Last updated on December 10th, 2018
While one might think that music streaming services are sending offline audio collections the way of the dodo bird, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Having a well-groomed digital music library is one of the grandest pleasures and possessions any self-professed audiophile can have. There’s no need to speak about audio quality and bit-rate – that topic’s already been beaten to death. But we’re still left with one of the most important facets of anyone’s catalog – Album Artwork. If you’ve postponed getting the tunes on your computer in order, take this opportunity to get the job done. Here are a few tips, tricks and recommendations for finding and assigning album cover art to your music library. A definitive guide of personal audio collection album art, of sorts. I bet you’ll have learned something by the time you reach the end.
Ever since the dawn of modern commercial music, stunning high-quality album art has been an intrinsical part of the music experience. Be it to visually supplement the melody, or just as a marketing ploy, we’ve always had it there illustrating our favorite albums. It’s hard to think of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ without mentally recalling its iconic album cover. Likewise, most Millennials would certainly recognize Abbey Road even if they’ve never heard a single track from its eponymous record.
Though a lot has changed over the past few decades, album art is anything but obsolete. Albums have lost their relevance to singles, music is no longer considered a physical product… but do a search for any track and the first thing you’ll see is its thumbnail. Enter any music store and you’ll still find colorful, fantastic cover artwork lining the aisles and walls.
And it’s a good thing, too. Just as music tells a story of its time, yesteryear’s vinyl sleeves and CD jewel cases are today’s pop culture and art history references. Keeping one’s library decorated with album art is a beautiful way to illustrate the soundtrack of our lives and make our audio collection a prized possession worth leaving in our will.
That said, let’s begin!
Get your metadata in order
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why your albums might not already have the correct artwork assigned to it. You might have misplaced or deleted it over the years, your early 2000’s CD didn’t include it, or you just forgot to copy it when you ripped your physical CD. Sites like AlbumArtExchange.com show that it’s in demand. However, if your goal is to tag every record, chances are you’ll need to do some metadata editing first.
Since album artwork depends on metadata, it’s impossible to touch one without the other. Before even bothering to start hoarding scans of album sleeves, get your allegorical house in order. That means assigning the right ‘album’ value to each track, including combining albums which are detected as different but are actually the same. Likewise, it also means separating tracks that don’t belong to any album, such as singles or unreleased.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to stick to the basics. And keep in mind that this is my personal opinion – if yours varies, that’s fine. Here are a few tips and tricks:
Use music library management software
Once your music collection surpasses a few dozen albums – and I trust you crossed that Rubicon decades ago – editing your tracks and albums in the file explorer becomes untenable. To properly manage your music’s album art, you’re going to need some form of software. The best option in town is, without a doubt, MediaMonkey. And it’s free.
MediaMonkey’s functionality is way too versatile to detail here. However, I might as well mention a few salient features. You can manage 100,000+ audio/video files with ease and tag hundreds or thousands of songs in a single step. It can auto-organize your files or auto-tag them intelligently. It identifies and helps correct discrepancies in your library. And if there’s something it can’t natively do, there’s probably a plugin for it. As far as aesthetics go, if you don’t like the default look you’re bound to find something that fits you – my favorite is Eclipse v3.
I’ve been using the premium version, MediaMonkey Gold (which has extra features) for more than a decade now, so I can fully vouch for it. It’s one of my favorite and most used programs. Heck, when I started using it, “portable music” still meant a Walkman. Finally, since it modifies the file’s metadata itself, you’re not tied to the software – if your ever change your mind, you can move along without losing any information.
In any case, If you use a different music library management software, no worries. The vast majority of everything detailed here still applies. This is just for folks out there without any preconceived notions or preferences.
Now lets start wrangling that audio metadata.
What matters is ‘Album Artist’, not ‘Artist’
The ‘artist’ metadata value is typically identical to the ‘Album Artist’, but not necessarily so. With regards to album cover-art, ‘Album Artist’ is what counts. Only ‘albums’ with identical ‘Album Artist’ will automatically share the same cover art.
