6 Simple Steps To Organizing Digital Music


The world of digital music is a strange and confusing one. MP3s. iPods. Streaming audio. Podcasts. Playlists. Tagging. Lossless audio codecs. The jargon adds up – with new ways of organizing, storing, and making sense of your digital music collection coming out faster than you can trash your old vinyl collection – but how do you make sense of the ways and means to make your own digital music dreamland? Getting into the digital music game can seem staggering sometimes, with all of the options available out there, which is why we have prepared this handy guide to the world of organizing digital music.

Let’s say you have a pile of CDs collecting dust on your shelves in your living room or den. How do you go from that stack to having access to all of your music on your computer? Follow these six easy steps to organizing digital music:

Step 1. Transfer Your CDs To Your PC

The process of moving your music onto your PC is called “ripping.” As long as you have a CD ROM drive and a sound card connected to it, you can make digital copies of the CD to your PC’s hard drive. Each song on the CD is copied to a separate file on your hard drive. You do this with one of the built-in music players included with the PC, such as Windows Media Player or Apple’s iTunes on the Macintosh. (Apple also has iTunes for Windows.) Our examples below will show you screen shots using iTunes.

Organizing your digital music - itunes

What’s the difference? They both do mostly the same thing. iTunes is designed to work with Apple’s iPod portable music players, so if you own one or plan on owning an iPod in the near future, then you should probably organize and rip all your music with this software. Windows Media works with most of the other portable music players, as well as with the new Zune player from Microsoft.

The process of ripping takes much less time than it would take to record the songs in real time, and that is one of the beauties of making digital copies on your PC. Each CD drive has a speed label, generally 16x or 32x or something like that. This is the maximum speed that the drive can copy the music. In most cases each CD will take only a few minutes to copy all of its songs on your PC. See the screenshot below for an example of ripping with iTunes.

organizing your digital music

Ripping in action. The number to the right of the time means that the file is being ripped at 9 times the rate that it would take to play the song straight through. This means that you can copy the entire CD in about six minutes.

There are many different music file formats and options available to copy CDs, and <article 16-2> talks about these differences.

Step 2. Organizing Digital Music

Once the files are ripped, the player then ‘tags’ them with important song information, such as title, artist, album, and sometimes even the album artwork. That is generally done automatically, and the programs communicate with different Internet-based Compact Disc Databases to download album information. Sometimes it is necessary to enter this information manually in the case of lesser-known artists. It is very important to keep all tags updated and accurate. Most portable music players make use of the tags to store and organize the digital music, and so an inaccurate tag can mean the difference between listening to your favorite tune immediately and growling in frustration as you spend your time digging through the depths of your portable device’s library.

The tagged files are then placed into the ‘music library,’ which is a master index of music and video files on your hard drive that can be easily searched and browsed. Generally, libraries are not created automatically from files already existing on your hard drive (as each song in the library has to be examined and its important information added to the library’s collection of file information), so songs that are not ripped directly from the program need to be imported into the library for them to be searchable.

With both iTunes and Windows Media Player, you have lots of control over how you organize your music library. You can sort the songs by title, artist, album name, or genre, and in forward or backward alphabetical order. You click on the top header bar in each column and can arrange the columns in iTunes by right-clicking on the header bar. You’ll then see a menu of all the possible column choices as shown in the screen shot below:

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Step 3. Create Playlists

Ever wanted to be a DJ or create a mix tape of different songs to match your mood? Now you can, and every music player software has a feature called playlists. Basically, they group a collection of songs together, so that you can create your own custom sequence. It makes managing your music easier, and each playlist can focus on a particular artist, a theme, or whatever. You can have hundreds of playlists if you get adventurous. The screenshot above shows a few that come standard with iTunes, such as My Top Rated and Top 25 Most Played, as well as others that we have created. When you click on the playlist, the library view in iTunes and Media Player changes to show you the collection of songs that are part of that list. See how easy organizing your digital music is?

Step 4. Buy New Music and Videos Online

Once you have made copies of all of your CDs, it is now time to experiment with buying music online. There are several different stores where you can purchase individual songs for about a dollar, and entire CDs can be had for less than $20 each. The most popular ones are run by Apple (iTunes Music Store), Yahoo Music, and Microsoft. We’ll have more to say about the various online music stores in a future article. Windows Media Player also comes with access to the URGE Music Store, a music store featuring content from MTV, VH1, and CMT.

So far this article has focused on music. But there is another world out there, and that world involves videos and DVDs. While ripping DVDs isn’t as easy as ripping music, it can be done if you have a large enough hard disk to store all the information. We’ll cover organizing your videos in a future article as well.

Step 5. Buy a Portable Player

Now that you have all your music on your PC, you’ll want to carry your tunes with you when you leave home. You have your choice of many different music players to match your budget and how many songs you want to have at your fingertips, and in a future article we’ll examine your choices of players. Some of the newer iPods and Microsoft’s Zune come with large enough screens and can play videos too.

The important thing to note for now is that there are two basic ways to transfer your songs from your PC to the portable player – either directly or through syncing. Direct transfer of files is straightforward, dragging and dropping a file from the library into the portable device as you would a file in Windows. Syncing (short for ‘synchronizing’) is a way to keep the contents of your portable device identical to the contents of your library. Any time your portable device is plugged in, the music program automatically downloads the songs on your library (or on specific playlists in your library) to the device, without needing so much as a mouse click on your part.

The screenshot below shows you how synching works for your playlists in iTunes.

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iTunes’ syncing interface allows you to sync your entire hard drive or specific playlists to your portable device.

6. Burn Your Own CDs

Part of the fun of organizing digital music is that you can make CD copies of your playlists. The act of creating a new CD is called “burning” and you need to purchase special CD media called CD-Recordables or CD-Rs. They sell for roughly 25 cents each, and you can buy them in bulk from computer stores in large plastic columns. If you need the plastic cases, called jewel boxes, to store these CDs, you can also buy them in bulk.

If your PC is older than six years, it may have a CD drive but not one that can burn CD-Rs. Similarily, some of the older PCs come with combination CD/DVD players, but can only burn CDs and not DVDs.

Once you’ve determined which portable player to buy and whether you can/want to burn your own CDs, you’ll be happy you decided to get into the digital music game. With your favorite tunes at your fingertips, you’ll be able to enjoy a little piece of reverie every time you hit the “on” button.