The rabbit hole that is organizing a digital music collection
I have a lot of digital music on my computer, and a subscription to Apple Music. So just about anything I want or need is available digitally. So we’re purging our CD collection. That’s a separate issue altogether, and while I’m happy to donate them wherever will take them (unfortunately the library is saying no to everything at the moment), it also gives me a small nudge to organize my digital collection.
Putting the various pieces together
Based on the various reading that I have done, having a well-organized and functional music collection involves five main pieces:
Storage: As I mentioned, my storage is almost all digital at this point. We’ve kept a few CDs that we are loathe to part with, but I suspect that is more a transitional collection. Eventually, we’ll dump them too, simply as we’ll find it easier to playback the same music on devices that don’t require CDs.
When I recently upgraded my computer, I put in an extra-large hard drive, and some of that was to hold my music collection. I wouldn’t say my collection is enormous or anything, about 150GB in total. Some people literally have terabytes of music, with some files dating back to the *cough* Napster days.
I don’t judge, whatever floats your boat, man. 🙂 A former boss of mine was into classical music, a hard-core audiophile, and he spent $8K at one point on upgrades to his house to improve the quality of the playback experience in every room. $8K and that was JUST FOR THE WIRING.
Everything is stored on my harddrive, easily accessible.
Backup options: Most articles talk about having a backup option, singular, and that just seems ridiculous to me. You have an enormous collection of music, probably hundreds of hours just putting it together, and you’re relying on a single backup solution?
My backup solution starts with the word Apple. In my defence against the black arts that Apple performs on hard drives, I do NOT let Apple manage my main music collection. It thinks it does, sure, I let it have the My Music folder as it’s primary work area by default. But I have a totally separate folder called MUSIC MASTERS that has all my original files in it. If I want something added to Apple Music / iTunes, I copy it over. Apple has spent a lot of time in the last few years to stop its software from overwriting people’s original files, but it is not foolproof. While I don’t have million-dollar recordings or irreplaceable versions of anything, I am not letting Apple touch my originals. Ever.
So my first backup is actually Apple while my ORIGINALS are stored a full folder away. Then I copy the whole double set of files to my regular external hard drive regularly, and then all of my drives to external storage. While I am more worried about my photos than my music, it all gets dragged along to the big backup in the sky (although not literally the cloud, I’m mixing metaphors here, but I will have a cloud option done by the end of September too).
Tools to manage multiple formats: I looked at a lot of different music players over the years, both in terms of software on my machine as well as physical tools. Sony had some music management software that went hand-in-hand with their MD players and walkmans (called Sonic Stage/Sound and NetMD). RealPlayer was in there for awhile, as was WinAMP way back in my DOS and early Windows days. OpenMG Jukebox. A player for my Coby MP3 player. A few options, to say the least, and that doesn’t include the 1000s available for download.
But, over time, I keep coming back to Media Monkey. It isn’t the slickest of interfaces, often feeling more DOS-like than full 21st century GUI. But it handles all the file formats I use (more on that in a minute), handles playback fine, and other than a slow opening where it re-reads all the files in the sub-folder structure, I trust it well enough to let it see my MUSIC MASTERS folder. For one simple reason.
It is more of a file manager with extensive music tools than an extensive music tool with basic file management. For example, over on the left side of my screen, I have a regular file tree with all the folders shown. I can browse them like I was using File Explorer or Xplorer2 (not actually, but similar). It gives me better content viewing of the files once I get to the file structure part, and it’s not perfect, but it’s the best file-based interface I have seen. Unlike Apple Music which has the slickest interface for browsing, but almost hides the file structure behind its menus.
But there is an enormous rabbit hole that I’m almost sidestepping here — if you have a tool that will manage multiple formats, you first have to recognize that there ARE multiple formats and understand to some extent the pros and cons of each format.
I don’t pretend to do that. I get that there are huge communities out there that will debate true lossless formats, would never accept anything less than AAC or FLAC or AFLAC (wait, I think that’s the insurance company, scratch that one). But unlike my former boss, I really can’t tell the difference acoustically between an MP3 recorded at 320 bps or merely 192 bps, let alone the lossless levels of other high-end formats. I’m fine to have some in that format, but if it’s in mere 192 or even 128, I’ll take it.
So most of my music is in some form of MP3 format. Regardless, Media Monkey can handle just about anything I throw its way. It merely needs the input. And if I find something it doesn’t handle by default? I have lots of file converters that will pre-process it for me.
