Media organizer blues

Both Windows Media Player and iTunes have some fundamental flaws that make them unsuitable for managing my music teacher wife’s music library.

A media organizer is in essence a pretty simple beast. There are some amazing bells and whistles out there, but basically a media organizer is just a way to manage file metadata (I consider playlist membership to be file metadata). Modern OS’s now will rip, burn and perform (some) device synchronization out of the box but still drop the ball when it comes to metadata management, despite having all the required support structures under the hood. If you’ve ever tried to manage playlists using nothing but Windows Explorer and shortcuts you’ll know what I mean.

Fortunately just about every media organizer does a great job of managing playlists. Where the big two fall down massively is in an area that really should be the absolute bedrock functionality, which is the way they interact with the file system.

Filesystem synchronization

Windows Media Player (WMP) as of Windows 7 still does not provide any sensible way to keep its library consistent with the file system. The state of the art is to delete your entire library and re-import it. There are a variety of 3rd party add-ons to do things like directory watching and orphan pruning. If you got the right set of those installed and working together (and trojan-free), you’d have a workable system.

iTunes does a decent job of keeping itself consistent with its own special area of the file system, but you’re on your own if you want to have any say over how your music is filed. You can update the iTunes library by re-importing your set of folders, but on Windows this has one fatal flaw. iTunes will convert any .wma files it finds to some more Mac-ish format (mp4 maybe? can’t remember). Not only does this take forever, but iTunes does not remember which files it has already converted, meaning if you import once a week for five weeks, you end up with five versions of every wma file you have.

So the notion that the media library should actually reflect the filesystem on which it is based seems to be beyond both Microsoft and Apple. It gets worse though.

Title tags

Both of these packages seem to assume that every piece of music you have has been bought in a store and arrives fully tagged with title, artist, album and genre. This isn’t always the case, especially for musicians. There is one piece of “metadata” that every file reliably must have – its filename. Unfortunately this is the one piece that both WMP and iTunes decline to notice. When burning a CD or synchronizing to a device, these packages will use the title field. If that’s missing, they simply number tracks sequentially, so the file “my great accompiment in C major.mp3” becomes “track 17” when it gets to the iPod. Worse than that, neither package provides a way to use the filename to fill in missing title fields.

A solution

No doubt this tale of woe is a well-trodden path and you’re all muttering “Just get [real media organizer brand X] and stop whining, for Pete’s sake”. Anyway, in our case brand X is J. River’s Media Center. Is this the best media organizer? I have no idea. After beating my head against WMP and iTunes I didn’t have the energy to do the full comparison. Is it free? Nope.

It does take a sensible attitude to keeping the library in sync (i.e. it works). It does still have the bad attitude about even a blank title tag being preferable to a full filename, but at least it provides tools to transfer filenames to titles in bulk. Incidentally, the bad attitude seems to be a new “feature”, as I’m pretty sure older versions used to happily use the filename. And it has a strange habit of importing MIDI files into the video section of the library, even though the .mid file extension has been configured as an audio type. Once again, the tools are there to bulk transfer them back into the audio section.

The real solution

This entire problem would just go away if we could do one simple thing – have a file in more than one directory, which is all a playlist really is. The file system structures are all there, only the UI is lacking. My next step (once the blood pressure has subsided a bit) is to investigate 3rd party file managers. I’ll keep you posted.

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