Wednesday, March 07, 2007

How to Keep Full Albums Separate From Random Singles on an iPod

I love my new iPod 'n all, but it is not without its flaws. The major one I've run into is this: I have about 500 full albums that I have ripped to MP3's. I also have a few thousand random songs that I've collected over the years. The thing is, when I'm browsing my iPod or iTunes by Artist, I usually want to be searching for a full album to listen to. The random singles are good to have on there, but mostly to fill out playlists, or to come up when listening in random order. The problem is, when browsing the iPod, all these random artists come up, each containing only a song or two. It looks really crappy in iTunes when browsing songs grouped with album artwork (or Coverflow). Plus, if I'm looking for a full album to listen to, I have to sift through a lot of these singles in order to find one. I'd prefer not to skip past the one-song Artist listings of The Divinyls, Right Said Fred, and Soft Cell just to get to my Tool albums.

Before: Ugly! (and with crappy music!)

You would think there's an easy, obvious fix for this. Create a playlist called "Full Albums", and a playlist called "Singles", then browse through the Albums one when I feel like a full CD. That's fine for iTunes. Just go into the Albums playlist, sort by Artist (or even better, Album by Artist/Year), and you're all set. The problem is, on the iPod, you can't browse a playlist by Artist. All you get is a list of songs.

This is one of the dumbest things I've seen on an electronic device. I realize a lot of people use playlists as, well, lists of songs to play. But who actually browses through a playlist, by the title of the song, in order to find a song? Even if I'm looking through a list of random top-40 songs to find a specific one, I still think of the artist before the title of the song. The way they have it, it's completely counterintuitive to find a song within a playlist. In fact, even if you wanted to, you can't find a song by its name - the songs are ordered by the name of the artist. You just can't see the name of the artist. It would be much better if playlists could be browsed the same way that you browse through Genres - start with a list of Artist in the genre, then Albums for each artist, then Song titles - but at any point you can click "All" and get a simple list of songs, if that's what you want. Apple, if you're reading this (yeah right), this needs fixing. At least make it an option for all those weird people out there who put the name of the artist before the name of the song (like, you know, Billboard, Amazon, or any record store in the universe).

However, I think I've found a solution. It's not perfect, and it's a bit time consuming, but it sort of gets the job done.

After: Much better!

The trick is in Compilations. When you right-click on a song in iTunes, then click "Get Info", one of the options is "part of a compilation", which can be either checked or unchecked. Additionally, on the iPod there is a Setting simply called "Compilations" (or in iTunes, "Group compilations when browsing"). When this setting is set to "on", songs that have "part of a complilation" checked will not show up in the regular list of songs and artists. I've used this to make it so singles do not show up in my regular list of artists - only full albums do.

So, all you do is select all your singles, and check the "part of a compilation" option. Now, on your iPod, when you click "Artists", you will only be browsing complete albums.

iTunes will still look screwy though, with one-song albums sprinkled in your collection. I took an extra step to solve this problem; I set the Album tag of all the singles to be "Singles". Now, all the singles go into one GIANT Compilation called Singles, right next to other compilations under "Various Artists". If you do this, make sure that you leave "Album Artist" blank, and remove any track number information, as these can mess up the grouping.

I also created a smart playlist called "Singles", which pulls out any song with an Album that is "Singles." So if I am looking for one of those random songs, I can browse through this playlist. Unfortunately, on the iPod, you still have to browse through a list of song names, which are ordered by the names of artists which you can't see (or random order; more on that later).

To summarize:
  • Go through all your single songs and check off "part of compilation"
  • In iTunes' preference, check "group compilations"
  • On your iPod, set "Compilations" to "Yes"
  • Browse your albums by sorting by Artist (or Album by Artist) in iTunes, or clicking Artists on the iPod

And optionally:
  • Set the Album name to "Singles" on these songs (optional)
  • Create a smart playlist with Album = "Singles" (optional)
  • Browse singles in the Singles playlist (optional)

This can all be undone by selecting the whole Singles playlist and unchecking "part of a compilation".

