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.

Managing a Two iPod workflow is just too difficult

(or, Initial Thoughts on the iPod Touch)

iPods shuffle nano video classic and touch

Weeeee… new toys from Apple! iPods iPods iPods, including shuffles in drab new colors (gimme orange), a new iPod NanoVideo (aka iPod Squat), an all-metal iPod Classic (the form we all know and love––now up to 160GB!) and a phoneless iPhone (aka iPod Touch).

Upon the availing of the line up this afternoon, I was immediately torn. In my mind, the iPod brand is essentially “a bajillion songs in your freakin’ pocket––more songs than you could ever practically listen to but who cares because it’s a bajillion songs! In your pocket!!” and the upgraded 160GB model is encoding a lot of digital saliva in tunequestland. The iPod has finally caught up to the point where I could realize the dream of fitting my entire library (all bajillion songs of it) onto a single portable device and that sounds like a lot of fun.

But Apple had to go ahead and simultaneously release that little portable wi-fi web browsing internet communication device, didn’t they? More than anything since the iPhone was announced in January, the prospect of in-your-pocket internet has been very appealing. But of course, I already have a phone that does everything I need a phone to do, so I wasn’t (and still am not) about to plunk down for the device. At the time I thought that if Apple wanted to unbundle the phone from the package, great, I’d look at it then.

And Apple has done just that with the iPod Touch and that is the source of my quandary.

The storage capacity of the iPod Touch’s models is 8GB and 16GB, a major step down from what I’m used to. While I did fine for years with a 15GB model, I’ve gotten accustomed to lugging around roughly 40-50 gigs of music, podcasts, audiobooks, courses from iTunes U, videos, photos and data at any given time. The thought of having to cram all that back to 16GB or gasp!, 8GB, is anathema to my idea of what an iPod is.

Then a thought occurred to me…

I’m still quite happy with my 80GB 5.5G model. I’ve had it for almost a year and the only major disappointment I have with it is my recently discovered long audiobook problem. I’ve been especially surprised by the durability of its screen. It’s not had any kind of protector and there’s nary a sign of a scratch or mark. While the idea of a 160GB iPod Classic is a very compelling dream, I’m more than happy to continue using my existing hardware as my workhorse iPod.

But… what if I were to simply use an iPod Touch almost exclusively as an internet device, saving most of the traditional iPod functions for my 80GB? That would be the ticket.

And for a moment, with the Reality Distortion Field set to maximum capacity, I seriously considered that option. Then I quickly came to my senses. I’ve tried managing multiple iPods for different purposes and it’s just too much effort. For a while, I tried to divvy up music and spoken audio (podcasts, books, etc) between two devices and invariably, I’d find that I didn’t have the one I wanted at the moment I wanted it. Then there was the hassle of keeping them both synced, updated and charged. Before too long, I abandoned that idea. Besides, when one device can do most or all of what you want it to, there’s really not much point to segregating the duties.

And the more I think about it, the less certain I become that I’d actually find a significant use for an iPod Touch. My multimedia needs are already handled by my 80GB and the vast majority of my wi-fi usage is done in my house, where there are four computers I have access to. Furthermore, based on the images at apple.com, I don’t see icons for some of the traditional “Extras” provided on the iPod’s interface, like Games and Notes (though I wouldn’t imagine that they’ve actual been removed). And where’s the note taking program to make use of that famous multi-touch interface? Other than for novelty, I can’t really see myself getting one, that is, until the storage is increased. Though that might change if it turns out the the Touch has inherited the iPhone’s PDF-reading capabilities. I’ve been wanting to make those portable documents truly portable.

But for now, the bottom line: I’m happy with what I got.

Of course, for me, this all a moot discussion unless iTunes 7.4 fixes 7.3’s horrible sorting problems, which, at first glance it doesn’t.


PS- Did anyone else notice that Music and iTunes are separate selectors on the Touch? I realize that using the term “iTunes” is Apple’s way of differentiating pre-loaded music from on-the-go purchasing, but it strikes me that that this could be a subtle shift in the iTunes branding away from the “your personal jukebox” function and toward the store aspects. If you look at Apple’s various iTunes pages, you’ll see that the money-making features are more prominently displayed.