Let’s use the example of a “2018 Summer Hits” album – It’s a unique album with one individual album cover and say, 30 different artists. The ‘Album Artist’ should be “Various Artists” (or something equivalent). If you don’t set the ‘Album Artist’, or you set each track’s ‘Album Artist’ to the actual artist, MediaMonkey will assume that each of the 30 artists produced a separate album coincidentally named “2018 Summer Hits” – each with a single track . For an album to be considered a single unit (an album), the ‘Album Artist’ has to the same, regardless of who the actual performer is or the ‘artist’ tag. It’s for this reason that leaving the ‘Album Artist’ field empty is bad practice.
A similar thing can happen with DJs or hip-hop music. For example, the ‘After Hour – The Mixtape‘ should have the album artist ‘DJ Joaking & DJ SaoT ST’. That despite the fact they aren’t really the artist of any track at all, casually speaking.
The takeaway? One way to think of it is that the ‘Artist’ tag doesn’t really matter, and that the ‘Album Artist’ tag is whatever you’d ask for if you we’re looking for that album in a record store.
Epistemology aside, what forms part of an album is sometimes a diffuse topic. Especially when it comes to technically undistributed tracks or unofficial versions. A large part of your collection may have never been formally released. You’ll have to decide now how to assign cover artwork to them. Personally:
- All unreleased tracks for any given artist get assigned the album value ‘[N/A]‘ – N/A standing for “Not Any” or “Not Applicable”. The “[ ]” symbolizes that it truly is ‘Not Any’ – not simply that I forgot or don’t know. That way, all unreleased tracks are treated as forming part of a single album – the ‘[N/A]’ album from that artist. If you find out otherwise later, you can always correct it.
- Live versions go in the same album as the original – You may have some tracks you like enough to keep an extra “live version” copy. Given that they’re live performances, they generally won’t have albums. To keep things simple, I tag them with the album where the song was originally released, setting the track number to ‘Live’.
- Singles go with the original album – Generally, for tracks that are both singles and form part of an album, I tend to group them with the album they originate from. If the single came out first, they get treated as single-track albums by their own right. When it just isn’t clear, don’t waste time and just group it with the ‘[N/A]’ album for that artist.
- With remixes it gets a bit more complicated – Especially considering that they are often unofficial. Generally, if I’m a fan of the remixer and the change is significant, they’re the artist. If not, then the original artist is and it’s potentially grouped as a “Remix” track from the original album.
For tracks with unknown metadata, use a standardized value
If a track hasn’t officially been released yet, you can set the album to ‘[Not Out Yet]’. If the artist or album is unknown, then set it to ‘[Unknown]’ (without the quotes).
Use standardized values across your library for consistency. Putting it between brackets lets you know that it isn’t just an album named Unknown. Having an easy solution like this avoids you wasting too much time when you still have a few hundred more tracks to tag.
For old or obscure albums, skip generic search engines
Music metadata can get absurdly technical, fast. Especially when you’re dealing with vinyls, tapes, mixtapes, re-released/remastered albums or international-market CDs. Search engines and blog posts will often have wrong or conflicting information.
When I want to find the true and correct values for any metadata, be it album year, track number or anything else, I go to Discogs. There the details are meticulously filled in by people with OCD or on the spectrum – more or less the same type of people who would spend their time reading an article on album art tagging… Wink. In other words, you can trust it’s the most reliable source.
Suggestions on how to select album art
The goal is to assign accurate, original album cover artwork to 100% of your tracks as quick as possible. Sometimes that isn’t feasible, and with large music collections working fast isn’t negotiable. I’ll assume you want to grab digital images online rather than spend hours scanning small and scratched, years-old covers from your purchased physical CDs. Here are some heuristics to apply when selecting from among multiple album covers:
- ‘[N/A]’ tracks for a given artist – As all of the unreleased tracks without a formal album get grouped into a single ‘[N/A]’ album for that artist, all those tracks will get one shared album cover. Use a square portrait of the artist or group.
- Multiple artwork – When there are multiple seemingly-official album covers for a given album (remasters?), pick the one you like most if they are of equal quality and size. If you like them equally, pick the higher resolution copy.
