My digital music collection is over a decade old, and it’s as disorderly as a drawer of mismatched socks.
Many songs are missing the correct album titles and cover art—or just show up in Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) iTunes with mysterious names like “Track04.” Over the years I’ve used several programs to import and buy music, resulting in wild inconsistencies in my collection. I’ve got songs by Beyoncé (with accent), Beyonce (without accent), Beyoncé Knowles (with accent) and Beyonce Knowles (without accent).
Several companies have developed programs that tap into vast databases of songs to tame music collections. I’ve been testing one by San Francisco startup TuneUp Media that’s available to download online and buy in Apple’s stores. While I was reluctant to pay $19.95 for a year’s subscription to a service I reckon should be in iTunes for free, TuneUp has largely delivered on its promise to scrub my music collection with minimal effort, making sure tracks were properly titled and adding extras like album cover art.
TuneUp’s greatest asset is that it works seamlessly with iTunes (for Mac and PC). With TuneUp hooked on to the right side of the iTunes program, you drag “dirty,” or mislabeled, songs into a box identified by a spray bottle of cleaner. The software identifies songs by taking clues from information you’ve embedded in your music, as well as sampling the song’s digital fingerprint. TuneUp looks for a match to those clues in a database of songs maintained by Sony Corp.’s (SNE) Gracenote.
Some matches are a slam dunk, but almost half of my collection proved to be problematic. Of the 500 most-played songs in my pop-oriented collection, TuneUp found “matches” for songs across 79 albums and “likely matches” for songs across 209 albums. It couldn’t identify 10 songs. The company says it counts matches as a 90% or higher chance of a match, and “likely” as at least 75% chance of a match. Songs with a likelihood under 75% are labeled “not found.”
TuneUp gives you the chance to review each of the matches before it adjusts your catalog. (It comes with an undo button.) Accepting all of the sure matches is easy enough, but slogging through the likely matches is troublesome. TuneUp gives you only the option to accept or reject its one recommendation after listening to the file, if you want.I worried that I might be inadvertently mislabeling a song, but haven’t yet found evidence of errors in my collection. The company says it cut out alternative matches to simplify the cleaning process, but is working on adding them to future releases of the software.
Once a song has been cleaned by TuneUp, it is given a consistent name, track number, album cover and other helpful information, such as the year it was released. Now I’ve got songs by just Beyoncé (with accent) and almost all of my songs feature the album cover art that looks so nifty on iPhone screens. The software assigns your songs genre identifications, which can be handy for matching music to your mood. Most of the classifications aren’t terms I would have come up with: Beyoncé is dubbed “urban crossover,” while Michael Jackson is either “disco” or “other pop” depending on the era—but at least they’re consistent. You also can tell TuneUp not to change any specific part of a song’s existing catalog listing, including genre.
TuneUp takes a few seconds, depending on your computer and Internet speed, to identify and re-classify each song. Attempting to scrub a whole collection—mine has more than 10,000 songs—can be a lengthy affair. The company suggests cleaning 500 songs at a time, but you can do many more than that if you leave it running over night.
I tried out a free competitor to TuneUp called MusicBrainz Picard, which matches songs based on a database collected by a swarm of Internet users, rather than one particular company. TuneUp and MusicBrainz, which is run by a nonprofit, are as different as Britannica and Wikipedia in their approaches to cataloging information.
The MusicBrainz approach to building a user-generated database is powerful and has been tapped by companies such as the BBC and Amazon.com (AMZN) to improve the way they keep track of music on their sites. Some of my songs that TuneUp couldn’t identify, such as the song “This Way” by hip hop group Dilated Peoples, were a breeze for MusicBrainz. To date, MusicBrainz has about 700,000 “releases” (such as whole albums) and 8,000,000 individual “tracks” in its database.
But MusicBrainz’s database has limitations, such as the inability to catalog album-cover images or song lyrics, both of which are copyrighted material. The free Picard program lets you tap the MusicBrainz database from your own computer. Serious music fans will be attracted to Picard because it is more precise than TuneUp; Picard guides you to choose from a variety of options when it isn’t certain of a match. But the software is rudimentary and requires concentration and time to use. Picard also doesn’t connect directly into iTunes’ catalog. To use it with iTunes, you have to first clean up all of your music files with Picard and then re-import your songs into iTunes.
I recommend TuneUp for the average music fan who might view cleaning up a music collection as the sort of task that shouldn’t take much longer than one rainy Sunday afternoon. Picard is better for people for whom maintaining an orderly music collection is a never-ending project.
TuneUp comes with a feature called “Tuniverse,” which fills the right side of the screen with information related to whatever song iTunes is playing at the time. That information includes YouTube videos, biographical details from Wikipedia, Google (GOOG) News, music recommendations from Amazon and tickets from StubHub to coming concerts in your area. While I initially worried Tuniverse would feel like added advertising on the screen, I’ve come to enjoy the extra information. And once again, I was left wondering why Apple hasn’t built these capabilities directly into iTunes. I, for one, learned from Tuniverse that Beyoncé has a concert in San Francisco next week, and I just might buy a ticket.
Walt Mossberg is on vacation.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at Geoffrey.Fowler@wsj.com