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Spring cleaning tips to take control of your movies, music

These tips and tools will help you finally whip your growing collection of movies, music, and video files into shape.

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If your home media center feels fragmented and frustrating, there's good news: with a weekend or two of spring cleaning, you can make it all much easier to keep track of and enjoy. I've tried to keep this hardware-independent, though some tips assume you have networked storage or a particular operating system. Here are a few tricks and tips to get you started:

This is usually the toughest library for most people to manage. Depending on the tools you use, it can be hard to effectively manage more than 10,000 individual music files, and while some may boggle at those numbers, many music-lovers wistfully look back on the days when they had just crossed the five-figure point. Here are some easy ways to tame your music collection:

  • Rip your CDs. This does not have to be a daunting process, even if your collection might resemble an outtake from "Hoarders." Almost any up-to-date media player will let you rip CDs, and it's easy to keep the process going in the background while you attend to other business, checking in every 5 to 10 minutes to change discs. Here's a video on using iTunes to rip CDs; the process is similar for other programs.
  • Rip your analog music. Are you nostalgic for the tunes of your youth, the ones that are stuck on vinyl or cassette? It may take time, but it can be totally worthwhile to rip your records and tapes. There are plenty of hardware options to choose from, but I think you're much better off using the free, cross-platform Audacity app. Just connect your record or tape player to your computer's line-in and let 'er rip!
  • Organize your music files. Once you cross over past your thousandth album or so, you may start to lose track of where individual files are located. This is especially true if you have multiple networked locations, but there's no easy answer. My preferred solution is to maintain a memorable folder structure and then sticking to it every time I add new files. I have my music sorted into folders labeled by artist, then subfolders labeled with release year and album title. It take some effort to set up and maintain, but it pays off when it's time to migrate or tinker with files.
  • Tag your music files. The digital tunes you buy should come pretagged, meaning their metadata covering artist, title, year, and genre should be correct and easy to search. Files you find for free online or rip yourself may have errors or even blank space where the tags should be. Many media player apps let you fix tags, but I prefer the standalone, cross-platform MusicBrainz Picard tagging software. It's fast, easy to use, and connected to a huge use-supported metadata collection.
  • Stream your music collection. This is where it starts to get fun! Once you've got your collection ripped, organized, and tagged, it's incredibly easy to listen to it from nearly any networked location. Audiogalaxy is a great app that lets you stream your music to any Web-enabled device. It does require a dedicated computer with access to both a network and your music collection, but if you have a network storage device or just an old computer with a sizable hard drive, you're good to go.

Movies and videos
Most of us have manageable video collections, but they can always be easier to work with. With a little effort, it can be easier to find, watch, and stream your collection to most of your devices:

  • Digitize your old videotapes. This is more of a chore than digitizing old tapes or records, and may require some hardware purchases. You'll need a playback device like a VCR or camcorder, a DV camera that supports DV pass-through, and cables to connect them. It should be fairly easy to find the right cables or adapters; they should have come with the equipment. You'll also need software that can accept the playback stream and digitize it, like Windows Live Photo Gallery. There are also dedicated devices that will convert VHS tapes to DVDs directly, which can save quite a bit of trouble if you've got the money.
  • Rename your video files. Depending on where and how you got them, your TV and movie files might be poorly named. This can make searching really tough, especially if you have more than a few dozen files to look through. Filebot is a great, free app that helps you quickly plow through your video files and rename them in a way that makes them much easier to find later.
  • Organize your video files. This is pretty easy for TV and movies; just pick a folder structure that suits the way you naturally look for files. I use series or movie title, but you may prefer year, genre, or something more esoteric. As long as it's consistent, it should work fine. Many media player programs will let you search your library for tags, so you may want to add in metadata related to starring actors, Oscar nominations, or whatever else suits your fancy. For personal videos, you are probably better off tagging them more prodigiously: date, people involved, location, and events make these videos much easier to find and share, and that's the point, right?

Still feeling motivated? If you're ready to tackle your digital photo collection, get our tips here.

Editors' note: As part of our spring cleaning series, we are focusing on one topic each day to get your computing life in order. Our first piece focused on PCs, next we helped speed up and clean up your Mac. Check back each day this week for a new topic.