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.

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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.


Squaring Up Your Album Art

21 October 2008

For some time, iTunes has preferred square art. I first noticed this when the iTunes Store went live here in Australia. iTunes Store versions of landscape art would be modified to be square. In some cases, they appeared to be using a square cover from perhaps a vinyl single, in other cases, the artwork was chopped.

As a CD collector, I get a number of landscape covers in the form of CD singles, digipaks and slipcased jewel cases. About two years ago I began to produce square versions of landscape covers. If I want to be intellectual about what I do with my scanning, I would call myself a “reproduction artist”, “translating the artist’s vision from CD cover to digital image form”. I do try to reproduce, as accurately as possible, the full image and colour balance of the original. That means I scan the full landscape cover, for purists. However, given Apple’s products’ propensity to favour square art has led me to modify the landscapes into additional square forms. The iPod will either crop a landscape cover or add white bars to top and bottom. The iPhone will add the unsightly bars:

AC/DC • Black Ice Landscape Artwork on iPhone

AC/DC • Black Ice Landscape Artwork on iPhone

If possible, I merely crop either side down from 1130 x 1000 to 1000 x 1000. In some cases, this would crop text, so the elements need to be reworked. Here I’ve scanned the digipak version of ’74 Jailbreak:

AC/DC • '74 Jailbreak (Digipak Landscape) (Click to enlarge)

AC/DC • '74 Jailbreak (Digipak Landscape) (Click to enlarge)

To create this square version, I cropped the left side and shrank the artist name and title slightly to fit:

AC/DC • '74 Jailbreak (Square Version) (Click to enlarge)

AC/DC • '74 Jailbreak (Square Version) (Click to enlarge)

This is a somewhat complex cover. In most cases, you can just crop. I also refer to images on the internet to get an idea of what to modify in order to achieve a square shape. Luckily, a lot of titles still come out on vinyl, and of course they are square.

So with a little artistic licence, I can create artwork that is optimised for iTunes, iPod, iPhone and Apple TV. I post both versions on my album art site.


“Double-Tagging” Your CD Audio Files

10 October 2008

iTunes Store audio files contain a number of tags that can’t be done in iTunes, so audio files ripped from CDs will lack these. I tag these myself in a process that I refer to as double-tagging. This is not necessary by any means but I like the sense of completion that I get from doing this. This technique only works on the Mac because of the software I use.

Open the files in the venerable Lostify. If you check the option to add a script to iTunes, then you can select a range of songs in iTunes, then select the Lostify… link in the Script menu.

I have based my selection of additional tags on what I have observed with iTunes Store files. The tags to add are Release Date, Kind, Copyright and Content Rating.

Release Date

The release date is something you will have to research. Luckily, most CDs will be covered on the internet. I use Wikipedia, Rate Your Music, official artist sites, record label sites and the iTunes Store itself. Bizarrely, the most unreliable sources for release dates are often the official artist sites and record labels. If you find more than one date, try to take the most common one.

A note on compilations and rereleases. Consider The Chemical BrothersBrotherhood. It’s a singles compilation, released on 2 September 2008. Instead of tagging individual songs with the year that they were originally released, I tag each with this release date. The thinking is that the title on which the songs appear was released in 2008, as a discrete unit, so that’s the date to go with. It has the added advantage of sorting properly in iTunes if you sort by Album By Year. If you have individual years for the songs, it will force the whole album to the front of the list, as iTunes interprets the earliest date that appears in the album as the album date.

It’s not so clear-cut with rereleases. I’ve got a 25th anniversary edition of Deep Purple‘s Machine Head. It was released in March 1972. My edition is obviously 1997. As the whole album is essentially intact and contains no new material, I have tagged this as 1 March 1972.

That’s another thing: sometimes you will not get a complete date. If you get, for example, March 1972, then make the release date 1 March 1972. If you get 1972 only, then make it 1 July 1972.

Kind

This should be set to Normal (Audio), unless you are tagging an audiobook, in which case it will be Audiobook.

Copyright

Begin this string with the Recording Copyright symbol ℗ (activate the character palette by pressing Command-Option-T, then do a search for it and add it to your favorites for ready access), then the year and the owner of the sound recording (not the artwork; these are sometimes separate), all obtained from the rear of the CD, the disc itself, or at a pinch, the iTunes Store.

That makes a very satisfying completely tagged file. You can admire your handiwork in the General tab of the Get Info dialog (copyright) and the Release Date column, which you can add to any view:


(Click to Enlarge)

Content Rating

There are three options here, Inoffensive, Clean and Explicit. The differences between these are important.

Inoffensive is the default and most iTunes Store songs are tagged as this. It doesn’t appear in iTunes. It is not possible to tag a track as Inoffensive with Lostify due to an unhandled bug, so leave it blank for now.

Explicit is self explanatory. If your CD mentions any kind of warning, then use this. Good for filtering out music that you don’t want kids to hear.

Clean is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean Inoffensive. It is to be specifically used to indicate that it is a version of an explicit song, altered to remove explicit material. Sometimes albums in the iTunes Store are presented as both explicit and clean versions, so you can buy either. This could also apply to audiobooks and podcasts if they are altered, cleaner versions. There is very little call for this option.

I hope there are people out there that are as passionate about double-tagging as I am!


Subtle Changes to iTunes 7.7

12 July 2008

In my usual function of pointing out things that other, swifter sites may have missed, here is a 7.7 subtlety round-up.

Firstly, a bad one: With AAC files ripped under 7.7, Lostify is broken. It doesn’t recognise the files as valid MPEG 4 files, so you can’t edit the extended tags such as File Kind, Release Date and Copyright.

