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How to convert audio and video files for free

Scenario: You’ve obtained an audio or video file that’s either in a format unsupported by the device you intend to play it on—an iOS device, traditional iPod, or your Mac, for example—or in a form that you’d prefer to not use (large AIFF or WAV audio files, for example). There are scads of utilities you can use to convert media files (and some of them aren’t marketed by spammers), but what might you use when you want something converted quickly, without a lot of fuss and bother, and that costs nary a nickel? Try these on for size:

Audio and video

OS X Lion An operating system? Yes. Among Lion’s new features is an Automator trick that allows you to easily convert compatible media files right from the Desktop. Control- or right-click on an AIFF, WAV, CAF audio file or .mov, MPEG-4, and H.264 video files and choose “Encode Selected [Video/Audio] Files” from the Services menu at the bottom of the contentual menu pop-up. A small window appears where you can choose your encoder settings.

Convert media with Lion's built-in tools.

For audio files you have these options: High Quality (128kbps, 44.1kHz, AAC), iTunes Plus (256kbps, 44.1kHz, AAC), Apple Lossless, Spoken Podcast (ABR, 22.05kHz, AAC). Regrettably there’s no option for converting files to MP3. For video files your choices are 480p (640 by 480 H.264), 720p (1280 by 720 H.264), 1080p 1920 by 1080 H.264), Audio Only, and Apple ProRes (resolution the same as source file). Note that the encoder won’t upscale movies so if your movie is already encoded in 480p resolution the higher resolution settings do you no good.

Select the option you want, click the Continue button at the bottom of the window, and your file is converted. By default it’s saved to the same location as the source file, but you can change that by unchecking the Same as Source File option and choosing a new location via the window’s pop-up menu.

Automator If the previous option sounds good to you but you can’t use it because you haven’t upgraded to Lion, there’s still hope. Snow Leopard’s Automator includes this same capability. You simply have to create a workflow for it. Like so:

For audio conversion, create an Application workflow and string together these two actions (found under the Music heading)—Encode To iTunes Audio and Import Files Into iTunes. From the Setting pop-up menu in the Encode To iTunes Audio action, choose the encoder you want to use—High-quality, iTunes Plus, Apple Lossless, or Spoken Podcast. From the Destination pop-up menu choose a place for those converted files to be temporarily stored—a Converted folder you’ve added to your desktop, for example.

In the Import Files Into iTunes action, choose New Playlist and enter Automator Converted. Save your workflow as an application and place that application on the Desktop. When you next want to convert an audio file (no Ogg, FLAC, or Windows Media files allowed) just drop it on top of this workflow. Your file will be converted and added to the iTunes playlist you created.

Converting video files is a similar operation. Point your browser to macosxautomation.com and visit the Services downloads page. Download the Movie Services and install them once downloaded.

A simple Automator application can convert media

Launch Automator, again choose an Application workflow, and create a workflow that contains these two actions—Encode Media (found under Movies) and Import Files Into iTunes (found under the Music heading). In the Encode Media action, choose the encoder you’d like to use from the Encoder pop-up menu (Apple TV, iPod/iPhone, Computer, or Mobile) and a destination. Name and save the workflow and place it on the Desktop. When you need a quick video conversion, drop a video file on to the application you created. It will be converted and added to iTunes.

Of course you don’t have to add the files to iTunes. You can skip the second action altogether in each of these workflows and simply save the converted files to a folder of your choosing.

iTunes You’ve probably noticed that iTunes does a lot of things. Among those lot of things is media file conversion. Drag a compatible file into iTunes—AIFF, WAV, MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, or .mov, but not Ogg, FLAC, or .avi—and you can convert it to a format compatible with the iPod, iOS devices, and the Apple TV. To do that, select the media you want and make your selection from iTunes’ Advanced menu—Create iPod Or iPhone Version, Create iPad or Apple TV Version, or Create audioformat Version. To select exactly which audio format appears in this last command, open iTunes preferences and in the General tab and click Import Settings. In the window that appears, choose the encoder you want to use from the Import Using pop-up menu. In the Setting pop-up menu below you can fine-tune the encoder by changing its bit rate.

Audio

AppleScript While you can convert files within iTunes, with a well-placed AppleScript within iTunes, you can do more. Doug Adam’s AppleScripts for iTunes is the place to go for such helpful scripts. His Convert And Export script, for example, allows you to select multiple audio files in your iTunes library and then easily convert them to an iTunes-friendly format (AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, MP3, or WAV) and then save the converted file to another location on your hard drive.

Others Frequent contributor Kirk McElhearn has recently visited audio conversion tools in his How to Convert Audio to Other Formats. In it he provides links to other tools including XLD for converting FLAC and Ogg Vorbis files. Vox is another tool for audio conversion worth your consideration.

Video

HandBrake We’ve written quite a bit about the free HandBrake, but almost always in regard to its DVD-ripping capabilities. Today’s HandBrake is also a great video converter. To convert your video launch HandBrake and in the navigation window that appears, select the video file you want to convert. Then expose the sidebar and choose the device you’d like to convert the video for—iPad or Apple TV, for example. Click Start and your video is converted.

HandBrake can convert as well as rip media

HandBrake has a couple of advantages over the Lion Automator and iTunes methods. The first is that it can convert video files not natively supported by the Mac OS. You can, for example, convert .avi and .mkv files. It also allows you to batch process files. Just select a file you wan to convert and click the Add To Queue button at the top of the HandBrake window. Then add any other files you want to convert, using this same Add To Queue button. When you’re ready, just click Start. HandBrake will set about converting all the files in the queue.

Video Monkey Chris Marrin’s free Video Monkey ( ) is another Macworld favorite for converting movie files. Just drag the movies you want to convert into its window, choose a device to convert it for from the Convert To pop-up menu, select a desired quality using the Quality slider, enable the Add To iTunes option if you’d like that to happen when the conversion completes, and click Start.

Don’t be taken in

As I hinted earlier, the Internet is choked with media conversion applications. You’ll routinely find these things linked to in questionable forum posts and even less-believable shareware and “reviews” sites. Don’t be taken in. If such a utility features a very generic “box” and garish interface—and you’re asked to pay between $30 and $50 for it—you’re generally looking at one of the dozens of spam-promoted products that slap a poor interface on Unix and QuickTime tools that underlie the Mac OS. And why bother when, for the price of your next breath, you can have a free tool that gets the job done?

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