iTunes Tip: Add Custom Genres to iTunes

When you first set up your iTunes Library, it is configured to use a number of genres. These include Rock, Jazz, Classical, Easy Listening and Hip-Hop/Rap. As you add content to your library, new genres will be added. You’ll see that apps include genres – or, as they are called in the iTunes Store – Categories. The same is the case for books, movies and TV shows.

When you tag your own content – music you’ve ripped from CDs, for example – you can choose a genre from the Genre field in the Info window shown below. (To view this window, select a track and press Command-I, or Control-I on Windows.)

When you rip CDs, or import music obtained in digital form, genres may be included in the tags of the files. You can change the genre by selecting a different one from the Genre field, or you can simply add your own, custom genre by typing it into the Genre field. This is the case for any kind of content in your iTunes library. For example, if you download books in EPUB or PDF format, you may want to add genres to them; if you download movies or TV shows from the iTunes Store, you may want to change their genres.

As you can see in the screen shot above, the genre for this song is “Dead.” The artist is Grateful Dead, and I find it easier to organize all of their music in my library (there’s a lot of it) with a specific genre. You can do the same for any type of genre you want.

For example, if you’re into classical music, you might want the following genres: Chamber Music, Opera, String Quartet or Symphony. If you’re a jazz fan, you might want: Piano Trio, Quartet or Saxophone. Some people like using genres with hyphens or colons: for example, you could use Classical – Piano, or Jazz: Saxophone. Use whatever genres you want, and it will be easier to sort your iTunes library, and to make smart playlists that look for music of a specific genre.

Bach’s Sacred Cantatas: Recordings and Resources

One of my favorite parts of the classical canon is Bach’s sacred cantatas. These are vocal and instrumental works that Bach composed to be performed in church during services, as well as some which were written for secular occasions. Some feature a choir, others just solo singers, and most are based on texts from the bible and hymns. Many composers wrote cantatas, but the more than 200 cantatas that Bach composed are considered to be the finest.

Cantatas are generally small-scale works, unlike Bach’s passions, oratorios or masses. (Though the Christmas Oratorio is actually a group of six cantatas meant to be played on six consecutive days.) Bach didn’t have many musicians available, so these works feature generally no more than about 20 musicians, and a choir that can vary according to the performance style. The smallest number of singers can be four – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – in what is called “one voice per part” performance, where these four soloists make up the choir. Other performances may have a choir of 30 or more singers, depending on how the conductor wishes to present the works. The OVPP approach, which is controversial, was first advocated by conductor Joshua Rifkin. The texture of these performances is interesting, but while evidence can be presented for its use in Bach’s time, it has not been universally adopted.

A number of recordings of Bach’s cantatas have been made over the years, and for a body of work of this scope – the sacred cantatas take up some 60 CDs – there are a surprising number of complete sets. The first complete set was recorded by Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt from 1971 through 1990. It stands out for its use of boy sopranos, which is how Bach performed these works. This set is is available for around $175. Helmut Rilling also recorded the complete cantatas, which are now available in a budget set. (Both of these sets are available in box sets of Bach’s complete works.)

John Eliot Gardiner, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, recorded all the sacred cantatas during a “cantata pilgrimage.” Since I first wrote this post, a box set has been released. Limited to 3,000 copies, it’s more affordable on Amazon UK – less than £140 – than Amazon.com, where it’s just shy of $300. (There is also an excellent set of earlier recordings of Bach’s Sacred Masterpieces and Cantatas, containing 22 CDs of passions, oratorios and cantatas, that is worth getting, and is available at a budget price. It’s worth noting that this set contains four discs of cantata pilgrimage recordings that were not released in individual volumes by SDG, but that are in the box set. (Also available from iTunes.)

Ton Koopman, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, recorded a complete set of the sacred and secular cantatas which is, unfortunately, quite expensive, so I have not heard this one yet. Finally, Maasaki Suzuki is in the process of recording a complete set, and is currently up to volume 53; he has also recorded some of the secular cantatas.

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Listen Different: Add Silence to your iTunes and iPod Playlists

I’m reposting this article, as it is a perennial favorite. I find that several people a day find this through Google searches, as apparently a lot of people want to know how to add silence to playlists. I can imagine that this is useful for more than the reasons I mention below; I would think DJs and performers might benefit from this technique, but if you find it useful, I’d be interested in knowing how. Several people in the comments mention music for weddings or fitness routines; how do you use these bits of silence? Feel free to post a comment saying how you use these silent files.

iTunes and the iPod are all about music, but as composer John Cage once said, “The music is in the silence between the notes.” In fact, Cage is famous for one of his works, 4’33”, where a pianist sits at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds and does nothing. The music is in the silence; or rather the lack thereof. For true silence does not exist on our planet. Any performance of this work brings out the ambient noises of the concert hall, the coughs and rustles of the audience, and all the other noises we usually never hear. (Download a performance of 4’33” here, or buy Cage Against the Machine, an album featuring a recording of this work and a number of remixes.)

You can have thousands of songs on your iPod or iPhone, providing you with hours of listening pleasure, but sometimes you just want to listen to silence. Not that you want silence for any long stretch of time – that’s easy; just turn off your iPod – but you may want to have certain playlists, or even albums, with a bit of a pause between certain songs. A time to take a breath, to appreciate the beauty of the music. So why not use silence in your playlists? After an especially poignant song, add a few seconds of silence – 15 seconds, maybe 30 seconds, or even a minute. Let yourself absorb the song, the world around you, the people with you…

Unfortunately, iTunes does not allow this, nor does the iPod. But there is a simple solution: I’ve created a few tracks of silence that you can download and add to your iTunes music library. You can use them in any playlist, or copy them and add them to specific albums. Here is a zip archive of files that are 10, 15, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 5 minutes long.

Download.

Note: the zip archive also contains a .1 second MP3 file, and a .1 second iPhone-compatible ringtone, as per this hint on the Mac OS X Hints web site.

Each of these tracks is a very low bit rate MP3 file; I encoded them at 8 kbps mono so they take up very little disk space. Each track is tagged with its name, and with the artist, album and genre marked as “Silence” so you can find them easily.

So, what can you do with these tracks? When you’re making a new playlist, think if you really need all the songs to follow each other in a mad rush, or if you want some of the music to sink in before the next song. Insert a Silence track and appreciate the music that you’ve heard before the next track starts. This is especially useful with classical music, where you want enough time for one work to fade away before another – which may be quite different in form or instrumentation – begins. (Many classical albums are engineered with long bits of silence at the ends of works for that reason.)

If you want to insert silence into an album, take one of the Silence tracks and copy it. Then, change the tags so it has the artist, album and genre for the album you want. Finally, you’ll need to edit its track number tag as well as edit all those that come after it on the album. (For example, if you want to insert it at the 3rd position, you’ll need to change track 3 to 4, track 4 to 5, and so on.)

Silence is especially useful if you make playlists for romantic situations; for mellow music that you want to listen to when meditating, doing yoga or simply watching the grass grow; or just to change the way you hear your music. You can also use them when you listen to your iPod in shuffle mode. Make copies of each of the tracks; make a few dozen of each, so you’ll get random silence from time to time, and discover the sounds of the world around you in a new way.

Here’s one practical example. If you meditate, rather than using a meditation timer, create a playlist with as many copies of the one-minute Silence file as you want, followed by a piece of music. So if you meditate for 20 minutes, add the one-minute file to a playlist twenty times, then add a piece of soft music at the end to alert you that the time is up. Start this playlist when you meditate, and let it tell you when you’ve sat for twenty minutes. (Download a 20-minute Silence file, or roll your own, using the precise number of minutes you wish to use.)

