 3. Allegro that are grouped under “Vivaldi concerto RV546”. I don’t use the grouping tag that way, though. I prefer prepending that information in the track title: “Vivaldi concerto RV546 – 1. Allegro”, “Vivaldi concerto RV546 – 2. Adagio” and so on. Instead, I use it as a field for keywords, much in the same way keywords are used to tag this blog entry. So, a certain track might be tagged as “quiet vocal classical Natalia” (the last word indicating that it is one of my daughter’s favorites). This way I can easily set up an intelligent playlist that shows all “quiet” and “classical” tracks with no “vocal”… or Natalia’s five-star songs by crossing Grouping: Natalia and Rating:*****. Furthermore, these keywords are saved in the file, so you do not lose them if your iTunes library gets corrupted.

There is a lot to say about tagging and playlists in future posts. Meanwhile, you are welcome to post questions as comments if you wish.


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One comment on “Tips to build and manage your digital music collection (I)
  1. I wasn’t even aware of on-the-fly AAC conversion option, thanks for these insights.

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