This is the location of the podServe blog posts published up to June 2015.

Welcome to the podServe blog, a selection of tips, tricks, comments and various other ramblings on the topic of CD ripping, digital music, streaming and all the things that go right and wrong in being entertained.

Why We're Not Worried About Apple Music

It’s a week or so since Apple announced their new streaming music service called, err, Music. As expected it’s an all-you-can-eat music service priced at $9.99 per user in the USA. No UK price has yet been announced but if previous history is any guide Apple will just to pounds for dollars, £9.99 over here.

As a CD ripping service we’ll be blown out of the water, right?
Have we been Uber-ed by Apple?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

First, history is on our side. Over the last twelve years all sorts of technology has assailed us, each one (I have been told) is defined to consign CD ripping to the dustbin of history. Remember Limewire, the MP3 sharing system? Pirate Bay? AllofMP3? Each service supposedly offered ways of accessing your music in digital format.

Then in Europe we were treated to Spotify. Today that’s the music streaming service most people think of, and many people use it. Even among my clients less than 50% actually pay for it, so are interrupted by adverts, which puts them off. Rumours persist that Spotify will pull its free layer - it still pays royalties even if the listener isn’t a paying subscriber, and if you’ve been a user for 12, 24 or 36 months and haven’t opted to pay up, you’re not likely to - ever.

Apple may have learnt from all those who went before, their offer will be better, but not “killer”.

Second, it’s a cloud based streaming service. Is that a problem I hear you ask. Well not for Dropbox, Evernote, Microsoft, Amazon or other players but be honest - when it comes to the cloud Apple is dreadful. I’ve been an Apple user for over 25 years. I signed up for their internet service (after months of technical failures they “sold” it to AOL). I’ve been with .mac, with iCloud and iDrive. All have significant issues both at the “top” level and at the device level. iPhone to iPad to Mac synch services across Apple’s platform is horrible compared to Dropbox for example.

Suddenly, Apple is actually going to deliver a high capacity, high data content music streamer when it can’t synch my contacts?

A second feature under second, I don’t think users will love music streaming. Your music will comprise some pretty big files, sent from Cupertino across to your ISP then down a physical line (or your mobile phone line) to your PC or your phone handset. Yes, you get to pay for that with your data allowance. Prepare for eye watering bills. Wait for the complaints about breaks in service, streaming that cuts in and out, and ISPs bleating that they never signed up to be radio stations.

Third, artists and labels hate it. Already the music moguls and the small labels are laying into Apple. The payment to them is minuscule, Apple are offering a three month free trial during which no payment will be made for streamed music. Independent music industry figures are lining up to tell artists not to sign up for reasons that cover commercial and contract issues.

This leads to one of the biggest reasons why streaming falls down. The minute someone says “Have you heard that album?” and you find that artist / label isn’t on Apple Music so relevance of the system fails. Believe me, there’s a lot of music, both old and new, that won’t be on the Apple platform. If you need to sign up with Spotify and Apple and A N Other then the cost rockets and the bother of finding a track you want increases exponentially. Nobody wants that.

Fourth, as I’m very fond of saying, metadata matters. That’s essentially the key to cataloguing music and doing so in a way that enables users to find what they’re looking for. Let me assure you CDDB (the database service that Apple use for iTunes) is riddled with inconsistencies. This is much more of an issue on the classical side but it leads into the issue that people lose faith in a music service if they can’t find what they want to listen to. With CDDB as untidy as it is that is a problem.
Still with me? Good, here’s number five - social. Apple’s launch presentation majored on the social element of their system, a feature which will allow performers to be in touch with their fans. My little heart sinks. How many issues will this create. I’ll toss in some of my favourites - Karajan, DuPre, not to mention Beethoven and Mozart. All passed away.

Does Apple really think top name artists, even those still with a pulse, are going to take time out from their hedonistic lifestyles to post genuine content to their fans via Music? Do you even think their record making machines will let them? No, they will be “helped” by the social media gurus hired by the labels, treating fans to the typical synthetic slush they churn out now for Facebook and Twitter.

Remember that nice gesture by U2 a few months ago? They made their new album freely available via iTunes, and created a tsunami of complaints as everyone found the new tracks forced into their iPods, iPhones and computers. Stand by for more of the same.

Given my tirade of negativity is it all bad news for Apple Music? No, of course not. The strongest feature of any streaming service is the opportunity it gives you to discover, enjoy (and then probably forget) new music and new artists. Speaking as someone who predates The Beatles and The Stones, history shows there are few gems amid the dross. Commercial experience shows that forcing fans (and I speak from bitter experience) to buy a whole album when it contains only one or two decent tracks is counter productive. Artists who produce great albums are outnumbered by those who are either one hit wonders or whose albums hold one or two specks of gold. A streaming service can highlight the newcomers, let you enjoy their best music, then move on when you’re bored.

Over the world millions of people will use and enjoy Apple Music. But rest assured we’ll continue to be ripping CDs for a good few years to come.
Comments

Automatically Add to iTunes?

How do you add music to your iTunes library? Well, pretty easily, we do it most days and when we complete a project we brief clients on how they can do this themselves. These days most of our digital music goes back on a small USB hard drive but the process is the same if you’re loading from a data CD or data DVD.

“Add folder to library”. It was in iTunes at the outset and in the first how-to notes we supplied with the first set of CDs we ripped some ten years ago. Reliable, proven and I don’t think we’ve edited our instruction sheet nor had anyone say it was difficult to follow.

A couple of years ago iTunes introduced a new folder which it creates along with your main iTunes music library file. It’s called Automatically Add to iTunes and there’s no escaping it. So, why? And what use is it for you? Why would you need a second way of adding music when the first works so well?

Let’s tackle the how first. Anything you put into this folder will be checked and then added to your iTunes library the next time iTunes is opened. As its a data file you can use normal tools such as drag and drop to get files across. Then just open iTunes, the rest is done for you.

More complex is the why?

In many ways its easier. You just drag and drop. If you have files from multiple sources you can scoop each group up, copy them over and away you go. If you’re restricted by the number of USB connections it is straightforward to copy several batches of files rather than plug in each unit and run through the Add folder loop.

It’s tolerant to breaks. I found this myself a couple of weeks ago when a lightning strike nearby caused our power to trip out. Not only did I need to go back to the beginning with Add folder but you’re never quite sure if the process completed properly.

You can start and stop. Not sure the files came across? Just drop the lot again and let the operating system sort out if there are any duplicates.

You don’t need to worry about file types. Just stick everything into Auto add and let iTunes sort out not just what goes where but also what should and shouldn’t be in iTunes. You can see any orphan files, they get left in the Auto add folder after you open iTunes. If you inadvertently include a Word document iTunes will leave it be.

You know the files have reached their destination. With add folder I’ve sometimes had a nagging doubt that it worked OK. Actually it had but Auto add offers a handy, comforting, open view of what has happened. I like the now you see it, now you don’t method.

Of course you don’t need to constrict yourself to music files, this method will handle movies and podcasts too. Just drop them into the magic folder and let the computer sort out the details.

I’m very tempted to revisit our advice to clients on how to load music. In fact i bounced this off a couple of friends over the weekend and got an unexpected response. Scepticism. They thought this was so simple, so foolproof, that it was almost too good to be true. Well then, go on and give it a try next time you need to add anything to iTunes,
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iTunes Phishing Scam

I've just checked my emails and seen that Google has placed in my Spam folder a message that appears to be an invoice from iTunes for the cost of some downloads - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire - and in a nice touch, in brackets, unabridged. Total value of my supposed purchase - $289.90. Must say I liked that little touch, the supermarket psychologist's "just under" price point.

Thankfully the ever watchful Google reports other users believe this is a phishing fraud and indeed the body of the text suggests if I query the transaction, or believe my "account" has been hijacked I may indeed be asked for financial data.

Two giveaways for me. First, I can't imagine Apple or iTunes Media Store ever allowing anything out of its grasp without pre-payment. Second, the sender's email address is a tubarao.unimedsc.com.br address.

If you get anything like this, don't respond, if you can flag it to your email host that it's definitely spam / phishing. 
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Equalizer

Last Monday I took a break from CD ripping to catch up on an outstanding chore, sorting out some scanned 35mm slides. I knew at the outset it would take all day so I decided to use iTunes as the source of entertainment to stave off the mind-numbing boredom of the task.

I spent the morning listening to various podcasts and streamed internet radio stations. Although it was fun, for a while, to listen to early morning local stations in America just after lunch I turned to what the iPod / iTunes ecosystem was designed for - music. We've just finished a library of 750+ CDs for a client so I dipped into that from the NAS drive we're running just now. I was using my Mac with the Soundsticks attached, a set up I love almost as much for how it sounds as for its looks.

Let the music play. But my attention was fading, my eyes were tired and the thought of cropping a couple of hundred more scans was less and less appealing. I wandered over to the iTunes equalizer settings. The control panel appears under the Window command in the top menu level. It's worth pointing out what this doesn't do, which is to alter any of your digital music files, nothing is changed.

