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:
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.
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.
Apple unleashed iTunes 7.4.2 today, mostly to cripple efforts by the iPhone community to customize their ringtones without having to pay an additional $.99 to do so. On that topic, one could argue that users are well within their Fair Use rights to repurpose (format shift) into a ringtone the music they’ve already paid for. I’m not an iPhone user nor do I intend to be, so it’s purely an academic observation in my case.
My slightly modified Motorola E815 lets me copy mp3s over Bluetooth and use those as ringtones. it’s quite convenient. But I digress.
The important news is that 7.4.2 in no way fixes the asinine sorting problems introduced in version 7.3. iLounge offers up some polite criticism in addition to my own.
Unfortunately, this “numbers-last” sorting order is counter-intuitive to how most other software applications function. Other media players, be they portable devices or computer software applications, have always taken a numbers-first approach, as do standard sorting algorithms in Word Processing and Spreadsheet applications. In short, this new behavior is extremely counter-intuitive to what most experienced users would expect, and as a result is a rather odd change on the part of iTunes.
This is going to be a hot topic around here until the day it gets resolved. If you’re as sick of hearing about it as I am of complaining about it, let’s encourage Apple to mend its ways.
Apple has really screwed up with the new sorting behaviors introduced in iTunes 7.3 and it’s making a lot of people seriously unhappy. And, honestly, I’ve NEVER been mad at Apple for anything in my 25+ years of history with the company (annoyed at times, but never mad), but the more I think about this the more pissed I get. For those just joining the story, Apple released version 7.3 to accompany the launch of the iPhone. Included in that release was a new, completely arbitrary rule set for sorting Artist, Album, Composer, Genre, etc tags.
Starting with version 7.3, numbers and other non-alphabetic characters are sorted to the bottom of the list. My default view now shows Aalborg Symphony Orchestra at the top. 2pac now begins after the Zs and iTunes suddenly doesn’t even know how to handle artists whose names begin with punctuation. It starts !!! after songs that don’t have anything entered into their Artist or Album tags!
iTunes now ignores the non-alphabetic leading characters and sorts based on the first letter or number it finds in the name. The program now treats fields that are all punctuation as if they are blank, as if they have nothing typed in at all. And guess what else? It passes that behavior to the iPod.
At first, it seemed that the issue was a bug, but as revisions came out, it became clear that this new behavior was intentional. Indeed, an Apple support document created July 11, 2007, explains the new scheme as if everything is hunky-dory. The odd thing about this is that there is no rational explanation for it. Before 7.3, iTunes used case-insensitive ACSII as its basis. It’s a decades old standard that all electronic devices use.
Symbols > Numbers > Letters. That’s the order the entire Western world has been using for all of modern memory. Look on any computer’s desktop and that’s how you’ll see files arranged. Hell, even the 131-years-old Dewey Decimal System sorts numbers before letters. Perhaps more bizarrely though, is that this behavior only appears to affect the first character in the music tags. Playlists and second character sorting (unless the whole field is made of punctuation) still seem to use the ASCII method. Say whaa? If you’re going to screw up a standard, you might as well be consistent with your screwery.
Seriously, this abrupt abandoning of established convention brings Apple closer to Microsoft’s behavior regarding standards. Could you imagine if, on a whim, Apple suddenly changed the way Safari renders web pages to its own specifications, rather than W3C standards, perhaps in order to accommodate the iPhone? That’s how bad this is.
So far, the suggested workaround is to use the Apply Sort Field command to manually restore normal sorting, a process that is cumbersome, tedious, counter-intuitive and shouldn’t even be necessary. In my case, I’d have to apply it to 150-200 albums and gobs of composers and I’m not about to waste my time doing so. Alternately, you can downgrade to iTunes 7.2.
I am not alone in my ire. Others in the passionate-about-iTunes community are equally upset at this development. Here’s some choice reactions from several threads around the net.
It’s not just a “strange” decision, but a downright moronic one. First off, anybody bright enough to use a computer knows that symbols and numbers sort before alphabetical characters. Second off, what was the whole point of introducing the ability to customize sorting in 7.2 if they were just going to turn around and bork it with 7.3?
Thanks. I am familiar with all the suggested workarounds.
However, I shouldn’t have to use a “workaround” to get a “1” or a “?” to sort before the letter “a” any more than I should have to use a “workaround” to get the letter “a” to sort before the letter “b.”
they have changed the Digit order, when you sort column be accending, so all those people who had there music sorted by Artist with bands like +44, 65 Days of Static and 30 seconds to Mars ect… will now find that in that mode they are liseted at the bottom after your XY and Z’s (if you have any) Thats just annoying, why the change?
The 7.3 update is what caused the error in sorting (numbers and symbols after z.) I was hoping the 7.3.1 update would fix it, but it sounds like it doesn’t.
Originally Posted by ryry919 View Post
not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but when I opened iTunes back up after the update I noticed that all of my artists that are a # (IE: 311, 3 Doors Down) are all now at the end of the iTunes artist sort rather than being at the top, before the A’s like it used to be.
anyone know of a way to change this back? is there anything like how you can either view you contacts in address book for first, last or last, first? just wondering.
