Backing Up in an Audiobook

by Michael Alderete on 4/3/2009 · 3 comments

After posting my explanation of Nearly Perfect Audiobooks, I got feedback from a number of readers who preferred to have their audiobooks in lots of short, 1-3 minute tracks. I find many tracks to be incredibly annoying when organizing and managing my books, especially when manually creating a “Listen Now” playlist to compliment the smart playlists I describe in Managing Audiobooks on a Small Capacity iPod or iPhone. The approach I take for my own audiobooks is to condense the books into as few tracks as possible, the exact opposite of the lots of tiny tracks approach.

So why would someone prefer lots of tiny tracks? The common thread seemed to be wanting to have the ability to skip backwards in the book just a couple minutes, if they missed something, got interrupted, or otherwise needed to re-listen to what they had just heard. The easiest way to do this is the iPod’s most obvious track navigation technique, click the Back button once to skip backwards to the beginning of the current track, or click twice to go back to the previous track. While smaller tracks make that reasonable, the hour+ tracks that come out of my audiobook import process make that technique painful. Hence a preference for shorter tracks.

But! The iPod provides at least two other easy-to-use techniques for going backwards in your audiobook, and once mastered, they are at least as useful as the basic clicking, eliminating the need to click backwards through short tracks to re-listen to the last few minutes. And they work best on the long tracks I prefer. Everybody wins!

The first and easiest technique is the same on both classic scroll wheel iPods and the newer touch screen iPods and iPhones. It is ridiculously simple: instead of clicking the back button, hold down the back button (on the scroll wheel for classic iPods, on the track playback screen of a touch model). Where a single click will send you all the way back to the beginning of the track, holding it down will skip backwards in 5 and 10 second increments, gradually increasing in speed the longer you hold down the button. Release when you think you’ve backed up far enough. Voilà!

The second technique is called “scrubbing,” and it works very differently on scroll wheel iPods than it does on a touch screen model. It’s one of the few things that works better on the older style iPods than on the newer, because the scroll wheel is a better surface to work it on.

Once you’ve mastered it, it’s straightforward, but while you’re practicing, I recommend putting playback on pause, to allow you to concentrate. (That’s not part of the required sequence, you can scrub directly on a playing audiobook, too.) Here’s how it works:

  1. Click the center button once. Your progress meter will change slightly, from a “thermometer” that fills up as you progress through the track, to a bar with a diamond in the middle, showing where you are in the track.
  2. With the diamond showing, start scrolling around the scroll wheel with your thumb or finger, backwards to rewind, forwards to fast forward. You should see the diamond moving, and the time display changing. Stop scrolling when you’re where you think you want to be.

If you see (and hear!) the volume changing, you’ve not actually clicked into scrub mode. Click twice more to change to scrub mode, and then try #2 again.

The longer you scroll, the faster you progress. You can back up through hours of audio in just a few seconds. It takes a bit of practice to get it, but once you do, you’ll find this is invaluable when listening to books, and one of the best things the iPod does for audiobook listeners.

On touch screen iPods and iPhones, there is no scroll wheel. Instead, on the track playback screen, you simply touch the dot on the progress meter, and drag it backwards and forwards. This sounds easier than switching to scrub mode and using the scroll wheel, it’s more direct. But it’s also a lot less precise, and gets less precise the longer your tracks are. On the ~12 hour tracks I aim for on longer books, the shortest increment I can skip is 15 seconds, and that’s if I’m very, very careful. Jumping around by minutes is much more likely, and if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to back up an hour or two. The scroll wheel scrub is much more precise, because circling around on the wheel gives you adjustable (virtual) length depending on track length, while the touch based progress meter is a fixed two inches, no matter the length of the track.

Indeed, scrubbing on a touch model is sufficiently irritating that it was only when I had an iPhone that I ever learned about holding down the back button to skim backwards through a track. (It works a lot better for my most common case, where I just need to skip back 10-15 seconds to listen to something I missed.) So don’t feel bad if you didn’t know about either of these navigation techniques, they’re not obvious, and even the “experts” don’t know everything!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Angela July 27, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Hi There, I recently got the whole series of Harry Potter books sent to me via M4B Files. Now I don’t have a media player, other than my computer to play these files on. I would like to figure out if I can burn this type of file onto a CD? If it is possible to do that, do you happen to know how I would possibly be able to break the large file down into several small ones, as no CD could possibly fit 8-12 hours of listening time on them. Or do you know of anyone one else, or a website that might possibly be able to help me in this matter? Thanks sincerely.

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Erik November 9, 2010 at 8:52 am

“On touch screen iPods and iPhones, there is no scroll wheel. Instead, on the track playback screen, you simply touch the dot on the progress meter, and drag it backwards and forwards. This sounds easier than switching to scrub mode and using the scroll wheel, it’s more direct. But it’s also a lot less precise”

Well, there IS a scrubbing option on touch/iPhone models too! Touch the DOT and just LOWER your finger on the screen! The lower you get, the more precice scrubbing is.

Neat, isn’t it? :)

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Alderete November 9, 2010 at 2:04 pm

@Erik: Yes, the more precise scrubbing feature was added in iOS 3.x (before this post was published), and is a godsend for audiobook listeners. Before, it was almost impossible to back up just a short distance (30 seconds to a minute) if you were playing a long audiobook track. These days, it’s trivial. Though discovering the slow-speed scrubbing feature is not obvious, it has become a fairly universal convention, so once you learn it, you can use it everywhere.

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