Speeding up podcasts:
Listen to more, faster – Part 1

Part of the Faster Podcasts Series

  1. Speeding up podcasts:
    Listen to more, faster – Part 1
  2. Speeding up Podcasts part 2:
    Using Audacity to speed up MP3s
  3. Speeding Up Podcasts part 3: Make Yourself an Audiobook

faster podcast

The first in a multi-part series dealing with speeding up the play rate of podcasts so you can listen to them faster and fit more subscriptions into your schedule. Part One: The problem at hand and a simple computer-based solution.

UPDATE: Toward the end of this article, I point to some scripting techniques to automate the acceleration of podcasts with QuickTime. Well, Mac users, it’s your lucky day because I went ahead and complied an AppleScript that opens a selected podcast in QuickTime Player and allows you to set the playback rate. I’ve taken to calling it PodFast. Download it.

Dilemma

After about a year on hiatus, I recently got back into the swing of listening to podcasts. The podcastosphere has exploded in the past twelve months and beyond old favorites such as Sound of Young America and EscapePod, everyday seems to introduce me to new, awesome content. There’s Grammar Girl’s writing tips, and Darker Projects’ Section 31 adventures, the WordPress community podcast, foreign languages, and NPR as well as many more news, education and entertainment podcasts. Heck, even the U.S. Department of State has a podcast.

With all that good stuff, it’s easy to become a podcast junkie at the expense of your music, books, magazines, TV, movies, pets, friends, family and career.

With each compelling episode, you crave more and more, to the point where they start to seriously suck up your time. While some, like Grammar Girl’s, only run about 5 minutes, the average length of a podcast episode ranges from 20 to 40 minutes. Some podcasters are aware of the time burden that a podcast can create, but even those who try to produce short episodes tend to drastically underestimate the amount of time needed to convey all the info they wish.

Solution: Speed it up.

Most recorded media can be sped up by a few percentage points without any perceptible change. Depending on the particular characteristics of the sound, podcasts of spoken word can usually maintain their intelligibility at significantly higher increases. The iPod’s built-in accelerator increases playback in real-time by 20% without changing the pitch or interfering with the ability to understand what is being said (though it does falter when dealing with low, muffled voices).

That’s great if you happen have a later-generation iPod. But not everyone does, so I would suggest to all podcast producers that time compressing your episodes by 5-10% has its benefits. For podcasters there’s smaller files and less bandwidth used, and subscribers enjoy faster downloads and shorter listening times.

While some podcasters might adopt that practice, it is probably never going to become widespread. So lets us take an end-user centric approach. What solutions exist to speed up a podcast once it is downloaded?

Computer-bound playback

quicktime logo
A lot of people listen to podcasts while sitting at their computer. The iTunes program itself, unfortunately, has only one speed: normal. When you press play, what you hear is what you get. You’re stuck with whatever the podcaster uploaded, whether it’s spoken with perfect tempo or with an agonizingly slow drawl. There’s just no option to adjust the speed on either a global level or for individual tracks.

QuickTime Player however, does allow you to easily change the playback rate in real-time. You can speed through filler material as effortlessly as you can slow down complicated sections (especially useful for foreign language podcasts). QT Player has the additional advantage of supporting video podcasts, so you can adjust the play rate of those as well. Currently, no portable player can do that.


click to see larger

To open a podcast file in QuickTime Player, select its entry in iTunes’ Podcast panel. On Mac OS X, select “Reveal in Finder” from the File menu (command R). On Windows, select “Show in Windows Explorer” from the file menu (control R). You can then drag the mp3 to QuickTime Player.

QuickTime is required by iTunes, so if you have it installed, then you already have QuickTime. To access playback options, select “Show A/V Controls” from the Window menu.

Scripting

You can streamline the process of getting the files into Quicktime by using some of these scripting techniques at MacOSXHints.com. They include ways to automatically set the playback speed when the file is sent to QuickTime and increase the file’s play count so that iTunes will continue to download fresh episodes. It’s mostly AppleScript for the Mac, but there is one JavaScript for Windows option.