Or you can use these silent MP3 files as ringtones or notification sounds on an iPhone or Android phone. Some phones don’t have a silent option, and if you choose one of these files as your notification sound, for example, you won’t hear any sound when you get notifications.

Can You Really Tell the Difference Between Music at Different Bit Rates?

(Note: this article is written for Mac users. If you have Windows tools to recommend, please mention them in the comments.)

The bit rate debate regarding compressed music is one that will be around for a long time. Some people think that any compression of music files is anathema. Take Neil Young. He complained about the poor quality of digital music files, while greatly misunderstanding much of what is involved in compression. He claimed that only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files, without specifying the bit rate used or the original sources, and without understanding that compression is more than just lopping off bits of the music. (Andy Doe, writing on the Naxos Blog last year, published an article, All About Bitrates, explaining how compression works. You should read this to understand some points that most people overlook.)

When you start ripping music, and decide what bit rate to use, you have several options. You could go for lossless, which compresses music around 40-60%. One advantage to this is that you can then re-convert the lossless files to a lower bit rate if you want, keeping the originals as archival copies. But lossless files take up much more space. While this isn’t an issue on computers – hard drives are huge these days – it is for portable devices like iPods or iPhones.

If you don’t use a lossless format, you have to decide which format to use (AAC or MP3), and what bit rate. For a long time, Apple sold music at 128 kbps at the iTunes Store. It is now 256k, which is roughly what Amazon uses in their MP3 store (their music is in VBR, or variable bit rate, so it is not exactly 256k). This is an excellent compromise between space and quality. But you might want to go even lower. What’s important is to find the point at which you cannot hear the difference between an original file and a compressed file, and stay above that bit rate.

To do this, you need to perform what is called blind ABX testing. You are presented with music and don’t know which bit rate you are hearing, and you must choose whether you think it is compressed or not. While this test takes a bit of time – you need to rip tracks at different bit rates, then test yourself, one pair of tracks at a time – the results can be interesting.

To start with, find several songs or tracks that you know very well. It’s best to use familiar music, because you will be able to hear more of the differences (if any) because of your familiarity with the melodies, arrangements, etc. I’d recommend not ripping full albums for this test, but rather individual songs or tracks from different albums.

Rip these tracks from CD in lossless format. In iTunes, go to Preferences > General, then click on Import Settings. Choose Lossless Encoder from the Import Using menu.



Next, add the tracks you have ripped in lossless format and to a playlist. Select them all and press Command-I, then enter an album name, such as Lossless Tracks. You’ll want this later to be able to find them.

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Theater Review: Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh

macbeth-branagh-head.jpgThis year’s Manchester International Festival saw a new staging of Macbeth, with Kenneth Branagh in the starring role. This limited run was performed in a deconsecrated church, and, with some 280 seats per performance, sold out in less than 10 minutes.

Fortunately, the National Theatre, through its NT Live program, broadcast a performance of this play to movie theaters in the UK, and will be broadcasting it several more times to theaters in the UK and abroad. I was able to see a performance of this production in my local cinema in York.

The “stage” for the performance was the choir and the apse of the church, with spectators sitting in pews on either side of the choir. As the production opens, the weird sisters have their brief scene through open doors at one end of the church, then, as drums and cymbals resound, lights flash and rain falls on the dirt-covered stage area as a great battle takes place. This battle isn’t seen in the original play, as the next scene is where Macbeth and Banquo discuss their victory. But this production uses the battle as the starting point for the action, and rightly so. Dead bodies litter the battleground during the next scene, and the dirt, which has become mud, is a silent yet present leitmotiv throughout the play, reminding us that the earth, the land, is what is coveted.


macbeth-battle.jpg

This Macbeth is fast-paced, with the play coming in at around 2 hours, and the tempo nearly breathless for much of the duration. Actors come and go at either end of the choir, or through openings between two sections of seats on either side, and scene changes are quick and fluid.

Macbeth is a small play, in that much of the action concerns only a few characters: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the king Duncan at first; later, after Macbeth kills Duncan to become king himself, Duncan’s son Malcolm and Macduff are key characters.

