Thursday, May 11, 2006

iTunes: Music Backups for Music Collectors

In this article, I address a topic that's bugged me for years: how to back up your big and/or fast-changing music collection through iTunes.

Serious nerds don't feel the need to do anything special to back up their music, because they're already backing up their whole computer all the time. But that's cumbersome if you have a big music collection, or if your music library is spread across multiple drives, or if you frequently make changes to song info. (Any such change updates the MP3 file so the backup software backs it up again. Any change to the artist, album, or song title can cause the file to get renamed, messing up the way the backup software tries to track changes to the same file.)

The man on the street can burn a CD or DVD from iTunes every now and then. OneDigitalLife.com has a popular page showing how to do that. But that's cumbersome if you have a big music collection, or you keep a lot of songs unchecked but still want to back them up.

There must be a middle ground, a technique using iTunes but still flexible enough to handle extensive music libraries!

The Outline

As in the OneDigitalLife article, the core of this technique is a smart playlist that accumulates all your recently added songs. That is, it has a "Date Added" condition so that all music added since the last backup appears in the playlist automatically. At periodic intervals, or after the playlist grows big enough to make a backup worthwhile, you burn it to one or more CDs or DVDs. Then you reset the "Date Added" condition so the playlist becomes empty, and gradually fills up again as new music is added.

The Essential Smart Playlist

Let's call this Smart Playlist "Backup - Monthly", for lack of a better name. Later, we'll rename it temporarily while doing the actual backups.

We're actually going to go a bit farther than a single-condition playlist; we'll add some touches to make the process work better.

Use a between test for the "Data Added" condition. Make the second date be way off in the future. For example, right now my "Backup - Monthly" Smart Playlist has the condition "Date Added is in the range 4/30/06 to 12/31/06". For most backups, you'll leave the end date alone, but if something goes wrong with a multi-disc backup and it stretches over more than one day, you can set the end date to the date you started the backup process. If you import more songs or fix some typos in song info partway through the backup process, you want to save those songs for the next go-round.

Use a second condition, also with between and the same start and end dates, for "Date Modified". Changes to song info, such as the song name, track number, comments, year, and so on are all stored inside the song file. After you fill in blank fields or correct mistakes and typos, those song files need to be included in the next backup. ("Date Modified" is not changed when you add a rating.)

Before burning the playlist, change its title to something that makes a sensible CD title, since iTunes titles the CD the same as the playlist name. For example, most of the time my Smart Playlist is titled "Backup - Monthly", but before the most recent backup I temporarily changed its name to "Backup - April 2006", then back again after burning the discs.

Don't set a size limit on the playlist. If it's too big for a single data disc, iTunes automatically splits it across multiple discs. Under Preferences > Advanced > Burning, leave the Disc Format set to Data CD or DVD, which ensures that all the files in the playlist are burned to disc. (MP3 CDs omit AAC, MOV, PDF, or other filetypes that you can manage in iTunes.)

Leave the checkbox unchecked for "Match only checked songs". Even though iTunes leaves unchecked songs out when it burns discs, you want them in this playlist. You'll see why in a minute.

Do check the box for "Live updating", so that the playlist grows whenever you add or change a song. You can play games with this checkbox if something goes wrong during the backup and you need to restart it or remove things from the song list. But as a standard practice, leave it checked.

Leave the playlist sorted by either (Song) Name or Artist (or, rarely, Album). The sort column determines how the files are arranged on the burned discs. Sort by song name, and the files are all placed at the top level of the CD, with no directory structure. Sort by artist name, and the songs for each artist go into a directory named for the artist. Sort by album name, and the songs from each album go into a directory named for the album. In each case, an ascending sequence number is tacked on to each item in the root of the CD.

I prefer to sort by artist, because the artist names are easy to scan, and if I'm going to import the songs somewhere else I'll probably do that for all the songs by that artist. I don't sort by song name because I want the song files on disc to keep their original names without the leading 001 etc. If the files are renamed, it's harder to locate or compare against the original files, and I've had the sequence numbers show up in the song titles when I imported the renamed files on another computer. I don't sort by album name because it's hard to tell one "Greatest Hits" album from another without a lot of work fixing up album titles.

Leave the playlist sorted the way you want when you first create it, and doublecheck the sort order before each time you do a new backup.

The Supplemental Playlists

Here's where one of my pet peeves with iTunes comes in: there's not a whole lot you can do with unchecked songs.

I uncheck songs for lots of different reasons -- because I have the same song on both a regular and "Greatest Hits" album, because I've ripped the same CD or downloaded the same Grateful Dead concert at different bit rates, or to keep audio book and other long files out of certain playlists. (Yes, you can also set the "Skip when shuffling" setting for a song, and add extra conditions to Smart Playlists based on Length and Kind, but the checkbox is a convenient shortcut that works in all situations.)

However, I do frequently want to burn discs and include all the unchecked songs. Maybe I'm making a backup copy of a CD ripped at multiple quality settings; maybe I'm about to get rid of a bunch of 2-star songs, but want a backup of those songs in case I change my mind someday.

iTunes makes this process kind of roundabout. Skip to the next section if you don't care about unchecked songs. Otherwise, please bear with me!

What we'll do is use a standard playlist to hold a list of the unchecked songs. We'll turn on the checkboxes for all songs in this playlist, burn the disc(s), then uncheck them again.

Make a new Smart Playlist titled "Backup - Monthly - Checked". Give it one condition, "Playlist is Backup - Monthly" (or whatever name you gave to the Smart Playlist you're using to do backups). Don't check the Limit box, check the "Match only checked songs" and "Live updating" boxes. Now we have a playlist containing only the checked songs from our backup list. We'll use this playlist for no other purpose than to figure out what songs in the backup list are unchecked.

