5G iPod Problems with Audiobooks, revisited

Lately I’ve been on a tear with audiobooks, managing to cram a number of books in between my regular music and podcast listening. The sudden upswing in interest has prompted me to renew my investigation of the problems the 5G (fifth generation) model iPod has with long-playing books. As I noted last summer, the 5G has troubles with homemade m4b files (bookmarkable AAC) longer than a certain play time.

The iPod will suddenly stop playing an audiobook within a few minutes and return to the main menu. This happens when resuming a book, after having listened to something else or resyncing the device, basically anything that stops rather than pauses the book. When selecting the book again, the iPod starts from the beginning, having lost the bookmark and updating the play count/date as though it had properly finished playing.

Since I knew I would be delving into book territory, I decided to figure out the optimum way of working around the iPod’s inexplicable limitation. And really, for all my experimentation, the only concrete result I’ve been able to find is: 4 hours. 4 hours is about the maximum running time of any homemade m4b audiobook file before the iPod starts wigging out about it. It didn’t matter what I used for my encoding settings, my sample rates, or bit rates or channels or workflow or program. No combination of settings allowed the iPod to play longer than 4 hours without a hiccup, always stopping in the middle of the same phrase.

I even tried this little ingenious trick:

audiobook start time option

I manually set the audiobook’s options in iTunes so that the start time was at the 4 hour mark, hoping to persuade my iPod to at least go for another 4 hours. No dice.

I can say however that the sample rate seems to have the most effect on how long you can listen before the iPod won’t let you pick up where you left off. 22 kHz seems to be the trick. Whether your book is stereo or mono seems to matter little, giving about the same performance. Same for bitrate. However, higher sampling rates seems to reduce the amount of time before you lose the bookmark feature.

There probably are a handful more combinations and techniques I could try, but it takes quite a while to join, encode, test and evaluate each option. If anyone finds something with significantly different results, feel free to drop a line this way.

audiobook builder max part length

In the meantime, I’m glad Audiobook Builder can set a Maximum Part length and will split files so that nothing is longer than what I need them to be. It’s a groovy little workaround.

Music Store Showdown: iTunes vs Amazon vs eMusic

So Amazon recently threw its hat into the thunderdome of online digital music sales. The store’s big brand name and huge retail operation instantly make it one of the top tier marts for digital music. As Amazon MP3 is seen primarily as a challenger to the iTunes Store’s throne, I originally wanted to do a compare and contrast with that gorilla, but later thought that unfair to eMusic, who consistently claims to be the second largest online store on the net. The iTunes Store has more than enough going for it that an equilibrium will eventually be met with whatever competition comes its way. eMusic, however, might be quite vulnerable to Amazon’s might and muscle.

music Store Showdown

But just how does that muscle shape up?

I took a look at Amazon MP3, trying to gauge its place on the market and judge its strengths and weaknesses compared to its more established rivals. Each service was evaluated using the following criteria:

  • Format & Quality
  • Selection
  • Search & Ease of Use
  • Pricing
  • Artwork and Tagging
  • Free Stuff

Format & Quality

Amazon MP3

As the store’s name suggests, Amazon MP3 provides music in the MP3 format. MP3 is incompatible with any type of rights management and the most notable claim of AMZMP3 is the freedom of the file format it is willing to sell. MP3s, of course, work on virtually all portable devices. Amazon MP3’s also pitches its files as being high quality. The site claims to supply a very healthy bitate of 256kbps for its downloads, but the files I’ve purchased have averaged 214 (VBR) kbps. Though they sound fine to my ears, it is less than the site advertises.

Getting info on the file tells me that it was encoded using LAME 3.97.


Like Amazon, eMusic provides free and open MP3 files and has been doing so since 2003. The MP3s are encoded around 192kbps (VBR) using LAME 3.92. The music sounds great.

The iTunes Store

The iTunes Store has been the spearhead in the adoption of the AAC format, selling AAC encoded files since the store’s 2003 inception. AAC is billed as a successor to MP3 and is particularly noted for sounding better at lower bitrates. At the time of this writing, the iTunes Store is providing two flavors of AAC. The standard encoding is 128kbps, which to its credit sounds pretty good. The store benefits from having the songs encoded from the original master recordings, rather than being ripped from a CD. Throughout much of the store’s history, however, Apple has been forced by its contracts with record labels to include the much-criticized and oft-despised rights management, FairPlay, on all song downloads. Most of the songs it sell come packaged this way.

