Power Tunes Playback

by Derrick Story

Author's note: Digital technology's impact on photography and video has changed the way we use these media. And thanks to MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and other compressed encoding formats, we're seeing a similar revolution in the world of music. Tools such as iTunes, QuickTime, and the iPod have become facilitators for our personal entertainment. But recently, through my work as a wedding photographer, I've noticed another evolution underway that goes beyond listening to your iPod on the bus. The DJ's bulky music cart, once brimming with hundreds of CDs and lots of hardware (that required a van to lug around), seems to be shrinking in size, possibly down to the size of a 1" thick PowerBook.

Here's a brief real life story from a recent wedding I worked, followed by a technical conversation covering a few powerful playback options you have available on your Mac OS X laptop. Included in this discussion is the procedure for updating QuickTime 6.1 to playback and encode Ogg Vorbis files, which are an open source alternative to MP3s.

PowerBook in the Chapel

As I took my position with camera in hand and waited for the groom to make his entrance, I noticed a couple of guys off in a corner pew peering into an illuminated G4 PowerBook. You don't see TiBook-toting wedding attendees every day, so I made a mental note to find out later what they were up to. As the ceremony got underway, however, I became immersed in my own problems of using existing light photography for the ring exchange, forgetting all about my high tech comrades off in the corner.

Photo of
wedding attendees with a PowerBook.
TiBook-toting wedding attendees? It's not everyday I see someone bring a PowerBook to a wedding. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued.

Fast forward to the reception. We gathered in a big Chinese restaurant for post-ceremony festivities featuring 13 courses, including delicacies such as pickled jellyfish, shark fin soup, and jumbo prawns. Music was wafting though the air, intertwined with the din of conversation and smells of deep fried seafood. As the party rolled into the evening hours, the music got louder and dance floor more crowded.

The TiBook Reappears

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At one point I looked over at the DJ table and recognized my techy friends from the church. They had the TiBook plugged into a soundboard and were using iTunes to serve up the music. As I looked closer, I saw an iPod there too. Apparently when they wanted to crossfade from one song to the next, they would use the soundboard and the iPod for the incoming track. I was going to go over and study their setup more closely, but every time I made an approach someone would toast, kiss, or pose for a spontaneous group shot.

I've been to a lot of receptions over the years, and I always notice the DJs. Often I have to work with them to coordinate the timing of the evening's events. Other than the chance to grab a few bites from the banquet table and do a little people watching, the music is my primary source of entertainment. These two "DJs for a night" were doing a heck of a good job--playing a variety of tunes, taking requests (and playing them almost instantly thanks to iTunes powerful search function), and running the show without ever breaking a sweat.

The PA system, apparently, was supplied by the restaurant. So when the event was over, my two clever friends simply closed the lid on the PowerBook, put the iPod in a pocket, and disappeared into the night, probably to go listen to someone else play the music at a club.

There's More Than One Way to Spin a Disc

Afterward I started thinking about music on the Mac in a new way. I had always thought of iTunes as more of a personal entertainment application, but not so much for professional use, like big time event disc jockeying. But my ears have been opened.

With a little research I discovered that there are a number of budget DJ programs for Mac OS X, most of which are not very highly rated. But one in particular, Tactile12000, is pretty slick. It includes a virtual two-turntable console with a mixer so you can crossfade, backspin, and even speed up and slow down the playback. And best of all, it's free for the downloading.

Photo of Tactile12000
Tactile12000 is a nifty free application that lets you load up two virtual turntables and crossfade between them. It's not fancy, but the results can be quite good.

Mac OS X provides you with a couple ways to spin your discs, so to speak. You could build your playlists in iTunes and serve them up right there in the application. If you want to build in an occasional crossfade via an iPod (or another PowerBook), just get yourself a little mixing board and you're in business. Or you could use iTunes to rip and organize your music, but build the playlist and play the tunes with a DJ application such as Tactile12000 that eliminates the need for a mixer (since it's built into the app), allowing your Mac to control everything. Simply connect to the PA system via the headphone jack and you're in business. (You'll probably need a miniplug to standard plug adapter for this. Be prepared.)

