iTunes 9.1’s Down-Convert Feature is a Game Changer

31 March 2010

I use a 160Gb iPod Classic at work. It has all my music on it. I decided a while ago to “go lossless” and have ripped every new disc as Apple Lossless ever since. I’ve also upgraded a number of previously ripped discs. The result is that I’ve had to drop all music videos from the sync as they wouldn’t fit and I’m down to 10Gb free.

Enter iTunes 9.1 with the “convert-to-128-Kbps-for-any-iPod” feature. This simple feature, long missing from iTunes, has completely changed my iPod plans this year. I was considering buying a second Classic but didn’t like the idea of splitting the library. The whole charm of the big Classic is to take your whole library with you, one of the key tenets of the original iPod. Now I don’t have to buy another Classic. If Apple releases a bigger Classic this year, it won’t be as compelling as it once was.

That leads me to my next point: this simple feature could have an impact on the iPod line-up this year. This may be the year that the Classic iPod is discontinued. Apple’s got the perfect excuse. You’ve got this compression feature now, so you can squeeze everything onto a smaller device. For the minority like myself who deal in lossless files, we can get everything onto a Classic. Why should Apple continue the Classic in the face of this?

I should mention that I’m probably not a conventional user. I can play music at work. While I appreciate quality, I wouldn’t know the difference at work because the music is played at a low volume through average speakers. Therefore, this feature is perfect for me. I can pick and choose which devices should have down-converted files. For instance, I wouldn’t down-convert on my Nano because that’s something I listen to exclusively through headphones.


iTunes LP for Apple TV

11 September 2009

Norah Jones: Come Away with Me: iTunes LP

I like the new LP format. It consists of a new file type (.itlp) that contains everything but the songs and some of the videos. I bought the Norah Jones. In iTunes, the album appears as a number of items. The first is the iTunes LP file, running at 175Mb. This contains the interface and it links to the songs and two of the videos. The rest are the songs of the album, plus, in this case, two videos. You can play the songs and videos in iTunes, independent of the LP interface. These are what are synced to your iPod or Apple TV. To view it in LP mode, you double-click the LP item.

The LP interface is much like a DVD, with clickable links. All the text is large, like it is with a DVD, intended to be read from across a room on a large display. It seems a no-brainer for Apple TV to support this in LP mode, but as of last night, there was no software update. This would also apply to movies with extras. It’s a virtual DVD. I’m hoping we see this on Apple TV soon.

Losin’ Myself in Lossless

9 September 2009

Predictably, I’ve decided that, in contrary to what I said in my last post, I’m going fully lossless. That means that all CDs will be reripped as Apple Lossless. The journey will end.

I’m going to start with those CDs that have hidden tracks. As I’ve ripped my collection, I’ve been alert to unusually long final tracks, which often denote a hidden track. I don’t rip these in iTunes. I open the CD in the Finder and drag the final track to the desktop. I then open it in QuickTime Player, find and chop out the hidden track, save that as an AIFF and save the shortened original as an AIFF. I then drag these into iTunes and rip as Apple Lossless. I used to then rip those to 256Kbps AAC and store the Lossless originals in a folder archive, out of iTunes.

So that’s the starting point. Rip the CD minus the two last tracks, drag in the Lossless tracks, done.

Well, almost. They need to be “double-tagged“. I’ve started trialling Meta X. It’s not perfect. For a start, it wants to classify a Lossless track as a movie, a TV show or a music video. It thinks it’s video. I run the tracks through Lostify first, specifying a kind of  Normal (Audio). Meta X then respects this. Meta X allows me to write two tags that Lostify can’t: audio Content Rating and Purchase Date. This latter is a little flaky. If I enter 2005-05-29, it’s converted to Zulu notation and given a time as well. The date is always a day later, so the above example will appear something like 30 May 2005 6:00PM in the Summary tab of the Get Info dialog for a single track. I need to understand how Zulu time works.

I’ve got a database listing every single CD I’ve bought, with the date, supplier and cost, so I have the purchase data. I’m hoping a later revision will also present the Purchased By tag so I can finish the job with my name.

What about the other end of the equation, the real bottleneck, the iPod? I had an inspiration. My two-year-old 160Gb Classic would not be worth too much now, especially after tomorrow’s iPod event, so I’m better off keeping it. The solution is simple: buy an additional Classic and run two Classics to hold the library. I would have put off getting an additional Classic until next year but the free space is being consumed at an alarming rate and I’ll run out in about a month. Two Classics, especially if the new one tomorrow is 160Gb or greater, is the solution until that fabled 500Gb iPod Touch becomes reality.

