Tagging the music: approaches

Many of us are familiar with standalone, portable or software-only music players most of which can handle tag metadata, which contains information about the artist and the song. But have you paid opinion to how this data is edited by modern software players?

Here I just compare different approaches shown by Winamp, iTunes and Foobar 2000 players all of which are known enough…

First, let’s take a look at Winamp:

Winamp MP3 tag display

There’re two big colums with ID3V1 and ID3v2 data, most of which is diblicated. There’re numerous restrictions on ID3v1, so it’s usually a cut version of ID3v2 tag. On the left-bottom there’s a lot of technical info like byte-precise size, header position, encoder delay and padding, “copyrighted” flag and so on. There’s also replaygain info and options to copy data between two tag versions.

Quite a mess in fact. For example, why letting someone manually edit two tag versions (increasing the chance of a conflict) if most developers leave ID3v1 tags only for compatibility wish stone-age hardware (most modern hardware players, including cheap Chinese ones handle tags decently). Besides, the majority of provided technical information is doubtly interesting for the majority of potential users. Most people care about 5 mb vs 7 mb difference, not 1400 bytes versus 1200. And encoder delay and padding is mostly interesting to hardcore audio enthusiasts but not the majority of users.

Just compare this to the file properties of MP4/AAC file in the same Winamp:

Winamp MP4/AAC tags

Just another messy poorly designed dialog, not fitting well the previous one. You may check other file types and find out that Winamp tagging GUI is terribly inconsistent. Shame on developers…

Now let’s take a look at iTunes, famous iPod companion:

itunes MP3 tag

What we see is a classic tabbed dialog. The first tab is not editable: it just displays general file information like artist name, track title, associated album artwork, etc.

Take a closer look at how technical info is displayed (notes are mine):

Kind: MPEG Audio File or simply mp3
Size: 4,9 Mb not 5127415 bytes: slightly less precise, but way more readable
Bit Rate: 168 kbps (VBR) VBR means “variable bit” rate which it is
Date modified: 12.12.2006 2:20 easily readable text
Play count: 0 just zero, not even “0 times”
and so on…

Format, Channels, ID3 tag version and encoder info. That’s all. Simple, clean, informative. Plus a line below, displaying full path to the file.

Now let’s switch to an “info” tab:

Name, Artist,  Album Artist (useful for jazz or records with many guessed musicians), Album, Groupin, Composer, Comments (multiline, no disabled scroll bar!), Genre (drop-down list), Year, Track number, Disc, BPM. All the fields are large enough not tor equire scrolling, logically and aestetically groupped and divided. Besides, while entering data iTunes makes some suggestions about it based on information it already knows, so you won’t need to type the name of your band ten times (even without batch tag editing!). BPM and grouping are probably the only redundant tag fields there (as manually editing BPM doubtly has any good) but overall it looks accurate and pleasing.

“Options ” tab lets you fine-tune the track and is generally quite useless (as most of information there might be received from other sources):

itunes MP3 tag

Manual volume adjustment is arguably useful because of SoundCheck (a faster, but less accurate version of replaygain), per-file equalizer preset also has arguable usefullness, just as placing here rating (which is usually adjusted in media library) and  start/stop time (usually encoder provides enough information to calculate them properly). Last three checks are also doubtly a must and I have serious doubts that the last two are very rarely used while the first one could be automatically set based on track length (well, it might be suitable for language learning, but still…)

The last two tabs are solely dedicated to lyrics and artwork info. People like that kind of stuff although there’re lots of ways to put album artwork editor right into the main tag editing dialog:

itunes MP3 tagitunes MP3 tag

Not really much to comment…

Now let’s take a look at the last competor, Foobar 2000:

foobar 2000 mp3 tags

Looks different, right?

There’re some predefined fields like Artist or Title , but you’re generally free to add your own ones (there’re  usually no restrictions in modern tag formats). Just like in iTunes, there’s nodivision to ID3v1 and ID3v2 tags: v1 is used by default, but as soon as any field requires more v2 is added automatically so there’s nearly always a v1 tag, working as a crippled down version of tags info (due to format limitations).

Field editing is accurate, but not elegant: the window is poorly sized by default and may require  window and column size  adjustment. As you may see on the shot, there’s a third  void column whichjust wastes space.

And what about technical info? Here we go:

foobar 2000 mp3 tags

Let’s just name things their names: it’s a mess. I.e. this is nearly all the technical info you may ever need to know about the file, but it’s decently formatted (5 127 547 bytes vs Winamp’s 5127547, etc.) and it’s not flashing on the first tab, thus only seen by ones interested. From another point, all information, frequently and rarely used is gathered  and displayed in a single place which is generally not good.

So, what do we have in the end? Winamp features messy inconsistent and ugly looking dialogs. iTunes info editing is elegant although not too comprehensive for geeks (being an audio geek myself I must add it gives you enough info for most cases of normal usage) while Foobar makes a strong accent on power, so elegance suffers: its dialogs are more friendly than Winamp’s ones but have serious lack of fine-tuning.


One Response to Tagging the music: approaches

  1. a says:

    and start/stop time (usually encoder provides enough information to calculate them properly)

    You’re totally missing the point. The start/stop times aren’t used unless the user manually enables them. Then they’re used to specify a start or stop point in the mp3 other than the standard start or stop point, which is essential for live tracks (when you want to cut out a big chunk of applause or dead air) or for long, multi-segment tracks where you only want to hear one part of the track.

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