The equalizer intervenes between your ripped music and your speakers and it massages the sound you hear. It allows you to fine tune how your music is played so you get sound playback that's better than the bog-standard settings. At the top you'll see some pre-programmed options designed to suit jazz, rock, classical music and so on, plus others to adapt to your system such as small speakers which I think works well on a laptop. Below that there are sliders which can boost or fade sections of the sound spectrum held within your digital files. You can also create your own pre-sets if you find a particular setting that works well for your music, your hi-fi / speakers and of course your ears.

So I played and fiddled. I tried the classical setting against Exile on Main Street, then to be impish I planted Hip-Hop on Haydn. I found myself fiendishly amused, well against image editing anyway, and the time slipped by. It was a couple of hours well spent.

Just one thought. I wonder if its possible to fix an equalizer setting to an individual track or maybe a genre. It's a powerful tool, certainly one I've neglected in the past.
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Sonos - iTunes - Out of Sorts

This afternoon I was at a client's premises looking into some problems with their network and how that was handling music streaming. The client asked me to look at an issue that was puzzling him and it concerned music on his Sonos controller, compared to his iTunes library.

He showed me his Sonos hand held controller and accessed his Bach music. Right at the top of the list were two tracks that were obviously out of order. When we crossed to the Mac with iTunes, did the same search and looked at the result. A very different result. It was a trip down memory lane for me, back to my early days in IT when as a programmer you had to keep in mind a thing called "sort order".

I've deliberately put "sort order" in quotes, but if you saw that phrase among others, sorted alphabetically, where would you expect it to be slotted? In the good old days It manufacturers took different views and looking at the Sonos display it was obvious that the Sonos view is that single quotes and double quotes should come at the top of the list, like this -

'A
"A
A
B
C and so on.

Looking in iTunes it's clear Apple have set up iTunes to ignore any distractions such as the single or double quotes. So the track title will appear in the place it would be in if it didn't have those marks. Clever, would have saved me hours and hours all those years ago.

So if you have an iTunes / Sonos environment and you're experiencing some sort oddities take a look at your track names and album titles. My client's library is huge (2,700 albums) and I found four albums and 12 tracks that started with ' or ". It only took a few minutes to edit out those unnecessary characters and now iTunes and Sonos sort in harmony. Lovely.
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iTunes - The Hidden Gem?

We've had some huge CD ripping projects since Christmas, today we complete an 1800 CD music library. The last few tracks are making their way across to the NAS drive now. It's a huge library covering what seems to be everything in the popular and classical catalogue. So, how does the owner of such a large music library get to enjoy the full benefits of their music? Time for the hidden gem in the iTunes system.

The Genius playlist facility. Here (in overview) is how it works. Highlight a track you like, hit the Genius icon, and the intelligence of Apple's computers will create a playlist for you based on that track. Once done you can re-order the list, delete items, and of course save the list. Saving allows you to create another list and access the previous list from the menu. As with any intelligence Apple's genius learns, and you can prompt the system to update its analysis of your music when you add new tracks to your library.

If you log into the iTunes Music Store after the Genius function is enabled you'll notice their brain has assembled some new tracks you might like. Cynics will say this is just a merciless sales tool, others will find it a clever way to find new music.

But there's more .... Genius Mixes. After your library has been scanned the Genius brain will create a set of mixes for you, just hit the icon for a selection of your music in the theme shown on the mix label. All done for you, as if by magic.

Any down side? Although you don't have to pay to use Genius you do need and iTunes Music Store account which requires an Apple ID. That's a pretty simple process. When you switch on Genius you'll be taken through the Apple small print and you need to understand Apple will have some summary data about your music library. Apple doesn't use the data for anything other than this process and it doesn't collect any more personal data than this, but you do need to be aware of this. Also, the process takes time and data is exchanged over the internet so you'll need a link and maybe some patience.

Aside from that this strikes me as a great way to tackle big music libraries and uncover some great tracks nestling in the hidden recesses of your music vault. Give it a try.
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What Does the Little Cloud Symbol Mean?

Always happy to answer questions and we get many phone calls to resolve issues with CD ripping or other aspects of digital music. Last week I ran through a Q&A with a client day by day, over email. He's away on business so the stuttering conversation was the result of flights and time differences. Me, I remained stuck here in rain soaked Brentwood.

Q: What does the little cloud symbol with a down arrow mean in iTunes?

A: This indicates tracks that have been purchased from iTunes Music Store against the account to which that computer is linked, but haven't yet been downloaded.

Q: How did I make these purchases? Don't remember doing it and wouldn't they have downloaded when I bought them?

A: OK, couple of ways. maybe after buying the tracks the computer you were working on lost its internet connection. Or the transmission got screwed up. Alternatively you could have made the purchase from an iPhone or an iPod Touch. The tracks would have been sent to those devices over their data link, then synced with your computer later.

Q: Wouldn't they sync when I connected my iPhone or whatever to the computer at home?

A: I don't think so, I think syncing purchased music only goes one way, from iTunes Music Store to one of your five authorised devices.

Q: Would the symbol have anything to do with iTunes Match?

A: No, and you don't have an iTunes Match account (at least you didn't when I was with you last week).

Q: Do I have to enter a password when I buy music from iTunes Music Store?

A: I think that's optional. You can turn on one-click purchasing that side steps that, so anyone can make a purchase if that's set that way.

Q: So that explains why I've bough stuff from this Bon Jovi. Can I get a refund on music I don't like?

A: No, Apple doesn't do refunds.
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The Worst Music Mess?

CD ripping service“Is this the worst mess you’ve ever seen?” It’s one of our most frequently asked questions, usually posed when we’re called onsite to deal with a home entertainment issue. In most cases the problems aren’t massive and it’s pretty easy to find a polite way to sidestep the question.

Except on Monday. By a county mile I cam across the worst mess I’ve ever come across.

I’ll give you a flavour of the issues by describing the hardware. A PC, an iMac, a Sonos system with ten zone players. Next to the iMac were three iPad devices - two Classics with stick on labels, then an iPod Touch in a labelled box. Nestling amongst the Sonos boxes were three iPod docks, and yes, each dock had its own iPod Classic.

Then I was told there was a Mac Mini, and sure enough next to the Sonos boxes and the router, in a basement cupboard, there was a little silvery box with a tray containing a flip up screen, keyboard and a mouse. Then I saw the WD My Book Live NAS drive.

How did this mess come about? Here’s the history. Initially the client had a PC and naturally they put their music on it. A while later they decided to move from the PC to the iMac, their music was copied across by the Apple install man. Using the Mac resulted in a larger music library on the Mac, and a stack of classical music CDs ready to be ripped.

Not wanting to rip the CDs themselves, and the Sonos installer not being prepared to do it for them, they hired a student to rip the CDs. The Mac Mini was bought to give the student something to work on, hence that unit.

While the student was ripping the CDs they decided to install the NAS drive because the client didn’t want to have to leave the iMac on when (in due course) the Sonos system was linked up. However once the Mac Mini project was completed nobody seemed to know how to get all the music onto the NAS drive, so various genres of music was downloaded to its own dedicated iPod Classic. Each iPod was planted in its own Sonos dock, so that the in-house music system had something to broadcast.

Where can I begin to describe the problems the household had with all this. First the music ripped onto the Mac Mini had vast gaping holes - none of it had genre information attached. As the Mini didn’t connect to the rest of the home network none of the music on that could be shared, it couldn’t be accessed on the iMac, it couldn't be put onto any of the other iPods. As the iPod Classics driving the Sonos system sit in docks all day, and the docks are in an airless cupboard they frequently seize up. When that happens nobody can access that genre of music in the house until some kind family member does a hard reset. A problem that’s happening more and more often, iPods simply aren’t meant to run all day every day.

The client doesn’t know how to add music, there’s effectively a berlin wall between the Apple iMac in-house and the Sonos system. They have a bag of new music they’d like to add but if they add it to the Mac Mini somebody has to stand in the cramped cupboard ripping CDs. Oh, and as the Mac Mini daren’t be connected to the internet, all track data has to be entered by hand.

Maybe I’m being picky but despite the effort that had been invested in CD ripping (including some poor soul who had stood ripping 400+ CDs onto the Mac Mini) the music had been ripped to Apple AAC at just 256 kbps. Now that’s more than fine for an iPod on the tube but a massive Sonos investment real ought to be driven by higher quality music, Apple Lossless.

The way ahead?

After some head scratching I think the place to head towards is one where all the family’s music is stored in a single place. That should be the NAS drive. How do we do this? Well the Mac Mini has been dragged from its subterranean lair and the music has been removed to another drive.

As the iMac is connected to the internet and the home network the music recovered from the Mini will be plugged into that, where we’ll spend a few hours tidying up the resulting music library. Once that’s done we’ll copy that all onto the NAS drive, setting the iMac to rip into Apple Lossless for any music they might rip themselves in the future.

Once that’s done we’ll make sure the Sonos system is connected to the same router as the rest of the system, and that the Sonos Controller program points to the shared drive on the NAS. When that’s been done all the music will be available on each computer or Sonos unit in the home, any iPod could be loaded with any selection of music regardless of genre. When this is achieved the client will have a few iPods and iPods Sonos docks surplus to requirements.
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International Family Sync

So here's the question - how do you make the following work?