- Multi-Market CDs and Releases – With international artists, sometimes you’ll find effectively the same album released in different countries, in different years or with different album covers. Pick the album cover of the copy you own, of the most popular market (generally US or Japan) or the highest quality cover image you can find… in that approximate order.
- Vintage Vinyls and Records – It wasn’t until the 1950s that album art really caught on. Prior to that, many LP sleeves were mostly blank with a cutout for the vinyl’s circular label. In those cases, using a square image of the LP’s text label (as seen above) is a good choice.
- Audiobooks, Speeches & Interviews – You might see some unconventional material sneak into your music library. Use a flattering or representative portrait of the narrator or speaker.
Pick a ‘default image’ for when album art doesn’t exist
In some cases, there just isn’t any album cover to find. Maybe it’s an obscure, anonymous artist for who there isn’t so much as a portrait. Perhaps it was only released on cassette or tape. For others, you probably aren’t even sure of the correct album name or artist – darn you, pre-digital age! It’s even worse with mixes. If you amass enough music in your collection, there are plenty of situations where this applies .
For those scenarios, pick a default image for your whole library. That way you can use it as an aesthetically pleasing, neutral place holder. If you ever discover the correct cover art later on, you can quickly fix it. But if not, using a standard image will save you from wasting time or over-populating your “Missing Album Art” playlist. Plus, it’s the only realistic way to get your library to have 100% of songs with cover art.
The one above is an example of the what I use for my personal music files. You should pick your own, though I can’t stop you if you just grab that one for your personal, private, non-commercial use.
Album Art is either ’embedded’ or ‘Linked’
A quick note – There are two ways to assign album art to a track. Neither is inherently superior. It’s your choice and there is no right or wrong answer.
One method is to embed it directly into the track. That way you can’t mistakenly separate the album art from the song. Another advantage is a reduced risk of duplicating artwork on import in some software. The downside is that for an album with 12 tracks, the same image is embedded 12 times – once per each track. This also increases the size of each audio file. Whether this matters to you or not is your decision. MediaMonkey can automatically embed the images via the ‘Album Artwork Properties’ menu. Also, some audio formats don’t support album art embedding (such as WAV).
The other option is to link the album art. In this case, you have to place all of each album’s tracks in a single, exclusive folder. Inside the folder you place both the tracks, and a ‘folder.jpg’. MediaMonkey can create it for you. Most devices will automatically recognize that ‘folder.jpg’ is the album art for all tracks in that folder. The plus is that you only need a single ‘.jpg’ per album. The downside is that it’s extremely easy to copy or move your tracks without the ‘folder.jpg’, making a mess of your audio library. It’s also very easy to overwrite.
Alternatively, if you wanted more redundancy you could both embed and link the album art – but that might confuse some audio library management software or devices. I’d recommend embedding and backing up your artwork, instead.
Personally, I choose to embed the album art. I think it’s more reliable than the alternative, and storage space isn’t that expensive these days.
What image properties should you choose
Now the nitty-gritty. By what exact properties should one choose album art for their music collection?
The truth is, it changes over time. Image quality, resolution and file sizes have changed drastically over the years. Nonetheless, here are some quick and dirty guidelines for picking out album art:
- Choose square artwork for the main cover – Depending on the player, some will crop cover art that isn’t perfectly square. Or it might show an unsightly white or black border. If you can, it’s better to stretch/shrink almost square images rather than use rectangular ones.
- Only assign a front cover – For multi-thousand album libraries, searching for anything more than just the front cover isn’t viable. Only add additional illustrations for your favorites or if you already have them.
- Stick to resolutions around 1280px – Anything above 1000px squared is good. 1280px is a popular online file resolution based on fully covering the majority of user’s displays while keeping file size low – main priorities for embedded album art.
- Use minimum dimensions of 300px or so – If you can’t find an image that large, use either default cover artwork or stretch (gasp!) a slightly smaller image instead.
- Pick JPGs/JPEGs – JPGs are the industry standard for compressed images. It’s the best compromise between size and quality. Using them you can easily resize or compress images to your needs. The other option is PNG, but they are larger lossless images.
