vrijdag 19 mei 2017

Making Prosoft Hear work again with iTunes 12.6

The only reason why I stick with iTunes is that I have been suckered into it from the start when it still was a pretty good application for managing an offline collection of music files. Lately, the app has shifted towards cloud-based stuff and artificial stupidity algorithms that try to suck all the joy out of being your own virtual DJ. It is still usable for its original intent however, so I haven't tried to move to an alternative… yet.

Lately, Apple has done two more stabs at endlessly annoying me and making me regret that even my alarm clock is tightly coupled to iTunes by means of Koingo's Alarm Clock Pro. The first thing they did was break the visualizer plug-ins, in the typical Apple fashion that has since many years made me shy away from developing anything specific for OS X. This fashion is of course, doing it in total silence, without warning anyone or even mentioning it in the release notes. Starting with iTunes 12.6, the visualizer menu simply only shows the two built-in visualisers, ignoring any installed plugins. I am pretty glad I never took the effort to polish up my now obsolete Spectrograph plug-in. Maybe I unconsciously saw it coming.

The second thing they did, and what this post really is about, is that they also broke the Hear audio enhancer from Prosoft. I heavily rely on Hear to make listening with headphones more enjoyable. When properly set up, Hear can make even the cheapest headphones sound like expensive Sennheisers. Of in my case, make mid-priced Sennheisers sound like an explosion of aural bliss. It can also squeeze extra fidelity out of simple Bluetooth speakers or other sound systems. Great was my frustration when I noticed the controls had no effect anymore after iTunes had sneakily upgraded itself to 12.6.1, and it was even greater when I saw on the Hear product page that Prosoft officially does not support iTunes anymore. That's right, they admit that they product primarily geared towards enhancing your music experience, does not work with the de facto standard for music playback in Mac OS. I commend them for that, but it doesn't make the fact less annoying.

My guess is that iTunes has become yet another application in the row of ‘sandboxed’ apps like Safari, which are nailed shut to avoid exploits from malware and the like. After all, iTunes is linked to a store, and the store is linked to credit card details. Why this also has to break the ability to manipulate the audio stream, beats me. I contacted Prosoft and they are looking if the problem can be fixed, but I'm not sure if they'll be able to circumvent the sandbox restriction.

However, I noticed that applications like Nicecast still work fine with iTunes. This made me pretty confident that I can still make the audio go through Hear after all, albeit by means of a pretty clumsy roundabout. And indeed, after the necessary cursing and kludging, I made it work as follows.

Making it work

The strategy is quite simple: re-route iTunes' audio output through another non-sandboxed program that plays the stream on standard output. We can do this by means of two different free, open source projects: SoundFlower, and Audacity.

  1. First install SoundFlower, the current 2.0b2 release from mattingalls' GitHub seems to work fine, at least in El Capitan. Don't bother with trying to get the Soundflowerbed application to work, you don't need it.
  2. In your Sound system preferences, set the ‘Soundflower (2ch)’ device as output device.
  3. Open Audacity and select the ‘Soundflower (2ch)’ device as the microphone device. Select the ‘Built-in Output’ as your output device.
  4. In Audacity's preferences, Recording, enable ‘Software Playthrough’.
  5. Drag both the input and output volume sliders in the top-right corner of Audacity's main window to maximum. Now press ‘Click to Start Monitoring’, and start playing some music. You should see Audacity's VU meter start to move, and hear the sound as usual. You may need to give the Hear control panel a kick by toggling the on/off button or nudging a slider to make it hook itself to the audio output, but it should work.

Of course this has some disadvantages, like needing to keep Audacity open, and a noticeable extra delay on the audio as well. You will have no sound at all if you break any component in the whole chain. This can be pretty annoying if, like me, you use your Mac as an alarm clock (it will be trying to wake you with silence, which results in you being late for work). Moreover, when you switch back to direct playback through internal speakers, two things require attention. First, your volume will be at 100%, which can lead to unpleasant surprises if you forget to turn it down. Next, when you have switched back to internal speakers in the Sound control panel, and plug or unplug something from the headphone jack, OS X will once more switch back to Soundflower output, and you must again select internal speakers.
In other words, not only do you need a whole ritual to set up this workaround, you also need to do a little dance to tear it down. For all these reasons, I hope Prosoft manages to find a solution. I wouldn't mind if it would simply implement this workaround under the hood and have some extra delay, if only it is reliable.

This hack does have some extra advantages however, for instance Hear will also work with Safari, or any other sandboxed application's audio. And, if at any time you would want to record what's playing, all you have to do is hit the record button in Audacity.