Potential client travels extensively, homes in London and overseas, where members of his family (eight people in total) live, and of course enjoy music. He would like his music collection to be available to everyone, everywhere. They have a mix of iPods and iPhones.

Well my first thought was a cloud service such as Dropbox. That appears on your desktop pretty much as if it were a local drive, so computers in each location could be set up to reference their local version of a central Dropbox folder holding the family music. Two problems came to mind, one being the cost. Not the cost of using a CD ripping service but of buying close on 100 Gb of Dropbox space; but then if you can afford to live internationally I don't suppose the cost of a Dropbox account is a show stopper.

Second, and more significantly, is the fuss of adding more music to the library. A CD would need to be ripped then added to the Dropbox folder, then each local PC would have to reload their PC so that iTunes picks up the latest tracks. Sure you could simply "share" the central library but then the remote iPods won't be able to sync at all.

Having given this some thought the only viable solution I can see is to set up an iTunes Match account. It's around £25 pa, affordable, and you can connect up to 10 devices. Other Macs and PCs can be part of this network and changes made centrally are replicated across the network. Music can be streamed to the iPhones or loaded like an iPod in a sync process. This seems to me to be the most viable solution.
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CD Ripping & Album Artist Field

They don't always take our advice, and although I'm being paid to do it in a few minutes I have to grind my way through 100+ edits of album data for a client.

He has a substantial number of what iTunes thinks of a compilation CDs. Hotel Costes springs to mind, where a famous DJ puts together a collection of tracks; each one under its own artist attribution but the whole CD is directed by another person. How best to handle this?

My suggestion was to use the field "Album Artist" which we can add during CD ripping. This would result in the album name being what you see on the cover, each track is credited to the right artist but inside the Music file (should you ever need to look) the tracks are filed under that person's name, who can also be searched on and is listed in iTunes. No, this wasn't my clients desired strategy so instead I will need to insert the DJ's name before the name of the album in the album title field.

Had we done it my way the DJ's name would still appear in the Artist column in iTunes, and still be available to search, and the album name would remain untouched. But then the customer is always right (even when he's wrong) and I keep telling myself we are a service business so stick a smile on your face and get on with it.
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iTunes Revamp - Time for a Rethink?

I don't know many people who have used iTunes longer than us, nor many who depend on it as part of their business. As I've often said, without Apple, the iPod and of course iTunes we wouldn't have a CD ripping service business.

Over the years I've helped people on iTunes and staunchly defended it against people in love with the latest gee-whiz music player, ripper, music management system or whatever. However even the most ardent Apple fan can't help but notice a sure and rising tide of negative comments about iTunes. Someone derided iTunes a day or two ago by referring to the latest version as a vain attempt to apply lipstick to a pig. That's a phrase that's been rattling round my head all week as I've been using the latest incarnation of iTunes. Hmmmm .....

I still want to try to defend iTunes but the latest tweaks have done nothing to help Apple's cause. Take a simple stat, how many tracks are there in your library? In the past a simple number at the bottom of the screen told you, but not now, it has simply been removed. That little number helped us enormously, particularly in a diagnostic situations, but now its gone. We miss it, why did Apple delete it?

For some reason iTunes reverts to the display which shows all your album covers, not the more detailed album / track / genre display. We don't find this very helpful but there's no way to override Apple's reference. Would that have been hard? Surely not.

Well I could go on - and I'll skip the massive size of the iTunes program - but I'm hoping Apple have recognised the tide has turned against them and us. I'm hoping a completely new iTunes is in the works. Soon, please.
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CD Ripping - What 2013 Holds

Welcome to the New Year, and it's hard to believe another year of CD ripping lies ahead. Born of a period of childhood fads there have been times when I've thought people would lose interest in mobile music, or maybe streaming services such as Spotify would render us all pointless; but no, we are still here and looking forward to processing more CDs.

We are resolved to do better. First, we have taken steps to significantly improve throughput. During our first few years order sizes were around 200 - 250 CDs, we could handle this best by working around 9-17 using what has become six PCs. However when we got larger orders, 500+, it was a challenge to get this voulume of music converted in seven days. Over the last couple of years CD collections of over 1,000 discs have become common. We'd like to get those out in a week but it's hard to do that using the previous process of distributed systems. About six months ago we invested in a Nimbie CD ripper. This enables us to load up around 100 CDs and leave those to be ripped in a batch. Add a few evenings of unattended operation and throughput has gone up. For this reason we have another robotic CD ripping system on its way to us and we are hopeful that big collections next year will be ripped as quickly as smaller collections.

Second, we've taken steps to improve the quality of our Data Grooming service. These are very much 'under the hood' but we hope our clients like the results, even though it is a bit frustrating that clients don't normally appreciate just how much better their metadata is than it might have been.

Third, we're gaining more experience at delivering even higher quality music. When we started iTunes Music Store supplied music at 128 Kbps but we opted for twice that level with 256 Kbps AAC files. Today more clients are looking for lossless music which means returning files on DVDs has become unrealistic. So we've been down the USB thumbdrive route into USB connected external drives and into NAS drives. Additionally we're able to supply music on hard drives which can be installed inside a tower style system or in a bay of your NAS unit.

Taking these enhancements we're confident that 2013 will be our biggest and best year yet, and if you become one of our clients, we look forward to meeting you.
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Buffalo Link Station Duo

I'm looking at a Buffalo Link Station Duo 4.0 Tb dual drive with RAID, web access, built-in media server and "enhanced performance". We've become good friends, we've spent a lot of time together, a lot of time. Too much time. Let me tell you the whole story before I return this glorious red box back to its owner, our client.

We ripped over 800 CDs, almost exclusively classical. The drive is to provide a home for the music and serve music to a new Sonos music system. Nothing too challenging there, except that the unit arrived several days into the ripping. We've worked with Buffalo drives before and they're very good, as is this unit, even after the week we've had. We rip using recent Windows and Apple systems, all of which support long file names; and with classical music track names can be very long (and in Italian though that doesn't matter in this instance). Pop songs tend to be snappy (She Loves You - The Beatles) while operatic tracks are long and folder names incorporate performer, conductor and orchestra. No problem for NTFS and HFS drives.

We've been asked to rip into both FLAC and MP3, so believe me, we have a lot of data to transfer. The MP3s were just over 100 Gb, the FLAC files much bigger.

So when the ripping part was completed I hooked up the Buffalo to our network and installed the driver software that comes with the unit. After a couple of glitches (I'll put that down to me) the Buffalo popped up on my Mac's finder window. I copied the MP3s from the locally connected drive onto the Shared folder on the Buffalo. Wait a while, off it goes. I went to bed - yes, it's that long a job so I generally schedule this kind of thing over night. At 19:00 it was going OK.

Next morning, disaster. Whole list of file errors and the NAS had gone offline. I put this down to the router in the office losing its internet connection, and thus its IP address pool, which caused the Mac to stop seeing the Buffalo.

Tried again that night. Next morning, same failure. Decided I should delete the files that had been copied across. That in itself takes a while, but its bearable. Decided to try again that night, instead connecting the local USB drive into a Vista machine rather than the Mac. As I closed up the office files were flying over the network like magic. Next morning, the file transfer was still running, so it wasn't until nearly lunchtime that I saw there were errors in the transfer.

That night I thought I'd clear down the errant MP3s and then try with the FLAC files, from the Windows box. All looked OK so shut up shop. I slept with my fingers crossed.

Opened office next morning, there was an error message. This time I was given a hint that the file name was unsupported, along with a mighty list of the files that had not copied over. OK, mass delete, head scratch time. I looked in the supplied PDF and saw nothing to suggest that a drag & drop copy shouldn't work, but I found another site (not an official Buffalo page I think) which suggested this particular box runs a version of Unix which cannot support long file names. The explanation of the issue certainly fitted my problem.

So, Mr Buffalo, what do you do with 12,000+ files - all with very long names - and it's a four day Jubilee bank Holiday weekend? You can't edit those names down to 12, 20 or however many characters. Instead, I had a brainwave.

Thankfully we work from source files (AIFF) in circumstances where clients require alternative file formats. So I loaded all the original files (held on three USB drives attached to our Pogoplug) and from there, imported them into iTunes. I used iTunes to convert from AIFF into MP3, but pointed the output files at a folder on the Buffalo Link Station Duo. Writing the files under the Link station operating system produced files the drive was happy with. Did the same (or similar, for FLAC - we don't use iTunes for that as it doesn't handle FLAC) and that worked too.

Trouble is each conversion run took in excess of 28 hours, which is why this box is going back to the client very, very late.
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iTunes Starts At Will

Most of my (non CD ripping) work is done on a Mac Mini. One of the great things about the Apple platform is that it just works. Having faith in Apple I tend to just accept the messages to say there are new versions of the operating system or key applications and install them soon after they become available. Which is what I did yesterday, to a whole batch of updates - including to iTunes.

No fuss, no drama. I had to restart the computer (not always required) but carried on just as normal. Then a horrible screeching sound, starting quietly and getting louder. For some reason iTunes had fired up and started playing the first track in the library, which happened to be an audio book for kids about a scary spider - and the weird sound was a special effect that opens the tale. Mystery explained, shut down iTunes and carried on.

