Two-way Street: Moving Music Off the iPod

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2005. In December 2006, Christopher Breen wrote an updated version of this feature that includes new information on iTunes 7 and looks at the latest versions of file-swapping utilities.

When you’re in the business of writing about the iPod for fun and profit, the question most often thrown your way is: “How do I get my music off the iPod and onto my computer?”

The difficulty in answering such a question is that it may be born of less-than-honorable intent. The person asking the question may wish to learn the secret of copying music from the iPod in order to pirate music. While there may be a few bad apples in this regard, more often than not I find people ask the question in order to recover music after their computer’s hard drive has crashed. It’s no fun losing thousands of songs at a single bad stroke (and even less fun if a goodly portion of those songs were purchased from the iTunes Music Store).

Given that I’m asked the question with such regularity, I’ve decided to point the way in the hope that it will help the virtuous among us. Those bad apples intent on stealing music will find a way to do it with or without my help.

Ghostly Protection

For those who aren’t hip to the current state of affairs, I should explain that in order to deter music piracy, iTunes and the iPod were designed so that music would travel in one direction only—from the computer to the iPod. When you double-click on an iPod mounted on a computer, you’ll find no folder within that holds the device’s music. Yet the music has to be there somewhere.

It is. It’s invisible.

Invisible?

Yes. When Apple designed the iPod’s copy-protection scheme it did so understanding one of the fundamental laws of this new millennium: That which can be locked will be unlocked (by a 12-year-old boy).

Rather than dump millions of dollars into a complicated copy-protection scheme—which would almost immediately be broken by one of these wily 12-year-olds—the company did the wise thing and protected the iPod in such a way that honest folks wouldn’t be tempted to pilfer music off another’s iPod. The company’s engineers did so by doing nothing more than making the iPod’s music folder invisible. Therefore, the trick to getting the music off the iPod is accessing this invisible folder.

Brute Force Techniques

Though fairly graceless, one of the easiest ways to recover your music from an iPod is to make the iPod’s music folder visible and then drag it over to your computer’s desktop. Once there, simply add that folder (and the music within) to iTunes by dragging the folder into iTunes’ main window or using the program’s Add to Library command (found in the File menu). Here’s how to do this on either a Mac or a Windows PC.

Macintosh

The Mac doesn’t include a utility for making invisible files visible so you must download one. My favorite tool for this job is Marcel Bresink’s free TinkerTool. Once you’ve downloaded TinkerTool, follow these steps:

1. Plug in the iPod.

2. If iTunes doesn’t launch automatically, launch it.

If the music library on your iPod is not linked to iTunes’ music library (as would be the case when you’re restoring your music library from your iPod to a fresh copy of iTunes installed on a reformatted drive), iTunes will ask if you’d like to replace the contents of the iPod with the contents of the iTunes library.

Answer No.

3. Select the iPod in iTunes’ Source list and click the icon of the iPod that appears at the bottom of the iTunes window.

4. Enable the Manually Manage Songs and Playlists option as well as the Enable Disk Use option (these options are found in the Music and General tabs of iTunes 4.7.x respectively). Click OK to dismiss the iPod Preferences window.

5. Launch TinkerTool and click the Finder tab.

6. Enable the Show Hidden and System Files option.

7. Click Relaunch Finder

8. Move to the Finder and double-click on the iPod’s icon on the Desktop.

You’ll discover that several more items now appear in the iPod window. Among them is a folder called iPod_Control.

9. Double-click the iPod_Control folder.

Inside the iPod_Control folder you’ll find the Device, iTunes, and Music folders along with the iPodPrefs file.

10. Drag the Music folder to your Mac’s Desktop to copy it to your computer.

As the name implies, this is where music is stored on the iPod.

In earlier versions of iTunes you could simply drag this Music folder to iTunes’ main window and the music within it would be copied to iTunes’ music library. This is no longer the case. You must now flip the visibility bit of this folder (and the folders within it) to copy the files to the library.

11. Use SkyTag Software’s $40 File Buddy 8 or Rainer Brockerhoff’s $10 XRay to toggle the visibility bit on the Music folder and the F folders within it.

