Tricking out iTunes
Although I prefer the iTunes interface to any other audio player I’ve used, it doesn’t always do everything I want it to. Fortunately, there are quite a few hacks, plugins, and third-party programs for iTunes that will take your listening experience to the next level. Be warned that quite often when Apple upgrades iTunes, unsupported functions quit, er, functioning . So though they may not give you perfect sound forever, at least you’ll have better sound now.
Bust Out the Beats
Are you an iPod DJ, or DJ wannabe? If so, you know how hard it can be to seamlessly fade from one track to the next without breaking the rhythm. Unless you want to risk bringing the dancehall to a crashing halt, you need to know how many beats per minute each track in your library is. A daunting task, if you attempt to figure it out by manually counting beats. Fortunately, you can automate the process somewhat. The free iTunes-BPM Inspector is an iTunes plugin that helps users sort out BPM issues. It adds a floating window to iTunes, and counts beats as you tap them out on your keyboard or mouse.
Beef Up The Sound
When I’m listening to my music from iTunes over my headphones or computer speakers, it sounds fantastic. But when I run it through my 5.1 stereo system, the results can be a little, well, tinny-sounding. Although the equalizer built into iTunes will let you play presets for a variety of musical styles and setups—acoustic, jazz, live, and more—audiophiles might want something more. The $25 OSS 3D plug-in adds spatial effects, 3D surround, and killer bass effects to iTunes, all in real time. You might not miss this if you’re just using your computer’s built-in speakers, but for folks who have iTunes running to a surround sound stereo, or even a pair of external speakers, the difference is dramatic. A virtual subwoofer, center channel controls, and ten-band equalizer turn your tiny tunes into full-bodied sound.
Let’s say you’re performing some detailed task in Photoshop—say, pasting William Buckley’s head onto Jessica Simpson’s body—when all of a sudden one of your least favorite songs comes up in your iTunes queue. What to do? Switch away to iTunes and lose your train of thought? Endure yet another round of Ted Leo’s “Since U Been Gone,” which, admittedly was kitchy and funny the first dozen or so times you heard it but now is just annoying and makes you want to jam sharp pencils into your eardrums? (Or, to abandon the pretense of the second-person: makes me want to jam sharp pencils into my eardrums.)
What you need is a way to control iTunes no matter which app you’re working in. Although Dashboard and Konfabulator widgets can help in this task, a better way to accomplish it is by using universal keyboard shortcuts. There are a few ways to accomplish this. One is to define new universal keyboard shortcuts yourself for play, pause, skip tracks. and what have you. Another is to download programs such as the free iMote, which will allow you to not only use a remote window, a la a widget, but also adds a menu bar function and, best yet, allows you to use keyboard shortcuts to control iTunes. So rather than having to leave an application, you can just hit a few hotkeys and go about your business “Since U Been Gone”-free.
But what about when you’re away from your computer altogether? Running iTunes over your stereo is great, but when you’re away from your machine listening to music, you don’t want to have to go back and forth every time you want to switch tracks. What you need is a remote remote.
If your computer and phone both have Bluetooth, you can control iTunes (and other applications such as your DVD player) remotely with your phone and the $20 Salling Clicker software. For an even more robust experience, add the Salling Clicker plugin iDisco into the mix. In addition to all the standard iTunes functions such as moving between tracks, rating tracks, changing EQ settings, managing playlists, and searching your library, it gives you the ability to download lyrics from the Web, fade in and out of tracks, and much, much more.
Plus Two More iTunes Goodies I’d Like to See
While the above hacks and plugins are great, iTunes could do so much more. Whether they be hacks, plugins, or iTunes 5.0 upgrades, here are a few more features that would be great additions to everybody’s favorite music player. They include:
OGG Vorbis support Once upon a time you could play OGG Vorbis files right in iTunes with the help of a handy plug in. However when Apple released Quicktime 7, OGG compatibility went the way of the dogcow. Though OGG remains the red-headed stepchild of MP3—at least in terms of popularity—for many audiophiles it’s the format of choice.
FLAC native noises Do you like live music? Sure you do. It’s free, widely available on the Internet, and (unlike studio recordings available on the Internet) typically legal. If you want to play a FLAC file in iTunes now, you first have to convert it to a format iTunes likes, such as WAV, Apple Lossless, AAC, or even MP3 if you don’t mind taking a massive bump in sound quality. I’m lazy. I’d rather download FLAC files, double click them, and have iTunes queue them up and start cranking out the jams.
Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based writer and photographer. His work has also appeared in Macworld, Wired, Time, and Salon.