In September of 2008, the developers of open-source media player VLC took it a step further. In VLC 0.9 (codename Grishenko), the player introduced “audio playback when going slower/faster (with pitch correction via new scaletempo audio filter).” That pitch correction is a key turning point, in that it made controlling playback speed not just limited to the spoken word audio, but to sound synced to video as well. Even sped-up music would simply be faster—not also at a higher pitch. Goodbye, chipmunks.
Since then, VLC’s playback speed slider has changed the way that I watch TV and movies. (Other players have incorporated variable speed as well. YouTube includes one in its player settings menu, which made my rental of The Interview tolerable.) For things that I want to fully consider and absorb—prestige dramas, densely packed comedies—1x speed is fine. But for shows or films that I have to watch for more mercenary reasons—I was, for instance, assigned to watch all 84 episodes of the dumpster trash pile that is Californication—cranking it up to 1.5x or double speed has saved both my time and probably my sanity as well. On a recent Saturday, I ran through a 12-hour season of Homeland in eight hours. Somehow, I’ve made even my leisure activities ruthlessly efficient.
There are, at least in my mind, other perceived benefits to speeding up. In addition to saving time, it also forces me to focus. Rather than having podcasts on in the background, my attentiveness waxing and waning, speeding up playback requires me to pay attention constantly, or else I’ll lose the thread. Roundtable chat podcasts at normal speed are now almost unbearably slow to me, and the only shows I listen to at normal speed now are ones that heavily incorporate music.
But a simple speed-up wasn’t enough for some people. Last July, the Instapaper developer Marco Arment introduced his new podcast app, Overcast, with a marquee feature which he called Smart Speed. “Smart Speed shortens silences,” he wrote. “Playing at faster speeds has always helped people make time to hear more podcasts, but it usually came at the expense of sound quality and intelligibility.” Instead of simply playing a file faster, Arment’s algorithm takes out dead air, shaving off half-seconds and slightly-too-long awkward silences.
It generally works, although it’s almost impossible to hear the function in action (for intro/outro musical themes such as Serial’s, however, the adjustment is more apparent). According to the app’s settings menu, over the last six months or so, “Smart Speed has saved [me] an extra 10 hours beyond speed adjustments alone.” For a block constructed from thousands of tiny sections of dead air, that seems substantial.
Am I losing something by speeding up what I watch and listen to? Discussing podcast playback speed a couple of weeks ago, The Verge argued that by cranking a podcast up to 1.5x, “At best, it forces our brains to work in overdrive; worst, it destroys the art of timing.” That first point is unfounded, and that second point is a matter of opinion.