ID3 Tag Basics

id3 ID3 Tag Basics

ID3 tags have caused people problems for years and the first jump from CDs/folder based MP3 players etc to something that sorts by ID3 tag leave a lot of people in shock when the player says “unknown track” for all their music.

ID3 tags are basically information tags inside the MP3 file that tell the player all sorts of things. It can be as simple as artist and album or as complex as having 20 high resolution images of the cover and booklet inside the same MP3 file. Read on for a roundup of this feature and a how to on tagging your files.

Metadata

Technically ID3 is MP3 specific and the correct term to use for general tags in audio files is metadata. FLAC and Vorbis use vorbis comments for tags, WMA uses a feature in the ASF container and so on. Using ID3 with these formats won’t work and might cause problems. This article will focus on ID3 tags for MP3 files. Some techniques might bee the same, others might be different with other formats.

ID3 versions

There are several ID3 versions but the most important ones to know the difference between is ID3v1 and ID3v2. ID3v1 (aka IDentify MP3 version 1) is rather limited with a specific number of tags and character limits. This is mostly used by old players. ID3v2 and above support ID3 sizes up to 256MB with no character limit so you can basically save all the Harry Potter books in the comment field of an MP3 field if you like. The actual specs of the versions are not important because players will have their own limits anyways, but if you have an old player and have trouble with ID3 files do a google search and see if it supports ID3v2.

Tags

The ID3 tags are the information fields that you see in ID3 editors and also what players allow you to browse music by. Common tags used on MP3 players include album, artist, title, year and genre. There are several more and you can make your own if you want, however you won’t make the player sort by them. Missing information in the ID3 tags is what makes the player list songs as unknown, as the track might not have any title or album information even if the file name does.

Artist

The basic artist tag is for the song artist – not surprisingly. There are more advanced tags that cover composer, album artist and so on but those aren’t read by most players. If the player show a different artist than the artist tag however, you probably have a player that reads album artist instead. A common problem with the artist tag is that you have songs form the same artist where the artist name is written slightly different, causing two entries in the artist list on the player. One file might say “Pink Floyd”, another “pink floyd”, a third “Pink floyd” and a fourth might say “Pink Floyd and Ziggy Stardust”. These will appear as four different artists. To avoid this you can open all files from one artist in a tag editor and edit the artist tag of all of them at the same time (by selecting several).

Album

Album is also rather self explanatory and have it’s own set of common problems. One of the most annoying ones are songs that are tagged with re-release albums rather than the original album. For instance. Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 1″ might be tagged with “Best of 1979″ rather than “The Wall”, making it a completely separate album entry. It would also affect the album art and you might get an ugly cover from a best of CD instead of the real thing. It might also be tagged “The Wall CD1″ which would make it a separate entry from CD2 which would cause problems if you wanted to listen to the entire album at once, as some players stop after playing all files in the album entry selected.

Title

Title is easily confused with file name. Title is the name of the song and is what the player will display if ID3 based. A file you get from shady places might be name 021-smoke.on.the.water-320kbps.MP3. Renaming this to Smoke on the Water.mp3 would make it display properly on the computer, but if you transferred it to the player it might display as 021-smoke.on.the.water-320kbps again. That’s because the title field isn’t filled in properly and in this instance the title field is 021-smoke.on.the.water-320kbps. The same thing can of course work in reverse, that a file named 021-smoke.on.the.water-320kbps.MP3 has the title field filled in correctly and it will display correctly. The point is to check the title field to make sure it’s filled in correctly, as ID3 based players listing songs by title won’t display them based on file names as many think.

Year

This might be the least used ID3 tag and it simply says what year the track was released. Again this might be screwed up by “best of” collections as they might tag the file with the release year of the best of CD not the original year. Some players use this tag more than others, for instance Sony players that have a time machine shuffle that picks a random year and plays a song from it.

Genre

Genre is also rather self explanatory but just like the other it has some annoyances. A lot of music fit into more than one genre and which one is right is subjective. You basically have to pick one and if you manually write “rock and metal” or something of the sort that will list “rock and metal” as a separate genre and not list the file in both rock and metal. Sansa players (Clip and Fuze) use the genre tag for something a little different; podcasts and audio books. By tagging the file as audio book or podcast the player sorts the files into their own directories with special playback controls made for such materials.

Rating

Commenter Shur also mentioned another tag some players use that I’d forgotten: ratings. Some players allow you to rate songs and also sort files based on rating. Software on the computer side might also be used to make playlists and such based on rating.