That same thing happened every few minutes yesterday afternoon. And evening. Finally I took the hint and left iTunes running. Spent most of the evening thinking "It's never done that before". And it's done it again this morning.

I don't know if this stems from something in iTunes, the operating system, Safari or OS X. The library to which iTunes presently points is stored on an external USB hard drive. What happens is that apparently spontaneously iTunes loads, opens and starts to play the first track in the library.

From yesterday's experience the phantom iTunes start doesn't seem directly coincidental to any other action such as accessing the external drive, opening a particular program or any hardware related action. I went out to the Post Office, leaving a silent office, and came back to find iTunes was open and telling a story.

If this is happening to you I regret I can't explain what's going on, or how to stop it.
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A New iTunes?

I have got to the point where I have even bored myself predicting a new solid state storage based iPod model to replace the iPod Classic. If it happens, it happens - you heard it here first and a long time ago. Then I suddenly thought, what about iTunes itself?

History first. When Apple launched their first portable music player they relied on a non-Apple pice of software, MusicMatch. It wasn't bad, very mainstream computing interface. It was subsequently swallowed up by Yahoo, pretty much faded away. When iTunes hit it was a breath of fresh air, particularly compared with Microsoft's Windows Media Player. You could tell iTunes was built by music lovers, it did what people want when they enjoy music. And it put the track (not the album / CD) at the centre of the music library. Of course it was imbued with all the loveliness that so many people like about the Apple brand. It wasn't to everyone's taste, and there's still a cottage industry in non-Apple, non-WMP music playing and ripping systems. However for 95%+ of the tune loving populace, it has to be iTunes.

Just looking across the range of Apple's current applications, on a daily basis I use iPhoto, Aperture, Pages, address book and calendar, I get the feeling iTunes is creaking a little. So what next for the music monster?

First - CD ripping. OK, that's my business and it's where my thoughts turn first. I'd like ripping to be faster, maybe that will happen. For the typical iPod owner why do they even have to bother? Couldn't they just say they have bought a CD and allow Apple's vast music cloud to place that set of tracks into their library, to be downloaded as and when necessary?

Second - compression. When we started people had tiny hard drives against big record collections. Today the collections are only a little bigger, but iPod drives (not to mention laptops and desktops) are huge. If Apple could do to their Apple Lossless codec what they seem to have done to their jpg algorithm in Aperture, you'd get effectively lossless music quality in file sizes only a little larger than decent AAC files. Then, users wouldn't have to dance to the AAC, MP3, Lossless jig and agonise on what's right for them.

Third - DVD ripping. Movies are as much part of home entertainment as music, Come on Apple.

Fourth - bury the database. Yes, easier said than done, but all that wordage on the standard iTunes screen just confuses most users. Sure it needs to be under the hood but the look and feel of iTunes is dated and clunky. Apple is brilliant at interface design, this one needs an overhaul.
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MP5? Apple Less-than-lossless?

A few weeks ago rumours appeared suggesting Apple may be about to release a new music file format, one that would make music sound better. Well, suggestions are that this will see the light of day at an imminent product launch Apple have scheduled. Also, over the weekend I noticed the company behind the maths that made MP3 possible had launched a new way of making sound better on mobile phones.

An idle thought - MP4 is taken for movie files - so maybe this will be MP5? From Apple's perspective a new format, now, will cause a headache for them and their users. Generally better sound means more hard drive space. This won't help Apple directly as they buy in drives and it will put more pressure on the ageing iPod Classic, more than due an upgrade. Bigger files would be a major ouch for iPhone users too.

If I were Apple, why? Well someone is going to do it so it might as well be you. It would head off an interloper gaining traction within iTunes, it would keep the iPod / iPhone / iPad ahead of the game. maybe it would give Apple a toe hold in non IOS areas too. However they'd probably have to re-encode their entire iTunes Music Store library to keep their Music Match function operable and that's no small task.

I think it would be a positive move, one we'd jump on and would be appreciated by our clients. Better sound, what's not to like?
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Game, Set and iTunes Match

I was asked a question last night and suddenly had a shock to remember this CD ripping business is still operating. Some years ago somebody suggested iTunes and iTunes Music Sore would be transformed into a cloud based service. Rather than ripping CDs and storing them locally, then adding to that music archive with purchased tracks, all our music would be moved away to a gigantic data centre in America.

What then would be the point of having a CD ripping business, focusing on care and service, wouldn't Apple be doing that all for us?

I'm pleased to say iTunes Match - the cloud based option - is now with us, and podServe is still here, ripping more CDs than ever. Why? Well, even if you adopt iTunes Match, you still have to have a ripped track to start with, you can't just say you've got this and that CD which then appears in your library. You aren't given Spotify type access to their back catalogue and yes you have to pay for it.

iTunes match in the UK costs about half the price of a big USB drive per year. As an off-site backup option it isn't greatly compelling (it doesn't handle photos for example). Plus if you have high quality music (Apple Lossless or AIFF) you'll experience a drop in quality. I have mixed feelings, but I'm unequivocally glad we're still here, ripping CDs, untouched and unmatched.
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Android Music from iTunes - Take Two

Just to update an earlier post, software to synch music between your computer and iTunes.

While I still like Doubletwist Lifehacker is now recommending iSyncr (available here). They now favour this over Doubletwist as you only need to install this on your Android phone; Doubletwist needs an iTunes lookalike program installed on your PC or Mac.

Like Doubletwist there's both a wired and wifi version available.
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iPod Killer? Android?

Over the last seven years running a CD ripping service I have mainly been working with Apple iPods. When we started it was something of a gamble, there were so many vanilla flavoured MP3 players around, so many people preferred Windows Media Player to iTunes. Quickly it became apparent that Apple had secured pole position in the race, the rest is history. Today pretty much any portable music player will, like hoover and xerox before, will be described as an iPod.

Over the last seven years I've lost count of the number of times I've read of the coming of an "iPod killer". Remember the various cute players from Sony? Sansa? Archos? These devices have popped up, received critical acclaim, and largely sunk without trace. Who today even knows what ATRAC is let alone has software to play it. According to Nokia its all down to ecosystems. Certainly that's why they have done so badly in the smartphone market and why Apple and Android have done so well. Ecosystem, not the cute device, however cute.

So my mind said "iPod killer?" when I saw that a small manufacturer (Cowon of Korea) has launched an Android based portable music player. As I've read so many times before this unit has some great features (brilliant screen, wi-fi, plays any music file type, tremendous sound, apps) alongside as many negatives (price, battery life and more) but it did make me think "ecosystem". If there were an end to end music support package to compete with iPod / iTunes / iTunes Music Store the Android umbrella is a great place to be. Plus, you get the support of Google who seem to be just about the only company able to lay a finger on Apple.

Watch the Android space, an iPod killer might just be lurking in the shadows.

Jeff Underwood
www.podserve.co.uk
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iTunes + Cloud? CloudTunes?

The rumour mill is grinding away in advance of the Apple media event coming up in the next few days. Most it's concentrated on the Apple tablet (iSlate? iSlice? iSlab?) but some brave souls have been speculating on an implementation of iTunes which draws on the latest IT hot topic - cloud computing. What would this mean to most users?

The answer has to be peace of mind and convenience. Let me explain why.

About the only thing you can be sure of with computer hard drives is that sooner or later, they will fail. Today users have massive amounts of data, unbelievable only a couple of years ago. When we began ripping CDs we stored clients work on an 80 Gb drive and it tooks weeks before it was filled. Just a few years later this laptop has the same amount of storage, small by many of today's machines. Can it be backed up? Technically yes but very few of us have the discipline to backup our discs, and what do we backup to? Yes, another hard drive with all the risks of that failing. Our moves into photo scanning have shown how people are adding to their storage demands.

CloudTunes would allow you to migrate your precious music from your local PC or laptop away to a centralised data warehouse professionally managed. A location where systems and hardware are in place to keep your music safe.

Convenience? Suppose you're working late in your office and you'd like to listen to your music. Simply point your PC to your iTunes part of the cloud and play away. Kids at uni? Draw on the cloud. Pump music around the house? Just point each PC to the cloud. Tired of waiting for music to download? It will appear instantly if your library links into the cloud.

If it's not this week it is surely time for clouds to gather over iTunes.
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An iTunes Alternative?

What do you think of iTunes now? For the first time in ages I've heard sensible people voicing disappointment with the latest version of Apple's iPod management application.

This version is so tipped towards buying from iTunes Music Store, particularly downloading movies, it's hard to remember this is really about managing your music library. Well, at least that's what I thought. If you think iTunes is fast becoming "bloatware", how about this - Doubletwist.

Not surprisingly you can download it from doubletwist.com.

Visually it's a stripped down version of iTunes. Rather than ITMS this one is oriented to Amazon's music service (MP3 downloads). Interestingly this version of iTunes supports many non-Apple devices including Blackberry and Android phones.

Oh yes, it's also free. Give it a try.
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Glass Half Full?

