Better audio burning

iTunes is a great tool for ripping, encoding, and managing your music—and it’s free—but even Apple wouldn’t claim that it’s the be-all and end-all for creating audio CDs. iTunes just doesn’t have some advanced features. With a program such as Roxio’s $100 Toast 6 Titanium, $100 Jam 6, or $200 Toast with Jam 6, you can do more with your music and create a greater variety of audio discs.

Making Copies

Backing up audio CDs with iTunes is a tedious process. You need to rip them as AIFF files (by going to iTunes’ Importing preference pane and changing the Import Using setting to AIFF Encoder) and then burn the resulting files back to a CD-R. And OS X’s Disk Utility won’t let you create an image of an audio disc. But Toast makes duplicating audio CDs easy by letting you copy an audio CD directly from one optical drive to another. If you have multiple burners, just choose the drive you want to copy from in the Read From pop-up menu (see “Burner Bonanza”), and choose the drive you want to record with in the pop-up menu that appears at the bottom of the Toast window. Then click on the Record button and watch as Toast copies your disc.

Toast also gives you the option of saving audio CDs as disk images (instead of copying them directly to blank CDs)—ideal if you have only one burner or if you plan to make multiple copies of a disc. You can also mount these images, and they’ll play back in iTunes as if they were physical audio CDs.

Burner Bonanza You can use Toast to burn audio discs directly from one drive to another.

And when burning audio CDs, iTunes creates a plain-vanilla disc. If you’d like to create an enhanced audio CD that also includes pictures and text, or if you want to fashion a disc that includes CD-Text (information, such as the album and song title, that appears in the display of compatible players), a tool such as Toast is necessary.

Mind the Gap

One of iTunes’ aggravating quirks is its inability to create discs with seamlessly connected tracks.

For example, the last several tracks of the Beatles’ classic Abbey Road album flow continuously. But even if you configure iTunes so it doesn’t put a gap between the tracks when you burn them to disc (as you can in iTunes’ Burning preference pane), you’ll still hear a tiny hiccup between songs.

If you think you might burn audio CDs from your ripped music, consider joining multiple tracks into one at the time of import (Advanced: Join CD Tracks). However, this leaves you with long tracks that you can’t navigate easily. And suppose you want no gap between tracks two and three, but a two-second gap between tracks five and six? iTunes can’t help you.

Toast supports a feature called Disc-At-Once (DAO), which keeps the laser on between the tracks it’s burning. DAO maintains the seamless track flow when burning a CD from uncompressed files on your Mac, copying from one CD to another, or copying from a disk image to a CD (see top screenshot). It also lets you record tracks with gaps of different lengths between them (the program offers gaps from zero to eight seconds long).

Creating a seamless CD from compressed (MP3 or AAC) files in your iTunes library is a different matter, however. To create smooth transitions between iTunes tracks, you need a tool that can cross-fade one track into another (in other words, overlap portions of each track and fade the first track out while fading the second in). iTunes’ cross-fade feature affects only playback in iTunes, not burning. Although Toast doesn’t include a cross-fade feature, its professional sibling, Jam, does. (Note that with Tiger and QuickTime 7, you can no longer use Toast or Jam to burn protected AAC files.)

With Jam, you can not only impose cross-fades on tracks and burn those effects to disc, but also change the cross-fade’s shape and duration (see bottom screenshot). This allows you to create a more natural-sounding cross-fade, one that’s likelier to cover up the audio hiccup that occurs between tracks. As with Toast, you can pick gaps of different lengths between tracks—although with Jam, these gaps can be of any length (perfect if you want that surprise bonus track to begin 45 seconds after your listener thinks the last track has ended).

Added Features

Toast and Jam (and Toast with Jam, which includes both apps and additional Toast features) perform other tricks that iTunes can’t.

Support for High-Resolution Files iTunes can convert the files it supports (44.1kHz and 48kHz AIFF, WAV, MP3, AAC, and Apple Lossless files) to a format compatible with audio CDs, but it doesn’t know what to do with higher-resolution audio files—files created in professional audio applications with special hardware. Toast and Jam can burn an audio file of up to 192kHz and 64 bits to a standard audio CD. The Toast with Jam package can even add Dolby Digital files to an audio CD.

DVD Audio Discs Although iTunes can back up your music as data to a DVD-R disc, you can’t play these discs in regular AV equipment. Toast with Jam can create DVD Music Albums—DVDs with as much as 36 hours of two-channel, Dolby Digital-encoded music (less in PCM format). The discs include basic navigation menus and on-screen “now playing” information, and a standard DVD player will play them.

Convert and Restore LPs and Tapes You can use iTunes to rip CDs but not to record audio from a computer’s audio-input port. With CD Spin Doctor (a program included with Toast and with Roxio’s $50 The Boom Box), you can record your old LPs and tapes to your Mac. The program can recognize gaps between songs and automatically segment albums into tracks for you; it can also remove pops and crackles.

Track and Album Normalizing iTunes includes the Sound Check feature, which balances the volume of tracks so they more closely match one another. This isn’t always a desirable effect, because audio engineers purposely master recordings so that some tracks are quieter than others, and when you impose Sound Check, you lose the balance between soft and loud recordings on an album. Jam lets you balance (normalize) tracks either individually or in groups; you’d balance them individually to give tracks from different CDs the same volume, and you’d balance a group of tracks to increase an album’s overall volume without boosting all the tracks to the same volume.

The Next Step

If you do little more than rip CDs, listen to music in iTunes and on your iPod, and compile the occasional mixed CD, iTunes is a great tool that will serve you well. In fact, Steve Jobs recently announced that iTunes 4.9 will support Podcasting, so the application is clearly growing. If you need more from your audio CDs, however, it may be time to look beyond iTunes. For Mac users, Toast and Jam are excellent choices.

[ Contributing Editor Christopher Breen is the author of Secrets of the iPod and iTunes , fifth edition (Peachpit Press, 2005), and the editor in chief of Playlistmag.com.]

Toast’s Disk-At-Once option lets you burn CDs that have seamless transitions or CDs that contain gaps of differing lengths.Jam’s cross-fade tools help you smooth over gaps between tracks.

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