Album Art

Album art is a feature used by most new players that have a color screen and is a picture file embedded in the MP3 file that allow for displaying the album cover (or other pictures) on the player. Album art is often very restricted depending on what player you use. Sansa players won’t read the album art if its over a specific resolution or file size and when the numbers are low (say 200×200 pixels max) that causes problems since album art is often 500×500. Another problem is file format; ID3 don’t convert the picture files in any way so if you embed a .pgn file the player will have to be able to read png to display it. JPEG is mostly used and most compatible, so if you have album art that won’t display and you can’t figure out why – check file format, resolution and file size. It’s also worth mentioning that players will normally only show one picture per file, while ID3 supports many. I’ve seen many instances where album art won’t show either because there’s a blank file in the first position of the album art or that the player won’t read any picture if there’s more than one.

Software

There is a lot of software capable of tagging files and music management software like Media Monkey is also very capable of doing so. There is however one piece of standalone software that is used the most, MP3tag. It’s Windows only so if you’re using Linux or Mac you’ll have to find other alternatives. MP3 tag also supports other formats that don’t use ID3 – like FLAC and Vorbis – so this tutorial is useful also if you don’t use MP3 files.

Getting MP3tag

MP3tag is available for download for free (if you use this a lot, donating is appropriate) from mp3tag.de. When you download and install the application, you will be prompted for various shortcuts to install and I suggest adding the one for right clicking in explorer (context menu) and selecting MP3tag as that one is very useful.

Using MP3tag

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Here we have a perfect example of an untagged file. It doesn’t look pretty and it’s hard to navigate your music if all files are like this. Opening this file in MP3tag shows that it’s missing all the crucial tags including artist, album and title. There’s also no album art as you can see from the blank box in the bottom left corner.

There are two ways to tag from this point, either manually or semi-automatically. If you tage manually, you just select the file(s), change the tag fields on the left, add album art by right clicking -> add cover and click the floppy disk save icon. Be aware that if you don’t click the save icon and simply deselect it won’t save the changes and you’ll have to do it all over again.

The semi-automatic way of doing it is to use an external database to find the info for the files. This is preferred, especially is you have a whole album as typing in titles one by one is a drag. To do this, select the files, click the “tag sources” menu on top and select a source – i usually prefer Amazon.com. This will prompt you with a search box. If album or artist field is filled in on the files already, the default search will be for this. In this case, it has nothing to go on so you have to type in what to search for manually. If you don’t know what album the track came from that might be a problem, if so a google search might be helpful. In this case the album title is in the file name so it’s easy to find. Once you know the album name, type it in.

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After searching you get a list of possible albums, normally a long list if it’s a popular album since there are many different editions. Pick one that fits and select next, and you’ll get to the album information screen.

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If you chose the right album in the list, the album information screen should be full of information that fits your album. If you tag just one file like I did in the example, you sometimes have to use the “move up”/”move down” buttons to position the track you have (right bottom list) so it corresponds with the database’s list (left bottom list). Otherwise it’ll overwrite your file with the tag info for another song on the same album. In my case the single file was track number 1, so it already matched up. Also note that sometimes our own files aren’t in the correct order due to file name issues (lacking track number for instance) and then you have to match them up manually. Basically just check that the two lists match before you click OK. On rare occasions there aren’t any info on the albums at all (lacking album art, track list etc). if so, search again and pick another one in the list. If none matches, try another database, and if all fails you have to find the info yourself and do it manually.

Once all is done on the information screen, click OK. It will tag your files and promt you with a message when it’s finished. It doesn’t take long at once it’s done your files will be ready to go. I have at times had single files in an album failed tagging, normally this is just a bug (or maybe the file is in use) and just try again and see if it works. If all goes well, the tag fields will be filled in and the album art will be in place.

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Lastly it might be a good idea to change the file name so it’s not so messy. MP3tag allows for making tags out of filenames and vice versa. This can also be used to tag the file in the first place (if the file name has all the info) but generally it’s faster to just do a database search. It is however very useful for batch changing file names. Select the files, right click and select Convert -> Tag – Filename. A box will open prompting you to enter format string. This is the layout of the file name, and you can use the arrow button on the far right to select these strings from a drop down menu. For instance, if I want the track number first, a dash for separation, the artist name, another dash and the title, I’d select track form the drop down menu, type in a dash, select artist from the dropdown menu, type in another dash and finally select title from the dropdown menu. After a while you’ll learn the format strings and can type them in manually but it’s just as easy to just select them from the list. You’ll see a preview of how the filename will look so when you’re satisfied just press ok and it’ll change the filenames.

