Metadata, the beginning

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Metadata; the data locked into our music that helps identify what we're listening to, has been around for quite some time–long before digital audio started in the early 1980s. Book libraries use metadata to help locate what is on their shelves, but it wasn't always in a computer. Remember the venerable 3x5 index card? This was the staple of libraries for years. The 3x5 index card contained all the information needed about a book: it's title, author, subject matter, and an abbreviated alphanumeric string (call number) which indicated the physical location of the book within the library's shelves–though, at the time, it wasn't called Metadata, we probably remember it as the Dewey Decimal System. The term "metadata" was coined in 1968 by Philip Bagley, in his book "Extension of Programming Language Concepts". A real page turner, I am sure.

Today, metadata refers to that which defines what is contained within each track. Metadata for music can range from minimal to extensive, depending on the type and format employed.

In the very beginning metadata contained not a lot of data: artist's name, album title, release year, comment, genre. Over time the list of possible information stored on tags embedded in the music has expanded greatly, including such obscure things as the amount of reverb, recording equipment, tempo codes, lyrics, encoding type, composer, etc., etc.

There are standards for metadata, but little consistency in their implementation. And to make matters worse, different file types have different metadata possibilities. WAV and AIFF haven't the same data containers as MP3, yet those of us listening to tracks encoded with these schemes could care less about containers, metadata and the difficulties faced by programmers. Right? We just want a consistent presentation of the data. A picture of the cover and its back, info at our fingertips.

Am I right?

The beauty and fun of a library is in its ease of accessing the materials within. There's nothing more frustrating than trying to find a track by Paul McCartney and having to dig through Beatles, band members, McCartney, Paul. Much less frustrating to simply search Paul McCartney and his tracks and those related to him appear instantly. That is the joy of a library and the ease of which that is presented rests entirely on the consistency of the metadata within each track, and the skill of the programmer presenting it to you.

For most of us, understanding metadata and filing systems isn't necessary. We load our music into a program like iTunes and the library is cataloged, organized and prepared for us while we're having a cup of coffee and the computer does the work. But, I have never seen any program, from iTunes to Roon, organize my library perfectly. There's always missing covers, name conventions not adhered to, unknown compilations of music, etc.

Typically, I roll my sleeves up and get to work with a tag editor to fix all this. But, there are programs that can handle much of the work for you, and tomorrow I'll turn you on to a really excellent one I discovered.

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Paul McGowan

Founder & CEO

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