If you use iTunes to manage your podcast subscriptions and downloads and do most of your listening while working at your computer, then QuickTime is pretty much the most simple, best way to speed up that process.

But what if you use an iPod or other mp3 player to make your podcasts portable? There are a couple methods for accelerating your listening on-the-go. Try this one.

Chemical Brothers – Star Guitar video: Cleverly Hypnotic

In addition to their world-sized beats, The Chemical Brothers are generally known for their world class videos. I stumbled across this video to Star Guitar from the duo’s 2002 release Come With Us while perusing the ol’ Google Video/YouTube library this afternoon and was quickly fascinated.

It was directed by noted film dude Michel Gondry, who’s done some impressive work, including intriguing videos for Bjork, Beck, Radiohead and many other musicians, as well as numerous innovative television commercials. But he’s also responsible for pioneering “bullet time” cinematography, so negative points there.

Of course, the concept of synchronizing visuals with the rhythm of music isn’t exactly new, but the execution here is clever. Though by the end of minute three, you’ve pretty much gotten the point and are ready to move on.

Star Guitar is an awesome song and the video is pretty cool, so enjoy it:

star guitar at itunes store

come with us at amazon

Susumu Yokota – Symbol: Classical Mashups

Ah, it’s been a while since we actually talked about music here at tunequest, so let’s pick up where we left off: Susumu Yokota. I recently posted about my discovery of his music via an Amazon recommendation for his 2001 exploration of ambient minimalism, Grinning Cat (perhaps a reference to Alice in Wonderland?). Having piqued my interest to the extreme, I started researching the man and his work.

His style is as varied as he is prolific. Indeed, one recurring thread in my reading was that Yokota cannot claim a definitive fan following because, despite his obvious talents and aptitudes, he never sticks around in any particular musical form long enough to create an authoritative body of work, becoming more an admired dabbler than a respected icon.

Yet, from everything I’ve heard, Yokota’s abilities transcend form, appealing to a more fundamental level of music appreciation. No matter what he’s doing, there’s a layer of genius to it that overrides the superficiality of style. It doesn’t matter that each record varies stylistically because the underlying music is simply wonderful. Of course, I say that having listened to only two of his records, but it is an opinion that will inform my reactions as I delve further into his repertoire.

Having previously covered Grinning Cat, I turn my attention to Yokota’s 2005 record, Symbol. Of all the choices in Yokota’s catalogue, I was drawn to this one solely by its album cover: a tightly cropped portion of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, which happens to be a favorite painting in my house.

I can’t help but wonder how the myth of Hylas relates to these recordings. Perhaps the closely cropped image is itself a symbol. Like the nymphs of lore, these songs are lush, alluring, temptuous; and if one is not careful, one could easily become lost with them. I’ll buy that; this album is nearly bliss.

Artwork aside, like Grinning Cat, this record could hardly get more beautiful, but where the previous record exists to slowly percolate its sound, Symbol fills the air with atmosphere and a subtle aura of exuberance. Each of the thirteen songs on the album is teeming with compositional splendor.

That splendor is due in no small part to Yokota’s generous sampling of classical music, which forms an orchestral underpinning of the entire experience. It is one of the most intriguing things I’ve ever heard. Classical music tends to be in its own world, distinct from the “lowly” place of popular music, so it’s fascinating to hear what are essentially classical music mash ups.

Off the top of my head, there’s Boccherini’s Celebrated Minuet, Debussy’s Clair de Lune (multiple times), Holst’s Jupiter (from The Planets), Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and several brief samples of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Even though I do appreciate the crashing of the classical gate, I also find it interesting that Yokota chose relatively popular works from which to sample. I suppose that with a concept such as this, recognizable pieces lower the barrier of entry for the casual listener, one who’s probably not very familiar with all that classical has to offer. At least there’s no Ode to Joy or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In the end, Symbol is masterpiece and it excites me even further as I look forward to my next Susumu Yokota record.