I tried to work out how much space to expect Lossless files to take up, but the math is difficult. I believe Lossless compresses at different rates depending on the audio pattern. For example, the last track of Massive Attack’s 100th Window, Antistar, is bigger than the hidden track, LP4, even though LP4 is much longer. LP4 is little more than 11:23 of static, which is super-efficient to compress. It will take months, probably a year, given all my projects, before I could rerip everything, so space will not be an immediate concern.

So that’s my journey. Light at the end of the tunnel at last. Enjoyable all the way.

Going Lossless

24 August 2009

I’m ripping CDs to 256Kbps AAC, mostly because it’s Apple’s standard on the iTunes Store. I started out in 2002, ripping to 128Kbps, again because it was what Apple was doing, but also because my iPod was 30Gb and I had to fit everything on it plus leave some space for my rapidly burgeoning collection. iPods, in my book, dictate the bitrate you will be using.

I just bought two albums from sources other than the iTunes Store: the remarkable chiptunes tribute to Kind of Blue, Kind of Bloop and a new Paul & Price EP, Believing. I like the iTunes Store’s 256Kbps, but these two titles had a killer feature–they both were available in a lossless format. I ripped both to 256Kbps AAC and stored the lossless files away for later use.

I’ve been through three bitrate standards: 128Kpbs, 192Kbps and now 256Kbps. Each phase represents a time when the iPod (and to a lesser degree, local storage) capacity increased markedly. There is another phase to come, but thankfully it will be the last. When the iPod has another great leap forward in capacity, say to 500Gb, I will make that final step to full lossless for all my CDs.

The beauty of lossless, from a management viewpoint, is that you can’t make it any better, and thus your bitrate journey is over. By lossless, I specifically mean Apple’s Apple Lossless format, because that’s the one I’ve selected for compatibility with iTunes and the iPod.

It struck me, with these two titles I bought, that I don’t need to convert them to 256Kbps. There are only 9 songs between them, and keeping the lossless versions in iTunes means I don’t have to archive copies and there is no need to maintain two versions. My 160Gb iPod Classic still has about 25Gb free, and my iTunes library is on a readily upgradeable Drobo, so there’s no need to be careful about space considerations. I wouldn’t do this with all my music yet–there’s still the iPod capacity barrier, but the distinction here is that these files do not have a hardware CD source. I might as well leave these bits and bobs as lossless. Now I need replacement lossless versions for the Neptune Pink Floyd tribute compilations None of Us is Pink and The Return of the Sons of Neptune, lost in a hard-drive accident.

iTunes Store Australia Brings on the Free Stuff

12 March 2009
iTunes Store Australia Free Content

iTunes Store Australia Free Content

US iTunes Store customers have enjoyed a wide range of free items every week, including songs, music videos, TV episodes and short films. In Australia, since its inception, we have only had one free item a week–a song–until recently. Last week there was a free “making-of” clip for the series Invincible (iTunes Store link). This week, look at the bounty laid before us: first episode of Chandon Pictures, Season 2 (iTunes Store link) (this is available as a season pass), a song and the premiere of another TV show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (iTunes Store link). I’m pleased with the increased selection and the free episode of Chandon Pictures I consider especially generous as this is being posted shortly after it has been aired on its cable station. I bought the first season when it came out and this gesture by Apple has guaranteed that I will buy this season pass.

The Perfect Cafe Playlist

24 February 2009
Kash Cafe, Surry Hills, Sydney

Kash Kafe, Surry Hills, Sydney

The following plug won’t make any sense to people who don’t frequent the Surry Hills suburb of Sydney, but I’ll go ahead anyway. I’ve become friends with the proprietors of my favourite cafe, Kash Kafe, and it has given me the opportunity to devise a solution for someone with different needs to my own, which has been refreshing.

Let me make a number of assumptions: you play music only (no other audio type and no video). You use an iPod connected to an audio system that has a remote which gives you control over play/pause, fast forward/skip and rewind/skip back. The iPod is of reasonable capacity, i.e. 20Gb or more.

Let’s start with the desired music style. What do you want to play at your cafe? Chillout? Doof-doof? Rawk? Decide on a style. If your music library consists of nothing but that style, you won’t have to think about this first step.

Once you’ve decided on a style, you’ll need to filter that style of music out of your library. Easiest way to do this is by genre. For example, if you want chillout music, your first criteria will be Ambient, Electronic, R&B, etc. This is highly subjective (refer to my previous post on genre) but use whatever works for you. The selection will get more accurate over time.

