Why use ID3 tag info in MP3 files

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I have been dealing a lot with MP3 files in the last couple of years. It started with my very first attempts on my Amiga, this was mainly because of curiosity about testing out the MP3 format. Currently I am converting all my audio CD's to MP3, there are two reasons for this, one is that I find it much more practical to play music on my PC, the other is for backup purposes.

But I also have dealt with MP3's which are created by other people, and this is the main reason why I am writing this article.

There are a lot of people out there that don't use the ID3 tag info when encoding MP3's, this is something that I'm really tired of encountering (if you don't know what ID3 tag is, look at the bottom of this page).

There are probably many reasons why people don't do this, maybe they don't know how to do it or maybe they use MP3 encoding software which don't support this function. The former can be excused (although I will advise them to learn it), to the latter I would like to say: Get hold of a program that supports tag editing then!

Then there are the people that likes to use ridiculously long file names for the MP3 files, I know that there are some limitations about how much text there is room for in the ID3 tag, and I can understand it if they find this to be too limited, but when they feel the need of having to include a lot of information, why don't they use abbreviations instead?

And of course, there are those that quite simply are too lazy to be bothered.

You are probably wondering about the reason why I think that using the ID3 tag info in MP3 files is a good idea by now, so here is an explanation:

When using ID3 tag information in MP3 files, it doesn't matter if something wrong happens with the file names since information like the Artist and Title would still be possible to find in the tag info.

It's easier than you think to really mess up things with the file names, one example could be disabling the usage of the Joliet extension in a CD writing program before burning a CD (so that only ISO 9660 would be used), another could be attempting to copy the MP3 files in MS-DOS.

Both would end up with the same result, the file-names would have been MS-DOS crippled! This means that a MP3 file called "Blind Guardian - The Bards Song.mp3" would have gotten the name "BLIND ~1.MP3". Of course there would be no major problems if the original MP3 files was still available, but what if they weren't?

You would then have had to rename every file in order for them to have sensible names and if the ID3 tag was used in the MP3 files this would have been easy, if not, a lot of work could have been involved since you would then have had to remember what each MP3 file was originally called.

Another good reason for using ID3 tag information is that ALL characters can be used, this includes the ones that can't be used in file names. Some examples of these characters are: \ / : * ? " < > | (which can't be used in Windows, other Operating Systems are even stricter and have more chars that can't be used). This means that it would be impossible to call a file "AC/DC - Big Guns.mp3" for example, it would have had to be called "AC-DC - Big Guns.mp3" instead. 

You might come across Artists/Bands or Song titles that uses these type of "illegal" characters in the names, and by using the ID3 tag, you can preserve the original names in the tag and use alternative names for the files.

It must be said that there are probably MP3 encoders out there that will try to use the title names you enter for each track directly without checking for illegal characters first, but any decent MP3 encoder should check the titles and replace all illegal characters with alternative ones before creating the MP3's. 

Finally I would like to mention the disappointment I felt after downloading some MP3 songs from the Metallica download site at: www.metallicavault.com (where people who have bought Metallicas "St. Anger" CD can download various MP3 songs for free). It turned out that each file had short names and was called CLEV_04_128.mp3, CLEV_12_128.mp3 and CLEV_13_128.mp3, the reason for this is probably because of limitations of the server where the site is located in.

This would not have been such a big problem if the ID3 tag info had been used in the MP3 files since I could then have used this information to rename the files, but instead I had to visit the site again in order to find out what each song was called.

Maybe I shouldn't complain about this because after all, I got the MP3's I downloaded for free, but I have to say that I was expecting things to be a little bit more professional than this.

What is ID3 Tag information

MP3 files have the unique ability to have various information stored inside the file itself, this is usually stored at the end of the file and includes information like the Title, Artist, Album, Comment, Genre, Year and Track number.

It is possible to edit this information after the MP3 file is created, but it is usually both faster and easier to do this before it is encoded, this mainly depends upon the program used for the task. Personally I use two programs which are called "MAGIX mp3 maker" and "dBpowerAMP" for encoding MP3 files (the former is a commercial program and the latter is freeware), both programs have a few niggles about them when it comes to editing the tag info, but they are the best ones I have come across so far. I have yet to see the perfect MP3 encoding program for doing exactly this job.

For editing the ID3 tag info of existing MP3 files, it can usually be done in programs used for playing the MP3's. Here is how it's done in Winamp:

Place the mouse pointer over a MP3 file in Winamps playlist and click the right mouse button, then select "File info" from the menu that appears. This will pop up a window which looks a little like the picture on the right. 

As you can see, this window have some text-gadgets:
-  In this gadget you can enter the name of the song.
-  Here you can enter the name of the Artist/Band.
-  Enter name of the Album which the song was ripped from.
-  If you have a comment about the track, type it in here.
-  Select genre type by pressing the arrow gadget.
-  Type in the year the song was made (max four digits).
-  Enter the track number the song has on the source album.

If you take a look at the picture above you will see that I did not enter the full name of the Iron Maiden song, this is because the full name would not be stored into the MP3 file. Instead the rest of the name was entered into the Comment gadget and I also used some abbreviations. When it comes to the file name, both the track number, Artist name and the entire Title name was used. This is something that I occasionally do with long Title names. 

Please note that I usually don't use Winamps Tag editor for editing the ID3 Tag info in MP3 files, I do this in the programs used for creating the MP3's instead. I only use Winamps Tag editor when the MP3 files have wrong or missing Tag info.

Some new comments added on 12. April 2011.

Instead of re-writing this old article so it becomes more up to date, I decided to add these comments instead:
A lot of stuff has happened since this article was written. One thing was that I discovered the torrent technology which allowed me to download entire albums that no longer was available for sale (I have now quite a collection of rare music), another thing was that I found out about the ID3v2 tag. The main difference between ID3v2 and the older ID3v1 tag is that while the former is stored in the beginning of the mp3 file, the latter is stored at the end instead (the last 128 bytes).
The great thing about ID3v2 is that there are no limitations as to how long the Title, Artist & Album strings can be (with the old standard this is limited to 30 characters), but the not so great thing is that it's possible to include other stuff in the tag info as well, and lots of people add all kinds of crap there (like really huuge album cover images). This means that I have somewhat mixed feelings regarding the ID3v2 tag, and I try to avoid using it if I can. As a matter of fact, I always use ID3v1 in mp3 files and only use ID3v2 in addition if either the Title, Artist or Album info is longer than 30 chars.

As mentioned above, a lot of stuff has happened since I wrote this article, but certain things never change. I still find myself having to edit the tag info & file names of mp3 files I have downloaded because of other peoples sloppy work. I guess that I really shouldn't complain over stuff I get for free, but I just wish people could do a better job with the files they share, that's all.

Fortunately there are programs that allows the user to edit the tag info & file names of mp3 files in a quick and easy way, and personally I use TagScanner which you can read more about here.

More information about ID3 can be found right here on Wikipedia.

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