A question I'm often asked at podServe is how much music should I put on my iPod? As in I'll sort through my CDs and decide which to put into my library. My answer is - all of it.

Today computers and iPods have such massive capacity that its quick, cheap and easy to have all your music in digital form. Having it all digital avoids the issue of whether deciding music contents on a CD by CD basis is the best way, if the CD you reject contains just one great track, think of what you're missing.

I just wish I'd taken my own advice. While ripping my collection I came across two CDs by Philip Glass, I know my wife loves his music but, well, I'd never got into it so I just skipped the CDs and pressed on with music I'm comfortable with. The easy choices. Well on Tuesday we went to Philip Glass's concert at the Barbican. I wasn't greatly looking forward to it but you can't deny Glass's position in modern classical music, and at around 70 there won't be many more chances for those of us outside America to hear him play his music.

From the first note I was held, right through to the dying last note. It was a brilliant concert, a great evening out and the music just wonderful. Finally I knew what I was missing. So there - do as I say, not as I do. Yesterday I dug out the CDs I'd previously skipped, put them into iTunes and I'm listening to them now.
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iPod Service Module Error

You may have seen the earlier entry on this blog posting suggested solutions to the dreaded iPod Service Module Error. Since this was originally suggested (sadly not be me but by a blog reader) I've received many positive comments saying this soultuion has worked for others.

If you're looking at this and the earlier, longer, set of instructions and for any reason you having a problem I'd suggest you look at the responses to the posts. These don't automatically appear and one of the comments suggests an alternative location at which one of the instruction steps can be located. Best of luck with this.

Oh, and in answer to another post, I don't think there is a "simple" solution to the curse of the iPod Service Module Error.
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XPlay 3 & Senuti

Ever since podServe began I've been using a great program called XPlay, now in its third incarnation. There have been so many times when this piece of software has got me (and our clients) out of a tight spot. Here's a typical case study.

Client has three iPods, a USB hard drive and a new computer replacing the machine that previously housed his music library. The old PC was damaged beyond recovery so the task we were given was to reconstruct one complete music library from four locations. The procedure is pretty simple, you just recover the music from each iPod, merge it with what's on the drive and then do some housekeeping to remove duplicates.

So each iPod was connected in turn to one of our Windows machines that runs XPlay 3, and it dutifully recovered two of the three iPods. Unfortunately it struggled with the third. XPlay recognised the iPod and opened it, but refused to display the contents of the music folder. We were able to update the iPod's firmware (an XPLay function), ran standard Windows disk checking functions, but all to no avail. Music stays stuck on iPod which by bad fortune holds more music than any of the other units.

What could be done? Nothing to be lost by trying to recover the music on one of our Macs. I didn't have much hope and was mentally planning my "Oops sorry" speech to my client. XPlay is Windows only, the equivalent software we have on Mac is called Senuti (yes, that's iTunes backwards). I was immensely relieved to find Senuti quickly grabbed the iPod and promptly started to download the music from iPod to the Apple hard drive.

I was so pleased to have achieved the recovery we needed I was more than happy to overlook the slowness of Senuti compared with XPlay. So while I remain an XPlay fan I'm finding Senuti is quickly winning a place in my heart.
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Error Code 39 - Vista - Lost DVD & CD Drives

If I ever get famous I shall use my position to publicise what will become known as Underwood's Second Law of Computing - never start a quick job on a Friday afternoon.

Client rings up, he wants some music put onto his iPod from the backup DVDs we supplied when we ripped his CD collection last summer. As he's off on holiday he wants it done quickly, and his PC has broken. Can we help? Yes, this is one for our great standby program XPlay 3 which enables you to move digital music files onto (or off) an iPod without using iTunes. "Great" says client (who lives in Chelsea) "I'm on the A12, about 10 minutes away, can you do it while I wait?"

Of course, we did, and client went away to his cottage in Suffolk very happy. But afterwards I couldn't use either of the DVD drives on the PC. They were there in the System properties boxes but with a yellow warning triangle next to them. Looking into properties it said something about Code 39, a driver being out of date. I fiddled and fiddled, by which time it was 18:00 and I had to be somewhere else. But it nagged at me all weekend, I put in an hour on Saturday and a couple of hours on Sunday, but no joy.

Today, Monday, I just had to get the DVD Reader / Writers back so I sat down to crack the problem. Which I eventually did. I won't bore you with how but I will tell you why it went wrong.

Connecting an iPod to a computer incurs the risk that it will be grabbed by iTunes and automatically synchronised. Client's iPod should be linked to his PC, even though that's broken. So I didn't want to run the risk that all his music would be lost, specially as he was sitting in my kitchen reading The Times. So to be absolutely safe and sure I deleted iTunes from that PC.

Now I find that a consequence of deleting iTunes in Vista (plus a few other programs according to Microsoft's website) is that the uninstall program deletes key values in Registry. It is Registry that lets your operating system know what is attached, so the computer thought the DVD devices were corrupted.

The fix was achieved by running a downloadable fix from Microsoft, equally it would probably have been fixed when I re-install iTunes for the project that begins tomorrow. So there you have it - if you lose your ROM drives, if you get the yellow triangle and driver error code 39, you know what to do - but most of all, if you plan to attempt a quick computer job, don't do it on Friday afternoon.
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Useful Podcasts - at Last.

When I first heard about podcasts I thought they'd be big, really big. I know many clients sign up for them, I know here in the UK The Archers daily radio soap is one of the most popular and that comedian Ricky Gervais has made squillions from his hilarious podcasts.

But somehow I think the technology has not blossomed as I'd expected.

Anyway, I came across a useful collection of podcasts from respectable academic sources under the title "50 Terrific iTunes U Lectures to Get You Through the Economic Crisis". Worth taking a look.
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iTunes Help in Video

Last week I had a few tech support calls, you know the type "How can I fix iTunes?", or "My iPod won't ..." plus a couple of very techie questions. One call came to my mobile while I was at a clients home setting up his music library and linking it to Apple TV. After the call my client asked if I'd thought of recording the instructions?

Total conceit overwhelmed me, client is an agent for artists and actors, was he thinking he'd found the next Sean Connery? Mr Bean? No, he politely pointed out that I'd delivered the instructions far too fast for person on the other end of the line to understand or make notes as we spoke. Client says this is complex, I need to take it more slowly, run through it a few times. Above all - get onto the clients screen and show him exactly what to do. Make it personal, make it interactive, bring it into the 21st century. At which point we digress into conversation about how a famous actor has just been paid a huge sum to do a voice over for some kind of instructional film.

As I chugged home on the underground I gave the idea some thought and by the time I got to Liverpool Street I made up my mind to do it. How hard can it be to record the sort of thing I say over the phone ten times a week? I'll tell you. Easy bit first.

Select some software. I wanted it to run on my Macs, a much nicer platform. So I checked a few offerings. Now I know what it's like to be truly confused. After much head scratching I homed in on ScreenFlow from Telestream. I'd like to say its the best but to be honest it was the only one I could understand and from the trial I can safely say it works pretty much out of the box. That I thought was the hard part.

It being snowing so I sat down to make my first video. Good? Am I good? No, I'm hopeless - I think I've made ten shots (could have been twenty) at getting anything. The phone rings, the central heating kicks in and the boiler fires up, I start to spout gibberish, I click the wrong bit of iTunes - we even had a pidgeon fly into the door out to the garden. Eventually, after well over an hour, I have produced my first iTunes video. It's just over two minutes, I can't believe how long its taken me to generate such a short video.

I have managed to upload it to YouTube and if you're in the mood for a giggle search for podServeVid01 and you can cringe through it. Well done Telestream, your ScreenFlow is great and I'm very glad I made the investment. All I need to do now is work out why YouTube has destroyed the quality of my first full length, feature packed, all star, low budget movie.

And if you hear of an actor being paid a fortune "just" to do a voice over, he's worth every penny.
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iTunes Playlists - How To Backup & Restore

You may be diligent in backing up your music, but what about your playlists?

Perhaps you think that backing up your music library automatically copies your playlists. Well, it doesn't so if you do have to restore your music library or reinstall iTunes, all those hard crafted playlists will be lost.

You can quickly and simply backup (and restore) all your playlists. If you'd like to know how we've created a simple guide. We'll happily send you a copy. Just email playlist@podserve.co.uk.
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Senuti - I Used It

Panic phone call from a client - he has a Mac with his music on an external hard drive. With impending dinner party the hard disk failed and he's concerned that he won't be able to pump music around the house using Airport Express. Mrs Client not happy about silence and looming dinner disaster. We talk about plugging his iPod directly into one of the Airport Express units as an emergency fix, that's a possibility but he wants me to make a house call to get music off iPod onto a new drive.

Normally the way we'd handle this is for the iPod to come back here where I'd connect it to one of the PCs and use XPlay to recover the music. I've spoken about XPlay many times before and think its a great product for this type of work. However time is against us so the music has to be recovered at clients home and since my PCs are all desktops that means either using my MacBook or his Mac. Either way I can't use XPlay as that's Windows only.

