Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting Obsessive About Album Art

Sometimes things don't work quite the way they are supposed to. The "Get Album Artwork" feature in iTunes typically delivers good results, especially for newer releases. But for someone with a lot of older albums in their library, it is not always as useful. Sometimes the image quality of older album artwork from iTunes is quite bad. I've seen times where someone failed to crop out the staples on the side of the CD cover, crooked artwork, and other obvious problems. Worse, sometimes iTunes just gives you the wrong album cover.

Take Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours for example. When I used the "Get Album Artwork" feature in iTunes, here is the image iTunes delivered:

Obviously that's not the right album cover. So I tried a Google image search, and this is the highest resolution result I found:

With no offense to whoever scanned this album cover, it looks pretty awful. I'd almost rather have the wrong artwork. The colors look washed-out, the image is grainy, and it's been poorly cropped.

So what's an obsessive compulsive to do? Naturally, I pulled my LP off the shelf, photographed it with my digital SLR, and cleaned the image up in Photoshop. This looks more like what I think Frankie's album cover should look like, complete with the white borders with paste on cover that Capitol used in the 50s and 60s:

Unfortunately, I have not been able to limit myself to only fixing up the really egregious cases. Here is the album artwork iTunes delivered for Soul Asylum's Hang Time:

For most normal people this image would look more than good enough. Unfortunately, when I look at it, all I can see is flaws. The colors aren't quite balanced right, it's too dark resulting in loss of detail, and there are some compression artifacts along with a few minor, but visible flaws.

Google image search didn't really help me out this time either. This was the best result I found. It's balanced brighter than the iTunes generated image, but that just makes some of the flaws more visible. Also at 400X397 pixels, it's on the small side, and the aspect ratio is slightly off:

So I scanned my own CD cover at 600 dpi, then edited it in Photoshop. I used Photoshop's "Gaussian Blur" function to at least partly eliminate the grainy, pixelated look, balanced the colors and contrast to my liking, then used Photoshop's "Clone Stamp Tool" to edit out that stupid "Includes Special Bone-Us Track" line at the bottom. Finally, I downsampled the image to 72 dpi and 900X900 so it wouldn't be too ridiculously huge for iTunes to handle. The result is, I think, a real improvement over the other two images, although nowhere near as dramatically as was the case with In The Wee Small Hours:

Apparently, I am far from the only person who gets overly-obsessive about getting their album artwork in iTunes "just so" because I found a site called Album Art Exchange, where people upload carefully scanned and edited CD cover art, along with the occasional image generated from an LP cover. I'm amazed at the high quality of the images that some people have posted there, and it's become my go-to site for album artwork.

One thing I like about sites like Album Art Exchange is that they help remind me that I am far from the cutting edge in O.C.D., and in fact probably fall into the "normal/hobbyist" category. I notice one person at the Exchange has posted over 20,000 images, almost all of them of insanely high quality. Unfortunately, not nearly all the albums I want high quality images for are available there, so I've started posting some of my stuff at 600X 600, 72 dpi under the screen name "zbop" in hopes of saving those of you with similar music collections the time and trouble of scanning and editing your entire music collection.

There is probably some small irony to the fact that the digitization of everything, which was supposed to make all our lives the last word in convenience, has resulted--at least for some of us--in a series of time consuming and elaborate rituals that are about as far removed from "convenient" as I can imagine.


wardo said...

I spent far too much time once uploading artwork into my iTunes. I say this because I had to reload my library, and many of the things I'd found were lost and I haven't felt like going through that again.

I can handle low resolution or odd cropping, but when something is just plain incorrect, it mystifies me. Gracenotes isn't a perfect system, but so far they haven't expressed any interest in hiring me to help them out.

Winner Allen said...

How do you get iTunes album artwork?