Everybody knows its punctuation->[0-9]->[Aa-Zz], anything else is heresy!
And so on. I’ll add more as I run across them.
For now, the only way to get “standards compliant” sorting back is to downgrade to iTunes 7.2. I’ve done this already and until I see a version that restores standard procedure (or at the very least offers the option of using either scheme), I will not be upgrading to any future version of the software. That basically means I’ll never buy an iPhone or any other product that requires a subsequent version of iTunes. I’ll probably save myself some money that way. If you don’t have an iPhone, I suggest that you do the same. Download for Mac. Download for Windows.
…and managed to sully my iPod too. And the more I think about it, the more pissed off I get. What Apple has done defies all standard convention, is completely arbitrary and makes ab-so-lute-ly zero sense whatsoever.
Allow me to go on.
I had put off updating my iTunes to 7.3.2 until a couple days ago. With all the time and energy I invest into pruning and perfecting my library (it’s like bonsai really), I usually give the early adopters in the Mac community enough time to warn me of any critical errors or whether the new update is going to irreparably damage or otherwise soil my files. It’s just common sense.
So, having read no reports of exploding iPods or iTunes-induced electrocutions, I figured it was time for the latest and greatest. At the very least, I could get the app to stop bugging me about the update every time I launched it.
The update process went smoothly enough, like a Dove chocolate bar, and I was quickly back to makin’ playlists and retrieving album art. It took me about a day, however, to realize something was… awry.
The default view of the Music tab had changed. As a matter of course, I keep it set to Album by Year, which in effect sorts by artist then sub-sorts the albums by the year they were released. Before the latest update, that meant that the band !!! was listed first, followed by +/- then into the numbers. It was logical: standard convention dictates that that’s the way alphanumerical sorting is done in English.
Far be it for Apple to let any convention go unchallenged…
Neatly organized iPod composers.
A scrambled mess.
Starting with version 7.3, numbers and other non-alphabetic characters are sorted to the bottom of the list. My default view now shows Aalborg Symphony Orchestra at the top. 2pac now begins after the Zs and iTunes suddenly doesn’t even know how to handle artists whose names begin with punctuation. It starts !!!after songs that don’t have anything entered into their Artist or Album tags!
On one hand though, I do have to give iTunes some credit. When sorting numbers, the program is smart enough to know that, numerically, 101 Strings comes after 50 Cent.
I’m not averse to change in general, and though somewhat inconvenient, these new sorting behaviors aren’t a fundamental flaw. I can deal with it. Update 8/28: I take that back. This IS a fundamental flaw and it needs to be fixed. There’s no excusing it. However, the real travesty here is how iTunes now treats the Composer tag. In this case, it looks like Apple specifically set out to destroy my Composer tag scheme, the one where cover songs have the original artist surrounded by [brackets]. The purpose of that is to separate cover tunes from actual composers when browsing Composers on the iPod.
Well, guess what? iTunes now ignores the non-alphabetic leading characters and sorts based on the first letter or number it finds in the name. And guess what else? The program now treats fields that are all punctuation as if they are blank, as if they don’t have any characters at all. It passes that behavior to the iPod. Now when browsing by Composers, the list I’m presented with is a jumbled mess. I’ve got [Fleetwood Mac] sittin’ next to Edvard Greig and [Ted Nugent] holding hands with Tchaikovsky, which is the exact situation I was trying to avoid in the first place!
And that’s not even mentioning my workaround for remix albums, where I list the song’s originator in (parentheses).
So, thanks Apple for fixing something that wasn’t broken.
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.
When Travis covered …Baby One More Time as tender British comfort rock, it was cute.
When Jonathan Coultan did Baby Got Back as a singer/songwriter folk troubadour, it was funny.When The Gourds played Gin n’ Juice in up-the-mountain bluegrass style, it was just bizarre.
When Mat Weddle of Obadiah Parker re-invented Hey Ya! as a somber, heartfelt ballad, it was endearing.
Hey Ya Cover
Then there was Alanis, whose performance of My Humps showed sublime brilliance.
Alanis Morissette "My Humps" video
But this, this is just getting out of hand: Jenny Owen Youngs playing Nelly’sHot in Herre:
I don’t mean to call out Ms. Youngs in particular, but hearing her play Nelly has got me thinking: seriously, what is going on here? What is up with this string of rock-mode artists covering hip hop/pop songs?
And conversely, why don’t we see the same thing in reverse: Contemporary hip hop artists covering rock songs? That might just be cultural differences; rockers cover, rappers sample.
One could argue that a great song is a great song and that successful reinterpretations reflect well on the source material. But I won’t be the one making that argument because, looking over that list of songs, I can’t help but notice that most of those inspiration points are of dubious artistic merit.
While Outkast gets props for artistry, Britney Spears is generally not regarded for the quality of her music. And I like Gin n’ Juice as much as the next guy (5 stars in my iTunes library), but it’s not what I would call “great music.” So, what is it about that song, or …Baby One More Time, or Hot in Herre that makes them attractive targets for rock-based musicians to cover?