After a bit of Googling I saw Senuti (groaned to learn thats iTunes backwards) which is Apple OS X based software intended to let you recover music from an iPod back to your Mac. And its free, always a bonus. So when I arrived amidst the stricken music scene I set up Senuti, opened iTunes and crossed my fingers. As you connect the iPod you have to hold down the two keys next to the space bar (cmd,option) which intercepts the normal iPod sync process and lets you select disk mode. Once this is done the iPod is accessible from Senuti.

I was impressed. Senuti checks the contents of the iPod against iTunes and highlights what's on the iPod and not on the hard drive. In our case that was the entire iTunes library, so I selected all the tracks and hit the green arrow in the top left of the Senuti screen and waited. About 30 minutes later the tracks had been copied off the iPod onto the new hard drive. While this was being done I'd read that I could have set Senuti to add the tracks directly back into the iTunes library but I hadn't done that so I had to spend a few minutes reloading the library into iTunes, no great hardship.

Best of all one happy client and very happy Mrs Client. History doesn't recall if the meal was a triumph, I'm sure it was, but I was certainly cooking with Senuti.
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Compilations Pestilence in iTunes

For most of us how our music files are organised is of little interest, iTunes takes care of it. We just see the collated view of our music library. But for some users iTunes causes problems. First, iTunes creates an awful lot of folders; second, you get one massive folder called 'Compilations'.

Compilations will contain a large number of albums lobbed there without any rhyme or reason by the random hand of fate that is the CDDB database. Also, you'll get a main folder per artist, within which you'll find all the tracks attributed to that person. This can be complex when you have a large number of artists with just one track. If, for example, the main artist is a rap star the chances are the rest of the tracks on the album will co-credit another artist using the term 'featuring' or 'feat.' or even 'ft'. Everytime two names are joined together you get yet another artist folder.

How can you overcome this?

First the curse of featuring. No quick way round this but you just have to edit out everything that appears after the main artists name. If you've ticked the box 'Keep iTunes library organized' in Advanced / Preferences then those stray tracks will be moved back to where they belong - in the main artist's folder.

Second let's tackle compilations. You need to isolate everything in the compilations folder. This is how you do it - go to Prefernces / General and tick the box 'Group compilations when browsing'. Then when you look at your library, in the Artist column, you'll see an entry for Compilations. Click on this and you'll see all the tracks which have been marked as part of a compilation.

Select all these tracks by highlighting one of them then hitting Control + A. Right click, and Get info. The box that pops up has a box in the bottom left corner marked Compilation. Just switch the setting from Yes to No, and as if by magic iTunes will slot all thos tracks out of the amorphous Compialtions folder into the artist folder.
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Secret Services - That's podServe

Almost choked on my cornflakes - that could be me. Some months ago I was approached by Cary Whitley as she was compiling a new book. She was reviewing services for people who in marketing speak are cash rich, time poor. Our CD ripping service (read all about it at http://www.podserve.co.uk) was up for inclusion. I'm pleased to say after further talks our service has been listed.

So there this morning is an article by Judith Wood in The Daily Telegraph reviewing 'Secret Services'. Conceitedly I scanned through to see if podServe CD ripping service got a mention, but pride comes before a fall and we didn't get a mention in the Telegraph. Reading the article more closely (I'm not a bad loser) I was fascinated to see the basket of services we're among. I didn't know you can hire a handbag (www.be-a-fashionista.co.uk) or get a company to swoosh out your wheelie bin. I did know there are people who'll assemble flat pack furniture for you and I was pleased to see Ten UK mentioned in the side bar as we've had many of their clients using podServe over the last four years.

If you're looking for a copy of Secret Services by Cary Whitley and her company Fab Publishing, go to www.fabpublishing.co.uk or call 0870 443 0035. If you want to go direct to our CD ripping service we're at www.podserve.co.uk
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iPod Touch Springs Into Life

One of the things I like about my CD ripping service (www.podserve.co.uk) is the chance to play with new toys, and today it was the iPod Touch. A client had invested in one while on an overseas trip and plugged it into an HP Windows PC expecting it to synch music and videos.

Result - nothing. First the iPod Touch began to charge so the unit was functioning, then it appeared in My Computer as a photographic device. I was called over to try to work some magic. A quick look at the PC verified the situation being as reported with no new iPod icon in the iTunes source pane. My first thought was to install the latest version of iTunes, despite my clients belief that this was not going to solve the problem. Acording to the client iTunes update had been run when the new device was plugged in - just a matter of days ago.

"Humour me" I said, and loaded the latest iTunes from my USB drive. It took ages to load, so we made small talk about the wonders of technology, until finally the new iTunes had taken root. Instant succes, I appear to be a minor techie god, the iPod Touch starts to synch as required.

Client mainly wants video content so to check it works OK we go to the Apple site and download a couple of movie trailers. "Wow" says client (actually using another word with one more letter) at the image quality. "Can we get on the internet?' We could, in just a few seconds. I was amazed to see the iPod Touch found more wireless networks than the PC and one was unsecured, so we clicked our way onto the worldwide interweb. It was great, fast, cystal clear and easy to enlarge the page image. Client immediately notices how much better this is than BlackBerry.

Moral of the story - if you're having problems with an iPod Touch (or any other iPod for that matter), make sure you have today's version of iTunes not just what you think might be recent. Don't assume for the sake of a few minutes downloading.

Second moral - if you want to play with cool toys set up a CD ripping service in London.
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Brilliant Stereo Sound That Follows You Across the Room

I’ve got a new best friend. It’s cool white, very discrete and called Dias. Thanks to Dias for the past week I’ve been listening to some great sounds while I work or unwind.

Brilliant sound is what Dias is about. I like a good stereo sound, over the years I’ve invested a lot in audio equipment and music CD ripping is my business now. But getting a good sound here, while I work, is difficult so I love the sound I get now. Yes, the quality is high – very high – but that’s not the main thing. Thanks to Dias I get a great stereo sound wherever I am in the office.

Incredibly Dias stereo sound follows you round the room.

Just think about that. Like me you’ve probably tried speakers attached to your PC, or maybe driven by your iPod. You probably set things up so you get the best sound where you sit, but then when you move, you lose the stereo. Not with Dias – now, my stereo sound really does follow me round the room. Doesn’t matter which PC I’m working on (I rip CDs using six computers), doesn’t matter which end of the office I am, standing up or sitting down, the same great sound.

I’ll try to describe the quality of the sound from Dias. The first thing that struck me is that it’s loud. Some music just needs muscle, rock for sure but a lot of classical music just is loud. An orchestra is loud, and there’s no point in trying to relive an orchestral experience when you can’t make the windows rattle.

Dias, if you want, is thumping loud. Wind up the bass and my wooden floor does overtime transmitting the low notes. That brings me on to the next thing I noticed. Perhaps it’s best described as detail and I hear it in two ways, First, with a good bass setting the music isn’t lost to a dull thump. Dias delivers the bass I love without smothering the rest of the music. Second, there’s a lot of fine points in sound that Dias delivers brilliantly. Sometimes that’s high notes, but I’ve also noticed (I love live recordings) its often little things like a shout from someone in the audience or an aside to another musician, this new system brings out music data I’d expect to hear only on much more expensive systems.

Great at the top, solid at the bottom and faithfully reproducing everything in between. It’s hard to describe what I hear but Dias conveys emotion. Maybe I should call it a warm sound, maybe it’s a human sound quality rather than an overly technical rendition you get with some computer generated sound. Thanks to that emotional quality the Dias is easy to listen to and doesn’t leave you feeling strained. Dias is a good colleague at work and a relaxing friend indoors in the evening.

Where does Dias stack up among the competition? Well, most of my clients connect their iPods to Bose units and Dias can hold its head up in that company. The sound is every bit as good. Both Bose and Dias have that effortless quality people love, plus a handy credit card style remote – all the sound settings are at hand plus a mute button when the phone rings. Subjective comparisons are hard to make but I’d give Dias the edge over Bose because it generates sound over a larger area and is better at carrying that sound round the room.

I’d love to explain how Dias stereo sound follows me when I move and does so without the traditional two speaker system, but I can’t. Try the Dias website – www.diasmusic.com. I’ll just tell you what you get. The biggest of the three ice white units generates the bass and has a black knob labelled ‘spatial level’ which is what does the clever bit – getting stereo in effect from a single speaker. This box can be hidden out of the way, at the moment it’s living under my desk.

Next is the small white satellite unit with speakers at the front and on either side. By the clever use of sound from these outlets Dias generates the great stereo. Because the sound is outstanding anywhere in the room, the location of this unit isn’t as critical as you’d expect in a good stereo. When I set the system up I played with its location but the Dias sounds good wherever the satellite sits. There’s a docking station for my iPod (which charges the iPod while it plays). The cabling is simple to connect and long enough to enable you to locate the units where you want them.

Finally the small remote control. I put my iPod into the dock, hit a playlist and using the remote got the sound I wanted within a couple of minutes. I tweaked the spatial sound knob and found half way round worked great and I’ve left it there. You can use the iPod dock as a sound source – with the new iPod having such a massive disk all your music would be at hand – or connect your computer’s sound card to listen not just to music but internet radio or sound streamed from websites. If you connected this to Apple’s AirPort Express, or a Roku unit, you’d have a brilliant distributed sound system.