- Keep file sizes between 200 and 400KB – Anything larger inflates music library sizes and takes too long to load.
- For leaflets, CD labels, vinyl sleeves or anything else, there’s leeway – Feel free to use non-standard sizes, but remember to correctly tag their image types in the ‘artwork properties’.
Of course, you’re free to ignore these parameters for particularly good cover art or your favorite albums.
Searching and finding cover artwork
The next hardest part is where to find and get album artwork. This aspect has seen major changes over the decades. Rather than scanning and copying your physical media, most high quality album art is now just a few clicks away.
Where to find high-quality music artwork
There isn’t one single best album cover search engine for finding artwork. The main players for high-quality album cover search sites are:
- Google Images – Not a big surprise. It’s the best place to start your search, as it agglomerates all the rest. But make no mistake – you won’t find everything here doing a quick search.
- E-Commerce Stores – High quality images finely compressed for small file sizes. They’re great CD cover websites.
- Streaming Sites – Of which hopefully you already have a membership. This is the best of both worlds: High quality, accurate album artwork that take up little disk space for fast streaming.
- Discogs – Ideal for vintage LP sleeves or indie record album covers. There is a lot of inferior quality scans, though.
- AlbumArtExchange – A slightly niche site for when only the highest quality HD album covers and CD artwork will do.
An example manual search algorithm
How you search for CD and Vinyl cover art images will depend on what’s worked best for you in the past, how much time you want to spend, how perfectionist you are and what tools you like using. As for me, to find album cover art I normally:
- Open up three internet browser tabs.
- In the first tab open Google images and set the search size to exactly 1280x1280px. The links are already preconfigured – you might want to bookmark it (or this page). If not, set the size in ‘Tools’ . 1280x1280px is square album art in a generally web-optimized (compressed) image size. Choosing that size pre-sorts for light-weight album art. Most high quality album covers are here. Note – ‘Tidal.com’ album art is typically first-class – They have consistent high-quality and small disk size.
- In a second tab, open Google Images with settings ‘Large’ and ‘Show Sizes’ for standard image searches. This is the second best option when there isn’t any good 1280px album art. If ‘Large’ isn’t available, try other sizes.
- In a third tab, add a regular search engine window for third-party indirect album art searches. By that I mean album art in blogs or websites which Google Images hasn’t indexed.
- Download the missing album art that best suits your preferences. I start the search in the first tab and if I don’t find anything great I check the second. As a last resort I turn to the third tab. How to save, copy or download the images will depend on your browser. The option is generally in the right-click menu.
- When possible, once finished modifying the music library files, back up any new album art.
Of course, all of this is extremely subjective, so you can vary those steps to what suit you best.
Trick – Use reverse image searches
If you find a great image whose only defect is that it’s too small, reverse image search it. To do so, in Google Images, drag the image thumbnail to the search bar. Or copy the image’s location link to the box. Frequently you’ll find that reverse searching a 640x640px image shows you the same image in larger sizes.
Always check the file size of covers you find before saving
If you aren’t careful, it’s easy to embed a 8MB, 4000px vinyl sleeve scan into a 2MB, 320kbps MP3 by mistake. Before embedding any artwork, always check the file’s size. Using files that are too large inflate the disk space your music collection occupies, takes longer to load, and longer to skip tracks. This is especially true if you listen to your CD library wirelessly or sync it to mobile devices.
In most cases, rarely if ever will you see more than a smallish thumbnail. You’re wasting space if you assign a resolution larger than your monitor. If you find an image you love but that’s too big, check the next section.
Fast editing of music covers
As with music, sometimes you’ll find a cover copy that is just-almost perfect, but has a small flaw. Often it’s quicker to make the edit manually then to keep looking for a better scan of that vinyl sleeve. To make those on-the-fly corrections, I recommend the free program Paint.net. Next are the most frequent operations.
Quickly cropping music artwork
Some albums will have an unsightly black or white edge from misaligned scanning that needs removing. Others, a deteriorated edge from years of storage. You can correct either in a few seconds. There are two easy methods to do so.