Recently though, the store has made moves to free its music from those restrictions. The iTunes Plus service sells songs with no DRM attached and doubles the bitrate to 256kbps. There’s a lot of debate about the merits of AAC vs MP3 at higher bitrates, so the benefit of the increase may not be that significant, but surely, it can’t hurt. Currently, about 1/3 of the store’s inventory is offered via iTunes Plus.

Winner: 3-way tie (with edge to Amazon and eMusic). The files supplied by each store, while not lossless, sound quite adequate for the majority of listening applications and music systems. iTunes loses a couple points for the continued existence of FairPlay, but the way things are trending, it probably won’t be around for much longer.

Update 28 March 2009: Apple has announced that by April 2009, 100% of its music content will be DRM-free. It that comes to pass, then there really will be little to debate about format choice. All three stores will be using files that are compatible with a large number and wide range of players and hardware.


Each store likes to boast about its large catalogue. iTunes is by far the largest with about six million songs to choose from. eMusic and Amazon both claim to offer more than two million songs each (Playlistmag says eMusic has 2.7 million UPDATE 11/7: Macworld reports that eMusic now stores 3 million songs in its catalogue, while Amazon’s complete list shows 2,479,112 at the time of this writing). Impressive numbers all around, but catalogue size doesn’t mean squat if it doesn’t have the songs you’re looking for. So, I went through the music libraries of three people and randomly choose 20 songs from each. I then looked for those songs on all three services, giving one point for songs on the album I was searching for or half a point for the song in another context (soundtrack, compilation, greatest hits, etc).

Here are the results:

The iTunes Store is easily the champion in this contest, besting its two rivals combined. Of the 60 songs searched, iTunes scored 46 points, Amazon finished with 20 and eMusic ranked in with 14.5. Within those results, there were only 2 instances where either AMZMP3 or eMusic had a song that iTunes did not and 5 instances where eMusic provided a song that Amazon did not. In total, there were 10 songs that none of the stores carried in their inventory.

But besides the run-of-the-mill catalogue, each store has its selectional perks.

iTunes offers tons of exclusive content, such as its iTunes Originals series, celebrity playlists or the AOL Sessions series.

eMusic has an extensive selection of “eMusic Only” releases, many of them full live concerts. The site also hosts the world’s largest collection of DRM-free music, which eMusic notes come from 20,000+ independent labels. However, the iTunes Store and Amazon are both gaining in that respect. What you won’t find, however, is any of the majors, which is a bit ironic considering that Universal used to own the place.

In contrast to eMusic and iTunes, Amazon MP3 is lacking in the exclusives department. There’s no “Amazon Presents…” or the like, just search-and-download. In a notable coup, however, AMZMP3 is the first and only store to offer digital downloads of Radiohead’s albums (plus one single for the completeists out there). Though the band’s label, EMI, also participates in Apple’s iTunes Plus program, Radiohead only wants to sell complete albums, which violate Apple’s policy to offer track-only purchases. Thus, OK Computer at Amazon, but not at iTunes. Update 3 June 2008: Radiohead’s complete catalog is now also available DRM-free from iTunes.

Winner: Each store offers a reason to shop there, but at the end of the day, it’s the iTunes Store that will most likely be selling what you’re looking to buy.

Search & Ease of Use


In typical Apple fashion, the iTunes Store screams ease of use.

The storefront is built into the iTunes desktop app, making for one stop shopping. Apple has gone to great lengths to integrate the offline library management functions of the program with the online sales environment. The ubiquitous “iTunes Store” arrows and the “Minibrowser” might be a little intrusive, but those can be turned off.

Once in the store, finding songs/albums/artists is trivial; just type it into the search bar, though most of the time you have to sort through movies/tv shows/podcasts/etc in the results. The store does a pretty good job of segregating the various types of media. iTunes falters when it comes to the exploratory level. In the four years since its launch, I’ve never found it all that comfortable or appealing to browse the place for an extended period of time.