12. Once the folders are truly visible, drag the Music folder into iTunes’ main library to add the tracks to iTunes.

The songs you copied from the iPod will be added to iTunes. If you’re a tidy type, before copying those files to iTunes, open iTunes’ preferences, click the Advanced tab, and make sure the Keep iTunes Music Folder Organized and Copy File to iTunes Music Folder When Adding to Library options are enabled. Enabling these options will organize your iTunes library in the way iTunes prefers.

Windows

At the risk of making my Windows readers feel like second-class citizens, please follow the first four steps outlined in the instructions for Mac users. Once you’ve done that:

1. Double-click on the My Computer icon on the Desktop.

2. Locate your iPod in the window that appears and select it.

3. Choose Folder Options from the Tools menu in the My Computer window.

4. Click the View tab in the Folder Options window that appears.

5. Look for the Hidden Files and Folders entry. Below this entry enable the Show Hidden Files and Folders option and click Apply to reveal the hidden files.

6. Dismiss the Folder Options windows by clicking the OK button.

7. Double-click the iPod’s icon in the My Computer window.

8. Sorry about the return to second-class citizen status, but please follow steps 8 through 10 in the Macintosh instructions above.

9. Once the Music folder is on the Desktop, right-click on the folder, select Properties from the contextual menu, uncheck the Hidden option in the Attributes area of the General tab, and click Apply. In the Confirm Attributes Change window that appears make sure the Apply Changes to This Folder, Subfolders, and Files option is checked and click OK.

The folder and all the items in it are now visible and can be dragged into the iTunes library.

Note that although the music files bear a seemingly incomprehensible four-letter title (AHLK.m4a, for example) when viewed outside of iTunes, their titles will appear properly once you’ve brought them into iTunes.

More-Refined Methods

Scan sites such as hotfiles.com and versiontracker.com and you’ll discover that there are a host of utilities designed to pull music off your iPod and onto your computer. Some are more sophisticated than others—allowing you to copy not only the music the iPod carries, but its playlists as well. Here are a few of my favorites.

Macintosh

Senuti Whitney Young’s free Senuti offers a straightforward interface for moving music off your iPod. Like similar utilities, it allows you to select songs on the iPod and then copy them to a location of your choosing. Unlike with other utilities, you can copy not only single songs and songs grouped by artist and album, but also complete playlists from the iPod.

This solves a tricky problem that has plagued some iTunes users. Suppose that you lost your computer’s entire iTunes library. You could recover your songs from the iPod, but how would you re-create your carefully wrought playlists? Now, as long as those playlists were copied to the iPod, you can re-create those playlists by copying a playlist at a time from the iPod, creating a new playlist in iTunes, and adding the songs copied from the iPod’s playlist to the playlist you created in iTunes.

iPodRip The Little App Factory’s $15 iPodRip is another good utility. Like Senuti, it lets you recover songs, albums, and playlists from your iPod to iTunes. It also supports all song information that’s stored by iTunes, including ratings, play count, and last played. iPodRip features an iTunes-like interface for easy operation. You can find a version for Windows here.

Windows

SharePod Unlike other utilities designed to copy music from an iPod to a computer, Jeffrey Harris’ free, open-source SharePod must be installed on the iPod rather than a host computer. Like other tools, it can extract music from the iPod either as individual files or by playlist. It can also copy the iPod’s On The Go playlists. And the program lets you create Winamp playlists from the music on the iPod so you can listen to the iPod’s music without copying the music files to your PC.

The author makes it pretty clear that the program was designed with piracy in mind—along with the features I mention above, SharePod lets those on a network copy music from an iPod mounted on that network.

iPod Agent iPodSoft’s $15 iPod Agent has many talents, including transferring Outlook mail, appointments, calendars, contacts, tasks, and notes to your iPod. It also can move music from the iPod to your PC. As with the other utilities I’ve mentioned, iPod Agent can export single songs or playlists. It won’t, however, export the iPod’s On The Go playlists.

8/15/06: Article updated to address visibility issues with the Brute Force Techniques.

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