How to Bulk Speed Up MP3 Files for Your Audiobooks

I recently got a new iPhone, and I’m spoiled by its ability to play audiobooks at 2x speed in the iBooks app, and to do the same for podcasts in the podcasts app.

My iPod Nano always had a “2x” function, but it was lying to me. It says "2x," but it is actually 1.5x at most. I don't know why they've done this.

Unfortunately, although I love the new "real" 2x speed, my new iPhone is large, and I don’t like wearing those armbands when I work out or go for a run. By contrast, my old Nano is a 6th generation, so it's just a tiny clip-on thing, which is perfect for running and working out. (Note: Apple, please go back to having the clip-on thingies for your Nanos. My workout shorts don't always have pockets, and I don't want to have to buy an accessory for something so simple.) 

That's all a long way of saying I’d prefer to use the Nano, but without giving up the speed of the narrating/podcasting.

Also, it occurred to me that it’d be cool if I could listen to audiobooks at speeds even faster than 2x. Right? Right. Blazing through long-ass Victorian novels in a few days’ worth of dog walks, errands, and running is pretty aces, actually.

After some fiddling, I figured it out.

The main obstacles are as follows:

1) Doing bulk MP3s, all at once, without spending all day doing them manually, one by one, like a chump.

2) If you just speed things up, your narrator sounds like a chipmunk.

3) To account for (2) above, you end up fiddling with pitch and tempo, but this can make the narrator hard to understand.*

* Note, if you jump immediately from normal playback speed to 2X just like that, it will seem hard to understand no matter what you do. Go in increments. I promise you: your brain will adjust. I’m to the point that 1X seems agonizingly slow. I can no longer stand it. It's terrible. Literally, it sounds like someone’s slowed down the track to an absurd degree and my brain has trouble parsing the idea that this is somehow “normal.”

Anyways, I started Googling to figure out how to do this.

I first saw this article on Lifehacker that shows you how to bulk speed up MP3s using the open source Audacity app. (The Lifehacker screenshots look like they’re on Windows; I used the Mac version 2.1.2 with no problems at any stage.) It's the basis for what I recommend below.

Now, in Lifehacker's instructions, they recommend speeding up the tempo instead of the speed, in order to avoid the aforementioned chipmunk effect. I tried increasing only the tempo at first, but the result just sounds weird; it’s oh-so-slightly garbled and hard to understand once you increase it past a certain point.

To counteract this, my next experiment involved adjusting the tempo by only so much, but also adjusting the speed by a little as well, figuring I could do with “a bit” of the chipmunk effect. Turns out even a "bit" of the chipmunk effect is annoying.

Then I came across this video on Youtube:

Basically, according to it, it is the speed you adjust, but after you speed up the mp3 by [A] percentage, you adjust the pitch by that same percentage, but going the other way, so that if you increase the speed (moving the slider to the right), you decrease the pitch (move the slider left the same amount).

So, in my final version, here’s what you’re doing:

Increase the speed by [A] percent.

Decrease the pitch by [A] percent.

Increase the tempo by [B] percent.

In Audacity, you’ll want to do it in that order, using the “Move Up” or “Move Down” options to make sure. (See below.) 

 

The Step-by-Step Instructions

Step One.

Download the Audacity app.

 

Step Two.

You need your files to be in MP3 format.

If you ripped your audiobooks from CDs, you're golden. (Note: If you have family members who are readers, and who were adults in the 90s and early 2000s, you'll find they often have old CD audiobooks lying around. Trust me. Just ask. They're probably hidden in a basement, and they're probably John Grisham books.)

If you're a real cool person who likes saving money, and your audiobooks are from Librivox, this shouldn't be a problem, because they're in MP3 to begin with.

If your files are not in MP3, Audacity can convert some formats to MP3 for you. Some formats might need an app like AlltoMP3 or something. Some formats might get difficult with DRM, especially if they're downloaded from Audible or elsewhere online. I don't actually know what the legalities of that are. Use Google.

