How to organize your digital music on the file system the MusiCHI way

Listening music with your computer is merely sending an audio file to the computer sound system, and because it is a file, well it has to follow all the file conventions, in particular, its name and its path; in non geeky talk that is its location on the disc, which (back to geek talk) is the tree of directories (called a tree: because they are linked in a parent to child relationship)
for example
D:\Me\HerMusic\ThatShouldBeMine\Classical\Mozart\Concertos\Perahia

Here are some non politically correct guidelines on where to place the files and how to name them based on our experience, after tagging/ripping thousands of CDs; you are free of course to agree to disagree. Ordering one’s music collection properly is usually a 2 step affair, rip and organize your collection, re-rip and re-organize your collection because you understood how to do it correctly. But if you read and apply some of the advices provided here, you just might skip step 2.
To start with, the holy trinity of blunders is a follows:

  1. The files are all over the place
  2. Trying to catalog one’s music using the file system
  3. Describing the piece using a long folder path/file names

We will address these issues below.

Daring to paraphrase this unsung hero of the 21st century philosophy, Donald Rumsfeld

  • They are things we know you should do (self explanatory, but resist the “I know better” reflex)
  • They are things we know you should not do (see above, but turn off the “It does not matter” or “I like it this way” reflex)
  • They are things we do not know you should do (this is the compromise area where right and wrong are intertwined, as in a sub-committee of the US congress)
  • They are things we do not know you should not do (choices that would lead to some undesirable effects, but we had no idea in the first place, hence it is inappropriate to expect any advice from us)

The things we know you should do
The music root directory
Find an anchor position for all you audio files the obvious example, pushed by Microsoft, being C:\Users<Me>\Music or C:\Users\Public\Music. Now logically, it fits the bill, but it is far from ideal, like James Bond and Timothy Dalton. The C: is where Windows is installed. If you have to re-install Windows, goodbye to all that. A better compromise is to partition your disk, making a logical D: drive (even if part of the same physical device) and use D:\MyMusic as a root. If the previous sentence did make as much sense to you, as would 16th century Uzbek poetry, speak to your nephew; if you are an Uzbek literature scholar, you may still want to speak to him.
Improving on the same lines but much easier to grasp, buy a new disc (USB or else), it is cheap!

a) space: because audio files are big, you do not want to bloat your C: drive and you will run out of space sooner or later.
b) it is easier to backup. Yes, you need a backup, many smart guys have maintained the Kleenex stock at a very decent price level overtime, ignoring once (twice or more for the real geniuses) this advice.
c) for performance issues: let the operating system use the C:  for its thing, while you spin the D: (true only if D: is a separate physical drive).

And under that music root, you start branching out D:\Mymusic\Pop, D:\Mymusic\Jazz etc.
Comforting feeling! you start to have a handle on where your precious music is. And it is very precious, mind you, at 10-20 $ a CD, it adds up very quickly; and if you value your time, and you should, estimate how long it took you to rip and tag your CDs, or your downloads (by the way, we are 100% in favor of the legal ones only). Cost that at even the cheap rate of 5$ an hour, and you will be floored by the final value. Protect your investment!

The one can be many
For simplicity sake, we said one place, but if you have a huge collection (in this case you are probably an experienced computer audio  practitioner and you do not need any advices but…), it could be spread onto many discs D:\MyMusic and F:\MyMusic, but at least in each disc (logical or not), there is a starting point of storage for your audio files.

Keep an unique folder per CD
Most internet data source that help you to tag are CD based, for example FreeDB/Gracenote compute the unique identifier of the CD or its converted files by: the total playing time, the number of tracks, the playing time of each tracks ordered by track number. You do not need to be Sherlock Holmes to see, that if the files are separated, you will never be able to re-compute its CDID and might have to re-tag manually, if need be. Amazon does present its results by CDs as well. By the way, in case you love to tag your CDs manually, we strongly suggest to seek medical help, as fast as possible, and not in the dermatology department.
Hence be extra careful about your ripper’s file pattern, look at the resulting computed file names and path, they ought to be together (for path and file names see the “What not to do” chapter).
For example a CD with distinct composers do not use composer in the pattern for many artists the same applies. As the 11th Commandment prescribe “Thou shall tame your ripper”.