So, the 5G iPod has a problem with Audiobooks…

Not all audiobooks, mind you, just homemade ones; downloads from the iTunes Store and Audible seem to work fine. The story goes like this…

My carpool ended a couple weeks ago, as my riding buddy resigned to take another job. I’m going to miss the amity, conversation and, of course, the gas and mileage savings, but my solo commute will now give me the opportunity to invest more time into audiobooks and other spoken audio, passing the dreadful Atlanta Interstates somewhat more productively. I’ve started with Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. It’s a fascinating adventure story about literature, philosophy, old secrets and the legacy of the Knights Templar told with compelling intellectual prose.

I first read the book eleven years ago when I was in high school and it inspired my to write a paper on the Templars, which brought me into contact with a strange world of the paranoid and the occult. Since then, I’ve noticed in modern books and movies, how mythical versions of the Templars, like Atlantis, are often brought up as keepers of ancient secrets, power and wealth that even today’s advanced civilization can’t understand.

Plus, a good portion of the book takes place in Paris, where I happened to be at the time I was reading it. At one point, I finished a paragraph and decided to immediately visit the location that had been described. That was pretty cool. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, between the publishing of the book in 1988 and my visit in 1996, the actual Foucault’s Pendulum was moved from the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers to the Panthéon, so I never did get to see it.

That’s great and all, but what does it have to do with the iPod?

Well, having decided to re-read/listen to the book, I promptly stitched together the nineteen audio parts into a bookmarkable AAC (m4b), which iTunes and the iPod treat as an audiobook. I started listening to it on the ride to work, getting about 30 minutes into the story. Once at the office, I switched to music, then when the day was over, switched back to the book for the ride home.

As expected, the book picked up where it had left off, continuing the story. All was well for about a minute, then the book suddenly stopped, returning to the iPod’s main menu. When I restarted the book, it began playing from the beginning, having lost the bookmark. Annoying to say the least. I noticed the next I synced up that the file’s play count had increased by one, as though the iPod thought it had played to the end.

This was not the first time this had happened; I had previously encountered this problem with a bookmarkable AAC audiobook of Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, but at the time, I chalked it up to an error in the file. But this second occurrence indicated that something else might have been afoot. The behavior occurs anytime a homemade M4B file is interrupted, whether by playing another song/podcast/audiobook/video, syncing the iPod with iTunes, or if the iPod is asleep for long enough that it turns itself off and requires a reboot. The problem doesn’t occur if the audiobook is simply paused and restarted.

So I set about trying to find a solution to this irksome problem.

A quick trip to Google turned up a thread on the forums at Audiobook Builder’s website. Audiobook Builder stitches together many files to create (build), you guessed it, one long audiobook, which is great for books spread across multiple CDs. ABB happened to be the program I used to create my Pendulum M4B file, so it looked like a good place to start (though I’m not implying that Audiobook Builder was at fault; my Assault on Reason files were similarly deficient and those were stitched together with the Join Together AppleScript).

The direction of that discussion leaned toward the mix of the file, specifically if it were mono, was the culprit. Sure enough my files had been encoded as mono. (Quick aside: Files encoded in mono aren’t any smaller than a stereo counterpart at the same bitrate. However, you can use a lower bitrate and maintain the quality of the sound with mono). Thinking I had the case solved, I converted the files to stereo, synced up the iPod and continued with the story.

For about a minute.

The thing quit again. Clearly the channels were not the issue. Without any further leads, I set about trying to eliminate variables. I tried a higher bitrate. I tried a lower bitrate. I removed the album art/book cover. I took all the chapter markers out. I removed all ID3 tags until all that was left was a bare bones AAC file. Then, just when it looked like that might work, it failed again.

The last recourse was to segment the file into shorter pieces. Rather than one 24 hour file, I have ten 2-2.5 hour files. Yeah, that’s fewer than the nineteen files I started with, but it’s not as elegant as a single long one. But it works, so despite my frustration that the bug exists, I can finish my story without the constant scrubbing to a lost place mark.

I love my iPod, but *sigh*



Another workaround I thought of is to use join the pieces into one long MP3 file. Then, after adding it to the iTunes Library, get info on it, marvel at the incredible length of the file, and select “Remember Playback Position” in the Options panel. That will emulate the bookmarking feature, but you won’t be able to play it slower of faster like a bona fide M4B Audiobook.

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.