Album Art in iTunes 7.7
(Click to enlarge)

Album art in iTunes is magnified to fill the screen, regardless of original resolution. All my 400 x 400s now look huge and blocky. I don’t know if I like this beyond it being a prompt to upgrade my artwork. If the art is oddly sized and low-res, like for this podcast, it’s a little unsightly at full screen. This is from a 1920 x 1200 monitor.

Artwork at maximum size used to go below the dock, but now it doesn’t, which is a nice enhancement for artwork enthusiasts.

Remote

You’ll hear a lot about Remote for iPhone/iPod Touch, but I just wanted to register that it is jaw-droppingly well done. No other company could produce a remote so tightly integrated with iTunes and the Apple TV. The response time between interacting with the screen and playback is instantaneous. If you’ve set up AirTunes with an Airport Express or Apple TV, you can select which speakers you want to use, just like you can in iTunes.

I was playing a video on Apple TV, then paused it, changed control to iTunes on the computer and started playing an audio track, with the output going to the Apple TV using the AirTunes feature. Instead of the Apple TV choking, it simply displayed the album art and track information in the lower-left of the screen, then changed to the audio Now Playing screen. This is very impressive.

So, apart from support for the major features of iPhone/iPod Touch, some small tweaks. I’m not expecting any more, but will post if I do.


New Music Video Standard

26 November 2007

Yes, I’ve changed again. I follow Apple’s lead. They believe in H.264, so I do too.

The main reason I was using MPEG4 instead of H.264 was an incorrect assumption that 720 x 400 (16:9) was only iPod compatible if the file was MPEG4. I believe I would have tested this resolution with H.264 in the past–I always test–and would have found it incompatible, so I went with MPEG4 instead. Well, I’ve just done another test with four videos and lo and behold, it worked. This means that they upgraded the standard or that my earlier testing was poor. Either possibility is reasonable.

So what does this boil down to? Music videos are now specified as follows:

  • H.264 @ 1500kbps, 640 x 480 (4:3), 720 x 400 (16:9)
  • AAC @ 128kbps

If the source is a video file from an enhanced CD or the web, I don’t get fancy: I open in QuickTime Player and export to iPod. If it’s letterboxed (bane of the video collector’s life), I use MPEG Streamclip to achieve the same result, only I also crop the margins off (QuickTime Player can’t easily do this).

If the source is DVD, Handbrake is of course employed. I start with the iPod High Rez setting, then add 2-pass and greyscale (if appropriate). For audio, you can actually convert 5.1 to Dolby ProLogic II and the iPod will support it. Of course, you’ll only hear the stereo on an iPod, but this is good for using on both iPod and Apple TV, which might be connected to equipment that can support it. It does make a difference and is quite nice to listen to.

Handbrake 0.9.1’s new enhanced chaptering facility, where you can now name the chapters, is a great excuse to rerip video, and I especially like to rip long-form video such as concerts, Enigma’s A Posteriori DVD, Lemon Jelly’s ’64-’95 DVD, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture, etc. with the proper chapter markers. Strangely, the Touch, where I play music video the most, does not display the chapter names. If you tap the screen while a video is playing, it will say Chapter X of X, but doesn’t display the name. Apple has been notified.

Don’t muck with the advanced settings. They’re very good for tweaking video intended for the Apple TV or computer, as these devices are tolerant, but I’ve found that changing the slightest setting will prevent the video from transferring to an iPod (see my earlier post on this matter). You have to stick with stock-standard iPod settings to guarantee compatibility.

So I’m going to start ripping my music video again. The amount of work this entails is made palatable by remembering that I’ve got a number that don’t work with the new iPods and of course, my favourite, the chaptering excuse!


Upgrading a Music Library

8 August 2007

I’ve just decided to upgrade my music library to 256kbps AAC. I was using 192kbps, but iTunes Plus has made me re-evaluate. I’ve got plenty of storage on the computer. In fact, I’m just about to buy a fat external hard drive for iTunes media files alone. My 80Gb iPod has 5Gb free to allow for expansion like this and I’m banking on this year’s model having 100Gb or more.

256kbps alleviates more of the worry that compressed audio is a bad idea. I have a good ear but quell my most audiophile urges by allowing some loss of quality in exchange for usability. I don’t like to play CDs any more, especially ones that come in digipaks, slipcases or custom covers, for fear of wear and tear. All my delicates are sealed in plastic.

This is the third iteration of the ripping project. When I first started, I had to use 128kbps because of space limitations on computer and iPod. About a year and a half ago I decided to upgrade to 192kbps. I had more space in both camps and a friend of mine who is much more of a “sound guy” did a number of tests and determined that 192kbps was significantly better than 128. I didn’t notice much difference in the overall sound but the bass seemed to be better, so I went with 192.

Now for phase 3: 256. I am enjoying music more at this bit rate. Much more like a CD.

Here’s a tip: You might think that reripping is a chore, but you can make it a lot easier if you carefully tag your CDs in the first place. iTunes stores all the tags from a CD in the iTunes Library database file, so back this up or you will lose this CD tag data and you’ll have to download all those inaccuracies from CDDB again. If you don’t change any of the tags of the ripped files, then later put the CD in the drive to rerip it, you will be asked if you want to replace the existing files. This obviates the need to delete duplicates. I find that I inevitably have to change some tags over time to eliminate typos, correct genres, etc., so I have to verify the CD before I rip it. If the track name, artist, album, track number and/or disc number are different, iTunes will assume that the CD is a wholly different one from the one you are intending to replace, so check this.

Of course, if you aren’t intending to squeeze your whole library onto an iPod, I think you should get a big hard drive and rip from anywhere between 256kbps to 320kbps (highest bitrate supported by iTunes, iPod, iPhone and Apple TV) or even Lossless.