On beyond iTunes: Macintosh

iTunes is a great tool for ripping, encoding, and managing your music library, but even Apple wouldn’t claim that it’s the end-all and be-all tool for creating audio CDs. And because it isn’t, I begin a series that looks at tools that can take you on beyond iTunes—utilities that allow you to do more with your music and create a greater varieties of audio discs. We start with Roxio’s Macintosh applications, the $99 Toast Titanium 6 and the company’s like-priced professional disc-burning application, Jam 6. While there are other disc-burning utilities for the Macintosh, these tools offer the best mix of stability and functionality that I’ve found in an iTunes alternative on the Macintosh.

Making Copies

It’s possible to back up your audio CDs in iTunes by ripping them as AIFF files (change the encoder to AIFF Encoder in the Importing tab of iTunes’ preferences) and then burning the resulting files back to a CD-R. Regrettably, the Mac OS doesn’t allow you to copy one audio CD to another. A Finder copy in the Mac can’t produce an audio CD nor will OS X’s Disk Utility allow you to create an image of an audio disc. Toast makes duplicating audio CDs easy by letting you copy an audio CD directly from one media drive to another. If you have multiple burners, just choose the drive you want to copy from in the Read From pop-up menu and select the drive you want to record with from the pop-up menu that appears at the bottom of the Toast window. Click Toast’s Record button and wait while your disc is copied.

Toast also offers you the option to save audio CDs as disk images rather than burning them to disc. You can later mount these images and they’ll play back in iTunes just like audio CDs. Similarly, Toast can burn these images to disc—making this a nice way to have multiple, burnable CDs at the ready.

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 want to fashion a disc that includes CD-Text (information such as album and song title that appears in the display of compatible players), you need a tool like Toast that can perform both these operations.

Mind the Gap

One of the more aggravating quirks of iTunes is its inability to create discs that move seamlessly from one track to another. For example, the last several tracks of the Beatles’ classic Abbey Road album blend from one track to another. If you configure iTunes so that there’s no gap between tracks when you burn a disc (as you can in the Burning tab of iTunes’ preferences window), you’ll still hear a tiny hiccup between tracks that, on the original recording, flow smoothly together.

You can get rid of the gap by asking iTunes to rip multiple tracks as a single track (Advanced > Join CD Tracks), but this leaves you with long tracks that aren’t easy to navigate through. And suppose you wanted no gap between tracks two and three, but a two-second gap between tracks five and six? iTunes can’t help you.

Toast supports something called Disc-At-Once (DAO), a scheme that allows you to record tracks with different-length gaps between them (the program offers gaps from 0 - 8 seconds). Toast also maintains the seamless track flow when you copy from one CD to another or from a disk image to a CD (with DAO chosen in the Advanced tab of Toast’s Recorder Settings window).

Creating a seamless CD from files that exist in your iTunes library is a different matter, however. In order to create smooth transitions between iTunes tracks you need a tool that allows you to crossfade one track into another (essentially overlap portions of each track and fade the first out while fading in the second). iTunes includes a crossfade feature but it affects only playback in iTunes—tracks you burn to disc won’t use these crossfade settings. Regrettably, Toast doesn’t include a crossfader feature, but its professional sibling, Jam, does.

With Jam you can not only impose crossfades on tracks and have those crossfades work on a burned disc, but you can change the shape and duration of the crossfade. This allows you to create a more natural sounding crossfade and one that is more likely to cover up the audio hiccup that occurs between tracks. And, as with Toast, you can impose different-length gaps between tracks. Unlike with Toast, these gaps can be of any length (perfect if you want that special “bonus track” to play 45 seconds after the last track has supposedly played).

And More

Toast and Jam (and Toast with Jam, a separate product that sells for $199) perform other tricks that are outside iTunes’ purview. They include:

Support for high-resolution files iTunes can convert the files it supports (44.1- and 48kHz AIFF and WAV files, MP3, AAC, and Apple Lossless) 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 do. Each can burn an audio file up to 192kHz/64 bit to an audio CD. The Toast with Jam product can even add Dolby Digital audio file to an audio CD.

DVD audio discs iTunes can back up your music as data to a DVD-R disc but you can’t play these discs. Toast with Jam can create audio DVDs, playable on supported players, that hold up to 36 hours of music, complete with navigation menus and on-screen “now playing” information.

Convert and restore LPs and tapes iTunes can rip CDs, but it can’t record audio from a computer’s audio input port. CD Spin Doctor, a program included with Toast, can. Using CD Spin Doctor you can record your old LPs and tapes to your Mac. During the recording process the program will recognize gaps between tracks and automatically segment albums for you, plus it can filter out noise such as pops and crackles.

Track and album normalizing iTunes offers Sound Check, a feature that balances the volume of tracks so that they more closely match each other. This isn’t always a pleasant effect because Sound Check doesn’t compare tracks on the same album to each other. Recordings are purposely mastered so that some tracks are quieter than others and when you impose Sound Check, the balance between soft and loud recordings on an album is lost. Jam lets you balance (“normalize”) tracks either individually—as you might if you have tracks from different CDs and you’d like those tracks to have the same volume—and as a whole selection, as you’d do to increase the overall relative volume of an album but not boost all the tracks so they’re the same volume.

Non-music functions Toast is more than simply a tool for creating audio CDs. With it you can create cross-platform data discs and a variety of video discs (including DVD- and CD-video discs). In this respect it duplicates some of the functionality of Apple’s Disk Utility and iDVD but, in many cases, offers more.

The Next Step

If you do little more than rip CDs, play tunes in iTunes and on your iPod, and make the occasional mix CD, iTunes is a great (and free!) tool that will serve you well. 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. When we next meet, I’ll cover some options for Windows users.

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