It’s hard to imagine now, but there once existed a time when digital music libraries were filled with accurate information that came directly from the information provided on each compact disc you loaded onto your computer. Then Napster came along, and everybody got fooled into thinking that Phish had scripted that cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” that was really played by The Gourds — just one of countless mis-attributions that began spreading then, and continue to spread now.
As file sharing became more accessible, and users started to collect more music from sources other than compact discs, iTunes libraries got even more confusing. Today, it’s entirely possible for a typical iTunes library to be more than halfway filled with incorrect or incomplete junk that makes browsing, searching, and, ultimately, listening to what you want to hear very difficult, both on your computer and within your mobile apps.
To help you wage war against this misinformation onslaught, RealNetworks recently launched Rinse, a music clean-up product for Mac or Windows that promises to organize your iTunes library with precision to make music browsing less of a hair-pulling experience.
Doing this can pay dividends for years, which makes a clean, organized music collection a true thing of beauty. But Rinse doesn’t come cheap at $39 (the free version fixes the information for 50 songs). We put it through its paces in four crucial areas to find out whether it’s worth asking price.
1) Adding Art
Objective: If you’ve downloaded music, ripped CD-Rs, or acquired music in any number of infringing and non-infringing-yet-unofficial ways, it’s very likely that a number of the albums or songs in your iTunes library don’t have proper album art. Rinse can put that album art into each track file’s information, giving your library a cleaner look void of any grey eighth notes (as seen in the image to the left) which is especially important now that so many music players have big color screens.
Analysis: This feature worked great. Gracenote, which has a hand in iTunes importing through a deal with Apple, manages to confuse some albums during the initial import process, but Rinse fixed those errors so that the proper art shows up. There is, however, one initial cause for concern: When Rinse analyzes an album, it looks at every track — for five seconds per song, so clear your schedule.
2) Losing the Dupes
Objective: Apple iTunes drives advanced users crazy with its tendency to create duplicates by copying music into the iTunes folder under the default setting, while music downloaded or ripped from friends’ hard drives or downloaded piecemeal from MP3 blogs before you buy an album can cause a few songs that show up twice in your library. Rinse promises to wash those extras right out of the picture.
Analysis: Once again, Rinse proved thorough in performing its intended task, and we appreciated that it lets you choose between erasing the file with the smaller bitrate or the shorter time length, ensuring that the best-sounding, most complete version of the song stays in your library. But if you have live versions of songs, albums such as Robert Johnson’s anthology that include lots of alternate takes — or you’re a rap fan with several tracks titled “Skit,” you’re going to lose a few songs that you don’t want to lose.
Rescuing those tracks isn’t impossible, since Rinse stores duplicates in a file on your desktop from which you can retrieve them, but still, this takes some of the automation out of the process.
3) Fixing Song Information
Objective: Rinse shines here in particular; its metadata clean-up is the most comprehensive we’ve seen for iTunes. It goes through each song in your library and fixes the song title, artist name, album name, year in which the song was released, track number, genre, and artwork.
Rinse offers RealNetwork’s take on what the proper information should be, but you can vet its decisions before enacting them, to make sure you’re not replacing bad information with worse information. Its confidence meter — in some cases registering 99 percent, in others, as low as 22 percent — helps you make a measured decision, although it requires a fair amount of user input (again, clear your schedule).
Analysis: This feature works great for the most part, but if you come across an album that Gracenote hasn’t heard of (in our case, A.Dd+’s When Pigs Fly), Rinse provides alternatives to each song based on the songs’ titles. The above-mentioned confidence meter makes sorting through that sort of muck easier, but it’s a nuisance nonetheless.
Also helpful: You can have Rinse delete songs that aren’t attached to particular song files, which comes in handy when you’ve deleted or moved files so that iTunes lists only empty shell of information, with no actual music. ITunes designates those phantom tracks with a “!” next to the titles, but Rinse can go further by erasing them from your library. (It would be nice to have another feature for finding those tracks on your computer again.)
4) Making Genres Make Sense
Objective: The genre designations on iTunes can be hilariously erratic without the help of a program like this, but Rinse gives you the chance to fix them. Click the “Organize Genres” button to surface a list of all of the iTunes genres listed in your library. Click the genres you want to lump together, give them a name, and voila — suddenly, your genres reflect your taste and your collection, making them useful in your music player apps for Android, iPhone, and so on.
Analysis: This particular feature requires the least amount of work from the user, but it’s also probably the least important. In the days of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and tUnE-yArDs, who knows what genres are these days?
So… Is It Worth $39?
Rinse was built with the understanding that the average iTunes library contains 3,500 songs, but someone who would spend this much to clean up their metadata probably has much more than that. As such, speed may be the biggest roadblock in the Rinse system. It takes about five seconds to work through each song and update its information (depending on your computer). If you have a large library that you’ve compiled erratically, and without much importation discretion, you could be looking at a very long day of updating — and remember, this program requires user intervention. Rinse allows you to skip updating on individual songs, but the program could do a much better job if it offered users the ability to skip entire albums or artists, too.
In addition, most iTunes libraries aren’t composed solely of officially released albums these days. Serious music fans (this application’s target audience) are likely have plenty of poorly-identified songs, but also properly identified song information that Gracenote has never seen.
If Rinse were better at telling the difference between songs that Gracenote doesn’t know and songs that are identified incorrectly, it would be worth the entire $39 price tag. An immaculately-organized iTunes library pays big dividends over time, but as things stand, we can only recommend it to music fans with relatively fat wallets who can dedicate a day to resolving library issues.