Playback and sharing options: I skipped over the organization heading as that is a separate rabbit hole all on its own. For playback and sharing, though, I guess I should distinguish between several layers.
The first layer is simple playback on my computer. Media Monkey can handle that, as can Apple Music or a host of other music players. Nothing complicated there.
The second layer is playback around the house, and I confess there I’m not well-equipped. I have some ideas, some devices, but I generally rely on internet playback rather than casting about the house or direct access to my computer. I have some tools to do basic upgrades in the coming month, and it will likely be sufficient. Not by an audiophile’s standards, but for my basic needs.
The third layer is playback while mobile, and that’s where things get interesting. I have Apple Music, with a full family subscription, and since all three of us have iPhones, it’s a good investment. Eventually, ALL of the music will be available on my Apple account and shared with all 3 of our accounts, but after I tried letting Apple upload everything willy-nilly, I realized what a crapfest that would be. So I deleted it all and started over. I may have to do the same with Google Music, Amazon Prime Music, and YouTube Music. Why do I have those other services running? Because I just use their free option, and sometimes things I want are not on Apple Music. So why not? All it costs me is a bit of time to share them and upload them.
My real playback challenge though is simply 20-30 feet from my main computer. I like to listen to music while I work out, preferably LOUD and distracting to put me into a zone, and I will soon have three mini-areas set up in my basement for exercise. Well, soon being in the next month, if all the phases hold. But what do I do if want to put on headphones and just dance around? I know, I know, you didn’t need that image.
I have two basic options — corded or wireless. But my wireless runs off bluetooth, and outside of my phone setup, none of the options downstairs, not my computer, not my stereo, nada has built in bluetooth connectivity. I have a tool that should help with it, and I have no idea where I put it. Alternatively, I can run something from my main stereo with headphones using a big ass jack, kicking it old school, but my stereo isn’t really set up for digital input either. Overall though, wireless would be better, I just need to set it up properly. I have good headphones I can use for the work out or going truly mobile, but if I just want to lay on the couch and veg with music on, I’d like something a bit more encompassing than wireless buds. But I’m not paying for the high-end stuff, my ears can’t tell the difference anyway. It’s just that I can’t be blasting tunes when the rest of the family is home. The floorboards are just too thin and not much of a sound barrier.
Sharing is more complicated. Generally, it is about sharing with Andrea and Jacob, and that is about sharing the digital files themselves. That will be solved through Apple Music, so not a giant challenge. But I would also like to be able to share the playlists and some music reviews on my blog, right here. I ran a test with one I did earlier this weekend for an old album, and for some reason, the playlist will not share properly. It shows 8 of the songs, but not all 10. I assume it’s the difference between sharing 8 songs that are freely available in subscription mode and 2 that are separate purchases or something, but I’d be fine if it JUST shared a preview of the songs. I’m not trying to share the actual music, just the list with some links for people.
Which takes me to those other streaming services. If in the end, it is easier to share a playlist from there or share playlists across platforms through Media Monkey, I’ll do that. Because I have a HUGE project that I started 4 years ago, and it will take me a long time to do. But it requires me to have the ability to share playlists, unless I want to do a LOT more work manually. Pass. So I still need to figure out a reliable workflow for sharing the lists, not the actual files themselves.
The rabbit hole of genres
Genres doesn’t feel like it should be a rabbit hole. The archivist in me, the analyst in me, the music lover even, all scream that order should be rather simple. And if it is something like “Christmas music”, that seems like a no-brainer. True, I might argue that “Grandma got run over by a raindeer” isn’t exactly the same genre as Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”, but so what? It’s all primarily Christmas music. Or even “holiday music” if you want to be a little more inclusive and throw in the dreidel song or something.
But even in my old setup, the genres were a problem. Sure, I could have a simple folder for Classical. And a category for Movie Soundtracks. But what if a soundtrack used mostly classical music? Well, if it’s a soundtrack, that would be clearly with soundtracks to me. If the “nature” is classical and classical only, it would go there. But the main impetus for having a group of music around a movie is the soundtrack itself, tied to the movie, not a composer, so seems simple.
Then I come to someone like Alannah Myles. She’s not clearly “rock” although some might think so. Including herself at times, apparently. Clearly “pop”. Except Black Velvet is not really “pop” per se. Certainly not uptempo normal top 40 pop. Some of her other albums even go pretty close to country. Hmm.