For much of the play, this breakneck tempo has the action moving ahead quickly, until things suddenly begin to drag, in Act IV, Scene iii, Malcolm and Macduff discuss overthrowing Macbeth, and Macduff learns of the death of his wife and children. He vows revenge, and together, they raise an army to restore Malcolm to the throne.

This long scene drags a bit, and erases the tempo that had been maintained since the beginning of the play. Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm is stiff, and cannot keep the action moving ahead, though Ray Fearon’s Macduff is brilliant in his grief and anger.

Kenneth Branagh excels in this role; his physical and verbal prowess are both outstanding. His diction is excellent, and in spite of his fast speaking, he makes Shakespeare’s word shine. I was less impressed by Alex Kingston’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth. I felt she was too frenetic early in the play, before Macbeth killed Duncan, to pull off the madness in Act V, Scene i. I think there needed to be more contrast, and she over-acted in the latter scene, being far too obviously mad.

I particularly liked the casting of three young women as the weird sisters. Generally cast as old women, as fairy-tail witches, these three young women were powerful in their dark dresses and makeup.


Weird sisters

 
While the choice of the theater as stage was excellent, it introduced two problems. The first was unexpected; Britain was in its hottest summer in seven years, and many of the spectators could be seen fanning themselves with their programs. On the sultry night when this was filmed, together with the rankness and humidity within following the rain at the beginning of the play, it must have been uncomfortable. But those fanning programs were often distracting; several cameras were set up on one side of the choir, showing the actors with the seats on the other side behind them.

The second problem was the length of the “stage” area. This led to many scenes where actors walked, or even ran, from one end to the other, for no apparent reason. In Act IV, Scene iii, for example, Malcolm and Macduff enter the stage on the apse, and Malcolm walks all the way to the other end of the stage to talk to Macduff, who remains stationary. This occurred several times in the performance; it was as if the directors felt that the entire stage needed to be used, but there was no dramatic justification for all that movement.

Nevertheless, the play was masterfully filmed, with, as I mentioned, several cameras on one side of the choir, and a few others above the choir and in various locations. Aside from the occasional shot which began out of focus, the only production oddity was certain shots where a wide-angle lens was used to keep actors far apart on the stage in focus, which led to the distant actor being distorted. When this wide-angle lens panned, it was also a bit dizzy-making.

But the NT Live team managed to bring to the screen this powerful production from a cramped set, giving the feeling, even to those in movie theaters, of being in the middle of the action. This is an excellent Macbeth, and one worth seeing if possible.

ITunes Tip: Rip CDs in Mono in iTunes

Many fans of older music probably have a lot of CDs in mono. Early classical recordings, old blues discs, and jazz up until the 1950s was all recorded in mono. Even later music is available in mono mixes, notably many of The Beatles’ recordings and early discs by Bob Dylan. If you rip these discs in iTunes, they are generally ripped in stereo. iTunes’ settings suggest that you can choose to rip with channels determined “automatically,” but this never results in mono files when I rip mono CDs; I always get stereo. (I don’t mean that the music is in stereo, rather that iTunes creates stereo files where the two channels are exactly the same.)


You may want to rip in mono to save space. There’s no reason to rip a mono CD in stereo; the resulting files contain exactly the same data on two channels rather than one, and take up twice as much space.

To rip in mono, you need to choose Mono from the Channels menu in the Import Settings > Custom window. And you need to remember to make this change both before and after ripping any mono CDs you have. Note that to choose a bit rate for mono rips, you need to choose the double of that bit rate. In other words, if you choose 256 kbps, the mono files will be 128 kbps; the bit rate you choose is the stereo bit rate.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you use iTunes Match, make sure you don’t choose a bit rate below 192 kbps (which will result in 96 kbps mono files). ITunes Match won’t accept files that are less than 96 kbps, so you won’t be able to match those files.