Like almost all online shoppes, the iTunes Store allows users to leave feedback, ratings and comments about albums. It also provides rudimentary recommendations in the form of “People who bought X also bought Y.” Users can also contribute to the store via iMixes, compilations put together by individuals and submitted to the store. However, the presentation is pretty sparse and there’s minimal “social aspects” to them, i.e. you can see what another person has rated or look at their iMixes, but you can’t “befriend” them or interact or see recommendations based on tastes you might have in common.

Once purchased, songs download straight into your library. It’s seamless. But be sure to make a backup of everything you buy. Apple only allows you to download the song one time, though if a catastrophic event wipes out your collection, the store does permit an unpublicized one-time re-download of your purchase history.

Some songs, usually determined by length, are not available as a single download, but must be purchased as part of an album. That can be a drag when you just want the one song.


eMusic’s storefront is HTML-based. The store can be accessed and songs downloaded from any web browser. Recently though, the company released eMusic Remote as a way to integrate the online store with the desktop. The app runs on Mac/Win/Lin and is based on the Mozilla browser. Think: iTunes-Store-inside-Firefox. eMusic Remote provides an easy way to navigate the store and manage downloads, which can automatically be added to your iTunes library, should you so desire.

The site’s search feature could use some vast improvements. Often, the results it returns are far too many, especially for simple queries, and they don’t seem to be prioritized and are not sub-sortable. Sometimes, I find it easier to do a Google site search instead: site:emusic.com.

Previewing music comes in the form of downloadable m4u playlist files, which can be opened by iTunes or Quicktime Player. The process can be tedious for single tracks, but is really quite nice for checking out complete albums. Though, I’d rather they switched to Flash-based, in-browser previewing. UPDATE 04/17/08: Hooray! eMusic recently switched to an in-browser sample preview system. It greatly improves the ability to get a taste for a song/band/album before deciding to buy.

In contrast to iTunes, eMusic’s social aspects are more robust. While similar in theory to what iTunes does, the execution is better. Each album’s page shows any reviews that members have written; that’s not special. But, where iTunes says “People who bought X also bought Y,” eMusic is more specific, giving recommendations based on what a handful of particular fans also enjoy. These make great springboards for further exploration.

Also, an album’s page shows which users’ ‘playlists’ it appears on. Akin to iMixes, a user playlist can be whatever the author wants it to be. A playlist can be as simple as someone’s public bookmarks, or as indepth and voluminous as “80+ Reasons Why Japan Rules,” much like Amazon’s Listmania.

One of the best music discovery tools I’ve run across on any platform is eMusic’s Neighbors screen. It shows fellow music fans with similar tastes. Hover over a shared artist and get recommendations based on that artist. On my current screen, based on my interest in Mogwai, I have five neighbors telling me to check out Cat Power, Of Montreal, and eight other artists. Using this tool, I’ve found a number of new and interesting bands based on my intersections with my musical neighbors.

eMusic, unlike iTunes, offers no restrictions on the number of times you can download a purchase. Hard drive melt? Just log into your history a grab it again. Also, unlike iTunes, eMusic has no restriction on songs based on length. There are no “album only” purchases. Every song, even a 30 minute opus, is available as a single purchase.

emusic neighbors
eMusic Neighbors screen

Amazon MP3

AMZMP3, like eMusic, is browser-based with both direct download for singles and a desktop app for grabbing albums. The company knows how to run a web store, and its expertise shows. If results are available, a search will return a list of artists, albums and song that match. Songs can be previewed immediately via a nifty on-page Flash-based system, or more details on the album can found on the album’s page, which integrates the feedback, reviews and ratings from the physical CD’s entry in the vast AMZ database.

Likewise, if MP3s are available, the option to buy them appear on the actual physical CD’s page. A useful gimmick that doesn’t seem to be in place though is, “Buy a CD, download MP3 immediately” type bundles. I suspect that would result in a fair amount of up-selling.

Getting the actual music files is straightforward enough. For single songs, click the “Buy MP3” button, confirm payment and a single MP3 will be all yours for the downloadin’. Whole albums require the Amazon MP3 Downloader program. When purchasing an album, a reference file is downloaded to the desktop. That reference file tells the Downloader which album to retrieve. Then the music begins to flow. When finished, the app will auto add to iTunes if requested. The process requires a couple extra steps, but it works.

