iTunes' Join Tracks, gaps, and you

In this continuing “and you” series, we turn our attention specifically to iTunes’s Join Tracks command and, more broadly, to the issue of gaps between tracks in iTunes and on the iPod. Let’s start with the basics.

Some pieces of music and albums are constructed so that the sound from one track runs directly into another without interruption. For example, the last several cuts of the Beatles’ classic Abbey Road album move directly from one cut to the next without interruption, yet each is a discrete track. Many classical albums (opera, in particular) work the same way. When you rip such an album from CD or purchase it from the iTunes Music Store, there’s an audible gap between each track when you play it back in iTunes or on an iPod.

When playing back tracks in iTunes you can disguise this gap to a degree by switching on the program’s Crossfade Playback feature (found in the Audio tab of iTunes’ Preferences). With Crossfade Playback on, the end of the first track and the beginning of the next overlap and fade from one to the other. Regrettably, there’s very little you can do to fine-tune the effect other than to change the length of the crossfade (basically change the amount of material from each track that intersects and is crossfaded). Unlike with programs such as Roxio’s Jam and Nero’s SoundTrax, you can’t change the shape of the fade in iTunes to make it sound more natural. And iTunes’ crossfade settings don’t transfer to the iPod nor do they work with audio CDs you play from within the program.

Speaking of audio CDs, if you look at the Burning tab of iTunes’ Preferences you’ll see the option to select no gap between tracks when you burn an audio CD. Regrettably, this doesn’t result in pristine transitions from one track to another. For example, if you purchase Brian Wilson’s Smile from the iTunes Music Store (and you should) and then burn it to CD with this “no gap” option selected, you’ll still hear a tiny hiccup between tracks that, on the commercial CD release, blend into each other seamlessly. iTunes simply can not produce a completely seamless transition between discrete tracks. If you want to create an audio CD as close to the Real Thing as possible, you’ll need to import those tracks into another program (Jam, for example) that can create clean crossfades between CD tracks.

Although iTunes can’t fashion truly gapless tracks from files in your iTunes library, you can create a kind of gapless recording when you rip music from an audio CD. This is the purpose of the Join CD Tracks command in iTunes’ Advanced menu—a command that combines adjacent tracks into one single track. To make it work, insert the CD you want to rip, select the CD in iTunes’ Source pane, choose the songs you want to join by Command-clicking (Mac) or Control-clicking (Windows) adjacent tracks, and select Join CD Tracks from the Advanced menu. Selected tracks will be displayed with a bracket, indicating that they’ll be ripped as a single track.

While this produces a gapless recording that you can transfer to your iPod, it does have its disadvantages. The first, of course, is that because it’s a single track you can’t easily (or, at least, neatly) skip over the endless drum solo in the live version of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” and move to the beginning of the next album cut. Also, audio files that weigh in at over 9MB use up an iPod’s battery charge more quickly than smaller files (larger files cause the iPod to access the hard drive more often, thus taxing the battery).

The greatest failing of this command is that it handles only tracks you’re importing from CD. What about those tracks that are already on your computer—tracks you’ve purchased from the iTunes Music Store, previously ripped, or acquired in ways you’d rather not openly discuss?

Thankfully, Playlist contributor, Kirk McElhearn, has covered this in the latter half of his Classical Music on the iPod and iTunes. If you have iTunes tracks you’d like to join (protected and otherwise), it’s worth a read. Again, once you’ve joined the tracks, you may need to use an audio editor or program such as Jam or SoundTrax to create smooth fades between tracks.

This story, "iTunes' Join Tracks, gaps, and you" was originally published by PCWorld.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon