Ripping Analog Audio on a Macintosh

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This page exists primarily for my own benefit because every time I got around to ripping some analog audio to MP3 format, I had to reinvent the process. Now I can remember what the process is. I figured that others that are doing the same thing might use a little help too.

The process of converting an analog audio source (cassette, LP or other source) is actually pretty simple. Doing it EFFICIENTLY is the issue. An analog stream doesn't come with MP3 ID tags nor can it be found in the CDDB servers so that getting the songs properly identified for easy use in iTunes is the main issue.

The actual end format doesn't really matter. It could be MP3, AAC, AIFF, or any other format, the process is pretty much the same. The only difference is the setting used in iTunes when the recorded files are converted after being imported.

MP3 is a compressed audio standard that is the most common. MP3 will play on just about any portable music player made. However it isn't the best quality format. I have found by experiment that 192K/sec is about the minimum acceptable rate for MP3 encoding. Anything less and artifacts are noticeable.

AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is the sound format for MPEG4 format movies. At any given data rate, AAC produces better sound quality than MP3. AAC at 128K sounds about the same as MP3 at 192K. Some folks may feel that these rates produce unacceptable results, but I can't tell the difference between a 128K AAC and the original AIFF file. AAC will not play on most PC centric music players. It will play on all iPods so if you plan to use an iPod, go ahead and use AAC. If you ever want to use a more generic player, stick with the higher rate MP3 files.

The iTunes Music Store encodes at 128K AAC. When the song is downloaded to iTunes, the FairPlay DRM is added. These songs will DEFINATLEY not play on any other player than an iPod. However, there is a legal way to move these songs to other players, see the bottom of this page for the method.

There are other formats as well, but these two are the most common.

The tools that I use (or have used) are listed below. If you don't use these tools, you may have to adapt your methods to your tools.

Some models of Macintosh come with a line-in connector which can be used to accept and digitize analog audio. My iBook didn't have a line-in jack making the iMic necessary. Others that do have a line-in jack may be able to take advantage of the iMic anyway. Some computers have excessive noise on the line-in. My 15" Aluminum PowerBook tended to create audio artifacts on the line-in jack resulting in occasional pops and buzzes so I used the iMic with it as well.

Overall Process

The process works something like this:

  1. Configure your system
  2. Set your audio levels
  3. Capture an audio stream in Sound Studio, usually one whole cassette or LP
  4. Establish individual songs by setting markers in Sound Studio
  5. Export the songs as individual files from Sound Studio in AIFF format
  6. Trash the marked cuts that are pops, clicks and dead air
  7. Import the individual files to iTunes as uncompressed AIFF files
  8. Manually provide the data necessary to establish usable MP3 ID tags for each song
  9. Convert the whole set of songs to MP3 or AAC format
  10. Delete the original AIFF files

Configure Your System

To get a good digital recording of an audio stream, you need a good audio stream to start with. Find a player with a headphone output that sounds good in the headphones when you are playing the cassette or LP. If it doesn't sound good that way, it won't be any better when digitized. A few pops and scratches can be "fixed" in Sound Studio, but it takes time to find them and individually fix them. Warble from a tired cassette player can't be fixed. Find a better player. I went through every player in my house (there were many) before I found an old Sony boom box that actually worked right.

If you use an iMic, connect it to a USB port directly on the computer. Don't use a port on a hub. The iMic doesn't need any drivers. Use the Sound Preferences Pane to use the iMic as the audio input. If you want, you can also use it as an audio output. The iMic has a sensitivity switch on it. Use the position that results in the lowest audio level (switch pushed to the "mic" side).

Use the male to male audio cable to connect the headphone output of your audio source to whatever line-in jack that you have selected in the Sound preferences.

Setup the Audio Levels

Launch Sound Studio and check to see that your desired audio source is selected in the Audio Input/Output setup dialog. Then play a tape or LP. If you don't hear anything, click the Soft Play-thru box in the "Input Levels" window. Your best recording levels are when the audio stream gets into the yellow zone occasionally, but NEVER into the red zone. At the right end of each VU indicator bar is a box that might say "clip" or have a number in it. This is the highest level that was detected since the last time the indicator was reset. Click on the indicator to reset it. If your cassette was recorded with Dolby noise suppression, set your player for Dolby. If you player does not have a Dolby setting, turn down the treble control to suit your taste.

It is a good idea to wind all the way through a cassette and rewind back to the beginning before starting a session. Especially if the cassette has been sitting around for awhile it may not spool smoothly. Winding it completely through once will make it play much more freely will less chance of flutter.

Once you have set a good level rewind your source to the beginning and press the Record button in the control window of Sound Studio. Then start your audio source. Not much will appear to happen, but the "cue" timer will be running. Your sound is being digitized. Don't worry if you have pops or clicks or a lot of dead air at the beginning or end of a recording, these are easily chopped off after the fact. When the cassette or LP reaches the end of side one, flip it over and do side two without stopping Sound Studio. The pops and thumps are easy to remove and they provide a very good marker as to where side one ended. Some albums are edited in such a way as it is hard to find the transitions between songs. With the activity between side one and side two recorded at least it is easy to find the end of the first side.

