How to Organize a Personal Media Library
The first step is to get all of your media converted to easily playable digital formats. While it seems as if that should be simple enough in the year 2007, pesky issues like copyright and DRM schemes can bog you down. While Apple's particular flavor of DRM, FairPlay, lets you play the songs on a handful of computers, once you have multiple Macs in your household, it's easy to run into issues.
Few intrepid souls dare tread into the deep archives of amassing an organized and useful personal digital media library. There are spiders among those old home videos, movies, photos from childhood, recorded TV shows.
Heck, maybe there's even something hidden and really scary, like a dusty Michael Jackson "Thriller" CD. Sure, Jackson's album, which went on to become far and away the best selling album of all time, may have helped spur the rise of the then fledgling compact disc, but today ... no one wants to stumble upon Michael, even a young Michael, unprepared.
However, what if you wanted all of your CDs, even the old ones, on your Mac? The answer is easy enough, you just rip them with iTunes. What about everything else, though -- DVDs, VHS tapes, photos, TV, and miscellaneous video clips taken with your cell phone? The answers get complicated, but it's all doable.
The first step is to get all of your media converted to easily playable digital formats. While it seems as if that should be simple enough in the year 2007, pesky issues like copyright and digital rights management (DRM) schemes can bog you down. Even now, most of the songs you buy on iTunes are protected by DRM, and while Apple's particular flavor of DRM, FairPlay, lets you play the songs on a handful of computers, once you have multiple Macs in your household, it's easy to run into issues. Translating iTunes songs into an .mp3, for example, starts with the well known but time consuming workaround of burning the song onto a CD and then importing it back into iTunes or some other jukebox application.
You can also use a program like Audio Hijack Pro to snag any audio you can play on your Mac and convert it to a DRM-free .mp3 file. Be aware, though, that even if you're copying your own DRM-protected song, this practice is generally illegal, even if most every music lover on the planet believes it should be legal when the songs are for personal or household use only. Your odds of getting caught and prosecuted are slim, but if you start selling or distributing copyrighted music, you might as well put on an eye patch and pirate hat and walk around with a big sign that says, "Recording Industry: Please Prosecute Me."
There are other esoteric workarounds, which sometimes break as Apple releases new versions of iTunes. Just having all of your songs playable via iTunes is a great start, even if they are bound by DRM.
The same advice goes for your existing digital videos. There are lots of file formats for video, and not all of them are compatible with the devices you might want to use to play them. So if you have an AVI home video clip, for example, don't bother converting it until you're sure you know how you want to play it. For now, simply having it in a digital format is enough -- you can always convert it later. Let's move on to digitizing your other traditional media.
Transforming Analog to Digital
If you've got old vinyl records you can't part with -- and there's no easy way to buy the songs you want from iTunes or another online store -- you can buy a turntable that will let you digitize the output. Check out Ion Audio's iTTUSB05 and iTTUSB10.
If you've got old home movies or VHS-based movies, there are several products that can provide a bridge from an old-school VCR to your Mac, letting you essentially record the VHS movie in a digital format. Look for MPEG-4, which is the most widely used and compatible standard and the one you'll most likely want to use.
Since MPEG-4 is actually a suite of standards for audio and video, there are a few other parts to it that might get a little confusing. The most important is H.264, which is a standard for video compression -- it's the standard that YouTube has been using to convert its most popular videos to make them look so great on the iPhone. If you've got a big job ahead of you -- a massive library of VHS tapes -- your time might be better spent holding a garage sale and then using the proceeds to buy new DVDs or movies from the iTunes store that you're more likely to watch. However, if you've got important home movies on VHS, by all means, convert them to digital.
Your best options are to buy a device that you can connect to your Mac as well as connect to a VCR. Some examples are the Plextor ConvertX PVR, Datavideo DAC-200 Media Format Converter, or the Canopus 77010150100 ADVC110 Converter. When you play the VHS movie, you can digitally record the video.
Alternately, you can go with a device that lets you digitally record VHS tapes as well TV shows, such as Miglia's TVMax+ or Elgato Systems' EyeTV 250 Plus. Both units contain built-in TV tuners, and combined with the software, have a couple of side benefits. You can use them like TiVo units or other digital video recorders (DVRs) because they let you watch, pause and record live TV. After you record a TV show, these kinds of devices also come with software that makes it easy for you convert the movies into a video iPod, Apple TV and iPhone-ready viewing format. Depending on your conversion needs, these units might be worth looking into; however, you don't get the ease of use that comes from buying a TV show directly from iTunes for US$1.99 an episode. Of course, recording TV shows, commercials and all, through a TV video receiver/recorder/video converter device is free once you've bought the product.
From DVD to Hard Disc
The next legal swamp you have to cross is converting commercial DVDs to a digital format. To do that, you need to rip or extract the DVD information, which is a lot like importing an audio CD into iTunes.
The problem is twofold: 1) It's a lot slower. It can take well over an hour to convert a DVD into a digital format, often much longer, depending on your Mac's processor and memory. 2) You're on dicey legal ground. DVDs contain both copy protections and region controls that you'll need to strip out during the copy process. Again, while most every movie-buying consumer believes that you should be able to copy your own DVDs for backup purposes -- or to allow you to play them on an iPhone or even via Apple TV -- most of the movie industry is freakishly scared of messing with the highly profitable DVD industry. Eventually, the movie industry may bow to consumer pressure and explicitly grant some sort of workable consumer-focused copy rights, but until then, the FBI statements at the beginning of each commercial DVD are there to scare you off.
Practically speaking, if you truly are copying your own movies that you purchased for household use, and you actually got sued for copyright infringement, I'd bet you'd have a well-qualified attorney and a donated legal defense fund within a couple of weeks. However, if you're giving away digital copies to your friends -- and if your buddy or your teenage kid uploads your library to a file sharing network, with or without your permission -- or if you're renting movies from Netflix and copying them before you send them back, then you've stepped beyond the bounds of making movies easier to use and into the realm of stealing. Sorry, no way around that one, really.
HandBrake is an open source, GPL-licensed DVD-to-MPEG-4 converter. As you might guess, it lets you copy a commercial DVD and save it to an MPEG-4 file. It's fairly intuitive, and what's not intuitive is covered pretty well by the documentation. It has quite a few settings, which you'll want to optimize for your desired playback method. For instance, you can set the output to match the pixel dimensions of a widescreen iPhone or standard-screen video iPod. Do you have a widescreen TV in your living room or a standard TV set? The iPhone, for example, can stretch video to fill its screen, but your best usage of HandBrake is when you're pretty certain of the desired output size -- both screen size and desired quality (file size). Both are important if you'll watch the movies most often on a portable device. Quality, of course, is more important if you'll want to view the movies on your big HD television.
When your main goal is to simply copy the DVD and get it into a digital format -- which you could then modify in the desired output format -- then MacTheRipper does the trick. It comes with excellent documentation, and the output is a VIDEO_TS folder that contains the DVD content.
This story was originally published on Sept. 14, 2007, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.