That’s it, you’re done, and all that’s left is to transfer the files to the player. Be aware that some players that save ID3 info in a database on the player won’t notice small changes in the files such as ID3 tags. What that means is that if you have a untagged file on the player, make changes and transfer the file (overwriting the old one) it might not show the new ID3 info. If this happens, delete the file on the player, disconnect the player, reconnect and transfer the new file. Enjoy the bliss that comes with ID3 perfection icon smile ID3 Tag Basics

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30 Comments

Jean on November 28, 2008 7:56 AM

To solve the “genre” problem, I use very broad genres (“Rock”, “Folk”, “Classical”) and playlists for subgenres (“New Wave”, “80′s Pop” and so on). Thus one song can only be part of one genre, but of as many subgenres playlists as I want.Then, I can make smartlinst based on the subgenre playlists (four of five-star rated songs from the “New Wave” playlist), etc.It works!

scot on November 28, 2008 8:33 AM

It’s actually not true that players don’t pay attention to advanced ID3 tags for the artist. ITunes pays attention to ‘Band’ (Album Artist) and plenty of other players, e.g. my squeezebox/squeezecenter, also pay attention to Composer as well. You can use the Album Artist to record the main artist and the Artist field to contain guest artist information. Although different players/software can treat it a bit roughly sometimes.Also the squeezecenter can have multiple Genres by using a separator tag (specified in the config – i use semi colons ‘;’). So you can tag somthing with the Genre “Rock;Pop” or “Classical;Baroque” and you’ve got four genres, Rock, Pop, Classical, and Baroque and tracks can be in more than one. Windows Media used to also support this, if it still doesn’t. Squeezecentre does it in the Artist, Album Artist and Composer fields as well.

Andreas Ødegård on November 28, 2008 9:12 AM

@scot: yeah i know, its pissing me off in itunes xD have to keep changing album artist because my ipod touch shows tracks from compilation CDs as “various” artists even if the artist is tagged correctly. however most ID3 based players dont pay attention to that. more advanced tech like your squeezebox also have more advanced features but thats not for the common mp3 player. I’ll edit it to say “most players” instead :)

Shur on November 28, 2008 10:02 AM

You didnt mention Rating the track. I’m using MediaMonkey and it has an option to sync higher rated songs more frequently when I do a random fill. Do other media managers have this?It now appears that the ratings I gave the songs in MediaMonkey dont go with the song or are not recognized by the Fuze. Is there anything I can do about that?

Dirk on November 28, 2008 10:07 AM

Question: Is there an automated program to download album art? I’ve used albumart aggregator to no success.

Andreas Ødegård on November 28, 2008 10:16 AM

@Shur: you’re right, I hadn’t actually thoguht about that. Added it to the list of relevant tags in the article, thank you!

Zero on November 28, 2008 1:02 PM

Great roundup, i found that it kinda confimed what i already knew, but if you want the article to be gammer error free, i found a typo “Year” section, when your talking about the re-release.

sumx4182 on November 28, 2008 1:36 PM

You should have mentioned MediaMonkey’s “Tag from the web” feature a little more in depth ans which utilizes Amazon.com in a one step process to tag pretty much everything including embedding album art. It’s so nice and easy.

Andreas Ødegård on November 28, 2008 2:28 PM

@sumx: i did mention media monkey, but im not going to do a step by step how to on every single piece of software that can tag from amazon. mp3tag is the most simple one, and its not as buggy and crashy as media monkey@zero: fixed

e.s.t on November 28, 2008 3:29 PM

You can all do the same and more using Foobar2000 plus some plugins. That is rather for medium experienced users thought.

guest on November 28, 2008 11:19 PM

maybe after amork comes out for windows, you should do a comparison of media players

sumx4182 on November 28, 2008 11:59 PM

MM is buggy? I’ve never had it crash a single time. That’s odd…

Florian on November 29, 2008 4:53 AM

Thanks for the nice introductory tutorial :-)

Xenodius on November 29, 2008 7:02 PM

Good article… FWIW, I use Tag&Rename because it supports quite a few metadata formats, and more importantly allows you to generate tags based on filename, and change filenames based on tags. Incredibly useful in my case, saves me gorborkles of time.

jkj1962 on November 29, 2008 7:14 PM

Lest we forget the “Comments” field. It seems some like to add reviews of the album, taking up several KB of space that could be best used elsewhere. Or the classic “Vanity Tag” so that everyone knows that “Rippin’ Bob” knows how to rip CDs.And don’t get me started on the “1″ vs. “01″ vs. “1/10″ style track numbers.Thank {deity} these can be fixed.

afslug on November 30, 2008 10:20 AM

ID3 Tag It, in my opinion, is much more better than the popular mp3tag, i thing it’s the most famous because the simple name and the google positioning, but there are better software to tag files out there.

