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12 Import Your Existing Digital Music Collection into iTunes

Let's face it: You probably already have a number of MP3 files on your computer. If you've been using the Internet for a while, you might have hundreds or even thousands of MP3s, either imported from your CD collection using other software, or obtained from the Internet. iTunes makes no judgments about where your music comes from; it organizes it all equally, letting you transform your flat listing of music files in a folder somewhere on your computer into the multilevel database that makes iTunes' music navigation so easy.

This task lets you bring your collection of MP3 files—no matter how large—into iTunes with a full understanding of the consequences of the organizational options iTunes gives you. First you set iTunes to treat imported files the way you want it to; then you simply import your music collection—as lengthy a process as that might be—as described in 11 Add a Music File to Your iTunes Library.

  1. Open the Preferences Window

    Open the iTunes Preferences window (in Windows, choose Edit, Preferences; on the Mac, choose iTunes, Preferences). Click the Advanced tab.

  2. Choose to Copy Music Files to the iTunes Music Folder

    The Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding to library check box determines exactly what happens when you import a new file or group of files into the iTunes' database. If the check box is enabled, iTunes makes a duplicate of each imported file and places it into an appropriate place in the iTunes Music folder, in folders based on the Artist and Album info tags. If the check box is disabled, iTunes' database instead points to added music files wherever in the system they happen to be.

    The default behavior is to allow iTunes to copy newly added files into its managed folder, which keeps all your music files neatly organized in a single location. You might want to turn this feature off if you like keeping certain “one-off” MP3 files in a certain folder outside your iTunes Music folder for quick access in the Finder or Windows Explorer or by other applications but also like to use iTunes to play those files.

    Enable the option if you want iTunes to be able to keep its own copy of each music file in its own folder, to do with whatever it needs, while leaving your original copy untouched. Disable the option if you don't want iTunes making duplicates of all your imported files, a process that doubles the disk space needed by your music files (at least until you get rid of the originals).

  3. Choose to Keep Your iTunes Music Folder Organized

    The other relevant option in the Advanced tab of the Preferences window is Keep iTunes Music Folder Organized. With this option enabled, every change you make to the info tags of a file in iTunes' interface is reflected immediately in the files themselves. For instance, if you change the title of a song, the file is renamed to match (with a prefix reflecting the disc number, if it's part of a CD set, and the track number). If you change the artist name or album name, the folders into which the file is organized are also renamed and the file is moved accordingly. Disable this option if you don't want iTunes messing around with your files' names.

    For example, if you want to import all your music into iTunes while leaving the files in their original locations on your hard disk and with their original names, disable the Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding to library option. If you want iTunes to copy your music files to the iTunes Music folder and add them to appropriate locations in the folder tree depending on the initial state of the Artist and Album info tags in each of the files, but not to update the folders or filenames after they've been imported, enable the Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding to library option but disable the Keep iTunes Music Folder Organized option. If, however, you want to allow iTunes to perform all the organizational duties for which it was designed, taking full advantage of all the flexibility of music files with rich info tag data, leave both options enabled; this means you'll always be able to navigate to your appropriately named music files in the Finder or Windows Explorer, just as easily as you can in iTunes itself.

  4. Add Your Music Collection to iTunes

    When the two important settings are configured to your liking, click OK to close the Preferences window. Now you're ready to bring all your music into iTunes.

    If you have several music folders and a lot of time on your hands, you can import each folder individually into iTunes as described in 11 Add a Music File to Your iTunes Library. However, the most fun way—especially if you enabled both organizational options in Steps 2 and 3—is to throw all your files into iTunes at once, even if you have thousands of songs in your collection. To do this, first consolidate your music collection by placing all your folders of MP3s into a single parent folder. Then drag the parent folder into the song listing area of the iTunes' window and release the mouse button when you see the + icon on your mouse pointer.

    Depending on the speed of your computer, the length of the ensuing process can be several minutes or more, even up to the better part of an hour. As iTunes copies and sorts your music files, you can watch them being filed away into the appropriate folders within your iTunes Music folder; iTunes itself will be unresponsive, but you can watch your music collection be organized for you while you wait.

  5. Fill Out Missing Info Tags

    Now begins a task that will probably take you days, if not weeks or months, to finish to your satisfaction, depending on how obsessively neat you are: editing all the newly imported entries in the iTunes' database so that all their info tags are properly filled out. Whether you've chosen to let iTunes update the underlying filenames or not, keeping the info tags correctly updated is important to allowing you to navigate efficiently, set up Smart Playlists based on the info tags, and share the music over the local network or to your iPod in such a way that it can be navigated smoothly. See 69 Examine and Modify Song Information for more information on updating your songs' details, and 13 Add Album Art to Songs to enhance your songs with appropriate album art.

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