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The Linux desktop comes with a variety of multimedia players, such as Xine, MPlayer, and Amarok. Yet all digital media players are only as good as the files they have to work with, and preparing those files requires the best tag editor you can find. I checked out half a dozen of the more popular and stable graphical ID3 tag editors available for Linux. I found that going from no tags to great tags requires keeping more than one of these editors on hand.
While many audio players support editing tags, tag editing often isn't the most important feature in those tools. Programs designed specifically for editing tags generally provide a wider range of editing options. For each of the applications I tested, I focused on ease of use and key features such as:
The music library I used in my tests comprised untagged MP3 files of multiple genres ripped with filenames matching track names with underscores, under album directories stored under artist directories.
Cowbell is a tag editor with limited editing features though with some promise. It focuses on editing a single album at a time, a single track at a time. Editing multiple albums from a single artist at one time is not supported. Users can select albums with the built-in directory tree browser or by dragging folders from a desktop file manager into the main window.
Cowbell does not support plugins but does utilize built-in searches using Amazon's Web services API for album and track searches, though there is no way in the UI to configure this, and nothing shows that the search is occurring with Amazon's help. To look up an album, choose an album folder, but do not select any tracks. Type in the artist and/or album information. Use the Tools -> Guess Song Information menu to open a dialog and connect to Amazon to retrieve album information. Cowbell will rename the files in the Title column and correctly order them by their track numbers on the CD. You can then save the changes back to the files on disk.
If you select any titles before running Tools -> Guess Song Information, the information you get in the organizer window will be incorrect. Also, searches through Amazon can take some time to complete, and you can't cancel a guess using the Cancel button -- you have to close the dialog using the window manager close button. Unfortunately, successful guesses did not automatically choose a genre nor fill in the year of the album release. And while searches worked fine for popular styles of music, Cowbell failed to correctly identify soundtracks and holiday music.
Successful guesses will download and embed cover art in each song's tags, though it doesn't tell you so, but you can verify they're there by opening the files in an audio player that shows the cover art.
Cowbell lets you modify multiple tracks at one time using a command-line batch mode, but not directly from the UI. The project's Web site says that the batch mode does not support cover art downloads.
Cowbell's best feature is its simplicity and ease of use, but it lacks a lot in the way of direct editing of anything other than the most basic tags (artist, album, year, and genre). Documentation is sparse, though the program's Web site offers a By the Numbers page that explains how to use the tool.
File renaming is limited in Cowbell. You cannot specify which tags to use in the filename. Instead, the Preferences dialog limits you to a set of four formats based track, title, or artist information. Conversely, Cowbell cannot use filenames to guess tag information.
EasyTag is an older but actively developed tag editor that supports IDV3, APE, and AAC tags and Vorbis comments.
EasyTag uses a directory browser and a automated scanner to locate audio files on the local hard disk. Scanning starts immediately on the current directory unless you disable this option in the preferences. You can edit tags for multiple files at the same time, though this feature works best if the files are all part of the same album.
EasyTag retrieves album information from CDDB, an online music database. Users can configure which URL to use, and take into account the use of a proxy server for those behind a firewall. You can add tags manually or automatically using either file naming conventions or via CDDB searches. You can search for multiple possible matches using term-based CDDB searches. Term-based CDDB searches work well if you give it the album title or artist name.
To match search results with your files, the order of your audio files as displayed by the editor must match the track order of songs as returned from a CDDB search. You can change the order of the tracks in the CDDB search results via drag and drop. Alternatively, you can skip the ordering requirement and use the Levenshtein algorithm option to see if EasyTag can automatically match your files with the CDDB search results without respect to track ordering. In practice you'll find a mix of both methods will be required throughout your audio file collection.
Once you select from the list of possible matches, EasyTag automatically fills in your tags for each file. As with most taggers, these updates are not saved until you manually save the changes.
In my tests, EasyTag did an excellent job at automatic identification of albums. It was able to identify some generically labeled classical music, such as a collection of Mendelssohn's Symphonies 4 and 5, based on the number of tracks and the file names. I had to browse a large set of possible matches but was able find an exact match, though the performing symphony was not listed.
Online documentation does not specify support for cover art, but art does appears to be added automatically to the individual audio file tags; there is no option for enabling or disabling this feature. One of the best feature of EasyTag is the way it automatically renames files to match the album order of songs. You can configure the format of the filenames using the Tag and File Name Scanner dialog. The options for filenames are based on tag data for the file, such as the artist, track number, genre, or composer. You can also retrieve tag information from filenames using a similar scanner dialog that previews where tag information is pulled from the filename.
EasyTag is not quite as simple to use as Cowbell, but it makes up for this in sophistication. It provides far more tagging options, automatic genre marking, and user selectable matches from CDDB searches. You get more features at the cost of a slightly more complex interface.
Audio Tag Tool is a tag editor for desktop users who are strictly interested in manual edits of their files. It supports ID3 and Vorbis tags but offers almost no documentation. Users select audio files using a directory browser. There are no automated searches for tag information, no external plugins, and no integration with external services, and Audio Tag Tool does not support retrieval or embedding of album cover art.
You can use Audio Tag Tool on multiple files at the same time by creating tag contents and applying them to a selected set of files. The tags can be based on file naming conventions, so that tags can be applied to multiple files but with different tag content.
The best feature of Audio Tag Tool is an extended set of options for file renaming. A tab in the main window includes support for using any of seven tag fields -- title, artist, album, year, comment, track and genre -- in a user-defined order. It uses a consistent interface to allow pulling tag information from filenames. You specify the tag order in the filenames and Audio Tag Tool does the rest.
This tool is strictly for manual editing of existing tags. It's not designed for collections of untagged files that you want to easily and quickly tag using external sources of information and include cover art.
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