Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Managing and syncing two iTunes libraries with Tuneranger

I finally adopted iTunes after many years of fiddling about. However, one thing that was easy beforehand was backing up my collection. Since I had little to no dependence on any of the applications I was using for sorting and managing my collection, I simply backed up all my files. The organisation was in the folder taxonomy.

However, once I adopted iTunes and allowed it to manage my music collection, I also found that I started building playlists (even smart playlists!) and tracking my playcount, dates last played, dates imported and my track ranking. Unfortunately, none of this particular data is stored in the ID3 tag of the individual tracks and hence just taking a copy of the files was not a solution. It is what is called metadata and is carried in the iTunes library files that sit in your chosen iTunes folder location:

Therefore, I figured it was a simple case of copying the iTunes files as well to do a backup. This would be a good solution for anyone else backing up a single instance of iTunes, but as with many things, I wanted to make it more complex...

I listen to music at home, at work and on my iPhone. I like having my entire collection with me, so the 16GB my iPhone affords is not enough (although I will cover the excellent Simplify iPhone application in due course which allows me to listen to anything in my collection wherever I have a connection of any type). The issue that this brings is that the two iTunes libraries quickly get out of sync and start diverging. I add music to one of the libraries, but I accrue listening and rating data on both of them, along with playlist building and so on.

What I needed was a way that I could sync the two iTunes libraries so that I did not lose my listening stats and other meta data. I looked for a while on the net and tried a couple of options, but the only one that really solved my problem was an application called Tuneranger by Acertant. It's not free, but is pretty cheap and has a 30 day trial which I used to check if it fit the bill.

This program does exactly what I wanted and has been successful enough for me to plump and buy it. There are a few caveats I should point out, though:

  • You cannot have the two iTunes libraries connected to the same computer - they must be network connected libraries. This is a downside as it would be far more useful just to plug two external hard drives into one computer and do it that way.
  • You have to be patient! Since everything is done over the network, it can take a long time to do the scan before the sync. For example, my 25,000 track strong collection syncing across two libraries (i.e. scanning around 50,000 tracks) takes about 15 to 20 hours. That's before any of the actual synchronisation even happens.
  • Because of the point above, it is difficult to experiment with the tool to see how it all works and what the results are. If you want to test a few options, you are talking days rather than minutes or hours.
  • If you are not careful and you change the ID3 tags on one side and not the other, they are likely to be regarded as separate tracks. Therefore you will end up with some duplication. I would recommend making sure you have a perfectly tagged collection before starting using Tuneranger. See this post on tagging with MediaMonkey and this post on getting your tags normalised to get yourself up to speed.
  • It can be a little buggy, which means starting all over again - humbug! It seems to be very sensitive to the network and iTunes. Correspondingly, if iTunes goes, Tuneranger will go.
These points aside, I am fairly impressed as it filled a gap that no other software I could find did. Now, about once a month, I go about starting the process off over a weekend. I keep the iTunes library I have at work as my master (this is where I add new tracks) and I make the process a bit simpler (for my brain to track) by pushing the new metadata across from my home iTunes library and not both ways.

Here's a screenshot of Tuneranger in progress:

I would definitely give it a shot if you have two libraries that you don't want to lose the metadata on. For a fresh start with two (or more) unique libraries, follow these steps:

1. Back up any libraries before you start
2. Make a first run that syncs both libraries fully together into one master
3. Designate one of the libraries as a master and only add music to this library
4. After sufficient listening (say once a month) sync the secondary library's metadata to the master
5. Check the master for any duplicates (there shouldn't be any if you haven't fiddled with the tags on either library, except for new tracks)
6. Replace the secondary iTunes library with a direct copy of the master
7. Go to step 4 and repeat