I've run into a few drawbacks to this approach:
  • For some reason (probably a bug, though it may be a "feature"), I've found that the iPod's search function won't find artists included in compilations. Maybe they would if you took the "Compilations" option off in the settings, but then we're back to square one. I gather this is a bug that is a side effect of the iPod skipping artists in compilations when browsing them. Not a big deal for me since I rarely use searching on the iPod. Searching does work fine in iTunes, and searching for song titles on the iPod works. Still, would've been nice to be able to get a listing of every song by an artist, even those in compliations.

  • I was worried that the singles would not show up in songs selected at random (e.g. a smart playlist that randomly limits itself to 25 songs). This is not the case, though...the singles populate random playlists just fine.

  • You lose the name of the album for all of your singles, and this can't easily be undone. Not a big deal to me, since by definition the singles aren't really part of an album, but this might be bothersome to some people.

  • The order of songs within the "Singles" compliation (or even in a smart playlist) is completely broken, both on the iPod and in iTunes. There is some semblence of order - songs with the same artist usually hang out close to each other - but it's not based on the English alphabet. It also doesn't seem to be related to any tags that I can see. It's as if iTunes randomly chooses which order to put songs in. This makes it even harder to find songs within the Singles list, if you care about that.

All these drawbacks could be fixed if Apple would just add an option in the iPod firmware to see the names of artists within Playlists. This would also open up a whole bunch of powerful music organization options in addition to this. For example, an easily-browsable playlist with a certain combination of genres (say, Trip-Hop, Electronic, Classical, and World music for when you're in a chill-out sort of mood). All I want to do is see the names of artists within playlists! But for now, this solution should work OK for most people who are similar to me in the way they browse their music. If anyone has a better way, or improvements to this, please let me know in the comments.

I hope this helps some people. I know I've probably bored most of the people who regularly read this blog, but I needed to write this down to remember what the hell I was doing to my music collection (in case I needed to undo it). Maybe I'll submit it to technology news sites to try to get famous, too (DIGG THIS). Enjoy!


Anonymous said...

My tags are far too messed-up to even begin this task.

Unknown said...

There is a simpler way: the "Grouping" tag (which is the field meant for this kind of custom categorization in the first place). Set the "Grouping" tag for all your single tracks to "single" and for the full albums to "full" (I've also set all the long DJ mixes which are 1 track to "djmix"). Separating single tracks and full albums in smart playlists is then trivial.

Phronk said...

Salem: Yeah, it took me approximately 1000 years to get my tags all filled in correctly.

Jochum: Thanks for the suggestion, but I don't think it fully serves my purposes. That would work in iTunes just fine, and indeed would be less messy. The problem is that on the iPod, you can only browse through smart playlists by song title. I'd prefer to browse through my albums by artist, rather than trying to guess the album based on the songs.

If the iPod allowed browsing by Grouping, with the full Artist/Album/Song hierarchy, that would be far as I know that's impossible (I should check though).

Butchie said...

You smoke a lot of pot, don't you?

Anonymous said...

you know what pisses me off, how Shuffle only lets you shuffle all of your songs and just not an album or artist

Phronk said...

You can shuffle a playlist before transfering it to your iPod, but yeah, I don't think there's a way to reshuffle it without a computer, which is dumb.

But wait...I kinda remember a setting where you CAN shuffle just within the playlist you're currently in? I forget.

Anonymous said...

Im not even talking about within a playlist, Im talking about just within an album or artist list on the ipod

Phronk said...

Oh're right. That's totally stupid. You'd have to create playlist for every artist and/or album then randomize them all to do that...which is awkward and unecessary. They need to get their shit together.

Anonymous said...

Its just something so stupid I cant believe that They dont have this working

Deemonie said...

@ KevBo: Go to Settings,
set Shuffle to Songs and then pick the artist, album, genre or playlist you want shuffled.

Deemonie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
e-head said...

Yeah, if you use smart playlists, and end up with a slew of singles on your iPod, it is really a pain trying to find your full albums.

e-head said...