(For those who are curious, my latest mono rips are several discs of the 17-CD set of Schubert Lieder on Record and the 9-disc RIAS Bach Cantatas Project, containing recordings of Bach cantatas by Karl Ristenpart, from 1949-1952.)

iWant: A “Music Videos” Library in iTunes

iTunes’ library contains a number of sub-libraries for the different files it contains: there’s Music, Movies, TV Shows, Books, and others. (There are also libraries for non-media content, such as apps, and ringtones, which are only meant to be used on an iPhone.) But one thing that’s missing is a Music Videos library. Music videos get mixed in with your Music library, under the genre, artist and album (if any) they are tagged with.

You can set any type of content to reside in a specific library. For audio content, you can choose Music, Podcast, iTunes U, Audiobook or Voice Memo. For video, you can choose Music Video, Movie, TV Show, Podcast or iTunes U. You can do this for any track by selecting it, pressing Command-I (or Control-I on Windows), then clicking on the Options tab. Choose the library where you want to store the file from the Media Kind menu.



I can understand the idea behind having music videos mixed in with music; they are often part of an album, or if they are pop songs, most iTunes users probably want to play them when they’re listening to music. But it would make more sense if they were in their own library, especially if you have a lot of them.

I have a number of music DVDs that I have ripped, along with some music videos that I’ve gotten with iTunes Store purchases, and I have them as Movies, because it’s just more logical. But they’re not movies; they may actually be TV shows (technically), or simply videos of concerts, operas or other performances. I put many of them as TV Shows, because they have multiple discs, such as the Barenboim on Beethoven set in the screen shot below. Organizing this with each disc as its own movie wouldn’t make sense. The same would be the case for, say, a long opera that is on two discs, or the Grateful Dead’s Closing of Winterland, which is on three discs.



I would like to see a Music Videos library, and give users the options, somewhere in iTunes’ preferences, to either store music videos there or in their Music library. For those who have a lot of videos, it makes sense.

(Note: you can create a Music Videos genre if you wish, and still keep these files in your Music library. Instead of being sorted with the albums they come from, or the artists on them, they’d be in their own genre and easier to spot. But having a separate library is still one step easier.)

Grateful Dead to Release Sunshine Daydream, 8/27/72 Film and CD Set

Sunshine day dream bluray 1200 exclusive

Deadheads, get out your credit cards! This September will finally see an official release of 8/27/72 and Sunshine Daydream. After more than 40 years, we’ll finally get a crystal-clear recording of this iconic show, and a DVD or Blu-Ray of the Sunshine Daydream movie, shot that day.

Most Deadheads know that this show, from Veneta, Oregon, is one of the best the band ever played. Performed as a benefit for Ken Kesey’s family creamery, The Field Trip, as it was advertised, was played in a field in front of 20,000 sunburned Deadheads, as temperatures passed 100 degrees, and water was scarce. There was magic in the air, that day, though; or at least good acid. Because the Dead played one of their best, tightest shows, with amazing renditions of Playin’ in the Band, China > Rider, and one of the best versions of Dark Star ever.

You may have seen footage of the Sunshine Daydream movie, filmed by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field, who caught the music and the vibes, but never had the money to get the footage edited correctly. Mediocre quality transfers have circulated for years, but finally, the Dead have restored the film, and the 16-track soundboard tapes, to create what looks and sounds amazing. Here’s a clip:

After the amazing Europe ’72 and May ’77 sets, this amazing show is yet another wonderful release from the Dead. Now, if they can only find a tape of 5/8/77 and release that…

It’s Time to Get Rid of DRM on Ebooks

If you read ebooks as I do, you probably know that you are limited in the way you use them. If you buy an ebook from Apple, you can only read it on an Apple device. If you buy a Kindle, you can read it on a Kindle, or an Apple device (because of the Kindle app for iOS, and for OS X), but you’re still limited in what you do with the book. You can’t sell it or lend it, and you’re locked into a specific platform.