That’s my new friend, my best friend. If you love music check out Dias. If you’re interested in digital music check out how Dias makes sound, it’s just so much better than the old two speaker approach. If you’re thinking of pumping sound round your house, check out Dias. If you’re thinking of Bose, check out Dias – sounds better and its £100 less expensive. Dias should be your new best friend too
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iPod Moves To Kill Sonos

In various places I've speculated on the possibility of using the new iPod Touch, with its wi-fi capabilities upgraded, to act as a remote control for a home music / entertainment system. One of the attractions of such a device for me, being so associated with Apple as I am through podServe.co.uk, is to be able to take on Sonos.

The term in my mind for such a device was 'Sonos killer'. In my opinion it would lever Apple into a whole new dimension for complex home audio. Yet being Apple, it would look great, work out of the box, have a cool user interface and a realistic price tag.

Is this simply a pipe dream? Well apparently not, because judging by Apple's patent applications they're heading in that direction. This great blog post explains it all:-

http://www.macnn.com/blogs/?p=311

Please Apple, get moving on this. I'd place a small wager that this will be the in-demand boys toy for Christmas 2008.
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iTunes & Sonos Reunited

I was asked by a long-standing podServe client to source and install a new computer system for his London home. One of the key features was that it had to store his music in a form that was available to a new Sonos system. Without the computer having to be switched on all the time.

The configuration we agreed on was largely Apple components. We're both Apple fans so we opted for a new iMac (with the 20 inch screen), connected to Apple's AirPort Extreme (the new version with N grade comms) and a Netgear modem. Data storage ended up being a LaCie ethernet connected hard drive. Installation was a two phase approach, I went in one afternoon to connect up my hardware, the audio visual suppliers went in the next day to do their stuff, mainly setting up the Sonos system.

Actually there was a wait of several weeks while BT supplied first a broadband connection to the clients door, then a week or two before the phone wiring was able to get the signal up to the top of the house where we needed it. Anyway, I did my bit and when I left the music was on the hard drive, the system was connected to the internet, iTunes played music and there was a wireless signal so my client and his wife could use their laptops. The following day the AV team went in.

I got a message to say that although the Apple / iTunes / Sonos mix worked fine when the AV guys were there, our client found the next day that Sonos had 'lost' its music. No sound, no customer satisfaction. I was aked if I'd go onsite with the AV company's technical man to see if we could resolve this. Three hours later we had everything working, but it was a fraught installation.

The first problem we had to overcome was the http address of the ethernet drive - how do you find it? Actually this was simple, using the software LaCie supplies called IPConfigurator. This is a free download from the support area of lacie.com (its also bundled on their discs I believe). This is a simple utility that when run scours your network and comes back with a list of addresses for any connected drives. perhaps I should say LaCie conncted drives, I haven't checked to see if IPConfigurator will find drives made by other companies.

Mr podServe is a happy man thinking we're almost there. Over to the AV expert to use the Sonos configration software to set up the sound system. At this point we have a problem getting the Sonos software on the Mac to accept the http address of the drive. Eventually we got it to accept our entry - if you're doing this remember you need to input not only the address but also the username and password. Even so it wasn't easy to get the Sonos unit to go to the drive and catalogue the music.

We battled with the Sonos wireless connection, no luck. We connected the nearest Sonos to the router via ethernet cable, still it wouldn't access the drive. We swapped Sonos units thinking that might be the issue, nothing worked. So my AV guru had the brainwave to connect the LaCie hard drive to the ethernet port on the Sonos unit, which was in turn connected to the router.

Bingo! It worked, Sonos found the drive and catalogued the music library. Then that information was propagated through the Sonos network. It seems they create their own little peer-to-peer network for this purpose, very clever. To round off the configuration I opened iTunes on the iMac and set about getting the music library to point to the relocated LaCie drive. I had thought this would be a tricky task but no, very straightforward. When done (the main problem was waiting the 10 minutes it took to complete the re-listing in iTunes) we had:-

- a functioning Sonos network
- Sonos Zone players happily accessing different music from different parts of the house
- iTunes playing music from its library.

All at the same time, all with a very quick pick up time from the hard drive. We switched the iMac on and off, same for the Sonos, just to check amnesia hadn't crept back in and we found it worked and continued to work. Job done, Mr podServe is a happy man, as is the hi-fi guru.

The configuration we finished with is a Netgear modem/router to which we connected the iMac, the AirPort Extreme and one Sonos controller. The LaCie ethernet drive is conncted to the Sonos controller, from which the iMac happily accesses it. There's sound and wireless thoughout a four storey brick and concrete house on the edge of the City.
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iTunes, Exact Audio Copy or dBpoweramp?

Last Friday my wife invited some friends and colleagues over and a good time was had by all. That is until I put some music on and we sat out on the patio enjoying the late evening sun, and someone moved his chair to sit next to me.

He said he was moving his seat to get the best audio location. My heart sank – an audio bore. I smiled politely and was pleased when he complimented me on the sound quality. We went through my stereo components and he approved them, although he had ‘auditioned’ my speakers and had gone for a more expensive model. Then the question of CD player.

Actually, I explained, this isn’t a CD player – it’s my iPod. There was a pause. One of the new video iPods? Er, no, this one’s about three years old and its done a million miles, looks like it’s about to fall apart, but sounds good.

“You must have used special software to rip your CDs”. Er, no – iTunes. There was one of those pauses where I’d clearly said the wrong thing. I probed his concern and this was his reply.

“Nobody who’s is halfway serious about music quality would use iTunes.”

That was it. Complete certainty despite the evidence of his own ears. What would be acceptable ripping software? I was given two names – Exact Audio Copy (EAC) and dBpoweramp – which could be relied upon due to the thoroughness with which they read CDs. As my guest explained CDs played via a computer can result in bad CD readings and only advanced software such as these two can read with the accuracy a serious music lover needs. As we later said our goodbyes I thought I’d test that view.

On Saturday I downloaded both applications and set them up on one of my computers. When I set up podServe I’d tried other ripping software so this was a good opportunity to try these, in the case of dBpoweramp re-try. I chose at random five of my own CDs to compare. I wanted to primarily test ripping quality to see if these systems produce better sounds than iTunes.

I started by ripping five CDs into iTunes, stopwatch in hand. Timings carefully noted I repeated the process using EAC. Or at least tried to. EAC is the most confusing product and it took a long time to get a working ripping system. I used the most accurate ripping configuration and eventually the five CDs were added to my hard drive.

dBpoweramp had a more forgiving interface, so I was able to start ripping more quickly. Broadly you can opt for speed of ripping or high accuracy. Thanks to a more communicative interface I could see what had happened when I ripped the CDs. Using the highest accuracy settings each CD had been ripped properly (as was the case with EAC). However it had taken considerably longer to do so – slightly over four times longer.

So I had three sets of rips – iTunes, EAC and dBpoweramp. Bit rates and file formats were the same. Time to sit down and listen for a couple of hours. Did the audiophile rips improve on iTunes? Well not to my ear. As far as I could tell they were identical.
Finally I thought I’d test dBpoweramp’s claim to offer fast ripping. So I switched from great accuracy to speed. Five CDs later I had another set of rips and two notable red flags. On the last tracks of two CDs (The Rolling Stones – Stripped & The Beatles – No 1s) dBpoweramp was flagging ripping errors. What about the speed though? dBpoweramp was marginally slower than iTunes but only by a few seconds. However dBpoweramp got its album data more quickly then iTunes (which was taking a leisurely 15 seconds or more to query CDDB) and at the same time it located the album art. As you may know, iTunes gets its album art in a second pass and only then if its on iTunes.

To be fair to dBpoweramp the fast rips of the good tracks sounded every bit as good as the accurate rips. But there are two tracks where the sound is distinctly flawed, albeit flagged nicely for the user. Given no significant speed advantage I can’t see the point of using dBpoweramp above iTunes.

In this test I found that iTunes was both fast and accurate. It ripped all tracks properly. It ripped all tracks a little faster than dBpoweramp in sprint mode and much, much faster than either EAC or dBpoweramp in their secure ripping modes. And crucially my iTunes tracks sound just as good as the others. Roll on the next home social.
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Sounds Odd

Don't you just love train rides? This week I've been into London twice by train so the last thing to go in my bag as I leave home is an iPod. The iPod in question is the podserve.co.uk main test platform. I hope that sounds grand but its actually three years old and if it were a car it would have been round the clock at least twice.

Leaving in a bit of a rush its pot luck as to what's on the machine. This time it was pretty full (just as well as there were some long delays) with a wide mix of music. None of this is terribly remarkable until I got to Elvis Costello. I can't vlaim to be a big fan but he's done some good stuff. I noticed my favourite, Oliver's Army, wasn't there but none the less started to listen to Elvis.

Then it screeched. Short, sharp scream. Then Elvis performs for a few seconds, then hopped on to the next track. So I skipped back to check what was happening, same thing second time around. I made a note of the track and thought I'd look in more detail when I got back to The Hutch (which is what the office has now been named).