Like iTunes, some music at AMZMP3 is album only, though it’s hard to know what or why. Those Radiohead albums for example, no individual songs can be purchased. The length of the song isn’t necessarily a factor. There are some 17 and 18 minute-long Mogwai tracks available separately, while at least one 11 minute Sonic Youth song is album only. Adding to the confusion is the store’s somewhat perplexing price structure.

Overall though, the site is still considered to be “public beta,” so we can guess that it will improve with time.

Winner: Each services is pretty much on par with the others on the ease-of-use front. None have a particularly show-stopping difficulty. iTunes gets points for the all-in-one solution, while Amazon is a known quantity that now extends to MP3 sales. eMusic’s search can be challenging, but its re-download policy and music discovery tools make it very appealing to the adventurous.


The iTunes Store charges a flat $0.99 per song for individual tracks. Albums cost the sum of all songs, or $9.99, whichever is lower. It’s the same way throughout the store; there are no variations.

Unlike iTunes, Amazon charges a variable price for downloads. At launch, Amazon’s typical price per song is $0.89, though some are $0.99. Most complete albums run $4.95 to $9.99, though I’ve not figured out how those prices are computed. Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves is 11 songs at $0.99 each or $7.97 for the whole album, a difference of $2.92. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is currently $8.99 for all 26 songs ($0.35 vs $0.99 a piece), whereas Dark Side of the Moon has some songs for $0.89, others for $0.99, or $7.99 for the album, a difference of only $0.62. It doesn’t make much sense, but in some cases, you might find a better deal than the iTunes Store.

eMusic’s business model is different than the pay-per-track services of Amazon and iTunes. Similar to the Netflix model, subscribers pay for a membership plan to access a certain number of downloads per 30-day cycle, rather than paying for songs individually. In my case, I pay $14.95 for 50 downloads every thirty days. If I download all 50 songs, I end up spending just $0.30 per song. There are more extensive bulk plans that will bring the price down to $0.25 per song. Also, the length of the song doesn’t matter; a 30 minute epic track costs just one download credit, as does a 30 second interlude.

Maximizing the value of one’s subscription requires diligence however. It’s never happened to me personally, but if one forgets or is too busy to retrieve their current downloads, well then, they get squat for their $15. In my case, the worst I’ve ever done is have 6 credits left at the end of the cycle. I’m usually plagued by the *other* subscription conundrum: Wanting a 10-song album, with only four credits until the next refresh. Most of the time, I solve this dilemma by grabbing the first four songs, bookmarking the album in my “save for later” area, then return first thing after the refresh (I have an iCal reminder tell me when it’s time). Alternately, I find eMusic to be an inexpensive way of exploring classical music.

Winner: On price alone, eMusic wins, provided you take full advantage of your subscription. With the $14.95 plan, you’ll be on par with iTunes as long as you download at least 15 songs per cycle. At this time, Amazon is also undercutting iTunes on price. This could change after the honeymoon period, as more popular songs might be priced higher than $0.99, but for now, iTunes is the loser on the money factor.

Artwork and Tagging

Songs from all three stores come with comprehensive ID3 tags, providing song name, artists, album, genre, etc. AMZMP3 provides high-quality album art embedded in the file, while iTunes supplies it in a separate sidecar file. eMusic will download a jpeg along with the MP3s, but it must be manually added to the files. eMusic’s jpeg however is a pitifully small 150 x 150 pixels. so I either use iTunes to retrieve the album cover or search for better art using sloth radio. UPDATE: 4 Dec 2008: However, a recent redesign of the site does provide high-quality album art in the browser. It must still be manually added to the music files, but at least it’s right there when you download an album.

Winner: Slight edge to Amazon for embedding the art, slight knock to eMusic for making me work to find better art.

Free Stuff

The iTunes Store provides free content across its entire product line, from TV episodes to movie clips to sample audiobook chapters and of course, music, not a day goes by without some kind of freebie posted and available for consumption. Most notable is the Single of the Week, which changes every Tuesday. There are entire websites devoted to tracking the latest zero cost offerings at the store.

Likewise, eMusic also offers free downloads. You don’t even need to be a customer to snag them. eMusic offers two types of freebies. One, the Daily Download is updated every day. Other, long term free tracks are kept in their own part of the site. At the time of this writing, there are roughly 70 tracks up for the taking. Since eMusic caters to those outside the mainstream, most of the free tracks are from the relatively obscure, so if you’re looking to explore a bit, here’s a chance to do so without spending a cent.