The next factor is frequency. You don’t want to hear the same song every day, so we include a time-based criterion which excludes songs played within a certain timeframe. If you’ve got a lot of music, make it a month. If less, perhaps 1 week. While playing the playlist, if you notice that songs repeat a little too often, increase this timeframe. I’m assuming that a mixture of music, i.e. randomised, is desired.

You’ll want at least a day’s worth of music, so err on the generous side and specify 2 hours more than your open hours. If you don’t sync your iPod daily, then add one day’s worth for every day you don’t sync. For example, if you take your iPod home for syncing every 3 days, and each day you open for 6 hours, then you need 8 hours per day for 3 days = 24 hours.

Your selection of tracks won’t be perfect initially. Occasionally a raucous number will impinge on your quiet or a slow song will interrupt a perfectly thumping good time, depending on your taste. We need a mechanism to exclude these over time.

On top of it all, perhaps you only want songs that are above a certain rating. This presupposes that you have taken the time to assign ratings to a sufficient percentage of the songs to make it worthwhile, not easily done in a busy cafe! However, using a technique I will outline, you can get a general approximation of rating over time.

The Key

The key to my proposed system is the use of the forward skip functionality on the iPod. If you skip forward, this fact is recorded on the iPod and after syncing, in iTunes. The date and time the track is skipped and an incremental count is stamped on the song. From this information, certain assumptions can be made. The first is that the song is not liked or is not suitable for playing in the cafe. A small margin of error needs to be included to account for incorrect button-pressing or mood swings. If the skip count rises above a certain number, we can assume that you don’t want that song to appear in the cafe again.

Secondly, the lack of Skip Count but high incidence of Play Count (the song has played from start to finish) indicates that you like the song or that it is appropriate because you didn’t skip it.

Over time, songs that have been played through a certain number of times but skipped below a number of times are candidates for rating, which can be done on a number of songs in one action.

The busy cafe operator does not have time to rate songs on the fly nor to make decisions beyond “I don’t want to hear that now”. The skip forward button is all they need to increase accuracy over time.

The System

A set of Smart playlists are employed as it can’t be done in one playlist in iTunes.

Begin by creating a new folder called Cafe (File > New Playlist Folder) to keep these playlists together and organised.

The first playlist is entitled Cafe Music Genres. The purpose of this playlist is to gather together all the songs with the genres you want. The other playlists will use this pool of songs from which to create a day-to-day playlist. Select New Smart Playlist… from the File menu and configure thusly:

Cafe Playlist Source (Click to enlarge)

Cafe Music Genres Playlist (Click to enlarge)

The second playlist is called Cafe Music. This playlist adds the other criteria we need to produce the playlist that you sync to your iPod on your routine. Here I’ve assumed a moderate library (5000 songs) for a one-week repeat cycle and an 8-hour selection, which is assuming that 8 hours is a day’s worth and the iPod is synced daily. I’ve also filtered out any music videos that you might have, because you won’t be watching video. The Music Videos playlist is preconfigured when you install iTunes.

Cafe Music Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Cafe Music Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Additionally, the following playlist will show you all the unrated songs that you “like” (based on number of times fully played and a low number of skips). Select all the songs and select File > Rating > (desired rating) to rate them all at once. They will disappear from the playlist as they have now been rated. You can check this from time to time as songs appear.

To Be Rated Playlist (Click to enlarge)

To Be Rated Playlist (Click to enlarge)

Here is your neat little package of playlists. Click each playlist and drag it into the folder:

Cafe Playlist Folder

Cafe Playlist Folder

Once you’ve set up the system, other than a small amount of tweaking at the start, it should be good to use daily without further interference. I hope this system inspires operators of cafes and similar environments (hairdressers, restaurants, etc.) to provide a better mix of music.

iTunes Free Song of the Week: Get the DRM-Free Version

21 February 2009
iTunes Plus Free Songs of the Week (Click to enlarge)

iTunes Plus Free Songs of the Week (Click to enlarge)

Despite the move to iTunes Plus for new songs, the free song of the week has been offered in 128kbps DRM format. Songs of the Week are presented as a single-song album. What I have discovered here in Australia, for at least the last month, is that the free song has also been available in a 256kbps DRM-free version. Instead of getting the free song, click the artist name in the “breadcrumb trail”:

iTunes "Breadcrumb Trail" (Click to enlarge)

iTunes "Breadcrumb Trail" (Click to enlarge)

Look for an album with the same artwork as the free album. Ensure that it is an iTunes Plus album:

iTunes Album

iTunes Album

In that album will be the same song but in 256kbps and also free. Get that version instead:

iTunes Plus Free Song

iTunes Plus Free Song

I guess it will take a while to transition away from the old free song arrangement. Perhaps these have been decided on months in advance and so we still see them until they run out.