If you're doing this for podcasts, you'll be able to get MP3s somewhere on your computer. Go to iTunes, right click (or command click or whatever) on the podcast file, and click "Show in Finder" (or "Show in Windows Explorer" in Windows). 

You'll find all the mp3s for that podcast. 

podcast-mp3s

 

Step Three.

You'll be setting up "chains" of actions in Audacity. A chain is a set of actions that allow you to tell the program to automatically perform one or several actions to the files you feed into it (a lot like Mac's Automator app). 

In Audacity, click File > Edit Chains.

file-edit-chains

From there, click "Add" in the lower left, and name the new chain whatever you want. Then from there, you'll want to insert your actions by clicking "Insert."

click-addYou'll want insert four action, so that you have five actions in total:

1. ChangeSpeed

2. ChangePitch

3. ChangeTempo

4. Export MP3

5. End. (This one will already be there.)

five-totalFor each one, you can double-click on the action to change it, then to change the percentage, click "Edit Parameters." 

edit-parameters

edit-parameters2Back in the Edit Chains Screen, you can click "Move Up" and "Move Down" to get them in the right order.

Here's what mine looked like:

edit-chains

Based on the numbers, you can see I increased speed by 18%, decreased pitch by 17%, and increased tempo by 45%. Yes, that'll be crazy fast, even on my Nano. I was happy with this result. You might not be.

You can experiment with what you like by only feeding in a single MP3 file at a time in the next step, before you do all of them or the whole audiobook.

Also, note that you can either speed things up to exactly how you want to listen to them, or you can speed them just a teeny bit on your computer, so that when you then listen at 1.5x or 2x on your iPod, it's perfect. To test what the new file will sound like if sped up further by 2x or 1.5x, just open the MP3 briefly with VLC Media Player. (Click Playback > Drag the slider to 1.5 or 2 or whatever you want.) That way you don't have to transfer it to your iPod each time.

 

Step Four. 

Once your chain is set up with its actions, go back to the main screen of Audacity. Click "File" and click "Apply Chain." Navigate to where your MP3 files are saved on your computer, and select all of them.

At the end of the process, the "new" files will appear in a subfolder called "cleaned."

 

Step Five (optional)

Use Audiobook Builder to turn the MP3s into an actual audiobook file with chapters. I've been doing this for years, and quite like it.

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Fix iStat Nano or iStat Pro Processes in Mountain Lion

Okay, I lied in my title. If you have iStat Nano, you have to switch to iStat Pro for this fix. Don't worry: it's freeware.

Anyways, the point is, if you've used the iStat Nano or the iStat Pro Dashboard Widget to check on your Mac's system processes in the past, and you've upgraded to Mountain Lion, you'll have been disappointed to find out that the processes section no longer works. This is what my iStat Nano looked like after upgrading to Mountain Lion:

So, what's the fix?

First, if you do have iStat Nano, go get iStat Pro. (As above, there are more options with Pro, but it's still freeware.)

The basic fix is explained in this post on the Mac Rumors forums. (And here's a screenshot of the MacRumors post, in case the actual post ever gets taken down.) One thing about this fix, though, is it involves going into your Library folder, which is actually hidden as of Lion 10.7 (and Mountain Lion, if you upgraded to ML straight from Snow Leopard 10.6.x). If you don't know how to find your Library folder, that's explained right here. Making your Library folder permanently visible just means opening up Terminal and putting in one line of code that you can copy and paste from that link. (Note that those are instructions to keep the Library visible permanently, which is what I personally prefer. But the link also explains ways to do it temporarily, or to set things back.)

Another note: the post above for the fix, on the Mac Rumors forums, basically says "find this bit of code in this particular file." (You can open the file with TextEdit.) Instead of scrolling through the entire file like a chump, just using ctrl-f for "PID|" works to find the bit of code you're looking for. (That's capital p-i-d, then that last character is the vertical line that's the secondary character above the back slash, above the enter or return key.)