I’ve not found much zero cost music at AMZMP3. There’s certainly no breakout section saying “Free Downloads Here.” However, the list of every available MP3, sorted by price, reveals a total of 36 songs available free of charge. The store is young, so who knows what kind of free stuff is planned for it.

Winner: Each store has something to give away, but eMusic gains an edge by not even requiring an account to download it. iTunes has a lot of variety, plus the entire podcast directory and iTunes U, so mucho bonus points there. Amazon lags at a distant third.


In terms of service, the stores are fairly evenly matched. Some foibles here and there, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. Amazon is a worthy contender and an appealling place to look when you just have to have a song right now. eMusic pretty much rules for those who enjoy exploring off the beaten path. But if you want to be absolutely sure to find the songs you’re looking for, iTunes can’t be beat. You just might have to pay a premium for the convenience and hope it’s not poisoned with DRM.

Personally, I find each to be a fine service and I see no reason to exclude any of them from my music-buying arsenal. In fact, I look forward to using Amazon a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the pressure will drive those other two companies to improve their digital music services.

Note: In the interest of disclosure, you should be aware that tunequest acts as an affiliate for two of the stores mentioned in this article. They send me a pittance whenever I send them a customer. However, that relationship in no way changes my opinion of each company. The fact is that I would not have chosen to become affiliated were I not already impressed with the services in the first place. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Pioneer DVR-107D DVD burner + Max = Perfect encoding solution

Recently, I’ve taken to re-encoding some of my favorite CDs, mostly ones that I originally encoded long ago, some as far back as 1999. Hard drive space was at a premium at the time, so I traded acceptable losses in quality for a smaller storage footprint. When the music is coming from a beige G3’s internal speaker, 112 kbps and 320 kbps mp3s sound basically the same.

But as I’ve gotten older and I’ve been able to afford audio equipment with higher fidelity, the flaws in those original files have become ever more noticeable.

Since hard drive space isn’t much of a problem these days, I’m endeavoring to upgrade all those ancient files to modern quality standards. As I run across those sub-par album rips during my daily listening routine, I’m replacing them with 256 kbps VBR AAC files or Apple Lossless (if they are deserving of the extra attention to detail).

Max Icon

And so was this situation that occurred last week when listening to Velocity Girl’s ┬íSimpatico!, one of my all-time favorite albums. The music sounded “off” and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to create a new encoding for a long time. I grabbed the disc off the shelf, fired up Max, the handiest freeware audio converter/ripper/encoder available for Mac OS X, and set it to work.

But it did not take long for an anticipated problem to rear its head. The seventh song on the disc, Rubble, has had a pretty nasty scratch for I don’t know how long, a scratch that marred the original file years ago. As I feared, the encoding process stalled, so I canceled it. I’ve known my iMac’s built-in Matshita UJ-846 drive to be problematic with flaky discs, frequently getting hung up on them, so I pulled out my external Pioneer DVR-107D and hooked it up via Firewire.

The DVR107D was one of the first DVD burners available for less than $100 and I got one to use with my G4 iMac, which couldn’t even read DVDs, much less write them. I crammed the drive into an old LaCie case I had and, let me tell you, this thing has performed like a champ for the entirety of my ownership. It has read every disc I’ve put into it. And recently, it allowed me to consolidate some old, and I mean old, CD-Rs onto DVD when the built-in drive balked at them.

So I slipped my CD into the Pioneer and resumed my encoding task. No hang-ups whatsoever. But the thing that blew me away, and I have Max to thank for this, was that when I listened to the new song, all traces of the disc damage were gone.

It turns out that Max leverages the power of an obscure CD audio extraction tool called cdparanoia which uses “high-level error-correction” to resuscitate heavily flawed discs, and completely compensate for scratches on CDs.

Combined with Pioneer’s hardware, Max turns out perfectly encoded songs. Just give it a listen. The following are from multiple encodings excerpted from the damaged section of Rubble from my Velocity Girl CD:

This first sample was encoded to 128kbps AAC/M4A by iTunes 4.7 using the built-in CD drive on the iMac G4 I owned two years ago. The glitches on the disc is quite prominent:

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.

