When I recently converted my largely orchestral CD collection to MP3s, several readers warned me that I would regret it. When it comes to classical music, iTunes misses a beat, they said.
Fire up the managing software for the iPod, and the reason becomes clear. iTunes' default settings are fine-tuned for rock, not Bach. It's hard to quibble with that, given that most iPod users listen to mainstream music. But with just a few tweaks and some tips, you can turn your iPod and iTunes into classical companions. Here's how you can better organize your classical collection, find high-quality downloads online, and get music cheaply or even for free.
Tune up iTunes: Before you do anything else, add a composer field to your iTunes music listings. (To do this, click on View in the menu bar, then View Options, and check the Composer box.) This will make your listening life immeasurably easier. Once you sync your iPod afterward, you'll be able to access your music by composer, an essential feature for any classical fan.
Play tag: iTunes displays information based on each music file's tag information (artist, title, release date, etc.), which often comes from online databases if you've ripped CDs to play on your iPod. The only problem is that some of the thoughtful users who have kindly contributed to the databases are, well, morons -- especially the guy who has tagged film composer Jerry Goldsmith's orchestral music as being in the New Age genre. You can use iTunes to edit the tag information to reflect reality and your organizational needs. But if you're on a PC, go one better and download the powerful free program Tag Scanner (www.xdlab.ru/en), which makes the process a breeze.
Pick a style: Once you dig into tag-editing, you'll see that the genre pretty much defaults to classical, if that. My music collection has hundreds of brass and concert-band recordings, so I find it helpful to put them into their respective categories. But "brass" and "concert band" are not options when choosing from the preset genre tags. No problem. Just type in the word for whatever genre you want -- chamber, octets, soloist, whatever. iTunes and your iPod will then show those genres as sortable selections.
Be consistent: Use the same spelling, punctuation and capitalization when editing tags. If you put "Dvorak" on some tracks and "Dvoak" on others, inflexible iTunes sees them as being by different composers.
Look good: Colleague James Lileks says he replaces album artwork in iTunes with pictures of the composers to make it easier to find their music visually when sorting through his music collection. You can find images online and add them using iTunes or a tag-editing program.
Create quality: If you rip your CDs as MP3s, use the highest bit rate, 320 kilobits per second. Most listeners will be happy with 256kbps, but the sound quality is best at the higher setting.
Join together: If you like to listen to complete works, you should turn off shuffle play on your iPod. But if you want the best of both worlds, you can join, say, the four movements of a symphony so that iTunes sees them as one track. To do this before ripping a CD using iTunes, highlight the affected tracks, click on Advanced in the menu bar and then Join CD Tracks, and rip the disc. To join existing MP3s, there are dozens of free programs that will do it, but Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net) is a great choice for any computer system.
Buy smartly: The iTunes Store and Amazon MP3 Store are the most popular retailers, but their downloads are no higher than 256kbps. There are better options for classical music, all selling tracks at 320kbps with no copying restrictions. The British-based Classical Shop (www.theclassicalshop.net), run by the esteemed Chandos label, even has many tracks in a CD-quality format, plus free liner notes. The Naxos label's Classics Online (www.classicsonline.com) has thousands of albums to download, including recordings by the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and offers three free tracks with registration. Others include Classical Archives (www.classicalarchives.com) and eClassical (www.eclassical.com; although not all are at 320kbps).
Find a deal: If you're looking to save money, the best option for getting classical music is buying the heavily discounted CDs sold through Berkshire Record Outlet (www.broinc.com) -- all labels, most for $2 to $7 per disc -- and ripping them yourself. And if you don't mind exploring the output of community- and school-based ensembles, Classic Cat (www.classiccat.net/hires.htm) maintains a listing of high-resolution recordings available to download for free.
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542