- Reduce the image canvas size – If removing a couple of pixels with surgical precision is what’s needed, use ‘Image > Canvas Size’. There you can reduce the canvas just enough to trim away the edges.
- Crop it manually – When the artwork is really bad, or you just need a quick and dirty edit, use ‘Image > Crop to Selection’ after using the ‘Rectangle Select’ to pick the good part.
Either method will usually require making square or adjusting the overall image size afterwards.
Pro Tip – Minor image defect repairs
If the image has some small defect that’s bugging you – creased corners, scratches, wrinkles… – you can fix them quickly in Paint.net. While there’s no sophisticated heal tool, most of the time you can perfectly do without it.
For plain color backgrounds, use the ‘eye dropper’ tool to select the color near the defect. Then use the ‘paintbrush’ to cover the damage. Correctly selecting the brush’s width and hardness helps blend it in.
For textured backgrounds, use the ‘Clone Stamp’ tool instead. Select the tool, then press ‘Ctrl+ Left Click’ near the area. Then click and hold to stamp over the damaged portion.
Quickly resizing rectangular and too big album covers
There are two reasons why you’d want to resize an album cover: Non-square and/or too large image. You can fix both quickly using the tool ‘Image > Resize‘ selecting the right pixel dimensions to stretch and reduce it as appropriate.
Images that are too large result in huge file sizes and provide no benefit on smaller displays. On the other hand, images that are not perfectly square may leave visual artifacts on some players and displays. Try to correct both issues when you can.
For hopefully obvious reasons, use smaller image dimensions than the original, or close to it. enlarging images destroys quality. There’s little harm in enlarging a 997px image to 1000px, but don’t go overboard.
The only exception, as far as my music library is concerned, is already tiny, poor-quality artwork for which there is no hope of a better option. For some CDs, tapes or vinyls, there simply isn’t high-resolution album art. In those cases, I commit the sin of expanding, say, 150px images to 300px images. Partially so I don’t confuse it with album art WMP mischievously resized… but also so I don’t keep noticing the album art and looking for something better when there’s little to no chance of finding it.
Note – Ignore the Resolution/DPI
An image’s DPI or Pixels/inch has NOTHING to do with how it is viewed digitally. It is solely related to how it will print out on paper. What your LP sleeve scan looks like on a display will not change at all, neither for better or worse, if you adjust its DPI. Needing to set the DPI to 72 is an old wives tale.
Reducing cover art file sizes
The final step when saving a JPG is to select the image ‘quality’. And by quality, read compression. The program will prompt you automatically when you save a JPG. The lower a number you select, the smaller the image size and worse the image quality. Like it or not, it’s a compromise. I try to stay within the values of 75 and 99.
As of 2018, 200-300KB is a reasonable file size for embedded mp3 album art. But besides that, the smaller the better. Vinyl album covers and other images rarely need better quality for the small screens they’re displayed on. As FLAC and faster data transmission gains traction, larger files will gain viability. Depending on your needs and desires, you can raise or lower the file size.
Miscellaneous notes & tips
Finding albums in your library with missing or inconsistent artwork
MediaMonkey makes easy work of grooming your library, thankfully. It auto-generates a list of tracks and albums in your music collection that need attention. Click ‘Music > Files to Edit’ to see all types of lists for tracks with unknown title, album, artist or any other parameter that’s missing or inconsistent, including artwork. This is an enormous help for consolidating your library. The two main ones are:
- Unknown Artwork – Presumably you’ll find newly imported tracks which have no artwork at all. Just assign an album and/or artwork to them and they’ll disappear from that list.
- Inconsistent Artwork – Here you’ll find tracks that have different artwork despite allegedly belonging to the same album. Sometimes all you have to do is assign the correct ‘album’ or ‘album artist’ tag. In others, delete the extra artwork and apply the same, correct artwork to all the tracks in a same album.
Using both tools you can easily manage the artwork of huge libraries. It makes the goal of 100% artwork perfectly feasible.