This file, however, is golden. It was encoded to Apple Lossless by Max using the Pioneer DVR-107D. Pristine; nary a hint of trouble:

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.

Frankly, I’m amazed by the results. Max + Pioneer makes for a seriously perfect encoding solution.

The DVR-107D shipped as the standard optical drive in some (but not all) of the PowerMac G5 towers, so you may already have one. If not, at the time of this writing, Other World Computing has its descendant, the DVR-112D for less than $50.

Even if you don’t have access to the drive itself, download Max. It’ll go a long way toward creating higher-quality files.


PS: Google Docs, which I use to store drafts for this site and other correspondences, now works with the new Safari 3 beta from Apple. This post was written using the combo and it’s nice to have my familiar Mac OS Services, integration and text and keyboard handling at my disposal.

Speeding Up Podcasts part 3: Make Yourself an Audiobook

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

This instructional is nearly two months late. Sorry folks. I know you’ve been dying to find out the quick and dirty way to add acceleration to your podcast listening. Onward, then.

A note before we begin, these instructions are for Mac users only, as they require the use of an AppleScript to modify audio files from within iTunes. Windows folks, however, can try a variation on this method.

So without further ado, here’s part three of the series:

By converting your podcasts into iTunes-flavored audiobook files, you can save yourself some time and listen to more, faster by accelerating the speed at which they play on-the-fly using your iPod.

In the previous two articles in this series, I described how to listen to podcasts (or any sound file really) faster by

  1. using Quicktime to adjust the playback speed
  2. using Audacity to process the mp3s

Method 1 is handy for quick adjustments if you happen to listen to podcasts while sitting at a computer. Method 2 gives you fine grain control over playback speed and allows you to put the faster files on MP3 players other than an iPod.

But what if you want to be able to listen to faster audio on the go, without having to wait for Audacity to process it? Then you let your iPod do the work on-the-fly. Starting with the 4th generation model, all iPods (and iPod nanos) are capable of playing audio back at a rate 25% faster than normal. To do this though, the audio file must be in a specific format, either an Audible.com audiobook (.aa) or a bookmarkable AAC (.m4b).

Not to worry, turning your podcast mp3s into a bookmarkable is a very simple and very fast process with the help of an AppleScript: Quick Convert. Download it and install per its directions.

But before we can use that script to do any converting, we need to do some setting up and organizing. Converting podcasts this way will make iTunes treat them as audiobooks. The files will be removed from the nifty Podcast manager and appear, instead, as a jumble under the Audiobooks tab. The new files will not be accessible through the iPod’s Podcast menu.

We’ll need to set up some Smart Playlists to ensure that our converted files end up on the road with us and are easy to find. To do so, hold down the option key and watch the plus sign turn into a widget. itunes widgets Click the New Playlist button. In the window that pops up, we can specify our criteria so that our bookmarkable podcasts appear in this playlist.

It only takes two selectors:

  1. Album is <<name of podcast>>
  2. Kind does not contain MPEG

Click for full size. This example features The Sound of Young America, which you really should be listening to.

Do this for each podcast subscription you have.

When you convert podcast episodes, the ID3 tags on the new files will be exactly the same as the original, but the type of file will have changed from MPEG to AAC audio. Therefore, whenever you convert a new podcast to audiobook form, it will automatically be added to the appropriate playlist.

If you’re not sure about the podcast title to put the Album selector, get info on an episode in iTunes’ Podcast pane and copy from there.

Once those playlists are ready to go, we can do the fun part, the actual conversion. For this we use the Quick Convert AppleScript. The script allows you convert to different audio formats without having to change settings in iTunes’ preferences.

Click for full size.

So let’s get going:

  1. Select all the episodes you want to convert to bookmarkable/accelerate-able format. From the Scripts menu in the menu bar script menu, which should be visible if you’ve installed at least one AppleScript, select Quick Convert.
  2. From the window that pops up, select AAC converter.
  3. You’ll be asked if you want to make it bookmarkable. Say Yes.
  4. Then you’ll be asked if you want to add it to a playlist. If you’ve set up your Smart Playlists above, it’s unnecessary, so say no.
  5. Finally, you’ll be asked if you
    1. want to delete the original file
    2. remove it from the library
    3. do nothing
      Personally, I usually have no use for the original once converted, so I choose delete. Select your own preference.