Here's what iStat Pro looks like when fixed (and everything but processes turned off):

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On reading speed and retention

You know how in sci fi, a character gets some alien implant that dramatically increases their reading speed, and then they can blitz through a book about some subject they’ve never encountered before, and can instantly sum up the book’s argument and remember every little detail within, impressing the other characters? As a kid I always, always dreamed of doing that. Only, even if you slow things down to account for the fact that we don’t have magic alien implants (or drugs, or surgery, or whatever the conceit is), that’s not really how it works, which is a pretty big bummer. I think the idea of picking up a book and reading it straight through (in a few hours rather than a few seconds, since I’m back to talking about real life), then picking up another book and doing the same thing, and so on and so on, with full comprehension and good retention, is a myth that I’ve found hard to let go.

When I wanted to improve reading retention, I had to let go of a lot of silly ideas I had about memory. Like, I always had a sense that I wanted to memorize “just the facts,” instead of adding in extra facts/ideas/connections/mnemonics that actually, y’know, help you remember things. A recent example I used: “I can remember that Empedocles is the pre-Socratic philosopher mentioned by Plato who says everything can be broken down to four elements, because I read that poem, ‘Empedocles on Etna,’ and Empedocles disappeared or died on Etna, and “Etna” is four letters.” (I used this yesterday because I kept mixing up Empedocles with Democritus.) As a kid I had an aversion to such mnemonic devices, as if they were somehow a waste of space in my head, like my brain was a hard drive with a limited capacity, or I was Sherlock Holmes, not wanting to waste space with information about the constellations of the stars. All that meant, though, was that I was really bad at memorizing things in high school.

I finally realized this was silly. (So did Sherlock Holmes, in the later stories.) The trick is to actually consciously think about  what you have trouble remembering, and to think of a mnemonic that will actually for sure help you remember it, and to know when you’ve definitely “got it.” I use Mental Case for any cue cards I make to test myself periodically. (The app has a nice built-in schedule that corresponds pretty well to how often you need to review things in order to remember them forever. I.e., in an hour, a day, in a a few days, in two weeks, in three months, or whatever it is.) This article has a good explanation of what makes for good cue cards. The answer boils down to individual and simple and specific facts.

My reading speed also increased dramatically when, well, it had to, for my PhD comps this past year. (I assume this is part of the point of the comps.) Studying for my comps meant goal-oriented reading. With every book I picked up, I was pretty much just trying to figure out what I needed to take away from it that would help me answer these questions on these past exams, or the types of questions I might get in my oral exam.*

In terms of remembering the “thrust” of the argument for entire books, I now think of them in a fractal kind of way, like a Koch snowflake.** I should be able to sum up the book in one sentence; I should be able to move from there to sum up each of the main parts of the book in a sentence, then maybe the individual chapters, then sections within the chapters, then details within these sections, and then even individual quotes here and there. But in terms of memory you move from the general to the specific, you zero in on facts from vague outlines. For note-taking that means that collapsible mind maps are pretty helpful (so are other collapsible note-taking apps like workflowy), but they can be a bit slower to make, and for time reasons I didn’t end up making a lot of them for my notes. But, again, if you’re really goal-oriented in your reading, you can build a mind map of the book at its most general levels, and then fill in only the details for the parts you really need. Imagine a snowflake where only one corner has been developed into smaller and smaller fractal patterns.

At the beginning of each book I also just typed out the table of contents, and as I read I tried to “fill it out,” so to speak, not always with actual detailed notes, but in terms of turning every book into a narrative or story of sorts in my own head: “Okay, in Chapter One the author talks about this, which sets up the argument about [whatever] in Chapter Two, which is then contrasted in Chapter Three. But Chapter Three is totally a bluff because Chapter Four completely refutes everything in it.”  This information is also, of course, often explicitly given towards the latter end of introductions. The very beginnings/ends of chapters contain similar details/summaries (“In this chapter I have argued [whatever]. I will now turn to examine the effects of this argument on [blah blah blah]”). I could then visualize the table of contents as a whole, and fill in the details in my head as I thought more about the individual parts. Again, kind of like a snowflake, but there’s also the fact that narratives (i.e. stories) are much easier to remember if things lead contiguously (or metonymically) to other things.