A Few Digitizing Comments

One thing that I noticed at the wedding reception was that the MP3s sounded good over the PA system. Real good. So I'm thinking that they probably weren't ripped at 128 kbps.

Personally, I encode everything at 192 kbps, and it stands to reason that you might want to also if you're thinking about going into the music for hire business.

Screen shot.
Set the encoding quality in the iTunes preferences panel. You might also want to go to the Advanced preferences and check the box, "Keep iTunes Music folder organized." This will make it easy to find your MP3s on your hard drive for creating playlists in other DJ applications.

If you have Ogg Vorbis files that you want to add to your DJ playlist, you can do so with a couple of minor adjustments. First, I recommend that you download the OggVorbis.component from the QuickTime Components Project. I've tested this component with QT 6.1.1, and it works great. Add the component to your QuickTime Library (System/Library/QuickTime), then launch the QT Player. (You might have to change the permissions for the QuickTime folder before you're allowed to drag in the component file.) Now you can play Ogg Vorbis tunes in QuickTime, which also means that if you have the Pro version, you can export to MPEG-4 audio. Both iTunes and Tactile12000 can play MPEG-4s. You're in business!

If you want to work strictly in the Ogg Vorbis format because it is an "open, patent-free, professional audio encoding and streaming technology with all the benefits of Open Source," then there are a number of players that work on Mac OS X. You can certainly rig a decent DJ setup using some of this software and a little ingenuity. If you use the QuickTime Ogg component, it also allows you to export other formats to .ogg.

Screen shot.
Not only will the Ogg Vorbis QuickTime component allow you to play .ogg files, you can rip to that format too.

The whole idea here, whether it be Ogg Vorbis, MP3, MPEG-4, or another compressed format, is the ability to build vast music libraries on a laptop instead of carting around hundreds of CDs. Once the files are in the computer, it is so much easier to search for them, build playlists, and adjust your program on the fly.

You could also spend lots of money doing this. The options I'm presenting here are either free or very low cost. If you're a serious audiophile, then this may seem like child's play to you. But if you're a music lover with a sizable collection and a laptop, you might be able to help out at the next big family party.

Speaking of the event itself, don't forget to sound check your setup before the show starts. If you're using iTunes, work with its built in equalizer to get "just the right sound" for the room. Have a helper stand in different spots and signal to you while you adjust the EQ and volume. Make sure you check the bass setting from the back of the room where it will probably be the easiest to discern.

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A handy piece of hardware for this type of work is the Griffin PowerMate multimedia controller. The PowerMate provides you with a nice big metal knob for volume control instead of using a mouse, or even worse, the trackpad.

For events on a smaller scale, such as patio parties and hotel room beer bashes, take a look at the Sony SRS-T77 Folding Travel Speakers that are available at the Apple Store for $79 US. These little guys put out 4 watts of power with a frequency response of 100-20,000Hz. Yet the whole unit weights less than 13 ounces. The sound is great, and the gun metal gray and black design goes perfectly with a TiBook. I used them at my last user group demo with 75 people in the room. The music reached the back of the room no problem. After the session, I got more questions about the speakers than the talk itself.

Don't be tempted by the less expensive SRS-T55s. They don't sound nearly as good. Stick with the SRS-T77s, bring an extra set of AA batteries, and with your OS X laptop you can power a party just about anywhere.

Final Thoughts

Until just a few days ago, I'd never realized that a 1"-thick PowerBook could replace the DJ's entire cart full of CDs and other paraphernalia. DJs can now travel light and apply the power of Mac OS X to their performances. I've only scratched the surface of this particular vinyl subject, just enough to set your mind spinning. Let's crossfade this conversation into the TalkBacks below.


Going back to the iPod for a minute... I've come to appreciate this little device even more when I travel long distances, such as the flight to and from New Jersey for this last wedding. Seems like it never runs out of juice, I always have music with me plus a couple Audible books to fall back on, and it even becomes my timekeeper with its big illuminated clock face that's easy to read in all conditions. It's 6 hours flight time coming home in a headwind from the East Coast, so my Powerbook battery tends to crap out during the home stretch. That's when I discovered that Pong can actually be a lot of fun, even with a thumbwheel. I'm pathetic though: my highest score on the last trip was a dismal 136. I'm blaming it on air turbulence.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.

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