When you are done with a stream, press "Stop" and the entire stream will be filled out in the controls window. If you are lucky, you will be able to see short blank spots where the song boundaries are.

Divide the Stream Into songs

To establish individual songs, drag the red highlight box to the beginning of the first song. Click on the stream near the split between the left and right streams about 1 second before the start of the audio stream. A blinking line should appear across both streams. If it covers only one, click again on the center line. Press "M" and a marker will be set. Click on the text "Marker 1" and type the name of the song in the text box. Then move the red highlight box to the beginning of the next song and set and name another marker. Do this until you get to the end of the first side. A few seconds after the last of the stream on side one, click and press "M" to place another marker but don't name it. Then move on to the first part of the stream on side two and name the songs to the end. At the end of the stream, place another unnamed marker.

If you need to edit the stream to remove artifacts, refer to the Sound Studio FAQ page that comes with the program for detailed instructions. Other programs may or may not have similar features, many don't.

I don't let Sound Studio put song numbers in the names for two reasons. First, if you chop out a chunk in the middle, it will get numbered and all the songs on the second side will be off by one. Second, the numbered names will be used for the song names in iTunes and I would have to manually edit them out later and I would STILL have to set the actual song numbers in the MP3 ID tags to get the tags right.

Exporting the songs

Select Split By Markers from the Edit menu. A dialog box will appear asking you where you want to put the files. The default is the desktop which is fine. Uncheck the box that asks to add numeric prefixes. You will identify the song numbers later in iTunes.

Delete the files labeled (Before First Marker) and any file that is named Marker1, Marker2 or such. These are the junk that you don't want.

Once the songs are split, you don't need the original audio stream either. You can can close the window or quit Sound Studio window without saving the stream.

Import Into iTunes

Launch iTunes and make a temporary playlist. I call it "Import Buffer" and I reuse this same playlist for each import. Then select your new playlist. The main iTunes window should be blank because there is nothing in this new playlist.

Open the iTunes preferences and select the "Advanced" tab. Check the box that says "copy files to iTunes Music folder..." This will cause iTunes to make its own copy of the AIFF files that Sound Studio wrote so that later you can clean off your desktop without disturbing anything.

AIFF is an uncompressed format that is used on regular music CD's. The files are huge. You will keep them long enough to convert them to MP3 files and then delete them. If you want to make a real CD of the stream, you can burn the playlist after the next step and then delete them.

Open a Finder window and navigate to your home directory and select the Desktop. You songs should be there. Select them all and drag them all into your "import buffer" playlist where they will be copied to wherever you keep your music.

Create MP3 ID Tags

In order to get the song order correct and to make the songs usable on an iPod, you need to fill in the MP3 tag information. Click and select any of the songs in the playlist, then Select All from the iTunes Edit menu (or use the command-A keyboard shortcut). Then select Get Info from the File menu (command-i) to open the information window for all of the songs. Select the Info tab and type in the information that is common for every song. This would be the album name, disk numbers and the number of songs, and the Genre. If the Artist and Composer are the same for every song, type that information in as well. If the album is a compilation (multiple artists) then click "part of a compilation." This will keep the songs together in the iTunes file structure on the disk. Normally they would be sorted by artist.

Once the general information is entered, click OK. Then select the first song in the list and Get Info again. Type in the Artist, Composer and song number and your rating for the first song. Then click Next and do it for the second song until the Next button turns gray. then Click OK.

Converting the songs to MP3

At this point, the MP3 tags are complete and you need to convert the whole album to MP3 format. If you haven't done so already, open the iTunes preferences and click on the Importing icon. Select the encoder that you want to use (MP3, AAC or whatever) and the quality level. I use the Higher Quality setting. Unclick the "Play Songs...", "Create file names with song number" and "error correction" boxes and press OK.

To actually convert the playlist to MP3, select all the songs (click on one and then type command-A) and then select "Convert Selection to MP3" from the iTunes Advanced menu. iTunes will then go through the processor intensive task of converting the songs to MP3. This might run from 2X speed to 40X speed depending on the capability of your computer. iTunes will sound a chime when it is done.

If you want to make a CD of this album, click on the Import Buffer playlist and then click the iTunes "Burn Disc" button and follow the instructions. If you hadn't set up burning before, first go to the iTunes Preferences and select Burning. Click on the Audio CD button and click OK.

Cleaning Up

Then go to the iTunes Library and either locate the album or sort by Kind to locate the AIFF files. Select the AIFF files and press "Delete." iTunes will ask if you really want to delete the files, click Yes. Then go back to your desktop folder and select and delete the files there too. If you don't have a lot of disk space left, you might want to empty the trash to make some room. An album full of AIFF files can run up to 700 meg.

At this point, you are ready to rip the next album by following the same process.

You Want Rip CD's Instead

Ahhh...much easier. CD's already come in digital format and iTunes makes it easy to rip them for your own fair use. Fair use is moving the content to another format or making a backup or working copy. This is legal under US Copyright laws. If you try to sell the result, or even give the result that's illegal.

Insert the CD that you want to rip into your computer. Mac OS will open iTunes and show you the contents. There won't be any track names unless you are connected to the internet. Track names aren't stored in the CD format but they are available at the Gracenote CDDB (CD database). iTunes will look in the database and, provided that somebody has done this before and uploaded their work, will display all the necessary MP3 tag information. If you don't like what you see, you can always edit the information.

Type cmd-A (or Select All from the Edit menu) and then select "Convert Selection to MP3" from Advanced menu. Depending on how fast your computer is, your new MP3's will be ready in 5 to 20 minutes. If this is all you need, you are done and can move on to the next CD.

If you want to make a working copy so that you can put the original CD away in a safe place, then burn a copy. It is easiest to burn a regular music CD from the MP3 files. The quality will be the same as the MP3 files which is good enough to listen to.

You have to burn disks from playlists, so therefore you'll have to make a playlist. The easiest way to do this is to select "New Smart Playlist" from the File menu. Select Album from the first pulldown and then start typing the name into the 3rd field. Once you have typed enough of the album name for iTunes to recognize it, iTunes will fill in the rest. Click OK.

Another way to make a playlist of an album is to select all of the songs that you want in the playlist and then select "New Playlist from Selection" from the File menu in iTunes. You will get a standard playlist instead of a Smart Playlist, but it will burn just the same.

Then select the new playlist if it isn't selected already and click the Burn disk button at the upper right of the iTunes window. Insert a disk and when iTunes asks, click Burn Disk again. Depending on the speed of your CD burner, you may have a new CD in less than 5 minutes. You can then eject the new disk and start ripping a new CD. Use a Sharpie to label the new CD.

Ripping the Audio Track from a DVD

There has to be an easier way to do this for your own personal use, but I managed to do it for one particular DVD where I wanted the audio track to play on an iPod. It was pretty involved. It would be easier to just buy the soundtrack, but this movie was already formatted so that the whole thing was a CD sized album.

DVD's are copy protected but there are utilities, such as Handbrake, that will break the the DVD encrytion and copy the content into an MPEG file onto your hard disk. Once this is done, the audio can be extracted and formatted for use on an iPod. Breaking encryption is technically illegal, but breaking it for fair use is defensible.

Update 7Apr07

Of course, there is an easier way, it just didn't occur to me at the time. There is a shareware application called Audio Hijack that will insert itself in an audio stream from any application to the computer. It will then copy the audio out to an .aiff file which you can then divide up, rename and convert to whatever format you want. Audio Hijack does not break the DVD encryption, it copies the audio in digital form AFTER the hijacked application decodes the audio. Just launch Audio Hijack and select the application that you want to hijack from the list, or add an application that isn't there, and then press Hijack. Audio Hijack opens the application. Press Record and Audio Hijack will start making an AIFF file as soon as some audio happens. When the audio quits, Audio Hijack stops recording. Press Record again to formally stop the hijack operation and close the AIFF file which will usually be on your desktop. Then deal with the AIFF file as you wish. Audio Hijack will record the audio from the DVD Player application so that you can rip the sound track from a DVD without difficulty.

Using iTunes Store Music

The iTunes Store is set up to provide music in a pretty painless format. You buy it, it downloads to iTunes automatically, then it ends up on your iPod the next time that you sync. It doesn't get much easier. However, there are some things that ought to be done with music purchased from the iTunes Store.

Music from the iTunes Store is protected with Apple's Fairplay DRM (digital rights management). Fairplay is allows you to do a lot with your music, but not everything. You can play it on 5 different computers, download it to an unlimited number of iPods or burn it to CD 7 times. To get more CD burns you have to rearrange the playlist that that music is in, then you get 7 more burns.

The songs are downloaded from the iTunes Store without DRM. The DRM is added by iTunes itself. If you should lose your disk due to any kind of failure, all you music will evaporate unless you've backed it up. Apple will not replace it. If you buy a CD and damage it, the store that you bought the CD from won't replace it either.

To protect yourself, you should back up your music. Just after you buy some music, you should make a copy on another disk, either on another computer, a backup hard disk or on a CD. Simply select the "Purchased" playlist from the iTunes source list, select the new songs, and drag them somewhere. They will be copied to the new location. There is a little hang up if two songs have exactly the same name. Only one of them will get copied. In that case, just change the name of a duplicate song name slightly before you copy it out.

You should also burn TWO audio CDs of new songs, one to put in your car and one to put away in a safe place. An audio CD has no DRM so that this CD can be reimported as MP3 into another application and put on a different kind of music player as all of them will play MP3 files. There will be a slight loss of quality, but unless you are a genuine audiophile, you won't be able to hear the difference.

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© 2003-2007 George Schreyer
Created 18 Oct 2003
Last Updated April 15, 2007