Ask the iTunes Guy
Kirk McElhearn answers your iTunes questions
Some of the questions I get about iTunes issues are relatively easy to solve, but others require a lot of time and exploration. In this month’s column, I look at a single question about an iTunes library that seems to have gone back in time. There are important lessons to learn from a problem like this.
Plus, do you find it annoying that when you get in your car, start it up, and music starts playing from your iPhone?
It’s not the iPhone’s fault. Some songs in your iTunes library are louder than others. It’s not iTunes’ fault. And if you download public domain audiobooks and want to move them to iTunes’ Audiobooks library, well that’s easily done.
My iTunes library has gone crazy
Q i launched iTunes recently, and the app displayed a dialog saying that it was “importing iTunes library. xml.” When this finished, I noticed a number of anomalies with my library. some music i had ripped recently was no longer there, and some podcasts i had listened to and removed a long time ago were now showing up. I found old playlists that I had deleted long ago, and my newest playlists were missing. What’s going on?
A The above is an abbreviated summary of a very long email a reader sent me, which led to a fair amount of correspondence over a few days until we figured out his problem. It’s an interesting issue, and one that I’m going to present in depth to discuss some precautions you can take to ensure the integrity of your iTunes library.
What intrigued me was the fact that iTunes rebuilt the user’s library, which suggested that the iTunes Library.itl file might be corrupted. But the ‘new’ library turned out to be quite old. It was in fact nearly two years old, which gave a clue as to what happened.
When iTunes 12.2 was released in late June 2015, it added a new preference which changed the way the app stored some of its library files. This new option, in the Advanced pane of iTunes’ preferences, allows you to share the iTunes Library XML file with other applications. iTunes previously had created two main library files:
iTunes Library.itl iTunes Library.xml
The former is the file that contains information about your library: the tracks and other items it contains, their play counts and ratings, and your playlists. The XML file was created so other applications (including Apple’s own apps) could read that library to access your media files. But with iTunes 12.2, Apple turned off the automatic creation of this file, since its apps (iMovie, for example) could now read the iTunes Library.itl file to import music into projects.
This XML file was useful for more than just Apple and third-party apps; you could use it to rebuild your iTunes
library in case of problems. This technique has saved my iTunes library at times, and it’s one I recommend to people having inexplicable problems with their iTunes libraries.
In the case of my correspondent, the iTunes Library.itl file was corrupt, and iTunes did the logical thing, importing the iTunes Library.xml file that it found to create a new library. However, since iTunes no longer creates or updates the XML file, it was out of date; by nearly two years. The file iTunes loaded was the last one created before Apple introduced the setting to create the XML file. In other words, when Apple changed this behaviour – having iTunes create the XML file only when users specifically told it to – it froze that file in time.
iTunes updates the iTunes library.xml file whenever it makes any changes to its main library file. The XML file can be seen as a sort of backup of the iTunes Library.itl file, even though that’s not what it’s meant for. If my correspondent had checked that option in the iTunes preferences, then his library would have been rebuilt using a recent XML file.
My correspondent had a Previous Libraries folder in his iTunes folder, and was able to load a more recent library. But if he had backed up these files regularly, it would have been a lot easier. macOS includes Time Machine, an automatic backup system that automatically stores copies of your files to an external or network drive. To protect your iTunes library and your other files, it’s a good idea to use Time Machine. This is better than just copying your files or cloning your drive, since it stores multiple versions of your files. If the iTunes Library file in your backup is corrupt, then you’re out of luck, but with Time Machine, you can go back in time and choose different versions until you find one that works.
I also strongly recommend checking the option mentioned above to have iTunes create that XML file. It doesn’t cost you anything, and it can save your iTunes library if something goes wrong.
So make these two changes to ensure the integrity of your iTunes library.
AUTO-PLAY IN CARS
Q As soon as I start my car, the first song on my iPhone starts playing. I know a lot of people have this problem, so how can I fix this?
A I happen to have recently bought a car with Bluetooth for the first time. I noticed that the same thing was happening; whenever I got in the car and started it, music would start playing. It’s not the first song, however, it’s whatever was playing last time I used the Music app, or another app that plays audio (such as a podcast app).
I checked with the car manufacturer, and a spokesperson explained that this was a feature, not a bug, and that I needed to turn off audio in the car each time I exit it to prevent it from playing music the next time I start it. In some cars, you can’t actually turn off audio, so you would need to switch to the radio to not play music from your iPhone. Some car audio systems may have an auto-play option that you can deactivate, but mine doesn’t. This is certainly an annoyance, but it’s not the iPhone’s fault.
QI purchased two albums from the iTunes Store: The Velvet underground & nico and The essential Lou Reed. Each contains the song I’m Waiting for the Man. If I look at the metadata for each song, the volume is different; the Velvet Underground version shows a volume of -4.9 dB, and the Lou Reed album’s version shows -9.2 dB. The second song is much louder than the other. Is it possible to download versions of these songs where the volume is the same?
A If you select a file in iTunes, press Cmd + I, then click the File tab, you can see a bunch of metadata about that file. You can see the type of file, its size, its bit rate, and more. One element in that window is volume; this is the amount of volume adjustment that iTunes makes if you turn on Sound Check (iTunes: Preferences > Playback).
As this correspondent noted, two versions of the same song have different volume adjustments; this means that one of them (the second version, with the higher negative volume adjustment) is louder than the first. They are the same song, but they were mastered at
different times; the newer song was mastered at a louder volume than the older one.
Audiophiles talk of the ‘loudness wars’, which began in the 1990s as producers and mastering engineers realized that if their songs were louder they’d stand out more. Because of this, many recent recordings are mastered that a level that eliminates much of the dynamic range (using audio compression), so the music is more or less uniformly loud. In this case, the quieter version of the song was remastered in 2003, and the louder version in 2012.
These volume numbers that iTunes displays don’t matter at all in normal playback, but only affect the use of Sound Check. You will notice that the songs with higher negative decibel adjustments are louder, and those with
positive adjustments are softer, but for most listening this isn’t a problem. But if you do make playlists mixing a lot of songs mastered at different times, with large differences in volume, you might want to use Sound Check to normalize these volumes.
QI’ve downloaded a number of public domain audiobooks. When i add them to iTunes, they show as music files. How can I get them into the Audiobooks library?
AiTunes assumes that all audio files you add to your library are music files. In some cases, they are not, as you point out. You may download audiobooks or podcasts, or you may even want to change some podcasts to audiobooks to be able to listen to them more easily. To do this, select one or more files, press Cmd + I, then click the Options tab. Click the Media Kind menu, then choose Audiobook. Click OK.
If you have audiobooks in multiple files, you may want to join them into longer files to make them easier to manage and listen to. I recommend Doug Adams’ Join Together (tinyurl.com/l8v2xv2), which can do this for you.
Here are two tracks showing one with a negative volume adjustment and the other with a positive adjustment
This options tells iTunes to create an XML file from its library file