File formats, file editing, and podcasts

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This week I look at a number of questions about splitting audio files, which file format to use for ripping CDs, and updating podcasts, plus share a tip for live performers who use music in their iTunes libraries.

Q: I have tracks on my iPod of complete concerts. The tracks can last several hours as one song. Can I insert breaks so I can separate the songs as individual tracks instead of one long one?

Yes, but not with iTunes. My favorite tool for editing tracks in this manner is Rogue Amoeba’s $32 Fission (4.5-mouse rating). If there are silent spaces between the songs, Fission can find them and suggest where to split the files. But if not, you can scrub through the files, find them yourself, and split the files wherever you want. And as a non-destructive audio editor, Fission doesn’t degrade the quality of the audio in any way.

Here's Fission in action: You can see the split points that I've inserted in this long track, which is several songs that segue into each other.

Q: iTunes occasionally tells me it stopped updating a podcast because I have not listened to it in a while. Can I disable that feature? I always want the new podcasts.

Unfortunately, you can’t. However, one of Doug Adams’ AppleScripts, Update Expired Podcasts (payment requested), lets you update all of your podcasts quickly. Instead of clicking each ! button next to each podcast, then clicking a dialog box option, just run this script, and all your podcasts will be updated.

Q: I would like to improve the sound quality of my stereo and am considering re-ripping all of my CDs into iTunes on my Mac. Which is the best encoder to use and what bit rate should I use?

The question of encoder and bit rate is a thorny one. The short answer is this: Use the one that sounds best to you. I wrote an article on my blog about how to determine this.

I think the first question is whether you should rip the CDs in a lossless format (Apple Lossless) or a lossy one (MP3 or AAC). If you only plan on listening on your stereo—and not on a mobile device—and have plenty of storage space and not too much music, you might as well go for lossless. A CD of music in Apple Lossless format takes up about 300MB to 500 MB.

iTunes Import Settings window lets you choose among five different file formats.

However, if you want to use the files on an iOS device, then you’ll want to compromise with a compressed format to save space. AAC is generally better quality than MP3 at the same bit rate, and you need to balance the amount of music you have with the amount of space you need to hold it.

Again, try the blind test I suggest to figure out what sounds best to you, and with your audio equipment.

Q: I’ve got a playlist set up in iTunes, which I intend to use for live backing tracks at a gig. How do I get the songs to not play sequentially, so that each track ends without starting the next?

As I understand, you want to be able to start these backing tracks when you want, and not have to worry about pausing iTunes when one ends. There’s actually a way you can do so, but it’s a bit nonintuitive.

In your playlist, you’ll see little boxes with checkmarks next to each track. If you uncheck these boxes (either by checking them individually, or by selecting a group of tracks, right-clicking, then choosing Uncheck selection), iTunes will stop after each track you play (or skip to the next checked track, if there is one).

This smart playlist plays the tracks from another playlist, but only those with 0 plays, and updates as the tracks are played.

However, to play the next track, you’ll need to double-click it. You can get around this by creating a smart playlist whose condition is Playlist Is name of playlist, and Plays is 0; also make sure to check Live Updating. Start by resetting the play count for all the tracks: Select the tracks, right-click, then choose Reset Plays. Now, the smart playlist will show only those tracks whose play counts are 0. Once a track has completed, its play count will increment, and it will leave the smart playlist. You can then just press the spacebar on your Mac, or click the Play button in iTunes, to start playing the next track.

Q: Thank you for your “Ask the iTunes Guy” column. Is there an archive available of all questions answered since the inception of the column? It would be great to keep as a reference.

Thanks, we’re glad you like the column. We don’t have a list of all the individual questions, but you can use this search to run a search that will turn up every column since the beginning.

[Ask the iTunes Guy is a regular column in which we answer your questions on everything iTunes related. If there’s something you’d like to know, send an email to the iTunes Guy for consideration.]

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