Despite the presence of a checkbox to "keep iTunes library organized" in the application's preferences, the fact remains that iTunes tracks -- coming from a plethora of sources and of varying vintage, and sometimes numbering in the thousands -- are a black hole of bad metadata. Track and performer names may be wrong or missing (the dreaded "Track 01" and my favorite band, Unknown Artist, are frequently seen); other details may be off-base, and as for album art... well, let's just say that I don't use Cover Flow that much, and not because I don't like the way it looks; it's just that the wide stretches of empty covers are depressing.
There's some help on the way from TuneUp; the formerly Windows-only iTunes companion is now available for the Mac, with a free version that 'cleans' up to 500 tracks and a paid/subscription Premium license ($19.95 onetime or $11.95/annual) with unlimited scrubbing bubble power.
I decided to give TuneUp a trial run on the most confused, mixed-up section of my iTunes library: a collection of professional and collegiate a cappella tracks, with track names identical to the original recordings, sure to befuddle any conventional artist matching strategy. Would TuneUp's leverage of the Gracenote database give it an advantage in dealing with these puzzlers? Read on for more, or check out our gallery of TuneUp screenshots.
The first thing I noticed about the TuneUp plugin for iTunes is that it isn't. Isn't a plugin for iTunes, that is -- it's a separate application that 'side-hugs' the iTunes window, and tries to track with it as you resize, hide the Genius sidebar, etc. Most of the time it's not much of an issue, but you do notice the lag and redraw oddities when moving the iTunes window around, and it's a reminder that the integration between the two apps is less tight than it would be with a true plugin approach. There are other rough edges in the TuneUp 1.0 version, mostly annoying rather than serious; the one that kept me gritting my teeth was a persistent marble of doom that hung around long after the tool was done processing. You could click through it and keep working but it definitely was harshing my buzz.
TuneUp's concert search, video pane and cover art download features are nicely done (I especially liked the YouTube inset for selected songs), but the core of the app is the Cleaning. I dragged a cluster of 80 songs onto the Clean pane and let the tool start cranking away (it took several minutes for all the results to come in, which is normal). TuneUp broke the results into "Exact Match" and "Likely Match" sections, presumably based on the strength of the Gracenote fingerprint, and I was pretty impressed; it showed corresponding albums and the matching tracks from a bushelful of well- and lesser-known singing groups from colleges around the country. Once the matches came in, I clicked Save for individual tracks (or Save All for the batch) and the iTunes metadata began to update on the fly. Cover art was also available for most of the tracks; clicking the thumbnail gave me the choice of which images to associate with the tracks.
Out of the 80-odd tracks I chose, more than 10 couldn't be identified at all; your mileage may vary, but a cursory check showed that most of these were live or other bootleg recordings that were unlikely to be in Gracenote's files anyway. For the most part, the identified tracks were right on the money with artist information. The one clear error was in associating one version of "Stay (Wasting Time)" with the authentic Dave Matthews Band rather than the a capella group that had recorded it.
More problematic (at least for my iTunes usage profile) was that TuneUp was quite thorough in replacing the track metadata with its discovered, correct information. This thoroughness extended to the Genre field, which meant that many of these tracks -- unclassifiable by Gracenote's standards -- ended up as "Data & Other" songs, while others got obscure genres I'd never thought existed. Since I was using the genre of 'A Cappella' as a tag for all these songs, I had to go back into iTunes, sort my tracks by modification date, and change them all back to the correct setting. You might not have this particular issue, but for me it wasn't that pleasant to have to 'undo' the work of TuneUp. A preference setting to allow selective blocking of metadata changes from key fields would probably clear this up.
Overall, if you have a messy iTunes library and you crave some organizational assistance, you probably should try out TuneUp's free version on a few tracks and see how it works for you. I'm not necessarily sold on the full version myself yet, but some work on the cosmetic and performance issues combined with more options on metadata replacement might turn me around.