My latest Macworld article looks at this. I think that Apple should lead the way in getting rid of DRM on ebooks, the way the company spearheaded the drive to remove DRM from music.

It’s worth noting that my Take Control ebooks – including the just-out Take Control of LaunchBar – have no DRM, so you can read them on whatever device you want.

Theater Review: Henry VI, by the Globe Theatre, in York

If you saw my recent review of the RSC’s Titus Andronicus, you’ve figured out that I’m a Shakespeare fan. Since I moved to the UK, just under three months ago, I’ve seen four Shakespeare plays, and have tickets to see a few more. This is part of my project to see every Shakespeare play live at least once, as soon as possible.

But you will also have seen, in the Titus review, that I said that “Henry VI Part I was an insipid performance, with wooden actors and uninteresting staging.” Last night, I went to see Henry VI Part II, at York’s Theatre Royal. It was as bad is the first part, so much so that my girlfriend and I left at the interval (intermission). What’s going on here? Why are these performances so bad?

I haven’t ruled out the possibility that I’m missing something. Being aware of early music performance practice, I wonder if the Globe company isn’t trying to do some sort of “authentic” performance. While this is possible, it still doesn’t jibe with what they’re doing on stage. The actors are, for the most part, stiff and wooden, except when one of them turns on the ham amplifier. Some of the actors are simply bad – I won’t mention names – and sound as if they are simply declaiming their lines. Others show emotion, enough to invalidate the hypothesis of some sort of original performance style.

To be fair, these early history plays are not the most interesting. Yet Henry VI was written around the same time as Titus Andronicus, and the RSC production of that play was unforgettable. (It’s so good, I’m planning to see it again in September.) There is little scintillating language in Henry VI, the plots are tangled and confusing, and at both performances, it was hard to follow what was going on. This was compounded in Part I, where several actors played two roles, one of an English character, the other of a Frenchman.

Another thing I wonder is whether the Globe company can play on a normal stage. The Globe Theatre in London has a thrust stage – where the stage reaches out into the audience, so the actors are playing in the middle of the spectators – as does the RSC’s two theaters in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Perhaps being forced to use a standard stage limits them in their movements and actions. It was almost painful to see, at times, a dozen characters standing stock-still on the stage as one or two characters were speaking.

henry-vi

One element that was particularly poor was when, in Act II, Scene I, four falconers stood on stage, holding their arms up with invisible hawks, going, “Caw, caw.” But the shark-jumping moment came at the end of the first part of the play, just before the interval. In Act IV, Scene I, Suffolk is executed. In this production, he is led up to the top of one of two metallic scaffolds on the stage which represent towers. His head is lopped off, and a rubber head is dropped onto the stage just before the lights on stage are extinguished. But the dropping of this head is funny, and, at what should be a very serious moment in the play, the audience laughed quite loudly. Doing something like this to provoke laughter, at this point in the play, makes no sense.

I found little in this play to be enjoyable. Even assuming that the Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s weakest, I feel the Globe should have done much more to try to make these plays interesting. I note that the York performances were the first on a tour of these plays. I wonder if things will change as they go on, and especially whether they’d be better when they play in their home theater. But it’s more than just the stage. Most of the actors don’t seem invested in their parts, and the ones who are stand in stark contrast to the blandness of the rest of the troupe.

This all surprises me, as I have seen several DVDs of the Globe performing in their own theater, all of which have been very well done. There’s a real disconnect here between what the Globe can do, and what they’ve done with the Henry VI plays.

I won’t be going to see Part III, and hope to be able to get a refund for my unused tickets. There were plenty of empty seats at Part I; there seemed to be more at Part II; I wonder how many people will stick it out and see Part III.

(An aside: the York Theatre Royal is extremely uncomfortable. I’m six feet tall, and I felt, sitting in the theatre, like being on an airplane. Even my girlfriend, who is about six inches shorter than me, found the legroom too limited. I may not go back to that theatre.)