Ripping and playing audiobooks (2008)

Audiobooks have become increasingly popular as digital music players such as the iPod have become commonplace. While it’s great to listen to music while commuting or exercising, you can use some of that time to listen to your favorite author or the latest non-fiction best-seller. You can download digital audiobooks from the iTunes Store or Audible, but you can also buy audiobooks on CD and add them to your iTunes library. Here’s how to best deal with those CDs.

Ripping audiobook CDs

If you buy your own CDs, ripping audiobooks is a snap. You won’t want to use the same import settings as you do for music, because spoken word doesn’t need the same quality. So, before you rip the first CD, go to iTunes: Preferences, click on the General icon, then click on Import Settings. If you’re only planning to listen to the audiobook on an iPod or in iTunes, choose AAC Encoder from the Import Using menu. (If you want to use the files with other players or software, choose MP3 for better compatibility.) From the Setting menu, choose Custom; you’ll see settings for Stereo Bit Rate, Sample Rate, and Channels. For bit rate, choose 64 kbps; as I mentioned, voice needs only a small amount of data to sound good. Leave the sample rate at Auto, and, from the Channels menu, choose either Stereo or Mono. For most books, Mono is fine; I only use Stereo for “full-cast productions”, such as plays, where several performers are spread across the soundscape. To get the most out of your encoding, select the Optimize For Voice checkbox. Then click on OK, then on OK again twice to save your changes. (Make sure to note the settings before you change them, so you can change them back to what they were for music when you’re finished ripping your audiobook.)

Most audiobooks range from about five to a dozen discs, and each disc is generally split up into many files. There are two ways you can import your audiobooks depending on whether you want one file per disc, or a lot of files. The former makes it a bit easier to keep track of the files but the latter can make it easier to spot chapter and section breaks. If you want to join all the files on a disc, select all its files, then choose Advanced: Join CD Tracks.

Whether or not you join tracks, the next step is to do some simple tagging of your files. Select all the tracks on the CD, then press Command-I; this brings up the Info window for multiple items. The easiest way to tag audiobooks is to put the author’s name in the Artist tag and the book’s title in the Album tag. Set the genre to Audiobook, and, if the disc number is not entered, do so; otherwise your files will be out of order after you’ve ripped all your discs. One important thing to do: click on the Options tab, then, from the Remember Position menu, choose Yes. Click OK to save this information—this will let your iPod or iTunes keep your place when listening to a long file.

Next, click on the Import CD button at the bottom right of the iTunes window. Do so for each disc and, when you’re done, look for the “album” in your library; it will contain all the files you have just imported, in the proper order. (Some audiobooks are sold on single “MP3 CDs”. If you have a disc like that, create a new playlist and drag all the files from the disc in the Finder into that playlist. You can then tag the files.)

Listening to your Audiobooks

There are two easy ways you can play back your audiobooks: if you’ve joined their tracks, you might as well put them into your Audiobooks library. Select all the tracks, press Command-I, then click on the Options tab. From the Media Kind drop-down menu, choose Audiobook, then click on OK. You’ll find the files in the Audiobooks library in iTunes, and, on your iPod, under the Audiobooks menu.

But there’s also a way you can use a smart playlist to listen to an audiobook; this is the best way to listen if you have lots of files and haven’t joined the tracks of each disc, but it works fine with joined tracks too. Instead of choosing the book from the audiobooks library, you’ll find it in the Playlists section of iTunes and the iPod.

itunes_audiobooks
With smart playlists, you can organize your audiobooks and control their playback.
Create a smart playlist, and enter the author’s name in the field after Artist Contains. Then Click on the plus (+) icon to the right of the Artist field, choose Album from the first popup menu of the new line that displays, and enter the name of the book in this field. Click on the + icon again, and choose Play Count Is 0. Make sure Live Updating is checked, then click on OK. (After you listen to a file, its play count will increase to 1, and it’ll be removed from the smart playlist the next time you sync. This will continue until you get to the end of the book.) You will probably want to name the playlist with the name of the book.

Since you’ll have tagged all the files with the author’s name and the book’s title, and you’ll have numbered the discs, the files will all show up in this smart playlist in order. To listen to this book, sync your iPod, then choose the book’s playlist. Each time you start listening, you’ll begin with the next file to be played in order, but that you haven’t yet listened to. In addition, since you’ve set the files to remember their playback position, any time you stop listening, the iPod will remember where you left off, even if it’s in the middle of a file. You can still see where you are in the book by the numbers or names of the files, something you can’t see as well when you have single files for each disc. In many cases, when you rip the CD, iTunes will find names for the files, and in some cases chapter names or titles, and you’ll be able to see this information if you look at your iPod as you listen.

With these techniques you can make listening to audiobooks on your iPod as easy as listening to music. You no longer have an excuse for missing the latest best-seller, and your commutes will be more interesting.

Senior Contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs at his blog, Kirkville.

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