The first thing I did this morning was to listen to the track in iTunes. It plays fine, which was a load off my mind. I wouldn't like the thought that podServe's CD ripping clients were suffering jumpy tracks. Breathe a big sigh of relief and re-synch the iPod. Track still plays up.

So I erased the iPod, and reloaded it with the same playlist. On checking, Elvis is still deformed. My thinking by this time is that there's a fault on the iPod's hard drive and by chance I've found the track that rests on the bad sector. To force a removal to another and better location I created a new playlist, with EC and other artists, and synched the iPod to that. Nothing changed, he was still skipping to the next track after a few seconds. So I again erased the iPod and forced the new, shorter playlist onto it. Crossed fingers.

So on an almost empty iPod poor old Mr Costello finds the same flawed area again. As Sherlock Holmes might say, this is a two pipe problem. Not being a pipe smoker I made do with a cup of coffee.

I thought I'd try the same exercise but rather than use iTunes to load the iPod, I'd use Xplay 2 (from www.mediafour.com). This is a great piece of software that's got me off the hook time and time again. Magic. The track loaded with Xplay works fine. But why?

I can only think that the iPod's mini operating system has a method of placing files that results in the same track landing in the same place each time. Xplay must use a different algorithm. Moral of the story - if your iPod produces odd sounds check with iTunes first for file integrity. If normal resynchs don't solve the problem try a third party product such as Xplay 2.
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Ipod Movies and iTunes

A client rang, he was struggling to get his videos into iTunes and from there onto his iPod. While trying to help I gained an understanding of how fiddly this process can be. It's something we do all the time so its a firm reality check when a client shows us how the process can go wrong.

First, the basic building blocks. You need one or more video files in the right format. These need to be MPEG files, and they need to have been created in sympathy with the iPod's screen aspect ratio. You will need specialist software to do the conversion. Dig around on the internet and you can find this at a modest price or even free.

Second, you need the right type of iPod. Videos don't play on all iPods, not surprisingly you need to have Video iPod. Sure the screen on the nano is very good and yes I'd be happy to watch old films in B&W, but NO, only the iPod Videos play movies.

The quick way to get the movie into iTunes is to drag it from its current location into the iTunes source pane. This is the area on the left of the main screen, headed Music, Video and so on. Here's the odd thing - as you drag your movie file across the space of your desktop or the main iTunes screen, the file icon (in Windows) will appear to have a 'no entry' road sign on it. Off-putting, isn't it. Just keep dragging across the screen until you get to the source panel and the icon will have a '+' sign. When you let go, it will be added to your library.

This got my client fooled, he was expecting it to take time - not unreasonably, we'd given him a large 90 minute movie to watch. Remember, if you haven't checked the box in Preferences (under Advanced) to copy to iTunes music folder when adding to library, then all that gets added in iTunes is a pointer to the source destination. Done in the blink of an eye.

Is the movie there? Click on Movies in the source pane and your film should be listed there. Use the normal play / pause button and away it goes. Can't see anything? Control+G will pop a small white preview screen in the bottom left, and your moving image will preview there. Alternatively use one of the buttons between the Apple icon and the search function at the top of the screen to let you see your film in full screen.

If you've added movies before ticking add to msuic folder etc don't lose heart. If you go to Advanced and select Consolidate iTunes will hunt down all files located outside your main music folder and copy them there at a click.

When done, you're ready to synchronise music and movement onto your iPod.
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Classical Mac

Over the last twelve months there's been a noticeable trend towards getting more classical CD collections to rip. I'd like to think this is because podServe's marketing and web site (www.podserve.co.uk) has been emphasising the extra attention we pay to classical music libraries.

Maybe we take it for granted (and our Data Grooming software helps) but classical music is better on a Mac. Earlier this week Joe put a classical CD into one of our Windows systems and found the album data that got downloaded was corrupted. Thankfully he stopped and asked for help.

My suggestion, greeted with some scorn, was to put the CD into one of our Apple Macs. He was suitably amazed to find the album data appeared, in the correct format. Well done Apple.

So, if you're thinking of buying a new computer, or looking for a CD ripping platform, opt for the Mac - your music library will thank you for it.
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iTunes, Hard Drives and The Joys of Windows

Several of our clients (www.podserve.co.uk) have reached the stage where their music libraries are larger than their hard drive on their laptop or PC. So, more and more people are looking to store their music on a separate hard drive, and it particularly suits people with second homes as it allows them to take their msuic with them.

Music library on a USB connected hard drive is a simple system on our Macs. Just plug the disc in, no problems. Leave the drive unplugged, no problem.

Windows? Oh, no. If you open iTunes even once without your hard drive being connected it loses all links between its internal libraries (the itl and itx files) and the real location of your music. You see a swathe of grey exclamation marks, against every track. You can't play your music, your iPod doesn't synch properly. The 'cure' is to reload all your tracks. Not only does this take time, but it means you lose the contents of all your (simple) playlists. Small consolation in that smart playlists rebuild themselves.

Twice in the last few days we've had to fix this problem for clients, neither of whom were happy that their hard built playlists had gone.

So, if your music is on a free standing hard drive - you must hae your drive connected and powered on BEFORE you open iTunes. Each and every time. Please don't blame podServe, Apple or iTunes. This is down to Microsoft and I'm afraid I don't know a work-around.
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Data Grooming Upgraded

I don't often get excited about computer software, but our new Data Grooming software is really exciting (well for me anyway).

The features list is greatly improved so in turn our clients get a better service. First, we've increased the list of classical composers in the database. Previously we'd found 40 pretty adequate but we've got many more now. I'll be surprised if we find any names to be added to the list.

Handling artist names is also much better. We can now remove one of the most annoying features of modern music - tha apparently endless use of 'featuring', 'feat.' and so on. It can increase the number of performers in a collection and make it hard to find the track you want via the Artist route. Well, say that annoyance goodbye.

Handling Disc 1 etc is more thorough, adding artist name to 'Best of' and 'Greatest Hits' works just as well, and is a little faster.

There's a facility to correct the inappropriate use of capital letters though I've yet to get to grips with the detail of how that works.

Anyway, enough for now, I'm off to play with our new toy. Any data you'd like us to groom for you?
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AAC 1 - MP3 0

Looking at the small print in the recent Apple / EMI announcment about DRM free music it seems that the music file of choice will be Apple's AAC, and not the previously universal MP3. Why?

Well, recently Microsoft got hit by a massive lawsuit alleging copyright infringement over the technical rights to the MP3 codec. Perhaps neither Apple nor EMI fancied being hit in the same way.

Maybe EMI saw this as another way of controlling the distribution of their tracks. Maybe the thinking was MP3 is synonymous with those evil file sharing pirates, so AAC could be 'safer' in that respect.

I originally thought this was a simple marketing ploy to enable Apple to market their products (ie iTunes Music Store tracks) to Zune and the users of other MP3 players. It's more than that, each MP3 manufacturer will come under pressure to release firmware updates to support AAC on their players. users will have to find the upgrade, download it, apply it to their machine - how many will just not bother and buy a new iPod instead?

At a sweep Apple and EMI may have changed the drift of digital music. Where once MP3 was seen as the universal standard that accolade could fall to AAC.
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Ripping Movies in iTunes?

So you can rip CDs, you can play CDs. You can download tracks from iTunes Music Store.

You can download movies from iTunes Music Store. You can play them in iTunes. So what's missing? Ripping DVDs.

We could be a step closer to the missing link in the entertainment puzzle, thanks to a recent ruling in America. Given Apple's great position with Apple TV, iTunes and video iPods surely ripping movies in iTunes is the logical next step.

This facility would unleash additional iPod, iMac and Apple TV sales. At podServe we have strong interest in this facility.

Watch this space. My money is on this happening in the next three months.
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Itunes Music Store Enhancements

Macrumors today annouces two significant extensions to the facilities offered by iTunes Music Store.

The first is an advice function - based on past purchases you can be alerted to the availabilty of new music by the same artist. It's a cute feature, I wonder how long it will be before we're told of similar music we would enjoy, much as Amazon does now with its 'other readers have purchased' at the same time.

The second has financial impact - the ability to 'complete my album'. Noticing you've bought one or two tracks you'll be prompted (and probably financially incented) to but the rest of the album. Not only does this make sound business sense but it would go some way to narrow the gap between a downloaded album and the low priced CD suppliers. I wonder if it's Apple or the labels who are biting the financial bullet on this one.

But ...

With a full download costing £7-99 a physical disc offers good value for money. If you'll forgive the plug for our own CD ripping service (http://www.podserve.co.uk), we can rip a CD for £1. I can source a CD in my High Street music store for as little as £5, putting the two together we can still offer a saving plus the client gets a physical CD he can enjoy anytime.

Final shameless plug - podServe also rips your CD at a higher quality than iTunes Music Store.
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iTunes Five Minute Tune Up

You could significantly improve your music enjoyment in just five minutes. We've produced a quick and easy guide to how to get the best from your iPod.

And it's free.

All you need to do is e-mail us at tuneup@podserve.co.uk, or via the contact page on the main podServe site (www.podserve.co.uk).

We'll have your iPod humming in a few minutes.
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