With all the options set, iTunes will begin converting the file. Your mileage will vary of course, but iTunes’ AAC encoder is generally speedy. My G4 PowerBook processes at around 8X speed while my Intel iMac clocks in at roughly 30X.

The next time you update/sync your iPod,your new playlists containing the converted files will appear in the Playlist menu. Podcasts can be accessed under the Audiobooks menu as well. When listening to these files, use the center Select button to adjust the playback speed. It comes in three flavors: Slower, Normal and Faster.

There you have it, an easy way to adjust the play rate on an iPod. Now get listening.

In defense of digital music files

Volkher at livingwithmusic posted the other day a rather thoughtful treatise against digital music files as a medium. He does a good job of bringing up all the relative shortcomings of abandoning physical media, including the effort required to encode/download and properly organize/tag files as well as the burden and cost that goes into storage and preventative backups. And he’s right on the money about picking an audio format that may or may not be around for the long haul.

It’s a valid argument; you should go read it. But as one of those “young folks” who’s been living with mp3s and related files for 10 years now, I’d like to offer a friendly rebuttal, because digital music files do have much to offer, despite the occasional hassle.

Firstly though, I’m going to side-step rights-management and other DRM-related issues. It’s quite possible to build a large collection of digital music and never touch the stuff. Plus, with all the talk lately about eliminating DRM from the marketplace entirely, it may well not be an issue in the near future.

Carrying on then, why embrace digital music? In my case, the number one reason is convenience and flexibility. Using iTunes, it only takes a handful of clicks to set up a playlist that will last all day. That playlist will only include songs that I like, ignoring ones that I might not care for. I can listen to one hundred different artists as easily as I can listen to Radiohead’s complete discography, including live shows and unofficial tracks. No need to organize or hunt for physical CDs, or interrupt the music to change discs or skip ill-favored songs.

With some extra up-front effort and Smart Playlists, I can turn my library into a self-refreshing and randomized jukebox that I can assume control of at any moment. With an iPod, I can take it all with me, wherever I go. It truly is awesome stuff.

Another reason I enjoy digital music is the physical space savings. I still have a large number of CDs, even though the vast majority of my music listening is done via iPod or iTunes. Finding a place to put all of those discs has proved challenging and, after 19 months of living at my current house, most of them are still boxed up and hard to access. That’s fine though; they can stay in the garage/closet/attic because I already have everything I need on my hard drive.

Additionally, expandability is a significant motivation for taking to digital music. As a physical collection grows, the tyranny of the shelf kicks in, which ultimately limits the collection’s size and imposes increased time-overhead on organization and media retrieval. iTunes offers no practical limit to the number of songs it can manage. Hard drive space and memory are the only true limitations (though a computer’s processor speed can become an issue, especially if there are a large number of live-updating Smart Playlists). Currently, I’m storing about 18,000 files (between my library and my wife’s) + a backup drive in the same physical space as about 6 CDs. I could double the amount of songs and hardly use any more desk space.

Of course, this digital utopia is not without its pitfalls, many of which Volkher mentioned. Number one, by far, is data security and integrity. Hard disk drives are notorious for failing, whether though a mechanical fault or corrupted disk header. And they usually fail inexplicably and at exactly the wrong moment.

A hard drive crash can obliterate a library of thousands in an instant, often with no warning whatsoever. I know; it’s happened to me on multiple occasions. By contrast, a scratched CD might lead to the loss of that CD and nothing more.

Thus, a workable, redundant backup system is necessary to protect against irrevocable and irrecoverable catastrophe. The cost and effort of doing that, of course, increases with the amount of data to be backed up. A 10GB library is easier to deal with than a 100GB.

In his post, Volkher posits a figure of one terabyte of digital music, once all is said and done and a large collection is encoded and/or downloaded. But is that a meaningful gauge? Just how much music will fit in a terabyte?*

  • At 128kbps, the bitrate of standard iTunes-purchased AAC files, one terabyte is 18,641.35 hours / 776.73 days / 2.12 years of non-stop, continuous music listening.
  • At 191kbps, the average bitrate in my library, one terabyte is 12,492.63 hours / 520.53 days / 17.1 months of continuous listening. That number is about 11 times the size of my current library.
  • Suppose you’re a true audiophile and only deal with lossless encoding, such as FLAC or Apple Lossless format. The average bitrate of all the lossless songs in my library is 728kbps, which is still nearly 3,277.6 hours / 136.6 days / 4.48 months worth of continuous audio.