Make a new Smart Playlist titled "Backup - Monthly - Unchecked". Give this playlist two conditions, "Playlist is Backup - Monthly" and "Playlist is not Backup - Monthly - Checked" (or whatever names you used for the previous two playlists. Now you've got a list of all the songs whose checkboxes you must flip while making the backup.

Now make yet another playlist, a standard one this time, titled "Backup - Uncheck afterwards". When you're ready to do a backup, drag and drop the Smart Playlist "Backup - Monthly - Unchecked" onto it, so that it lists the same songs as that Smart Playlist. Select all the songs in this playlist, right-click over one of them, and choose "Check Selection" from the pop-up menu. The songs disappear from the "Backup - Monthly - Unchecked" playlist, but remain here so you can uncheck them later. Most importantly, they will now be included in your backup.

All these playlists, just for backups, can clutter up your Source list in iTunes. Here's where folders come in handy. Make a new folder by selecting the Library icon in the Source list and choosing File > New Folder. Call it, oh I dunno, Backups. Drag and drop each of the backup-related playlists in there. Now you can get at them all at once, and hide them in between backups.

Feel the Burn

OK, at this point, you're ready to actually do a backup. To include your whole library, edit the conditions in the "Backup - Monthly" Smart Playlist so that the start date is in the distant past, before you started with iTunes. Otherwise, take a look in your "Recently Added" Smart Playlist to see when you added your last big batch of songs.
  • You've got the "Backup - Monthly" playlist sorted by the correct column to give the desired CD layout, right?
  • You've renamed that playlist temporarily to include the date or some detail to help you remember why you're backing up this particular batch of songs, right?
  • If any of the songs in the playlist are unchecked, you've set up the supplemental playlists as described above, then checked all the necessary songs, right?
  • Your disc format in Preferences > Advanced > Burning is set to Data CD or DVD, right?
  • You've looked at the total size of the playlist (at the bottom of the iTunes window, when the playlist is selected) to see whether you need a CD, a DVD, or multiple discs, right?
OK, select the playlist to burn, click the Burn icon in the upper-right corner of the iTunes window, and click Burn again after inserting a CD or DVD.

If your backup fits on a single disc, skip ahead to the "Aftermath" section. Otherwise, keep reading to learn the finer points of multi-disc backups.

Multi-Disc Backups

If the playlist is too big to fit onto a single disc, iTunes prompts you when the first disc is finished, then automatically continues burning a second, third, etc. disc until the whole playlist is done.

As each disc is burned, the status area at the bottom of the iTunes window shows how much is left to go. If you've already burned one or more DVDs, but the remaining songs would fit on a CD, you can pop in a CD and iTunes will happily use it for those last few songs.

As each disc is burned, iTunes also shows (with icons and grayed-out song names) which songs go on the current disc. Make a note of the first and last songs, on this disc, so that if something goes wrong you'll know where to pick up.

What could go wrong? During multi-disc backups, I've had (a) iTunes crash after finishing each disc, (b) iTunes error out while burning, creating a useless "coaster", (c) no power failure yet but I'm sure that's coming.

If your backup gets interrupted like this:
  • Edit the conditions for your backup Smart Playlist to turn off live updating.
  • Delete from the playlist all the songs successfully burned to disc.
  • Start burning again with a new disc.
  • Afterwards, turn live updating back on for the Smart Playlist.
Sometimes, these crashes occur while I've left a disc burning overnight, and maybe the next day I can't afford to tie it up burning more discs, or maybe I'm out of discs and need to make a trip to the office supply store. So the process stretches out over 2-3 days or even more. In cases like this, edit the two between conditions in the Smart Playlist so that the end date is the day you started the backup. That way, any songs added in the interim won't sneak in or be skipped over by mistake. You're deliberately leaving them until the next backup.

The Aftermath

Once you've completed a backup, potentially with multiple disks and temporarily checked songs, just a little cleanup makes things simpler for next time:
  • Set the beginning date of your "Date Added" and "Date Modified" conditions to the day you did (or started) the backup.
  • If you turned off live updating due to a failure partway through the process, turn it back on now.
  • If you temporarily checked some songs, go back to the "Backup - Uncheck afterward" playlist, select all the songs, right-click, and choose "Uncheck selection" from the pop-up menu. Then remove all the songs from that playlist.
  • It's not a bad idea to select the backup playlist, choose File > Export Song List and store a copy of the backup playlist somewhere for posterity. You can consult the list someday if you're looking for a song and the backup discs aren't easily accessible.
  • Rename the backup Smart Playlist to a generic name like "Backup - Monthly".
Happy iTuning!

Frequently Asked Questions

Seriously, why not just use dedicated backup software?

I don't have a whole lot of room left on my hard drive(s) even for music, so backing up to another drive isn't practical, I need to burn discs.

If I need to recover a song, it's easier for me to get it from a clearly labelled disc with a folder structure arranged by artist, rather than browse through some months-old representation of my entire directory structure within a backup program.

When I pop in a disc burned by iTunes, I can browse it within iTunes, drag-and-drop songs straight into the library, and recover their original ratings. Recovering a song via backup software means recovering the file back to its original location, then finding that location and importing back into iTunes.

I'm not expecting to recover my entire library this way, more likely audio books or podcasts that I trashed due to lack of space, low-rated songs that I changed my mind about, and so on.

Backup software isn't smart when files move around or change names. With iTunes, I might split a music library across drives, consolidate all songs on a new bigger drive, or change the file path by editing the song name, artist, or album. iTunes knows which of these operations requires backing up the song again better than Retrospect or what have you.

Related Reading

OneDigitalLife article about iTunes backups


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