If you’ve been playing the MP3 game for more than a few years, you’ve probably amassed a library that’s both sizable and eclectic. It’s probably a bit messy, too, with inconsistent volume levels, missing or incorrect album art and messed-up metadata.
Fortunately, these problems aren’t difficult to correct. With a little extra time and the right software tools, you can whip your MP3 library into shape. Let’s start with volume leveling. Read on to discover the first secret of a perfect MP3 library.
Put song volume on the level
Because your MP3s probably came from a variety of sources–CDs, friends, download services, peer-to-peer software and the like–they probably have woefully inconsistent volume levels. This song’s too loud, the next one’s too soft, and very few are juuuuust right. If you live for shuffle play, you know exasperating this can be: You end up reaching for the volume controls with every new song that plays.
There are myriad solutions to this problem. iTunes 7, for instance, can automatically adjust volume level–but only when you play your tunes in iTunes. Some portable players, meanwhile, have volume-leveling capabilities built in, like the Creative Zen Vision:M. But these options don’t attack the root of the problem, which is that your multi-sourced MP3s have inconsistent levels.
Enter MP3Gain, widely regarded as one of the best tools for "normalizing" MP3s. The software analyzes your tracks, then modifies them so they play at a consistent volume. There are other programs that do likewise (notably MediaMonkey, which we’ll be using in Part II of this feature), but I’m partial to MP3Gain. After you download and install the program, meet me at the next paragraph.
Click Add Folder, then select the folder containing your MP3s. The next step is to choose a method of volume analysis: album or track. When you analyze by album, MP3Gain focuses on all the songs in any given album, relative to each other. When you analyze by track, it’s like your entire library is one big album: MP3Gain calculates the volume level for each individual song. I recommend the latter option, as our goal here is to achieve consistent levels for your entire library.
By default, MP3Gain strives for a volume level of 89dB, but you can change this value if you like in the Target "Normal" Volume box provided. After that, click the Track Analysis button, then be prepared to wait while the program analyzes your library.
What’s happening under the hood
It’s worth noting at this point that MP3Gain makes no changes to the encoding of the MP3 files themselves, meaning song quality won’t be affected. What’s more, the program stores analysis and undo information inside each file’s metadata, so you can reverse the process or make additional changes later on. In other words, the volume adjustments are only semi-permanent.
Once MP3Gain completes the analysis, you can review the results (see the included help file for detailed descriptions of what everything means) or just go ahead and start the leveling procedure by clicking Track Gain. (Again, you have the option of adjusting the volume by album instead, but for our purposes, stick with track.) This will take even longer than the analysis, so be prepared to wait awhile.
When you’re done, fire up Windows Media Player, MediaMonkey or whatever player you use and test your tracks. They may not have perfectly consistent volume, but they should be much better. You can always go back to MP3Gain and raise or lower the Target "Normal" Volume a few decibels if your tracks prove to be too soft or too loud.
A few final notes: You’ll need to re-sync your portable player so it has the volume-leveled MP3s; you’ll need to run MP3Gain on any new tracks you add to your library; and you’ll need to tune in next week to learn how to fix and add album art!