[SoundStage!]Fringe with Greg Smith
Back Issue Article
May 1988

Beginning of a Great Adventure

If you look at speculative books or movies, you often find a world where computers rid humanity of endless drudgery and toil by automating repetitive tasks. Here in the real world, the time I save on such tasks often ends up being equaled or exceeded by the endless hours I spend chasing down weird computer problems. While "Blue Screen of Death" sounds like just a scary movie, it's actually a quite bad way to entertain yourself. So when I find something my computer can do that ridiculously speeds up some boring process, I jump right on it; that sort of task can make all the painful fiddling around seem justified.

I collect a couple of things. I have a moderately sized collection of science fiction books that I typed into a database one day because it was getting large enough that I couldn't recall whether I already owned something when I went out shopping in dusty used book stores. But even that wall of books is less numerous than my CD collection. Now, when you've got a book, the only information you really care about is the author and title. A CD or LP, on the other hand, has a track listing that's often more important to you than the album title itself. While I've toyed with typing the contents of my collection in, the time requirement I projected after trying a disc or two is mind boggling. No way I can find a month to take off for that sort of project.

Last year I stumbled upon an Internet resource that has made cataloging my CDs a painless and simple process. The CD Database, or CDDB as it's commonly called, has complete disc and song information available for thousands of common music discs. The idea here is that individuals can type in information for part of their collection, upload that in a common format, and contribute to the whole. The cost for access to this service? Not a penny.

Of course, unless you're fond of typing out cryptic TCP/IP requests by hand, you'll need some software for your computer to query the database and store the results in a useful form. Microsoft has included simple cataloging capabilities in the Windows 95 CD player, which has encouraged many people to start typing their collections in. Unfortunately, the program can only hold a few hundred entries, and you don't get a whole lot of additional capabilities beyond having the track name show up when you're playing the disc. And there's no built-in support for accessing CDDB.

The ideal software suite for CD information would include a full- featured player for your computer along with database capabilities. Since software is such a moving target, full import and export abilities are also a must-you don't want to get stuck with all of your data in a single program, unable to switch to another because nothing else will read the files you've created. While I haven't found any single program that does everything I deem a necessity to properly catalog my collection, I have located two tightly integrated pieces of software that between them address my every need at very reasonable prices.

CD Valet

There are dozens of programs that provide a CD-player interface to Windows PCs. The best I've found is called CD Valet. While some interfaces lean toward hugely complicated panels that seek to replicate the controls of a home audio system, CD Valet provides a compact bar that doesn't waste a bunch of my desktop space. Under most circumstances, I shrink the program down to occupy a single icon in the corner of the taskbar; all the controls are accessible from there.

Whenever you insert a new CD into your CD-ROM drive, CD Valet starts it playing while accessing CDDB if you're connected to the Internet. As soon as it connects to the database server and retrieves the appropriate information, your view of the disc is updated. This usually takes a couple of seconds. After downloading information once, CD Valet stores it in the local database, so the disc info pops up instantly on future plays.

If there isn't information in the Internet database on your disc, you can type it in yourself and submit it. This process may be a bit technically complicated for some, as it requires navigating protocols like SMTP or MAPI to pull off, but once the basics are configured the upload ability is trivially easy to use. Typing in a few titles that aren't already available and sending them in lets you give something back to the Internet community that provides this information at no cost.

CD Valet has all the usual features you'd expect from a computer CD player, including things like random play across multiple CDs. And the shareware registration fee is a mere $10. There is an included database manager that works fairly well, but its capabilities are rudimentary. That's where our next program comes in.

Keep It Compact

While aimed primarily at CDs, Keep It Compact is useful for cataloging any type of music collection. Its multi-tiered interface lets you display as much or as little information about the titles you've entered with a few mouse clicks.

The thing that sets KIC apart from the other programs I tried is the easy exchange of information with other software. It can read and write files from the Microsoft CD player and CD Valet. In addition, it can output regular delimited text files that any database program should be able to read. As a bonus, there's the ability to export a nice-looking HTML document that makes turning your collection into a WWW page people can browse a simple task. Registration for KIC is $25. The shareware version is missing some GIF features, is time limited, and only supports 15 entries at once.

I'd need a damn computer to keep track of all these names

After getting all this software running, I decided to sit down again and catalog some of my collection just to see how long it would take. The process was surprisingly quick. I started with CD Valet running and inserted a CD. There's a wait for the CD-ROM to recognize the disc, followed by a delay while the CDDB database is queried. As soon as that was done, I popped the CD out and replaced it with another I'd pulled out of the box already. Total time ran me 30 seconds per disc. That means you can process 120 discs per hour-not bad to get the full song information about almost every disc.

Note that I said almost. You're not going to find 100% of your collection in the CDDB unless you're listening only to popular music. Well over 95% of my rock titles were recognized, with only the occasional glitch. Some titles, like Steely Dan: Gold, had two entries in the database with exactly the same information. CD Valet displayed both and let me select one of them. Occasionally you'll find a disc that requires some manual editing; Emerson, Lake, and Powell came through with a missing artist entry I had to add in. For the most part, these corrections were pretty minor. It's only on some of the more obscure CDs that I was missing an entry altogether.

If the bulk of your collection consists of music other than rock, you'll probably find less success. Users I've talked to report hit rates less than 20% for classical or jazz releases, so there's still an enormous amount of typing left for collectors of those titles. With a CDDB-based system, you can at least share that work with the world when you're done.

After getting the titles read with CD Valet, I'd then fire up KIC periodically and import everything, which only takes a second. There were some small details to clean up, like inconsistent artist information, but this is a minor time investment. In the instances where KIC was missing some obscure search or sort capability I desired, it was easy to export a delimited text file and drag that into a programmable database like Access.

I don't know of any system for cataloging a CD collection that is even close to the speed or power you get from these programs. Shareware lets you try each for a while to make sure you're happy without spending a single cent, and the authors of both CD Valet and KIC have been very responsive with suggestions and software updates when I've sent them email reporting problems. A multitude of other compatible programs are listed on the CDDB home page if you don't like these two or you're not using a Windows PC. CDDB is one of those resources that makes having a computer a huge productivity boost. Just make sure you save your data often because you never know when the Blue Screen, General Protection, or the Bomb are sneaking up on you.

.....GS (gsmith@westnet.com)

Note: Keep it Compact has just been updated with a new release that supports querying CDDB directly, which makes it even easier to catalog your collection from a single program.

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