I still do wish I was a faster reader, and I still wish I could do that “blitz through the entire book in one sitting and remember it all” thing. I also find that I sometimes misjudge how to approach a book. Sometimes I discover that I’m spending too much time on one chapter, typing out what I think are important-but-hard-to-parse quotations, trying to get the main thrust of what’s being argued, when in the end the chapter as a whole is just not actually very useful for my research. Oh well. I also still find that writing my own thoughts about a given book or subject or chapter is excellent for retention, for obvious reasons (i.e., I’m more likely to remember details when I’ve articulated why those details are important or relevant to me).

* I was also doing research for my dissertation, but that was more of a secondary “do what you can” kind of thing. Not failing my comps came first. Duh.

** Incidentally, that’s also how this guy says you can write a novel. He calls it “the snowflake method.”

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The Pomodoro Technique

I’ve recently found the Pomodoro technique pretty useful for increasing my studying/reading productivity, with regards to my studying for my comps.

Basically, you work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, then repeat the cycle. After four of these, you take a longer break. You use a basic kitchen timer (or some computer equivalent) set to 25 minutes and let it countdown. You don’t interrupt a given 25 minute cycle. If you absolutely have to do this, you abandon the cycle entirely. Sometimes this happens, obviously, but the point is you only do it when you really have to, because if you aren’t strict then the Pomodoro technique becomes pretty pointless pretty quickly.

From Wikipedia’s entry on the Pomodoro Technique:

There are five basic steps to implementing the technique:

1.    decide on the task to be done
2.    set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
3.    work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
4.    take a short break (5 minutes)
5.    every four “pomodoros” take a longer break (15–20 minutes)

Wikipedia has a bunch of information and a link to a free PDF explaining it, but honestly the above five steps tell you everything you need to know. Anything else is really superfluous and betrays the simplicity of it. I don’t even write anything down.

The Apple app store has a few timers that are specifically designed for the Pomodoro technique (you can tell because they look like tomatoes, which is where the “pomodoro” name comes from), but they cost money, sometimes because they come with features you don’t need. I like Focus Booster, because it’s free. It comes with no frills, but, like, that’s the point of the Pomodoro technique. With Focus Booster you can’t interrupt a given 25 minute without just starting over. If you download it, you’ll see that the standard countdown is already set for 25/5, so it’s obviously got the Pomodoro technique in mind.

Anyways, my point is I’ve found it effective. I reserve the five minute windows to refill my glass of Fresca, go to the washroom, and to quickly check a few forum posts. It’s a good way to stay refreshed for long bouts of studying.

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Herp Derp Youtube Comments

"Herp Derp" is a good extension.

Here's a visual which I shamelessly stole from the Herp Derp website:

The extension is useful, obviously, because YouTube comments are just all-around terrible, but more importantly, it prevents spoilers, like if you want to watch all those Game of Thrones info things (example) for the TV show, without worrying about getting spoiled by jerk YouTube commenters who somehow managed make it through one whole book (or read the summary on the books series wiki).

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Writing and Studying, Writing to Study

Jay Dolmage’s (relatively) recent blog post about Learning by Writing seemed to me quite on the mark, especially with regards to some of ways in which I’ve been toying around with my own study habits.

I’m studying for my reading exams right now, and I’ve been finding it more and more helpful, for study purposes, to just write finished products of some sort. By “finished product” I basically mean “mini essay,” or really, “just about anything that is coherent and organized around something.” It doesn’t matter if a given finished product won’t ever see the light of day, but the act of writing—i.e., having to formulate your thoughts coherently and logically, putting those thoughts to paper or screen, and then reading back those thoughts to yourself—is obviously going to force your mind to organize and re-organize itself.