Eric on November 30, 2008 2:51 PM

I would like to ask something. My mp3 collection is very diverse, with lots of videogame soundtracks. People usually tag the soundtrack composer as the artist. Not me, I tag the game’s name as the artist, because I usually search for the game’s name in my library instead of its composer! (which btw is the most “logical” way of searching imo). If i want to listen to some Final Fantasy, i would not search for Nobuo Uematsu!What do you guys think?Oh btw I use Mp3 Tag & Rename as well, it’s great for batch rename files.

Strephon Alkhalikoi on November 30, 2008 3:17 PM

I don’t search by artist, but by album title, so for me, the game’s name as artist is illogical, not to mention technically incorrect. Realistically, what I think isn’t relevant, nor is what others think any more relevant. What matters is what works for you.I’ve used both MP3 Tag & Rename and MP3Tag. MP3Tag works well for batch renaming files, and its interface is much easier to use than MP3 Tag & Rename. Therefore, my vote is for MP3Tag.

Brad L. Wooldridge on December 1, 2008 11:00 AM

Thank you for this article, Andreas. A lot of new Sansa player owners are wholly confused by tags. Hopefully, this will help them out.

Chris on December 1, 2008 12:04 PM

If tagging an album that has been re-released (re-mastered or with extra tracks) is the accepted format to tag the year with the original release date or the date it was re-released?

Sirius on December 3, 2008 10:02 AM

Firstly, thank you very much for the helpful guide. I could not help noticing that you were using a sony mp3 player in your example, and that there is an “unknown” field in the picture.I have tagged my files yet that “unknown” field still remains on my sony mp3 player any ideas?

Andreas Ødegård on December 3, 2008 10:38 AM

@Sirius: That’s a problem with the Sony. For some reason i doesnt read the release year of any of my files even though its in there. Possibly the first firmware bug on a sony player

Sirius on December 3, 2008 11:24 AM

@Andreas Ødegård: Well that sucks. Strangely enough when I use the transfer software that came with the player the years show up perfectly, although it ends up renaming all of my files.Thanks, your help is much appreiciated. Keep up the good work!

boyarul on December 5, 2008 4:45 PM

I also use Tag&Rename software.I think it’s the best of his kind. I’ve get very-very used to it.& regarding album art…I’m using .jpg @ 300×300 pixels.Is it ok?

bert000l on December 8, 2008 11:56 AM

It really p*sses me off that in the year 2008, we still don’t have a more modern tag system as for example the one at last.fm. Why, I keep asking myself, is there no such thing as multiple genre tags? My MP3 collection consists of more than 25 differents rock subgenres and it is impossible to browse these genres altogether on my DAPs. :/

nick on January 22, 2009 7:39 AM

Thanks for the article. Finally I’ve found out how to get album art displaying on my beloved S739. A couple of questions though;1. When I view the tag info in Mp3tag, some of the files show album art even though they do not display on my walkman. Why would it not display on the walkman if it shows up on Mp3tag. Is there a way to get them to display without going through and re-assigning album art?2. Now that I’ve updated all the album art with Mp3tag on the files on my computer, is there a way to just update the tags on my walkman without having to copy all my music files over again?

joenz on January 27, 2009 7:03 PM

I would like to add my ‘thanks’ for this article. I too am an old MusicMatch user (who eventually tried Yahoo and was promptly thoroughly disgusted). I have taken a look at 7 or 8 possible replacement programs, none perfect but all good. I finally ended up downloading and using both MediaMonkey and Mp3tag. I recognize that there are many other good programs out there, but for me using the strengths of these two programs in combination is a fairly decent solution to the loss of MM.

Justin on July 25, 2009 9:33 AM

That MP3Tag program corrupted the headers of some VBR mono MP3s I’d created with LameDropXPD.I use MP3/Tag Studio to mass tag whole folders of files.http://www.magnusbrading.com/mp3ts/To clean up individual tags and to add album art, I use MP3 Tag Studio.http://massid3lib.sourceforge.net/I embed 240*240 jpegs at 72 dpi resolution into the “Cover (Front)” tag – and they show up fine on my Sony Walkman.And yes, it’s a known bug that using Windows Explorer to copy files to any Sony Walkman deletes the “Year” and “Genre” tags – you have to use the Sony Walkman Content Manager program.http://tinyurl.com/sonywalkmancontenttransfer

Charles on September 1, 2009 5:06 AM

What’s the best thing to do with compilation CDs in regards to the artist?I find it REALLY annoying to browse through 7,000 artists because the player is recognising each track as a seperate artist.Should I use album artist as VA, and track artist, or vice-versa?

Carlos on May 27, 2010 9:40 AM

Putting Album Artist as VA in compilations works on most players and software :)

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