How to Auto-Embed Album Art in Your iTunes Tracks

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It’s that time again: When the evil, obsessive-compulsive, mirror-verse me starts picking at piles of disorganized digital information, speaking in sepulchral tones: “Time to get to work, Matt.” This time it’s my iTunes library — not gargantuan at nearly 25,000 songs, but far from modest. Starting from zero, it takes iTunes about 20 minutes to add everything to my library, running off a 7200 RPM external hard drive. A year ago I opted to convert those songs over from the free lossless audio codec format, or FLAC, to Apple’s lossless alternative, mostly so I could play them in iTunes as well as through other i-devices without fitful hack-arounds, or having to maintain a duplicate library in an agnostic, lossy format like MP3.

After the conversion, I realized my collection looked sort of dead, devoid as it’s been of album art — just a mammoth scrolling list of track names and album titles. Opening Apple’s “Cover Flow” displays a library of identical black boxes, each containing a pair of eighth notes joined by crossbar. Launching songs on my television via Apple TV is just as drab until Cupertino’s default screen-saving melange of lions, rhinos and baby seals pops up to background whatever I’m listening to. What I needed was album art, but nearly 25,000 songs and just shy of 2,000 albums…I’d either have to find a way to automate the process, or plan a week of vacation (or two) parked in front of my flatscreen.

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Fortunately, I chanced on a little site called Doug’s AppleScripts while searching for iTunes automation tools, specifically something called “Embed Artwork,” a freebie Apple Script (written by the apparently godlike “Doug”) that can “re-embed artwork downloaded from the iTunes Store into the files of the selected tracks.” (Note: For OS X 10.6 and 10.7 users, you’ll want Doug’s “Re-Embed Artwork” Apple Script, since he admits the original script “does not appear to work in OS X Lion”).

Re-embed? Doesn’t downloading album art already handle that? Alas, no (or to be fair to those who’d rather not embed album art, “alas it’s not an option to”). When you click on an iTunes track and select “Get Album Artwork,” iTunes contacts the Apple Store and attempts to match the track with corresponding album art. But the art itself isn’t embedded in the track, it’s actually stored in a folder titled “Album Artwork” within your iTunes directory. Even then, it’s a trick to manage, say you zap your iTunes library (intentionally or no) or migrate between computers. That’s because Apple stores album art in a proprietary file format, then stores those files inside number-sequenced folders with no obvious relationship to their corresponding tracks. The upside of this is that your music library’s spared the storage cost associated with duplicating image files for every track. The downside’s that you can’t take the art with you if you move those files out of your iTunes environment.

My solution: just embed it. The size differential’s negligible at the individual file level — about a third of a MB per track on average. It’s substantial when you extrapolate through 25,000 songs, of course — about 7,500 MB or 7.5 GB — but on my cushy 1 terabyte drive, I’ve plenty of room to spare. That, and once I’m done, so long as I curate each new addition, I never have to worry about futzing with album art again.

Without a script, embedding album art in each track once you’ve grabbed it from Apple requires copying and pasting it into iTunes’ “Artwork” field (under “Get Info”), or alternatively doing so using the “show or hide item artwork and video viewer” option. What’s more, Apple’s “processing” dialogue box hijacks iTunes, preventing you from doing anything until it’s finished touching each track you’ve selected. Doug’s Apple Script basically automates that process, allowing you to click the Apple Script icon from iTunes’ menubar and select “re-embed artwork,” after which the script does its business while leaving you some leverage to scroll around (it’s choppy, but possible). That, and it’s on average much faster than Apple’s process.

The only problem I’ve had to date, is that the script seems to get confused if you try to auto-embed more than one album at a time. On my OS X 10.7.3 MacBook Air running iTunes 10.5.3, it’ll start in on the successive album (if I’ve selected more than one) after the first, then suddenly quit, leaving half or more of the tracks unfinished. So I’ve limited my selection to one album at a time, a process that lets me curate each album cover, replacing the odd mistake or substituting where I don’t care for the quality of the scan Apple’s using. Covering some 2,000 albums is still a lengthy, arduous process, but the script’s made things much quicker and less click-crazy. If you’re thinking about an iTunes cover art makeover, give it a look, and while you’re there, check out the site’s other scripts — a bona fide library of tools to manage your track info, playlists and more.

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