Friday, December 12, 2008

TuneUp for the Mac: First Look

I have a pretty unwieldy music collection--more than 37,000 songs, ripped at random times, on random platforms, using random encoders. I decided last year to wrangle everything into a single iTunes install on a Mac Mini. I chose iTunes because it's easy, and is likely to be supported by Apple for a long time to come. Sure, there are probably better content organizers than iTunes, but I was looking for simplicity in organization; plus, I'm a pretty straightforward user, not an edge case.

That said, I was looking for a reasonable degree of quality; the general consensus is that for VBR MP3 encoding, iTunes pales in comparison to the LAME encoder. I was interested in something that would run on a Mac with a good UI using the LAME encoder, which would also deposit the newly ripped/encoded content into my iTunes library. I found it in Max, a really neat (and free) program from Stephen Booth (sbooth). I'm not an audiophile, so I wasn't interested in lossless encoding, nor in any of the plethora of formats besides MP3. I wanted to stick with MP3, since it's pretty much the universal music format, takes up a fraction of the disk space of lossless approaches, and plays on just about anything. I chose to use VBR because I wanted to take best advantage of VBR's ability to get the most bang for my buck, bit per bit. Learn more here.

Max isn't perfect, but for free, I can't argue too much. Max uses an open source music database called MusicBrainz, which is nowhere near as complete as Gracenote's CDDB, which iTunes uses. Thankfully, sbooth also wrote an AppleScript to auto-fill the Max information fields at encoding time by using iTunes as a proxy to pull from Gracenote. Yes, it's manual, but I gotta sit there and shove the CD in for ripping, so a couple more clicks won't kill me.

I re-ripped the ~600 or so CDs that I own; for the most part, Max + the iTunes script delivered decent data, along with a high-quality audio encode. Sometimes, data would be incomplete or missing altogether. However, for the ~3500 or so CDs I used to own, but have gotten rid of (thanks, Amoeba), I've been stuck with what I have.

And, what I have is a bunch of music with missing/wrong ID tags, missing album art, missing/wrong genres, etc. Since I organized all my music into a single iTunes library last year, I've really wanted to take better advantage of Apple's Front Row, which is a really sweet media center user interface to all the media on a machine. But, with missing album art from thousands of albums, and with inaccurate data for tens of thousands of songs, the experience has been well short of satisfying.

That's why I was so stoked earlier this year to hear about TuneUp, an application designed to clean up all your incomplete/wrongly labeled music in iTunes. However, as punishment to the early adopter crowd, the TuneUp team chose to introduce a Windows version first, making Mac users wait months, MONTHS, for a Mac version. Yeah, I know. Life sucks. Get a helmet.

Today, the helmet came off. TuneUp for the Mac is now available. In somewhat limited use on one of my sandbox machines (not the main iTunes library), I've found TuneUp to be very good at what it claims to do. Sure, there are a few annoyances--the entire clickable area on the 'Save' button doesn't always work, the spinning ball of wait pops up occasionally, the beats per minute field either populates incorrectly or not at all. Despite issues such as these, TuneUp is an extremely useful tool which delivers mostly as promised. Again, I haven't tested this exhaustively. And, judging from comments I saw about problems when Windows users threw huge iTunes libraries at the application, I don't think I'll be asking TuneUp to clean all 37,000 songs at once. But, it's unbelievably cool to command-tab over to iTunes, drag some songs to the TuneUp window, command-tab back over to e-mail, then pop back over a few minutes later to see the results. I highly recommend trying out the free version, which allows cleaning of 500 songs. I'll be spending the $19.95 for the lifetime TuneUp Gold membership soon, probably this weekend. TuneUp is fast, efficient, and unique. Give it a try.

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