Our recommendation for folder path: It just has to be unique and descriptive enough in the minimum amount of text
D:\MyMusic\Classical\Mozart-Symphony35_36-Walter
D:\MyMusic\Classical\Richter-SofiaConcert1985

For a box set, pretty much the same but use one level more down
D:\MyMusic\Classical\Mozart-Symphonies-Walter
|-CD1
|-CD2
|-CD3

Multi-libraries: add a sub root folder
The more important for last, MusiCHI being a multi-libraries system it is a very good practice (translate “just do it”) to create a sub directory for each library, corresponding roughly, to major musical styles, but they can be mixed, as the third entry illustrates.
D:\MyMusic
|-Classical
|             |- CD 1
|             |- CD 2
|-Jazz
|-Heavy Metal and Um-papa
|- Pop
Like this you can re-scan and reconstitute each library easily. Even if you use another software, it is still a valuable strategy.

The things we know you should not do
Using the file system as (a bad) proxy for metadata
The file system tree revisited: a Parent->Child relationship is great to model mechanical objects like, for example, your favorite electric deep-fryer, so you can zoom down to sub-parts all the way to a bolt. It is also fine, to deal with the simplistic word of Rock music: a Band > an Album > then songs.

However as soon as you have multiple performers or a compilation, it collapses, and for classical music it is utterly inappropriate. The project of training your wood-pecker pet-bird to drill the hole for hanging grandma’s portrait on a concrete beam has a far greater chance of success. I have personally met someone at a MusiCHI demo, who had 6 terabytes of music and had spent the last 2 years attempting to perfect the folder names and hierarchy with composers, performers even using shortcuts to reference other locations; and was still not happy with the results…for a very good reason, the famous square peg in a round hole.
So at the end of the day : organizing your files this way is a loosing proposition and waste of time, spend it instead to groom your metadata and purchase a decent player like ours.

Using the file name to describe a musical movement
As far as file name goes, one can for sure improve upon the default
(01)Track01.flac
but the following, at the other hand of the spectrum, is psychotic (I swear I have seen it)
(06) Beethoven,Piano Trio No7 Opus97 in B-flat major “Archduke”-III Andante cantabile ma però con moto.Poco piu adagio.flac
You have in the windows world, a limit of 255 characters and it applies to the entire file-path and not just the file-name. Which means if you copy this beauty in a directory with a long  path (meaning , exhibiting more of a behavior that could  be probably fixed by talking 15 years on a couch,  D:\Mymusic\Classical\Dabedibou\blabla…\blabla\Dabediba\) well (un)expectedly some problems might arise.
In my humble opinion a compromise of this sort is much preferable and safer and do not forget the 11th commandment above.
D:\Mymusic\Beethoven-PianoTrios-BeauxArts
|-CD3
|-(06) Op97 3-Andante cantabile.flac
Besides, very long file names makes the search a lot slower.

Using a too deep nested folders hierarchy
If you use XP and the infamous “My Music” directory, you already start with
C:\Documents and Settings<Your user name>\My Documents\My Music\ and that is English, in German it is even more impressive, to boot if your user name happens to be Jean-Christophe Rechambeau de la Bouilladisse-Ardisson you see the potential issue. To add assault to injury, if you cannot resist the urge to organize the files by composer,  artists and albums you end up with C:\Documents and Settings\Jean-Christophe Rechambeau \My Documents\My Music\Classical Music\Vivaldi Antonio\Academy of St Martin in the fields\Concerto Opus 8\ plus the file name proper; but you are already close to the limits.
The 11th commandment is still applicable here too.
All this nonsense because one wants to use the folder names, the file names to document a CD, instead of using the tags, which where created solely for that purpose.

The things we do not know you should do
Microsoft says: “The file system is Unicode compliant” in human dialect this means that you can use in file path/names non simple Latin characters like é, ç, ñ ,å, æ, ä, ü  ø , you can include too these guys ^ &@{}[] , even some letters of the Thai alphabet or as many blank as you want. And they are right! until in some extraordinary cases it does not work. It is not a sudden paranoia attack; we have witnessed  (very rarely but who want to be 97.3% pregnant) directories forgotten, files skipped from various audio software, because of “weird” path names; double blank usage for example is calling for trouble . So do yourself a favor, instead of writing Don Giovanni – Karl Böhm, to be on the safe side, better this way DonGiovanni-KarlBohm or for you the savvy intellectuals out there  DonGiovanni-KarlBoehm.

The things we do not know you should not do
We still maintain that it is inappropriate to expect any advice from us, but the 11th commandment  is still not to be forgotten.

Executive summary

  • Have a music root directory (if possible not the C: “My Music”)
  • Have sub-roots for each library (corresponding to major musical styles)
  • Keep file names short as well as the file path, free of “weird” characters
  • Keep each CD in its own sub-folder

A last pearl of wisdom for the road, quoting the author of www.thewelltempeerdcomputer.com
“Computer audio is like everything in ICT (Information Computer Technology), easy, logical and you only need a weekend to find out why it is not working.”
But when it does, and it eventually does, it is a lot of fun and very rewarding, so get those files organized!

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