For your listening pleasure, the third song from Symbol, Traveller In The Wonderland:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Bonus points to anyone who can identify all the classical pieces used in it. I’ll get you started: the song opens with Celebrated Minuet.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Interactive Fiction for iPod

Yeti

Text-based games for the iPod, known generally as iStories, are nothing new. Using the basic HTML support found on device’s Notes feature, some people have been putting together text-based adventures for a couple years now. Heck, even I sketched out the beginning of a story a while back, but never completed the project.

In its most basic form, the idea is to load a series of inter-connected text files into the Notes folder. A reader then selects the start file and upon finishing that section, is presented with a dilemma, forced to choose a course of action. The choice determines what happens next in the story. Through a series of choices, the reader eventually ends up at one of several possible endings. The iStories concept is very much like the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the CYOA franchise is getting in on the action. The publisher, Chooseco, relaunched the brand in 2005, which had laid dormant since 1998. The CYOA online store is offering a free download of an iPod Choose Your Own Adventure story, The Abominable Snowman, based on the first title of the relaunched series.

After playing around with the story for a while, I gotta say that it’s a pretty sophisticated release. This game isn’t just a bunch of text files. It takes advantage of the “museum mode” found on recent generation iPods to integrate images and sound into the storytelling.

The Abominable Snowman comes as a 20ish MB download that includes an installer program. When run, the installer copies all the text files to an iPod. It then opens iTunes and adds the 137 associated mp3 files to the iTunes library and finishes by syncing the library with the iPod.

The way the story works once copied to the iPod is rather ingenious. While technically, one can simply read the story, the text can also be read to you by the author, R.A. Montgomery, who is also the creator of the series. At key moments in the plot, the narration stops and the reader is presented with a “click for image” link, which loads a silent mp3 that has album art attached, presenting a visual to accompany the story.

Of course, the Choose Your Own Adventure series is aimed at children. This is by no means high literary art. But it does push the limit of what an iPod can do and that’s pretty cool.

The Abominable Snowman is free for “beta testers” through Jan. 25. Compatible with 3rd-generation iPods and later. Use of images requires iPods that support album art.

Choose Your Own Adventure image on iPod
An image from Abominable Snowman on iPod.

Star Trek on iTunes update: Enhanced or no?

UPDATE March 26: After nearly a two month stint of being offline at the iTunes Store, the Star Trek TOS is back. The complete first season is available in its original broadcast form. Additionally, newly remastered episodes from the first season are available in their own section. At this time, iTunes is still the only source for them in their uncut form.

Remastered First Season Episodes on iTunes

::

Since the first season of the original Star Trek was unleashed unto iTunes a couple weeks ago, there’s been some controversy as to whether the episodes are the original cuts or the new “remastered” versions that started broadcasting last year. Having not purchased any episodes, my original supposition was that the iTunes version were the same as the DVDs, since the new ones haven’t even finished broadcasting.

In fact, as of Jan 19, only 16 new versions have been aired, and of those only 11 have been from the first season (of the total 29 episodes).

But after partaking in this conversation at OneDigitalLife, I reexamined my assumptions and did some research and it looks like some of the episodes are indeed remastered. Space Seed for example.


iTunes Store preview. Click for full-size image.

If Paramount/CBS/Apple are adding enhanced episodes after they air, that’s an interesting strategy. The iTunes Store is currently the only way, if you don’t record them on a DVR, to get a copies of the remastered episodes. It’s much like being able to download the recently broadcast episodes of Lost or CSI. Plus, iTunes is the only place to get full-length (not cut for commercials) versions of the enhanced episodes (for now)

There are some pitfalls to this approach however.

The store doesn’t indicate which episodes are new and which are not. Can we assume that every remastered episode that has aired can be found on iTunes after the airdate? Nope, some of the new broadcast episodes are on the store, some are not. Space Seed on iTunes is enhanced, as is Balance of Terror, while reviews say City of the Edge of Forever is not, even though all three broadcast months ago and all three broadcast before the show debuted on iTunes.

Also, if I were to buy Where No Man Has Gone Before today (the 19th) and a remastered version airs tomorrow (it’s on the schedule), would I then have to buy it again to get the new one? Probably yes. Same goes for any future remastered versions. My guess is that if I bought the whole season now, and the episodes were refreshed, I’d have to buy the remastered ones again.

