Saturday, August 06, 2005

When full blast isn't loud enough

Saturday, August 06, 2005

My Creative Rhomba MP3 player came loaded with European firmware (so I'm led to believe). Because some EU directive or other dictates that the volume of portable audio devices has to be restricted (presumably because some people are too feeble-minded to turn it down when their ears start to bleed) I'm unable to listen to certain audiobooks without editing them first.

The problem is that music files are encoded using various 'gain' (i.e. decibel) levels. Some have the maximum volume set very low, while others are set high enough to hollow out your cranium faster than a mutant, flesh-eating virus. If you've ramped up the volume to the maximum and still can't hear your track over the environmental background noise don't trash it just yet - keep reading to discover several potential solutions.

Some manufacturers release multiple, regional firmware updates - US and EU varieties at least. If you are able to flash your EU player with the US firmware you can often eliminate the volume restrictions. Unfortunately this didn't help in my case. I'm told this could be because the US and EU firmware is identical, or that there were no restrictions on the player to begin with - the power output could simply be very mediocre. This coupled with a subdued MP3 track is enough to leave you straining to hear what sounds like a game of Chinese whispers.

The next thing to try if that didn't help is to edit the tracks, turn up the gain (or 'normalize' them) and then re-encode the MP3s. This can be accomplished using the cross-platform audio editor, Audacity.

Here's how:-

- Run the application and open the track you wish to amplify.

- In the left hand panel next to the waveform display there's a slider with a minus symbol at one end, and a plus symbol at the other. Drag the marker which intersects the line towards the right to increase the decibel level. Go overboard and you will create nothing but painful distortion. I chose to boost the gain by 12db. This turned out to offer an ideal balance between sound quality and audibility, but your mileage will vary depending on the track used.

- Select 'File' > 'Export as MP3' to re-encode the corrected track. A new file will be created, leaving the original one intact, so don't worry about corrupting it. You can always try again with different settings if something goes wrong.

Windows users may like to give MP3Gain a shot instead. A Mac port exists, but it wouldn't behave itself when I tried it - probably because it's not been updated for nearly two years and so doesn't take into account the many OS X changes which have occurred in the mean time.

Another problem I had is that I couldn't get my MP3 player to play the ridiculous number of bitty files my audiobooks were split into in the correct order. They should automatically be organised in alpha-numeric order - should. Hmmf! In reality they play in the order in which they were transferred to the memory, so unless you want your book to read like the disjointed, though head-spinningly superb movie, Memento, you will have to drag each file over individually in sequence. Try doing that with an unabridged, epic novel like Lord of the Rings, split into 1mb chunks!

Luckily help is close at hand in the form of the Mac-only, labour-saving gizmo, ReJoiner. Select the folder containing your serialised audiobook, hit the 'ReJoin' button and the program will launch iTunes and use it to merge them together into a single MP3 file. Note that it can struggle to combine hundreds of files at once (most likely due to memory limitations) so you might like to separate your audiobooks into folders on a per chapter basis and combine them one at a time. Most flash-based MP3 players don't have the capacity to store such huge files in any case so this isn't really much of a drawback.

For Windows users there's ReOrganize which, if you have a compatible MP3 player, will allow you to re-arrange the playback order of your tracks once they have been transferred to your portable audio device.

Before researching these infuriating design flaws, the other option I seriously considered was hurling my MP3 player at the wall, kicking the furniture and cursing quite a bit. My ickle, oblivious Rhomba doesn't know how close it came to meeting its maker. Who knows? Maybe it could have asked Creative why it was born with half a brain and return from the other side to pass on this newfound, otherworldly knowledge. For now it has been granted a (temporary?) reprieve.


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