I recently came upon the term “Commonplace book” (Wikipedia link) and I think that’s probably about the best term to describe the method I’ve been using (or trying to use). Instead of using physical books like a Moleskin or something, I’ve been using an app called Scrivener. Scrivener is a word processor app that is excellent for organizing your writing if you intend to keep it in a traditional format (linear, mostly text-based one, etc.).

The app is designed for fiction writing, but it’s useful for any type of lengthy writing in which order and structure matter, but you’re not necessarily writing it start to finish or beginning to end. Sometimes it’s useful or easier to start in the middle. Scrivener lets you visualize your text as a whole, and move around sections of it in any way you see fit. You can have sections and subsections, and you can view the sections as nested folders or as index cards. This makes it easy to rearrange things after you’ve put your thoughts to the screen and you begin to start identifying possible structures or patterns.

That said, if you want fancy highlighting and formatting, bullet points or lots of visual play, it’s… not so good. In other words, it’s not very good for rough notes if you’re a visually inclined person who uses lots of colours and diagrams.

But this is actually a good thing. Well, for my purposes, at least. It forces me to take my rough notes in Microsoft Word, where I can play around with all sorts of fancy formatting. I can highlight things, add text boxes here and there, add arrows or shapes, and place things in weird visual relations to each other to help me understand difficult concepts. If I really need the extra freedom, I’ll sketch something on a piece of paper, take a photo of that, and then just stick the image into the Word document – a bit messy, granted, but it works. They’re just rough notes, after all.

Scrivener, then, becomes something of a “stage two” thing. (I originally started this paragraph by writing, “Scrivener, then, is for completed thoughts only,” but that’s not quite accurate.) I only use Scrivener after I’ve taken my initial notes. Admittedly, I didn’t always do this at first, so now I have a few notes that are a bit of a mess. My notes for Jameson’s The Political Unconscious are all over the place right now. The trick, for my use of Scrivener, is to argue something, or explain something in my own words and my own metaphors, even if it’s all pretty basic. And that means the trick is to just start writing.

An example of something I wrote this morning links Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of the co-existence of discourses in the novel form with Roman Jakobson’s discussion of the co-existence of styles from different time periods (modern vs. archaic, etc.) in a synchronic verbal system. I’m probably never going to show this to anyone or anything like that, because it isn’t really all that insightful – I’m just pointing out pretty obvious links between some stuff I happened to read. Maybe I’ll come back to what I’ve written in a few months or years. I don’t know. I am hoping that in a few months I’ll have a pretty decent body of arguments that I can use for something. But what I’m really doing, as I’m writing these random things, is formulating and organizing various possible arguments that I will be able to at least partially reproduce later for my discourse and text analysis field exam.

Another advantage to this is I’ve found that I can actually speed up my overall exam reading speed if I take less rough notes in Microsoft Word, take a few more notes in the margins my books (admittedly this is harder to do if it’s a library book), and then immediately after I finish a reading I construct a few coherent paragraphs about what I just read and how it relates to various other things I’ve just read. In other words I write a mini-essay or two. Sometimes the mini-essay stands on its own, other times I try to slot it in somewhere, in relation to something else I’ve written.

This method forces me to be a bit more mentally disciplined while I’m reading. If I just take notes, it can be easy to jot things down without really understanding what I’ve written. It’s pretty easy, mentally, to identify an important concept in a text, identify where that concept is defined, and then basically write out the text’s own definition of the concept in my notes without fully understanding it. It’s pretty much impossible to use a concept I don’t fully understand in a mini-essay of some sort, or to explain the concept from a weird angle using my own metaphor if I don’t yet understand it.

I’m still debating how I’m going to use some of these in the future, since I am hoping that at some point they’ll be of use. Some of the things I write are just pure explanation and explication, but sometimes I’ll think, “Oh! This concept relates to this other thing that I actually want to write more about!” and so the written produce I then produce is actually (to my mind) worth keeping and integrating and eventually showing someone. But right now these snippets remain fairly unorganized.

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