Then there’s always the possibility that someone doesn’t want the remastered versions. That person would be stuck shelling out for the DVDs and just have to encode them themselves.

Update: CBS announced today that episodes of Trek remastered will be released on HD-DVD some time during the fourth quarter of 2007. Until then, iTunes is the only way to go.

Free short film at iTunes Store: Good Morning Baby

Note: The offer from iTunes has expired.

If you’ve been searching for a reason to try out the iTunes’ much-promoted movie service, here’s one that might just persuade you.

Good Morning Baby iTunes

Free film: Good Morning Babyoffer expired.

Description from the store:

A confused woman struggles between two loves-a love for her so-called future husband and a love for a new found home. Falling off her envisioned map of life, she tries to find her true self and her true love.

It’s gotten mixed reviews from iTunes users. Some people seem to love it, most don’t though (avg 3 stars). Oh, and it’s copyright Glamour Magazine, if that’s any indictation of what you might be getting into.

The flick doesn’t really seem like my typical fare. But, it’s only 13 minutes long, and free, so maybe I’ll try it out, just to see how the movie store works.

Films from the iTunes Store require Quicktime 7.1.3. The download is free, and don’t be fooled; the email address is optional.

Deal with Paramount adds Star Trek Films to iTunes Store

During the Macworld expo keynote a week ago, Steve Jobs made the off-hand comment that Paramount Pictures had joined Disney in selling films through the iTunes Store. Of course, that deal means that all of the Star Trek motion pictures (except the Search for Spock) are now available for digital download, enabling portable viewing on a iPod or streaming to a new Apple TV.

Like all movie downloads from the store, the films cost $9.99 each, decent-enough price I you just have to have it now. For my money though, I’d much prefer the physical DVDs with all the special features and bonus materials. Still, if you don’t care about those things or already own the DVDs and don’t mind having your fair use rights sold back to you, downloading might just hit the spot. If not, I suggest you give Handbrake a shot.

Anyway, back to iTunes. At 640 pixels wide, the resolution of the pictures is adequate for most viewing situations. Compression artifacts are few, and motion is smooth and seamless. The sound was also acceptable, but I was using my PowerBook’s speakers.


Artifacting is usually very noticeable with red. Click to see this shot (PNG-24) from the First Contact trailer. It shows that the store’s compression holds up pretty well.

Continue reading

Acrobat 7’s nifty optical character recognition
(aka Call off the search, I found Spock)

The other day I discovered that Acrobat 7 Pro has built-in OCR (optical character recognition). So I decided to run some scanned pages of text through to see how well it works.

Well, it actually does work, and with surprising accuracy, though the resulting document was nearly double the file size of the original. It’s really cool though, because Acrobat layers the OCR’d text invisibly over the image, making it look like you can select, copy and search the imaged text directly from the PDF.

But the point of this is, that while running some basic search strings on the doc to verify its accuracy, I unintentionally did something funny:

searchforspock.png
I guess Spock wasn’t on the Genesis Planet after all. Now if we could only find out why he’s not at the iTunes Store…

Here’s a video podcast of Acrobat’s OCR in action. [creativesuitepodcast.com. requires Quicktime]

The attempt at all-out bribery continues, folks

The bribe is that, if you subscribe to the tunequest feed, I’ll use that medium to point you toward free music downloads that are worthy of your attention.

I had been using WordPress’ “Optional Excerpt” to point to the links whenever I wrote a post. But that was proving cumbersome. It unnecessarily tied the posting of links to my own erratic posting schedule and it was requiring me to bookmark and retrieve lists upon lists of those links. Then I had to format the excerpt for the feed version before posting. In short, it was turning into a major pain.

So I’ve outsourced that job to del.icio.us.

Starting today, those links will be posted as individual feed entries along side my regular posts. You’ll be able to tell the difference by the [del.icio.us] tag at the end of the title. I can point you to them as I find them, regardless of whether I have a post near completion, which hopefully means more great music for you and less work for me.

Plus, it means you don’t actually have to read my posts in order to get the links…

Go ahead and check the feed. You’ll find a link to my favorite song from 2006.