Lossless Libraries in iTunes
Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business.
Jon Bon Jovi, via MSNBC reprinting the Sunday Times (paywalled)
A popular recent quote from a man who’s seen a thousand cities and rocked them all. I’m not a fan of Bon Jovi’s music, but I can’t really argue with what he’s saying in the above-linked article. There is a whole generation of people who think music is supposed to sound like it’s on YouTube.
The comparative high-quality of compressed music available in the iTunes Music Store and elsewhere is considered reference-quality for most people. As portable music goes, the quality of 320kbps, VBR-encoded AAC files or MP3s is pretty damned good. On a good pair of headphones or a high-end system though, the limitations start to become apparent.
When I first started listening to compressed music at the turn of the millenium, many people compressed around 96kbps. I tended to compress at higher levels and encoded my music in 160kbps rips from MusicMatch transferred to my Creative Audio Nomad Jukebox. A clunky, hard-drive-based music player with a horrible interface that I loved the hell out of at the time. People thought I was crazy for using such “high quality” mp3s.
As the years went on, I realized that the harsh encodings of 2000 sounded really bad on my improving audio gear. So I upped the bitrate and transcoded everything at 192kbps. This happened again later and I jumped to 256 and then 320. Now it’s happening again. I’m actually listening to physical media as my preferred media format. And re-ripping a large chunk of my library in “lossless” format. If it were available, I’d buy everything in SACD or some emergent blu-ray audio format, were such a thing to exist.
To FLAC or ALE?
Now that I’m considering doing the Lossless step, I’m faced with a somewhat difficult choice. FLAC or Apple Lossless Encoder? I think the “correct” choice would be FLAC, an open-source audio compression codec. Unfortunately, it doesn’t integrate very nicely into iTunes. There are plugins for it, but they’re hacky and Apple is bound to break them with every iTunes upgrade.
So, the great dilemma of the modern age: does convenience trump portability? In this case, for me, I think it does. There are tools to move from Apple Lossless (ALE) to FLAC (DoubleTwist for one) that should serve well enough if I ever do have to ditch the Apple platform at the cost of a few hours of scripting and re-encoding. The other “advantage” of ALE is that it’ll happily play on my iDevices if I ever want to take some with me. And iTunes makes it relatively easy to make lossy copies of ALE files for transport. If there’s another piece of music software out there that can do this with FLACs, I’d love to hear about it.
I’ll be listening to music in the following places:
- My computer
- Home system (direct via SPDIF)
- My laptop with headphones (streamed via wifi)
- My living room (streamed via Airport Express)
- Anywhere else on my iPhone or iPad (via homesharing)
When I’m roaming, I’ll have my iPhone or iPad and headphones. In all of the above locations around my house, I want lossless audio served up from my main computer. On my iPhone and iPad, I want that converted down to some decent, high-quality compressed format like AAC 320VBR.
iTunes provides an option to convert music on portable players to AAC 128Kbps on sync. Unfortunately, this is woefully inadequate for me. This means storing two copies of music in my iTunes library: one uncompressed and one compressed. The best instructions on how to do this that I’ve found are on iLounge from 2004 (found an updated version from 2011 with no real new info). They recommend converting before sync and then deleting the copies again after you’re done. The old option on the iPod “classic” to “manually manage music” is no longer present on the iOS devices.
Another option is to keep multiple iTunes libraries. One for lossless streaming, the other for syncing to devices. This is not super groovy as it means shutting down iTunes and restarting it depending on what I’m doing. I also lose a lot of metadata by having separate libraries. Play counts and ratings in one library don’t automatically get linked up without some very clever (probably impossible) AppleScripting.
Speaking of AppleScript, I should probably mention Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes. He’s got a ton of useful automation for all kinds of iTunes tasks including a script for re-encoding lossless tracks onto an iPod capable of letting your manage your music collection. (probably means iPod classic)
Where to from here?
I’m in limbo. I’m currently ripping tracks to lossless in iTunes and removing said tracks from my iPod synced playlists. Every disc I rip gets removed from my iPhone and iPad. I’m likely not going to replace everything in my library. Some things I just don’t have. Others probably wouldn’t benefit hugely from a lossless conversion due to weak recording. I’m toying with the idea of using my laptop for device syncing, copying compressed versions to that machine and keeping my desktop server as the lossless library.
Help me! I’d love to hear your suggestions, no matter how outlandish. I am more than willing to throw iTunes to the kerb for a decent home streaming solution.
 – Sony killed the music industry in the 80s with The Walkman and tape decks so maybe it’s just the most-recent “death of the music industry”.