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Fixing Broken MP3 Files

About six months ago, I updated to a new version of iTunes and found that only about 20% of my MP3s could be added to my library. That’s not 20% of the new ones, but 20% of the songs that were already loaded in the previous version of iTunes (I’m omitting the long story of why I cleared my library and reloaded it). So, out of my 3,000 or so songs, iTunes only recognized about 600 of them. The first thing that went through my head was that Steve Jobs had personally blacklisted almost all the tunes I like. Come on . . . that’s now more rational than your first knee-jerk reaction to it, right? After dismissing the idea that Mr. Jobs might be carrying out a personal vendetta against me, I really panicked when I thought my music had somehow actually become corrupted. But no, the music was recognized by the myriad of other music players on my computer without any problems – I could even play them without issue from Windows Explorer.

My next thought was, do I even care? After all, the other music players were playing my music just fine. The trouble is that if you want to get music on any of the latest generation iPods/iPhones, you need iTunes. Eventually, the other players will catch up, but Apple seems determined to stay ahead of them, making iTunes the only method for transferring music and building playlists on cool, little Apple music players. Nothing like openness . . .

Figuring out what was actually wrong was a challenge. Internet searches yielded almost nothing. While I suspected that iTunes itself was the root cause of the problem – screwing up the files at some point in the past – I couldn’t verify that. So, I had to hack at searches until I stumbled upon MP3val, a free tool (Windows only) that checks the integrity of any MP3 file. Once run, I found out that the headers of most of my MP3 files were corrupted. Recent versions of iTunes, apparently are a real bitch about having proper MP3 headers, so rather than telling me what was wrong, they just chose not to import the files with “problems.” I used MP3val to “fix” a few files and iTunes imported them without any issues. Finally, a solution.

But not so fast . . . while fixing the headers, MP3val lost most (almost always all) of the tag information in the header – title, artist, album art, album title, song title, etc. So, to really fix the files, I had to run them through MP3val and then re-insert all the tag information again. A serious pain in the ass. I experimented with several methods and came up with this one. If you have such a problem. I hope this helps.

  1. Make a copy of the directory tree where your music is – everything. You never know when you’ll mess something up even more and have to restore from your copy. Don’t worry about the disk space, assuming you have what you initially need, you’ll delete this backup when you’re done.
  2. Now, iterate through manageable segments of your music library (a hundred files or so at a time if you can – I keep my music in subdirectories broken up by genre and/or date so I just dealt with one directory at a time) – and perform each of these steps on the group of files:
    • Use your favorite tagging program (iTunes, obviously won’t work) to create new filenames for the songs that contain all the tag information from each MP3 file (they’ll look something like this: “Doobie Brothers – Long Train Runnin’ – Best of the Doobies – 02 – Rock – 1976.mp3.” If your problem is similar to mine, you’ll be able to get everything except album art into the tag. I used MP3tag’s “convert” function to do this. The idea is to retain as much tag information as possible prior to running MP3val to fix the header.
    • Then, use MP3val to “scan” then “repair” the files with problems. You’ll likely, but not always, lose all existing tag info.
    • Go back to your tagging program and reverse the process in number 1, above. Convert the file name back to tag information.
    • If you have missing or incorrect tag information, now would be a good time to fix it. This includes importing album art. Most tagging programs can look up the album art for you automatically assuming you have the correct album name.
  3. Once you’re sure everything worked out, delete the backup.

There you go, just three steps. OK, one of them is complicated and if you have to go through 2,400 files, time consuming too. When I was done, iTunes read ‘em all. I also got the anal-retentive monkey off my back by making sure all my music had it’s correct information and album art. While I still hate iTunes, I recognize its necessary evilness and am coping with it thanks to MP3val and a boatload of time to fix everything.

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