The First Ask the iTunes Guy Column on Macworld

About a month ago, Macworld announced that I would be “the iTunes Guy” for a new column where readers send in questions about using iTunes, iPods and other iOS devices. The response was overwhelming, and we’ve gotten a couple hundred e-mails already, just from that single announcement. Because of this, current plans are to run this column more frequently than what was initially planned, assuming, of course, that we keep getting so many questions.

Today, the first Ask the iTunes Guy column has gone live on the Macworld web site. I chose to focus on iTunes Match, as there are many issues and questions about this new service. Have no fear, though, future columns (I’ve already written several) will cover other aspects of working with iTunes: managing a library, ripping CDs, tagging files, working with playlists, and much more.

So, if you have iTunes questions, head over to the Macworld website and send yours in.

New Audiobook: Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust, in English

As regular readers of Kirkville probably know, I’m a fan of Marcel Proust. I recently started re-reading A la recherche du temps perdu, but was sidetracked by moving house. Some time ago, I listened to the entire work, on a French audio recording. But not all Proustians are French speakers. Proust actually has quite a following in the US and England, and his popularity is such that Naxos Audiobooks has recently released the first part of a complete, unabridged recording of Remembrance of Things Past (also know as In Search of Lost Time).

The narrator, Neville Jason, has one of those smooth, soft English accents that lulls and entrances you. His reading is leisurely and relaxed. He takes his time, allowing you to absorb the work comfortably, without speaking too slowly, as is sometimes the case on older audiobook readings. Jason’s reading is a performance, but it also sounds like he’s sitting by your side, reading from the book, like a friend. In addition, his French accent is quite good, and when he speaks the names of French people or towns, it sounds as it should.

Swann’s Way is more than 21 hours long, and is only the first of seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Naxos will be releasing each volume individually, and will most likely offer a box set with the entire text – which will be more than 120 hours – when all the titles have been released.

If you want to listen to Proust, and don’t speak French, Neville Jason’s recordings are excellent. For now, this is the only complete recording in the works. Simon Vance, who is also another wonderful narrator, has recorded Swann’s Way, but it doesn’t look like this will be a complete recording of all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, as this recording was released in September, 2010, and no follow-up has yet been released.

Buy Swann’s Way on Amazon.com or Amazon UK.

Here’s a sample of Neville Jason reading the famous “madeleine” scene:

Neil Young Doesn’t Like Digital Music Files

Neil Young was interviewed by Walt Mossberg about digital music, and made a number of statements where he expressed a desire to see more high-resolution audio files. He claims that only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files – though he doesn’t specify what bit rate. He also suggests that vinyl LPs or cassette tapes reproduce nearly all of the 24-bit, 192 kHz files used to master recordings.

Well, I take exception to these claims, which are a bit off the cuff. First, comparing 24/192 files to anything is ludicrous. In order to get all of the “data” from those files, you need very high-end stereo equipment. Even if you do have a standalone DAC (digital audio converter) between your source and amplifier, the majority of these devices only go up to 96 kHz. Next, recording artists listen to their recordings in studios on equipment that is even better than what most obsessive audiophiles have in their homes. I’m sure there is a difference in sound in a recording studio: not only do you have the best studio monitors, but you also have acoustically perfect rooms in which to listen.

But suggesting that LPs, with their clicks and scratches, or tapes, which are notably known for problems at high frequencies (remember Dolby noise reduction on cassettes?) is just disingenuous.

It’s interesting that Neil Young became famous during the time of AM radios. Even those with stereos had equipment that was light years behind the average stereo today. He got famous because of his music: his songs, his lyrics and his voice, not the quality of the sound. Yet he says “we have 5% of what we had in 1978,” which is just a lie. Analog recordings did not approach the 24/192 benchmark that he cites, and the sound quality of the average stereo then was crappy compared to today’s iPods. (It’s worth noting that Neil Young suffers from tinnitus, or at least he did in 1995 – it generally never goes away – so how much of that 24/192 does he actually hear?)

He wants people to be able to buy high-resolution files more easily. There are many vendors who sell these files, and he seems to not realize that this is possible. He calls for a “device” that can play high-resolution files, but says that it takes 30 minutes per song to download these files. (I don’t know what he means by this; with my Internet connection, I can download a high-resolution “song” – a file just a few minutes long – in just a few minutes.)

Young claims that he and Steve Jobs were “working on” such a solution, but I think this is not true; if they were discussing it, it was most likely just an idea in the air. There were rumors of Apple offering 24-bit files via iTunes last year, but the source of this was never clear. My sources have told me that this is very unlikely, at least in the near term, for a number of reasons: bandwidth, price, playback, etc. The audiophile market is too small for Apple to provide high-resolution files for all the music they sell. It is entirely possible that, in the future, they offer high-resolution files for a limited selection of music, but even that seems unlikely, as it would confuse average users.

Neil Young does say that he looks at the Internet, and piracy, “as the new radio.” “That’s how music gets around.” It doesn’t bother him that people download his music, saying “it’s acceptable.” It allows people to discover music, and for him this is a good thing. Of course, he makes enough money on royalties and back catalog that he doesn’t need to worry about income…

While I understand Mr. Young’s desire to have better quality music files, you must remember that this idea comes from someone who can afford the hardware to listen to them. The 99% of music listeners who don’t have that hardware simply don’t care. They buy music for music, not for audio quality.

