March 21st, 2007 • 2:57 pm
Like other people who care about the quality of their metadata, I am delighted that, with iTunes 7, and particularly with iTunes 7.1, Apple has started to take sorting issues seriously and do something about it.
As most iTunes users know, until now, when it came to sorting issues, iTunes suffered from the inherent limitations of the traditional MP3 tagging system. Music files have a single tag for “Artist,” which means that, in the case of artists with regular “FirstName LastName” names, there is no way to distinguish between first name and last name.
Some people work around this by entering the artist name using the “LastName, FirstName” format, but it’s a non-standard way of doing things, and it’s just not practical in the real world.
Similarly, in the cast of artists whose name starts with a “The,” there is no separate tag for the article. iTunes has long been clever enough to know that the alphabetical order of artists whose name starts with a “The” should be based on the initial of the next word, but that was a hack implemented by Apple in iTunes, and it only worked for artists with English names. (Other languages also have articles, and some non-English artists also have names that start with those articles.)
Now, with iTunes 7.1, we have a much, much more clever solution. Each music file now has additional tags for “Sort Name,” “Sort Artist,” “Sort Album Artist,” “Sort Album,” “Sort Composer,” and “Sort Show.”
The tags can be edited by opening the track information dialog box for a given track and accessing the new “Sorting” pane in that dialog box. If you want a track by Billie Holiday to be listed under “H” in the list of artists, for example, you just need to enter “Holiday, Billie” in the “Sort Artist” field—et voilà.
It’s clever, because it works with existing file formats such as MP3 and AAC. It allows you to leave the regular “Artist” field intact, it allows you to use any part of an artist’s name as the key item for sorting purposes, and it works with all languages, not just English. (For French group “Les négresses vertes,” for example, you can just enter “Négresses vertes, Les” in the “Sort Artist” field.)
The one glaring problem with this new feature, however, is the user interface Apple adopted for changing the value of a “sort” field for multiple tracks. It seems completely obvious to me that this is something that tons of people are going to want to do, now that the option is available in iTunes.
Then why on earth can’t it be done in the same way that other tags can be edited for multiple tracks at the same time?
If you want to edit the “Artist” tag of multiple tracks in iTunes, you just select those tracks, press command-I to bring up the track information for multiple items, and iTunes gives you access to a dialog box where changes you make to the “Artist” field apply to all selected tracks.
Why can’t you do the same for “sort” fields? If you selected multiple tracks in iTunes 7.1 and press command-I, the dialog box does not include a “Sorting” pane for these new “sort” fields.
Instead, as Paul Mison explains quite well in this post, Apple expects you to do the following:
- Select one particular track.
- Editing its “sort” fields using the track information dialog box, and exit the dialog box.
- Control-click on the track and select the new “Apply Sort Field” submenu.
- In the submenu, choose the “Same Artist” command if you want to apply the new value that you’ve entered in the “Sort Artist” field for this particular track to all other tracks with the same content in the “Artist” field.
In other words, if you have just added “Holiday, Billie” in the “Sort Artist” field for a given track whose artist is “Billie Holiday,” then control-click on that track and select “ ,” and then iTunes will automatically set the “Sort Artist” field for all other tracks by Billie Holiday to “Holiday, Billie.”
(The Doug Scripts web site provides another solution with an AppleScript script called “Batch Set Tracks Sorting,” but the interface uses a series of modal dialog boxes, and it’s pretty slow for large numbers of tracks.)
My question is simple: Why on earth did Apple choose this convoluted way of applying a “sort” field value to multiple tracks, instead of the standard, expected way to edit information for multiple tracks at the same time in iTunes?
Surely there must be a technical reason for this. From a UI point of view, it really is completely absurd to require users to adopt a new way of editing tags for multiple tracks just for these particular “sort” tags. I sure hope it wasn’t a deliberate UI choice, because if it was, it doesn’t bode well for future improvements in the iTunes UI—which are badly needed in my opinion.