2004-08-01

Everyone hates classical music

I've finally got round to ripping my classical music collection with iTunes. I'd resisted for a long time because the CDDB – though not too bad for dance/trance – is full of the lowest quality data imaginable for classical music CDs.

A glance at the iTunes window to the right shows *"Klavierksonata" and *"Introduzione, Meastoso Ed Adagio" next to one another. So there are spelling mistakes.

The Klaviersonata in question, Beethoven's "Appassionata", has three different artists: "Allegro Assai", "Andante con moto", "Allegro , ma non troppo". So there is some confusion about capitalization, spacing, and what to do with a movement name.

Because most classical music wasn't written by native English-speakers, there are a lot of non-ASCII characters needed. Unfortunately, CDDB seems totally ignorant of encoding. Sometimes (presumably when it was entered as ISO-Latin-1) it's fine, but often non-ASCII characters are mangled or simply missing. Other times, the clueless have stripped accents themselves, presumably not realizing their importance or not knowing how to type them. (I have to admit that I couldn't face entering the data for ΜΙΚΡΟΥΤΣΙΚΟΣ ΘΑΝΟΣ' "The Return of Helen".)

And I hope you're not an opera fan, or a fan of longer works. If you have anything split over multiple CDs, you'll find that completely different people will have entered the details for each CD, and they'll differ wildly in spelling ability, degree of understanding of the words they're copying from the back of the CD case, ideas about which bit of information goes in which field (confusing "Artist" and "Composer" is particularly common), and even what the "Album" is called. Woe betide you if you have 20 CDs of Haydn string quartets that you were hoping would appear with any kind of uniformity.

CDDB hates classical music.

And don't try to be clever and use iTunes to change all the tracks on multiple CDs at once; if you do, it'll mix all the tracks up and you'll have to rip them again. (There may be another way to repair the damage, but I haven't found one.) I foresee some editing of the XML metadata directly. Grim.

iTunes hates classical music.

Of course, iTune's killer feature is the "Search" field. It's the only way to make 3497 songs, 12.1 days, 19.63 GB of music navigable. You can get by with that, if you treat each row in the table of "songs" as free-form text. Mostly, most of the information is there. So you might have a Naxos recording of Brahms' first symphony listed with nothing to suggest that it's a symphony or by Brahms. But you can still find most stuff.

Until, presumably, you stick your music on an iPod. At which point the lack of a keyboard kills you. You can no longer rely on the Google approach to finding your music. You need to go through the hierarchy. Except it's busted because someone out there thinks the "Artist" field for your favorite recording of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique is "Jhon Eliot Gardinder". I kid you not. They missed the "Sir", the scum!

iPod hates classical music.

The worst part is that the problem's not easy to fix. Neither in terms of "what should I do?" nor "how should I do it?". Part of the reason that the data is so bad is that it's not obvious how you should encode the information about a classical piece. The fields, the idea of getting by with just fields and no higher-level groupings (no "this is a movement of a string quartet, this is a string quartet"), and the user interface all suggest that no-one thought of classical music. And even if you could get everyone to agree, how would you clean up CDDB?

The "hating" of classical music here is mostly transitive, though. Suppose CDDB weren't full of rubbish. Then iTunes wouldn't require you to fiddle with "Album" titles, and you wouldn't find out that it mixes up the tracks if you modify more than one CD at once. And you wouldn't wish quite so strongly that the iPod had a keyboard, because – though it might never work as well as a keyboard – you would at least be able to find stuff if you tried hard enough.

In the meantime, I can't help wishing that iTunes had some way of letting me tidy up large amounts of metadata. If you're editing a field in-place rather than in the "Get Info" dialog, you can't even move directly to editing the next field, as you would in a spreadsheet, say. Just that would ease a lot of my pain right now.