After having my new iPod for about a week now, I've realized that the "artist" and "album" methods of browsing on it are all but worthless. This is because I have a combination of full albums and random songs on the device.

Generally I either want to listen to one of my random playlists, OR I want to listen to a full album, but God help me in finding it. The random playlists pull in so many singles from so many different albums and artists that it's nearly impossible trying to seperate the wheat from the chaff in either the artist or the album browse mode.

So the album section remains forever unused, and the artist section is just browsed by my friends so they can see what sort of taste in music I have.

It does seem like there should be some solution to this. I can the difficulty though. After all, how does iTunes or Apple know if you have the full album or not? Some albums just have 2 songs, some 20. There is no way to know from the tags (unless the tracks were tagged like "3 of 12", which you do see sometimes).

Your idea about browsing by artist isn't an entirely bad one, but it seems like a hack. I'd like an option to make the "album" view only show "full" albums, if only there was a way to designate an album as being "full".

Anonymous said...

My tech-philic niece told me to put the "View" into List Format (the left most button).
You then click on "Album" - It will sort all the songs by the album.
When I went back to Cover Flow view, there was only the number of CD's I actually imported.
I hope this helps, and it was easy.

Anonymous said...

I have renamed all my full albums in itunes to include "artist & album". That way when you browse by album on your ipod it is sorted alphabetically by artist then album title.

ie. My first title under "albums" appears as "AC/DC - '74 Jailbreak" by AC/DC.

It's the cleanest way i've found to keep all your full albums together and still be able to find those one-hit wonders listed under "artists".

If you do have a lot of singles either leave the album blank or call it "singles". That way they all appear in one album listing than scattered everywhere.

Phronk said...

Thanks for the additional suggestions, everyone. It's too bad there's still no simple solution for this AFAIK.

My "Singles" pseudo-compilation-album is getting so huge that I've started dividing it by decades (e.g., "90s Singles", "00s Singles", etc.), which helps a bit.

Unknown said...

They should just make a tag option of "single" for a given song and then allow you to filter those from the coverflow.

I would like to be able to see only full albums with coverflow but still have my singles from any given artist under them when I browse that artist.

The Minister said...

For songs that are part of an album, I populate the "Composer" field with the name of the Artist. For all other songs, I clear the "Composer" field.

If you now browse by Composers, you are presented with a list of Artists for which you have full albums. Select an artist and you are presented with a list of albums of this artist.

Phronk said...

Nice idea Minister! Thanks!

thomaus said...

I get around this problem in the most tedious way. I create playlists for each album that I want on my iPhone. If I buy a new album (usually eMusic) I create a clean playlist of the album, remembering to sort it by track. iTunes names it by Artist - Album Name.

I started this method years ago. So, I've had to adopt a rather tedious workflow to cope. When I sync my iPhone and I've added new albums recently I go through the playlists and check and uncheck what gets onto the phone. Or when I get sick of an old album, I unclick and click on something else to take up the space.

Over this years, my list of playlists has grown. There are currently about 600 playlists in iTunes. Of these, I carry around 150 chosen albums at a time on my 32gb iPhone (plus a bunch of randoms single tracks pulled in by some other smart playlists).

This large amount of playlists necessitates further organization so there isn't total overload when going into the playlist section. And that is Playlist Folders. Any newly made playlist goes directly into Playlists. I usually leave the last month of acquired albums loose in there. Sort of synonymous to the old days of the loose albums that gather around the turntable.

All other playlists are files into folders I have for things like older Albums & EPs, compilations, live albums, and Polaris Prize related ones (Canadian award sort of like the Mercury Prize). I just did a folder holding only albums released in 2012 of which there are 61. But one could use genres, alphabetical, or time to organize the playlists.

Listening to the phone is almost always done through playlists. I either select an album, or a smart playlist and get pretty much what I want. It's a shame that iTunes doesn't have an automatic way to get to similar functionality.

Anonymous said...

Here are some applescripts which create playlists of full albums and partial albums. They work nicely with iTunes 11 and especially Grid View.