*these numbers do not take into account file overhead, album art, etc. However, it seems pretty clear that one terabyte will hold a lot of music.

You’d have to own a seriously HUGE collection (roughly 4000 full-length CDs, lossless compression; 7500 CDs, extreme quality 320kbps mp3s) before a terabyte is a serious option for the working copy of your library. I know there are people who can claim those numbers, just not the vast, vast majority of music listeners.

Heck, I consider myself a respectable avid collector/listener/explorer of music and it took me a full year to listen to each and every song in my library, a library that is the equivalent of ~1400 full-length records.

Hard disk storage is cheap and getting cheaper. Practically speaking, two 500GB drives would sufficiently provide enough storage for a live copy and backup of all but the most copious of collections. Add a third for redundancy, if you’re paranoid. At $230 a piece as I write this, the cost of the drives compares favorably to all the shelving and organizational furnishings needed to manage a large physical collection, even those from IKEA.

Which brings me back to physical space savings: how does one translate a digital library into a physical space? Let’s use numbers from my library to hazard a guess. A trusty ruler tells me that a standard CD jewel case measures 11mm thick: a “CD unit” for this purpose. FreeDB tells me that the median number of songs per CD is 12 (with an average of 13). Therefore, I can estimate that each song on a CD takes up .917mm of physical space. Applied to iTunes, the 14,554 songs in my library would use up the equivalent of 1443 “CD units” or 15,872mm or 52.1 feet of “shelf space.”

That number is based on the assumption that a digital library consists entirely of full CDs. When considering partial albums and single tracks, the space savings is even greater. The single track of Nate Dogg and Warren G’s Regulate in my library actually saves me the full 11mm of space rather than .917, since I don’t have to own the full album just to have that one song.

Despite my continued devotion to the digital music scheme, I must admit that I do miss some of the concrete and tactile aspects of handling a physical record or compact disc: album art, liner notes the satisfactory “click” of snapping a disc into place and-contrary to what I’ve said above-the awesome feeling of standing back and viewing a neatly organized array of records on shelf after shelf. But at this point, for me, it’s all digital and there’s no going back.

Volkher goes on to discuss the inherent uncertainty of choosing an audio file format that may or may not be in use and supported by audio devices in times past the immediate future. And he’s got a valid point. I know from experience. Long ago, a portion of my digital music collection was in the MP2 format, which was largely made defunct by the growth of MP3 tools and players. The death knell for me was the iPod. I was dismayed when I bought my first one and discovered that it didn’t support MP2, forcing me to convert those portions of my library into something more usable.

So futureproofing is an ever-present concern. But, like the compact disc and vinyl record, there’s no reason to believe that mass-market digital formats won’t be around for a very long time. The use of MP2 was never really widespread. MP3 and AAC however have users in the tens of millions. Many people and many companies have invested a lot of resources into those formats. They’re not going to die any time soon. In fact, the patents on the MP3 format begin to expire in 2011, just 4 years away. I’d wager that individuals, corporations and open source communities will have a field day with it in short order, continuing to breathe life and support into software and hardware for decades.

Look at the passion with which gamers and code archivists continue to resurrect, port and support obsolete games. Just yesterday I ran across a 30+ year old command-line game called Super Star Trek that certainly would not be playable on today’s technology. But thanks to the efforts of a dedicated user, there is now a refreshed version for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, OS/2 and DOS.

Likewise, I expect that in three decades time, I will fully be able to enjoy my collection, no matter what size it has expanded to. I believe that the flexible nature of software will make it easier to maintain support for these formats as they age, unlike hardware-dependent media (I’m looking at you, reel-to-reel, 8-track and increasingly, cassette tapes).

The fact that I was able to easily convert my MP2 files to MP3 is a strong argument for digital files. Just try converting a reel-to-reel tape without a reel-to-reel player.

I admire Volkher’s decision to keep his music in the real world; I know there’s no better feeling than finding an old, rare, long-sought-after gem. But for me, the future is all digital. It has its trappings, but they are easy to overcome. The rewards outwiegh the risks.

So, now if you’ll excuse me, I have a playlist to build.

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