By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The fuzz about iTunes

No, not the buzz. Not this time.

I have a problem with the iTunes Music Store. It’s possible that it’s my fault, although what I’m about to describe is simple enough that I find it hard to believe I’m doing anything wrong. I may be a fool about some things, but this is pretty much a foolproof process. Or at least I thought it was.

I’ve been a happy iPod user for more than two years, ever since Mrs. Media Nation got me a 15 GB third-generation model for Father’s Day. The vast majority of the music on my iPod consists of my CDs, which I ripped to iTunes on my iBook. (The “i”s have it.) I don’t do anything fancy — I use the default setting, which is AAC compression at 128 kbps, the same compression that the iTunes Music Store uses.

My ripped CDs sound great on the iPod. I know the compression is supposed to degrade the sound quality slightly, but my 49-year-old ears certainly can’t tell.

Yet when I have used the iTunes Music Store, I’ve had mixed results. Some albums sound fine. Others don’t. Two examples: Miles Davis’ “Get Up With It,” supposedly remastered from the original 1975 release, and John Prine’s latest, “Fair and Square.” Parts of “Get Up With It” sound OK; others are fuzzy and distorted, as though it had been recorded on an analogue system with the volume set too high.

I own the vinyl version of “Get Up With It,” and though I haven’t done a direct comparison, I certainly listened to it enough when I was younger that I should have remembered the distortion. And, no, I’m not talking about John McLaughlin playing guitar with the distortion turned up. This is more elemental, embedded in the track.

With “Fair and Square,” the distortion is in the vocals. The problem is similar: it sounds as though someone set the volume too high when the recording was originally made. When Prine duets with a female singer on “Long Monday,” the effect is especially awful. (Overall, the sound seems a bit muddy, too.)

In my iTunes software, the Sound Enhancer bar is in the middle, but it’s not clicked on; that means I’ve got Sound Enhancer turned off, right?

Why am I telling you all this?

An unselfish reason: In the past, I’ve found that readers really seem to respond to tech posts. It’s a continuing obsession for a lot of us, and — really — how much media and politics can we take?

A selfish reason: I’d like some advice!

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  1. Mike P

    I’m not exactly an expert but here’s a couple of things:1. The downloads were corrupted. This happens occasionally with downloads, though I’ve never had it happen to any of my (admittedly limited) iTunes downloads. It also seems unlikely that if it did happen, it would happen with so many tracks. I don’t know how Apple handles these sort of things.2. Ctrl-click on one of the bad tracks and do a “get info.” Click on the “options tab” in that window and check the Volume Adjustment bar. It should be in the middle. This bar comes in handy if you’re ripping old CDs that were mastered at lower levels into iTunes, but shouldn’t be necessary for downloads or newer CDs. If you didn’t change these levels though, I don’t know how it would have happened. 3. Are you using SoundCheck? Try changing the status of that if you haven’t already. 4. You’ve probably already done this, but you might also go to your sound control panel and make sure none of those levels are messed up.

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