Update: Bad Tracks from iTunes Match: Who Do You Complain To?

A number of people have found that iTunes Match sometimes matches incorrect tracks; not that the songs are wrong, but that the versions might be wrong. This seems to happen especially with music that has been remastered. iTunes may match either an original or remastered track, and the user who matched the track may have tho one that iTunes doesn’t have. This can be a problem, if, say, you prefer an original album over a remastered version, or vice versa.

But I today I found, for the first time, a bad track coming from iTunes Match, one with an audible problem. It’s one of an excellent set of Bill Evans recordings, The Last Waltz, from the summer of 1980, just before his death, made at the Keystone Korner; the song is Your Story, While iTunes matched these tracks, I was listening to some of this music today, and found a bad track. There’s a gap of about a half-second at one point in the track. Looking at it with Rogue Amoeba’s Fission, you can clearly see the missing chunk of music:



If this happens, you’re basically screwed. Who can you complain to? Contact the iTunes Store? I doubt anything will happen. The only way to have a good copy of the track is to take your original and make sure it stays in your library; if you ever have to download it again, you’ll get the track with the gap. It’s worth noting that this track is not available on the iTunes Store. This makes me wonder exactly how they match such tracks; do they match them to tracks that other people have uploaded?

I don’t expect this will happen a lot, but the fact that it happens at all shows the weakness of this system. iTunes Match clearly needs an option for tracks that you don’t want matched, ones that you want uploaded, because the matched version may not be the same as yours.

Has anyone else found matched tracks that have similar problems?

(As an aside: if you like Bill Evans, there are two box sets of this run at the Keystone Korner, in San Francisco, between August 31 and September 8, 1980. The Last Waltz is music from the first sets, and Consecration has tracks from the second sets. Just a week before his death, Evans was playing some of his finest performances. These two box sets, together with Turn Out the Stars, recorded at the Village Vanguard in June, 1980, comprise 22 discs of astounding piano music.)

Update: my son came across a bad track today. It’s a match of Philip Glass’s Witchita Vortex Sutra, from the Minimal Piano Collection box set. There are clicks throughout the track, with one big dropout at 4:25:



The iTunes Guy – That’s Me

Over at Macworld, we’ve just introduced Ask the iTunes Guy. This occasional column will take readers’ questions and explain how to do what you want with iTunes. I’m the iTunes Guy, and I’ll be answering questions over the coming months. So far, response has been well above what we expected, and we have dozens of great questions, so look for a first column with your questions and my answers soon.

Book Review: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo

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Dogen’s Shobogenzo is the most profound and perplexing work of the Zen canon. Written in the 13th century by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, the Shobogenzo is a collection of texts written over a long period of time that examine the concepts and practices of Zen.

This edition is a milestone, representing a complete English translation of the Shobogenzo, in an extremely attractive set of books. The two volumes are, while a bit expensive, very well produced. The paper is thick and opaque, the font is very readable, and the binding will last one or more lifetimes. Volume one has introductory matter about Dogen’s life and the composition of the Shobogenzo, and the first part of the texts (fascicles 1-47). (For a more thorough discussion of Dogen’s life and career, as well as an analysis of his thought, see Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, by Hee-Jin Kim.) The second volume contains the remainder of the texts (fascicles 48-95 plus a 96th fascicle not included in the original edition of the Shobogenzo), and an extensive glossary explaining the terms used in the books.

Some of the texts in this collection have been published previously, in Moon in a Dewdrop, Beyond Thinking, and Enlightenment Unfolds. In fact, many readers may find those there volumes sufficient in content, and more agreeable in overall price. (Another useful book is Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo, by Shohaku Okumura, which is a detailed, and very accessible commentary on this section of the Shobogenzo.)

This glossary in volume two is essential to the reading and study of this work. Readers will need to look up terms to get a better understanding of what they really mean. Often a single word, or a short phrase, may seem obscure when reading, but the glossary goes into detail to explain it better. In addition, the glossary serves as an index, with references to where the terms are used.

But the glossary is a bit problematic. At more than 200 pages, this is a big chunk of the text, and it is, of course, only available in the second volume. If you are reading the first volume, you still need to have this glossary handy, so you’ll need to have both books. I wish that Shambhala had included the glossary as a separate volume – perhaps a paperback – so it could be more easily consulted. Or, if they could provide an e-book version, popping it on an iPad would make reading and consulting it more practical.

This doesn’t detract from the overall work, which is, I must say, an amazing feat of translation that has taken decades. The text is beautifully rendered, and, while just one interpretation, it certainly has the weight of experience both of the translators as translators and as practitioners. This set is a monument to the work of Dogen.

Note: the original two-volume edition is out of print, but there is a one-volume edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) that has replaced it. I haven’t seen it, but it apparently has much thinner paper. There’s also a Kindle edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) which is great for reading on the go, since the book is so heavy, but the glossary is essentially unusable on the Kindle.