Generally, to cover a song is a choice to pay tribute to it or its originator, a way to honor them for their influence and their impact on the development of the person performing the cover. Witness Beatles tribute bands, KISS tribute bands and Elvis impersonators. Shoot, Radiohead has created a cottage industry of cover artists and performers.
But, one does not create a bluegrass version of to pay homage to Snoop Dogg’s profound influence on the evolution of hip hop. It just doesn’t follow. So what’s behind these attempts to radically re-invent songs that are, by and large, not very good to begin with?
One possible explanation is that it’s been nearly a decade since vapid pop and profligate ego-rap began to dominate corporate music culture. Bad music is what the young folks are used to hearing en masse, so it makes some sense that the current generation’s crop of young musicians would play what they are familiar with. I know that when I was younger and in a band, a good part of our repertoire consisted of the contemporary hits of the time.
But we were a rock band playing rock songs. And it was heyday of grunge and its aftermath, where the ethos explicitly called for the rejection of corporate music. The irony of course, is that by the time grunge had become big enough to be called a movement, most of its artists had moved to corporate labels.
Still, those artists didn’t make names for themselves by playing the hits of their predecessors. Nirvana didn’t become famous by playing Rock You Like A Hurricane and Every Rose Has Its Thorn in the clubs of Olympia. Even at the apex of the irony-soaked 90s, one was more likely to see bands covering influential songs from the 60s and 70s rather than perform joking versions of songs by discredited 80s acts. The audience would not have stood for it.
And that’s the other part of this equation: the listeners. Modern audiences seem to LOVE these homages to the silly and ridiculous. Alanis’ My Humps made a huge splash on the net (7.9 million views on YouTube as of this writing). Jonathan Coulton owes a good portion of his stature to his remake of Baby Got Back.
But therein lies a double-edged sword. For established artists, the choice to release an unconventional cover can be a fun diversion for the fan base. But for new and emerging artists, taking a shortcut by means of using someone else’s song to attract attention threatens to forever pigeonhole that artist into the novelty camp.
Mr. Coulton, no matter his other merits, may forever be the folksy-Baby-Got-Back guy. The Gourds, despite their long history, might never outgrow their notoriety as hillbilly gangsters smokin’ indo.
And that’s when it works! There’s always the possibility that the new version might somehow be catastrophically wrong. The above Ms. Youngs cover is my first exposure to her work and from this point forward, she will probably be known to me as the purveyor of a completely unnecessary endeavor.
Why would a new musician take the risk for what is surely an unpredictable response? For the joke of it? Irony? Camp value? Plain harmless mirth? Sure, absurd cover versions might be fun for a while, but like candy, too much will make you sick.
I suspect a large part of the explanation for the phenomenon lies with ever-expanding democratization of the means of production. Until fairly recently, the barrier to entry was significantly high for the recording and distribution of music. In addition to musicianship, one needed to own relatively expensive equipment (mics, amps, multi-track recorders, etc.) and have the knowledge to use them, or one needed to have access to expensive professional studio time. Of course, there was the time and patience needed to get it all put together. And that was just to get the recording made. As recently as ten years ago, getting that recording into the ears of others meant a hefty investment in cassettes and authored CDs from a duplication house.
With so much time and energy involved, musicians, particularly low-resource ones, would surely try to avoid being frivolous with their efforts. Care and consideration of the material were required to make maximum use of scarce commodities.
However, with the aid of technology (inexpensive computers, video cameras, audio recorders and programs like Apple’s Garageband, etc), the process of proficiently recording music is much more manageable and far less time consuming. High-speed Internet makes that music instantly available to a billion people. It can easily seem like a lark to throw together any ol’ ditty based on a whim, including songs that have only recently been released.
In fact, I would not be surprised if that were to become a new trend, the near-immediate release of covers of new songs. Indeed, such an occurrence has already happened. Franz Ferdinand’s version LCD Soundsystem’sAll My Friends was released as an official b-side on the All My Friends single. It’s not so far fetched to imagine that Britney’s next single will get a folk treatment on YouTube within days of its release.
Why anyone would do that is beyond me, but it is a distinct possibility.
I spent a portion of this Saturday going through my extended archive of music, the stuff that’s not in my central, everyday iTunes library. Most of those files are a bit old and for either quality or tagging reason, they’ve been left unincorporated. Some of these songs have been sitting untouched and unlistened to on cds and hard drives for years.
So I’ve decided to start sorting and evaluating them for re-inclusion into the main library, checking the ID3 tags, bitrates and such to make them conform to my standards.
And of course, I’m making sure I still actually like the song. In the case of this one particular song, Bjork and PJ Harvey covering the Rolling Stones’Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) at the 1995 Brit Awards, I was sure it would be gangbusters.
Turns out it was lacklusters. I didn’t much care for it. Somehow, they mangage to go over-the-top without doing anything at all.
So I’m deleting it from my collection. But not before I give it away. If eight-year-old mp3s are your thing, and the prospect of a Bjork/PJ Harvey duet makes you salivate in anticipation, download away.
Just so you know what you’re getting yourself into, there just happens to be a YouTube video of the performance: