Denki News

July 23, 2006

iTunes Music Store Special Report, Part 4: Removing DRM from iTMS Songs

Filed under: iPod & iTunes — icruise @ 4:06 am

Since the introduction of the iTMS, a number of programs (such as Hymn) have appeared that allowed users to remove the FairPlay DRM from purchased songs, producing AAC or MP3 files that have no restrictions with regard to their use. However, aside from the fact that using these programs is a violation of the iTMS user agreement, there is no program that I know of that is capable of removing DRM from tracks downloaded with the latest version of iTunes (version 6.0 and later). Luckily, you can burn every track downloaded from the iTMS to CD, and this makes it possible (if time consuming) to convert the music that you have downloaded to a different format, free of DRM restrictions. (More after the jump.)

This method basically just involves burning a CD of iTMS songs and then reimporting it into iTunes (or another encoding program). The resulting files can be any format that the iTunes encoder supports and will be unburdened with DRM. Converting iTMS songs to CD and then to another format does entail a minor loss in quality, but I don’t think it’s noticeable. If you were happy with the quality of the iTMS tracks to begin with, you’ll probably be happy with the tracks that you convert in this way as well. However, there are a few things that you’ll want to keep in mind when doing this, and I also have some advice about how to streamline the process. (Note that there is currently no way that I know of to remove DRM from iTMS video files.)

One problem that you will encounter is that track information may not show up properly for CDs that you have burned yourself. As long as you don’t eject the CD you have burned, it should show up with the tags from the iTMS song files, but if you eject and reinsert it, iTunes may try to download them from the CDDB. This is OK if you burned an entire album in the same order as the retail CD, but if you burned a bunch of singles or added some additional songs to the end of an album, iTunes won’t be able to find the CD on the online database and everything will show up as untitled tracks. This is obviously a bad thing, because entering all of this information by hand is terribly time consuming. There are two ways of getting around this problem. One is to just make sure that you only burn one album per CD, keeping the tracks in the default order for that CD. However, this can be impossible if you have a lot of songs that were not purchased as part of an album, and in any case it is not a very efficient use of CD-R space. The other way is to simply put as many songs per CD as will fit and just be careful not to eject the CD before you re-import the songs.

You might also want to think about what media to use. Since CD-Rs are so cheap these days, it probably wouldn’t put a strain on your budget just to burn your songs to CD-R, even if you just threw them away after ripping them. But you can also use a single CD-RW over and over again. Just burn your iTMS songs to the CD-RW, import them into iTunes, erase the disc using Disk Utility (assuming you’re on a Mac), and burn it again. This is less wasteful than using CD-Rs (at least if you’re burning them for the sole purpose of converting iTMS songs) but CD-RWs burn at slower speeds than CD-Rs, so the process will take more time. In the Mac OS 9 days, I remember being able to use a Toast disk image to fool iTunes into thinking that it was burning a CD when in fact it was just writing to the disk image. This would be the best solution, as it would be very fast and wouldn’t use any physical media, but as far as I can tell this is no longer possible.

You’re also going to need to think about what settings to use for the iTunes encoder before you reimport your burned CDs. By default, iTunes uses the AAC encoder. This isn’t a bad choice, but you might also want to think about using MP3, since it is compatible with more devices. Overall, it just depends on what you plan to do with the files. If you choose AAC, you can keep the bitrate down to 128, which is the bitrate of the original iTMS files. If you choose MP3, you’ll want to go higher — at least 160 and perhaps even 192, just to be safe.

Now you’re almost ready to reimport the CD. If you take the CD you burned and import it right back into your iTunes library you will probably be asked if you want the new files to replace the ones already in your library. If that’s what you want, you can go ahead and do that, but I would recommend keeping the iTMS files rather than replacing them. In fact, before importing a CD that you have burned, I would go into the iTunes preferences and select a new temporary folder for your iTunes Music folder. (Go to “Advanced” and then “General” and click “Change” by the iTunes Music folder. Click “Stop” when the “Updating iTunes Music Library” message appears.) If you don’t do this and you don’t have iTunes replace your iTMS files, the files that you convert will go in the same folder as the iTMS songs, which makes things a little confusing. Just remember to reselect your old iTunes Music folder when you are done importing the burned CDs.

In any case, you’ll probably want to remove either the iTMS songs or the converted songs from your iTunes library, so you don’t have duplicates. To do that, you’ll need to be able to tell the two versions apart. iTMS songs will be listed as “Protected AAC audio files” under the “Kind” column in the iTunes window. (You might have to enable the “Kind” column by right clicking on the column headers and selecting “Kind”.) The items that you have converted will probably be either “MPEG audio files” or “AAC audio files” (depending on whether you have the iTunes encoder set to MP3 or AAC). Just order the album by “Kind” and select the ones you want to remove from your library. Then delete them. Obviously, you don’t want to move the files to the trash, if iTunes asks you.

That’s pretty much it. It sounds more complicated than it is, really. Once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll see that it’s actually fairly painless. Still, if you feel compelled to do this for everything you buy on the iTMS, you’ll be giving up a lot of the convenience that buying music online is supposed to provide. In my case, I decided to convert a fair amount of the music I bought because I wanted to try it on my V@mp C@ndi MP3 player, and because I sometimes like to listen to MP3 CDs on my car stereo when I don’t have my iPod with me. Converting everything would be a major pain, but at least I know that it’s possible should the need arise. The ability to convert DRMed music like this helps me feel like I’m not totally “locked in” to the iTMS, since I can get my music into another format should I really want to.

Any questions? In the final (?) installment of this series, I’ll look at eMusic, an iTMS competitor that uses no DRM.

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