The Playlist: Set Up Your New MP3 Player

I've been testing a lot of new MP3 players lately, and if there's one thing I've noticed about them, it's how hard it can be to get everything working perfectly. Sure, it's easy to dump a bunch of tracks into your new portable and start playing tunes, but if your music collection is anything like mine, you'll end up with some annoying little problems.

For example: Tracks often show up in alphabetical order instead of the order they're in on the album. Lots of players still misalphabetize band names beginning with "The," so you'll find a gigantic block of artists from The Afghan Whigs to The Weakerthans near the end of your artist list. And most of us have our music stored in a number of different formats. No player supports them all, so it's possible that some of the tracks in your collection won't even make it to the player.

But you can avoid all those problems and end up with a better-organized music collection if you follow a few simple rules. Here's how to get the most out of your digital audio player.

Get Organized, Stay Organized

I covered some digital-audio organizing basics a few months ago, and many of those tips apply here as well. For example, it's a good idea to use something like Apple ITunes to clean up the folder structure in your music library. Still, there are a few changes you'll want to make to prepare your tunes for a portable player.

First, take a look at the file names of your tracks. Most ripping software lets you choose which data is part of the file name, so you can decide whether your current favorite song should show up as "M_Ward-Transfiguration of Vincent-09-Poor Boy Minor Key.mp3" or simply "09-Poor Boy Minor Key.mp3." I strongly recommend the latter, which omits the musician and album names.

Many MP3 players display the file name of each song to tell you which track is playing. Cram the first name on to a narrow MP3 player display, and it will look something like "M_Ward-Transfigu...," which is exactly how the track before it and the track after it will look. That's not good. Keep any extraneous data out of the file name so that it's easy to see which track is which.

So, track number, song title, and that's it. Why the track number? Because some players order tracks based on the file name. If you put the track number up front, you'll make sure that songs are listed in the order they appeared on the album.

If some of the files in your library aren't set up this way, you'll want to use a program like MP3/Tag Studio to rename them in batches. To make sure that any new files you rip will share the same formatting, investigate the Preferences page in the program you use to import tracks from CDs. Microsoft's Windows Media Player 9, for example, keeps those settings in the Tools, Options, Copy Music menu. Click "File Name..." to modify the setting. ITunes handles file naming automatically, but you should make sure that "Create file names with track number" is checked on the Importing page that's listed on the Edit, Preferences menu.

Importing New Tracks

While you're changing your media player preferences, make sure you're ripping new songs in the right format and at appropriate bit rates.

If you're positive that you'll be sticking with Apple's digital music players for the foreseeable future, then the AAC format is the way to go because it offers better quality at lower bit rates than does the MP3 format.

If you aren't an Apple fan, or you'd like to make sure your music files are as compatible as possible, I'd recommend ripping songs in MP3 format. The others are great, but Apple's probably never going to support WMA, and all the other formats have sparse enough hardware support to severely limit your choices in the future. Ripping to MP3 is the only way to be sure your files will play on any digital audio player without a lengthy conversion process.

Of course, if you've already collected a bunch of files that happen to be in the wrong format, you're in a bit of trouble. Windows Media Player, for example, rips CDs into WMA format by default. That's fine for most portable players, but it's a big pain if you just bought an Apple IPod. Fortunately, ITunes can convert any unprotected WMA files you have into a format the IPod can handle.

If you've bought any music from a store like MusicMatch Downloads or Napster, you'll have burn those songs to an audio CD first, then rip the tracks on CD to MP3s before you can play the songs on the IPod. The story is the same if you bought music from the ITunes Music store and want to play the files on a non-IPod player.

Advanced Player Tips

It's time for the lightning round. Here are a few quick tips to help put your portable experience over the top:

  • If you've got an IPod, and you plan to use it with both a Windows PC and a Mac, make sure you format it as a Windows IPod. While Macs can read PC-formatted disks, PCs can't read Mac disks without special software.
  • IPods were meant to be associated with one computer only, but you don't have to use them that way. Programs like IPodRip for Macs and EphPod for PCs help you copy files from one machine to the other.
  • Does your MP3 player put every band whose name starts with "The" in one big block under T? If this situation bugs you as much as is does me, first, write an angry letter to your player's manufacturer requesting a firmware fix. Then realize that the firmware upgrade will take months to arrive if it ever does and use a batch renaming tool like the aforementioned MP3 Tag Studio to change the band name tag and artist folder to read "Bandname, The."
  • MP3 players make great portable drives for transferring large files between computers. Usually, you can dedicate part of your player's storage to other files and documents, so you'll always have a place for that critical presentation. Check the application you use to transfer songs to your player for such a setting. For example, the Windows Media Player 10 wizard that helps you configure syncing for your MP3 player will ask you how much space you'd like to reserve as you step through the process.

Quick Hits

IPod Shuffle: You may have already seen our first look at the IPod Shuffle, Apple's new flash-memory MP3 player that lacks a display. Personally, I think Apple's nailed the pricing part of the equation--to the point where I'm seriously considering purchasing one as a USB storage device that also happens to play MP3s. Still, part of me wonders whether any company other than Apple could get away with marketing the lack of a display as a feature. I don't think so.

Shuffle Hub? Oh, and here's a special offer for anyone thinking about buying a $29 IPod Shuffle dock: Just send me the cash plus $10 for shipping and I'll buy you a brushed aluminum USB hub that you can plug not just one, not just two, but four IPod Shuffles into. Seriously, $29? Apple's IPod Shuffle dock is a one-port USB hub. Actually, can you even call it a USB hub if it only has one port? Doesn't a hub have to connect to multiple things? These questions haunt me, folks.

In Heavy Rotation

Ted Leo + Pharmacists: Shake the Sheets and Hearts of Oak have been fighting for supremacy in my CD changer for the past month or so. Both are undeniably great rock albums, and Ted Leo's Web site is a pretty funny read as well. They picked this guy to kick off Noise Pop for a reason.

Eric Dahl thinks it absolutely critical that he cover the South by Southwest music festival for PC World this year. They've got technology there, right? [Note: Only on your own dime, Dahl. --Editor] To comment or ask a question, send him an e-mail.

This story, "The Playlist: Set Up Your New MP3 Player" was originally published by PCWorld.

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