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 Backup Feature

19 February 2010

iTunes has a great feature: iTunes Backup. You can select a playlist or the whole library and can back it up to multiple DVDs. The problem is with the restoration. I’ve had this happen twice. In one case, I had the discs and a Mac and one disc would keep failing. I dumped the contents to a hard drive and copied them into iTunes that way. The other situation was with a Windows machine. I’m wondering if in this situation it was a filename-length issue. The files were created on Mac-formatted drive and he was restoring to FAT32. I overcame that with the hard-drive method. iTunes won’t tell you which file failed, either, so a whole disc is suspect when it fails.

The files themselves aren’t faulty. When you insert an iTunes Backup disc, it will appear in iTunes and you’ll be asked if you want to restore. If you ignore this, you’ll see that it’s a standard disc in the Finder or Windows Explorer. iTunes adds a little magic somehow to identify it as an iTunes Backup disc. To do the hard-drive trick mentioned above, I simply copied to a hard drive, then copied from the hard drive to iTunes. This will definitely bypass the disk-format issue if you use the same drive for both the copy and iTunes. If a file fails, your OS should give you some sort of explicit error for a specific file that you can correct, like “filename too long”.

The other annoying thing about this feature is that it mixes up all the content, so you may have the tracks of a single album strewn over more than one disc. My only theory as to why is that iTunes is trying to maximise how much it can get on a single disc and sticking to a strictly sequential order may leave unused space. This doesn’t matter if you intend to restore the lot and the feature works!

So Apple has a very good feature for the initial part of the operation, but the critical part, restoration, is sadly lacking. Use with care.


An overlooked iTunes 9 Feature

23 September 2009

I’m surprised that I still haven’t read someone mention this. In iTunes 9, if you create a new library, the title in the title bar changes to that library’s name. Here’s the default library:

iTunes Default Title

iTunes Default Title

Here’s a new library:

iTunes Alternate Title

iTunes Alternate Title

It’s a nice detail. I’m ripping someone else’s library at the moment and it’s how I keep our music apart.


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.


iPhone Supports Better-than-iPod Video Quality

10 September 2009

In versions of iTunes prior to 9, videos that are compatible with a device have been displayed with black text, incompatible with grey. In iTunes 9, I was looking at the TV settings for the iPhone and noticed that all of my TV shows appeared in black. I’ve ripped all my DVDs as 768 x 576 (4:3) or 1024 x 576 anamorphic (16:9), 2500Kbps H.264, 160Kbps AAC. Up to this point, I was never able to sync a file greater than iPod resolution.

To my delight and surprise, these PAL-derived monsters synced across and played. Here’s one from Arrested Development, ripped from a Region 4 PAL DVD:

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Compatible TV Show<br>Click to enlarge

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Compatible TV Show

This is the only 720 HD TV show I have, Dollhouse. It’s a rip from a TV broadcast. The iPhone wouldn’t accept it:

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible HD TV Show

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible HD TV Show

Next I tested an iPod Classic, the true standard. Despite the apparent compatibility (black text), it wouldn’t sync anything above iPod standard:

iPod Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible TV Show

iPod Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible TV Show

What does it mean? It means less work when preparing DVD content. I can now rip one version of movies, TV shows and music videos, as long as I sync to an iPhone (and presumably, an iPod Touch). This is a pretty major step forward. Perhaps next year we’ll be able to sync 720 HD.


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.