Well, that’s an aberration, right? So what about someone like Shania Twain. She was clearly country until she went to pop country and a bunch of songs crossed over to simple pop. On the same album that had clear country ballad tunes. Sigh.
Okay, let’s start with some old 60s rock. Although a lot of 60s rock was really 60s pop, like the Beatles. But I certainly wouldn’t put the Beatles in the same genre as AC/DC or even Bob Seger. It’s all spectrum stuff, some argue. Huge swaths that are rock and roll in all its forms, and sub genres for everything else!
Oh, dear lord.
I shouldn’t despair, some of the basics are fine for me:
My collection falls heavily in the first two categories, rock or pop, from the first column. I’m not sure I’m sophisticated enough to separate out everything from R&B, Soul, Blues, Jazz and even a few types of Reggae, they blend together at times for me. Or if it even matters. I struggle with some of column 2 that a few artists are sure not pop or rock, but aren’t really folk or country, and yet they do have very strong vocal components. Column 3 goes back to normal, with some very obvious categories that seem fine.
So I reached out online to see if any of my friends were closet anal-retentives when it comes to musical genres and filing, and they fell into three giant camps.
Camp A is the “I’m not organized” category. Pretty common, lots of people have their collections stored all over the place.
Camp B is great if you want to go into a sub-genre world. One friend noted that she has sub-categories for “Surf music, British Invasion, Psychedelic rock, Glam rock, Classic Rock (70s), Hard Rock, Soft Rock, Punk Rock, New Wave, Grunge, Britpop, Indie rock” and anything after that is too narrow to need a niche. I’m not even sure I could name a band in each of those categories although I like some of it. I certainly have surf music, British invasion, soft rock. Classic would be hard to nail down evenly. Not so much the rest.
Another friend noted his genres go in a different direction. He separates his physical collection by geography, (Canada, USA, Europe/World), old school, soundtracks, comedy and compilations. It’s interesting, I have some overlap, but geography doesn’t excite me. I doubt there are many times I would think, “Hey, let’s listen to some American music” as something that would help me find it.
And that type of search is where Camp C comes in. For them, it is more about mood. So, for example, a up-tempo collection for partying or dancing, or a relaxing mellow collection for Sunday afternoon. It is a huge camp out there that does that, and I see the attraction. But to me, that is what playlists are for, not how you save your music? Dunno. Might be the archivist in me.
And therein lies the rub. Some of what I’m dealing with is the mental side of “what’s the most logical way to organize it”. First and foremost is the band, then an album, then the songs. It seems natural to me. Some might do years, but I feel the album is the proxy for year. And if I just want to find a random song, I can always search. But for backups, organizing, almost nothing seems more fundamental than the band itself.
Except, perhaps, genre. Does it make sense to have an alphabetical list of every band in a general folder or is it like my physical collections where I put all my country music together, all my pop, all my older-style rock. Which was fine when it was a handful of CDs. Now that I have a much larger digital collection, and things are more likely alphabetical, does it make sense to put the Beatles next to AC/DC? Probably not.
Is there an off-the-shelf solution?
In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to think about this. Someone else would have already solved all of this already, someone IN THE BUSINESS, who knows the difference between small shades of nuance in rock genres for example. A professional. Or a business.
Like Apple perhaps. Yes, they have default categories:
Thirty-three default categories to arrange everything. Sounds great, right? Except it does nothing for me that I didn’t already have. It puts Blues and R&B together and then puts R&B and Soul together. Same problem I already had. It separates folk and country, sure, but doesn’t solve my “vocals” problem. Classical crossover? What the HELL is that? Popular classical, like Rachmaninov, or the classical songs that show up in movies? Or Beethoven’s Fifth, disco style?
Easy listening I guess is meant to be the non-rock, non-pop, non-folk “soft stuff”? Maybe I put the vocals in there. Or maybe it is just soft rock. I will probably never have anything in the Alternative, Books, Classical Crossover, Dance, Electronic, Holiday, House, Industrial, Karaoke, New Age, Original Score, Religious, Singer / Songwriter, Techno, or Trance. Taking me down to 18 possibles, although Easy Listening, Hip Hop / Rap, Metal, and World likely aren’t topping my list either. Say, maybe 14 categories. Is that better than just 6? Or my original 17?
It’s a start, at least. I’ll have to check out the other online streaming categories, but even they have started to go by mood in a lot of places.