Quick tip – As mentioned above, for albums for which you have no hope of ever finding an album cover, use a default image instead. That will keep them from crowding your “missing artwork” playlist. In that folder you should only find the new songs in your library – not the songs for which you haven’t been able to find proper artwork during the last decade.
Be aware of Window Media Player’s fatal resizing bug
I don’t know if every Windows user experiences this, but I’ve spent countless man-hours downloading and retagging CD covers thanks to this bug. Users have been complaining about WMP’s disastrous album art replacing since the early 2000s, and even in 2018 I’ve still suffered it.
The issue is that Windows Media Player will auto-scan you music library and resize or redownload your artwork to 200x200px or smaller. Even if you don’t open or use the program to listen to music. And once WMP degrades your album art, you can’t reverse it.
Thankfully, once you know it’s happening you can prevent it. I wrote a post on the topic which you can see here:
Back up your art collection
If you’ve spent years building up your music collection, the last thing you’d want is to lose it. Using an external hard drive to keep an offline copy of your files is essential, and you’re probably already doing that. But with album art cover files, it’s more complicated – Especially if you embed the art inside the tracks. Backing up album covers separately requires a bit of finesse.
As a complement to this article, I’ve also written one on that topic. If you want to see it – and I recommend you do – click on the image above or the link below.
As you’re tagging your personal music library with the best album art you can find, you might realize that in some cases you have better artwork than the internet! This is especially true for obscure, old, non-english or pre-digital era albums. The thought “hey, someone might appreciate it if I upload this!” may very well cross your mind.
There are a few issues. One is that people who spend their time searching for and uploading cover art can get a bit overzealous – sometimes rightly so. Typically you’ll have to fill in A LOT more album metadata than you have time or patience for. And you’ll piss them off if you aren’t accurate with that information. Concerning moderation on album cover sharing websites, some are extremely choosy as far as what sizes and quality they accept. Others will frequently prefer no cover art over low quality cover art. It’s even worse if the art still needs retouching or has an odd image aspect.
The other problem is that there are non-trivial copyright concerns for artwork sites and those who upload to them. Especially if bootleggers unfortunately make a habit of using those websites. Whereas you might want to quickly and anonymously upload a file to whatever domain without logging in, they almost universally require opening an account for liability and DMCA takedown purposes.
All in all, the very least you can do is back up your album artwork to preserve it for the future. Someday there may be better fair-use legal protection and a one-stop shop for music artwork to upload it to.
Note on copyright
Technically (and literally) speaking, album artwork is copyrighted material. You aren’t supposed to share or download it unless you’re have the right to – and if you have to ask, you probably don’t have it. Oh, and by downloading I do mean making a copy of every album cover you’re library is missing by brute-forcing Google Images.
That said, the copying of album artwork for private, personal non-commercial usage is essentially a non-issue. With regards to use for your own music collection the risk is near zero. That’s just my impression though – consult a lawyer. The bad news is that by the letter of the law, you shouldn’t share any copies of the album covers you have, even if you own the physical CD. And that also means that it’s not exactly legit for people to share their artwork collection with you, which limits the selection. While you could definitely argue that it’s fair use if you bought the music or scanned it yourself, the only place ‘fair use’ can legally be established is in a courtroom – And I’d like to avoid that, thank you very much.
In sum, to stay safe, you might want to download your album artwork discretely and keep it to yourself. It’s your call.
While adding album art to your music collection is anything but fulfilling, seeing the results is nothing short of bliss. I enjoy every moment of scrolling through my audio library. And using PowerAmp on my phone – my favorite Android music player – is just as gratifying. I don’t doubt that for melomaniacs like us, routinely seeing the art that accompanied the tunes of our youth can multiply the therapeutic charm. Hopefully the info you’ve found here will help you take your music library up a notch. God knows it’s been a life-long adventure to get my collection this well sorted. And if you try MediaMonkey and find it useful, I’m glad. I really hope that program stays alive for years to come.
Anyway, thanks for reading! If you’ve found this useful, consider sharing – there should be buttons to do so around this post somewhere. Or even better, donate or subscribe – Either are what help keep this site alive. Have a good one!