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Merging music

If you’re importing a CD into iTunes, and you want several tracks—for example, movements in a symphony or chapters of an audiobook—to be combined into a single track, you can use iTunes’s “Join CD Tracks” option, available from the Advanced menu. Unfortunately, this option works only if you enable it before ripping the CD. If you’ve already ripped the tracks, you’re out of luck; your only official option is to delete the tracks and re-rip. You’re also stuck if you’ve downloaded music as separate tracks and would have preferred that the tracks be part of a single track. (I’m not talking about pirated music here; for example, last year I downloaded a free audiobook and each chapter was an individual MP3 file.)

But you’re only truly stuck if you limit yourself to iTunes. Instead, check out 3AM Coffee Software’s $10 iTunesJoin 2.0.3 (   ), an application/AppleScript package that works with iTunes to join multiple tracks into a single track. To use iTunesJoin, you select in iTunes the tracks you wish to join—make sure they’re in the desired order—and then choose one of iTunesJoin’s three AppleScripts from iTunes’s script menu:

  • AutoJoin: Automatically chooses the “joining” options. If all the files are same-bit-rate, unprotected AAC, iTunesJoin combines them into a new, single track with no loss in quality; if not, it converts the tracks, using your current iTunes Import settings, and then combines them. It will also add chapter markings if Apple’s ChapterTool is installed and the resulting file is in AAC format (see below).
  • iTunesJoin: Opens the iTunesJoin settings window (described below), which allows you to choose your joining options and preferences.
  • Join with Preferences: Joins the selected tracks using the most recent iTunesJoin settings.

You’ll note that I mentioned “with no loss in quality.” When you convert an audio file to or between lossy formats—MP3, lossy AAC, and the like—you lose audio fidelity because the music is being compressed in a way that some of the audio data is lost. In order to avoid such a loss, you want to avoid conversion, if possible. iTunesJoin avoids converstion if the files being joined are (a) in AAC format; (b) the same bit rate; and (b) not protected. (Like most third-party software and hardware, iTunesJoin is limited when working with files purchased from the iTunes Music Store. The only way you can combine iTunes-purchased AAC files is to use the “Join to QuickTime” option described below.)

If you choose the iTunesJoin script, which I recommend, you’re presented with a number of options for how your tracks should be combined:

iTunesJoin preferences

  • Join losslessly if possible, otherwise Convert: This option is similar to AutoJoin, described above. iTunesJoin will attempt to combine the tracks losslessly; if it can’t—because the tracks aren’t the same format and bit rate, for example—it will combine them and convert them using iTunes’s Import preferences. If the “Notify if Convert was needed” option is enabled, iTunesJoin will do just that. After testing the resulting file to make sure it plays properly, you can delete the original files, if desired.
  • Join AAC audio losslessly: If the files are in AAC format and were ripped at the same bit rate, this option uses QuickTime to join them into a new, same-format-and-bit-rate audio file. Since no conversion is involved, the resulting file will have the same quality as the original tracks, and will be the same size as the combined size of the original tracks. (I used this option to combine individual tracks from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” originally ripped to 160kbps AAC files, into a single track; the process took just under 50 seconds on a Dual-2GHz Power Mac G5.) You can then delete the original files, if desired. The obvious drawback to this approach is that since it works only with AAC-encoded files, standard MP3 files aren’t supported; you need to use the next option for MP3 files.
    iTunes tracks joined
  • Join & Convert: This setting converts the selected tracks using iTunes’s Import settings and joins them together; you can then delete the originals. The biggest differences between this option and “Join AAC audio losslessly” is that it supports standard MP3 files. Whether or not the resulting audio file will be of lesser quality depends on which format you choose (in iTunes) for conversion: WAV, AIFF, and Apple Lossless—all lossless formats—will leave audio quality unchanged but will result in large file sizes (larger than the original if the original files were in a compressed format such as AAC or MP3). Choosing AAC or MP3 will result in lesser sound quality because converting to these formats involves lossily compressing the audio files. This option also takes longer than the previous one because iTunes has to convert the file to a new format. I ripped the same John Coltrane album to MP3 format and then used Join & Convert to combine the tracks and convert them to AAC; the process took about 3 minutes.
  • Join to QuickTime: This is the only option that allows you to combine protected files purchased from the iTunes Music Store. However, instead of creating a standard music file, this option creates a QuickTime movie. There is no loss of audio quality, but the format will not play on an iPod; you can listen to it only in iTunes or QuickTime Player. (A workaround is to use iTunes to convert the QuickTime movie to an iPod-supported file, but this will, again, result in a loss of quality.) The resulting file will appear in recent versions of iTunes as a “video” file. A related option, “Make small pointer files,” creates a reference movie that points to the original files, rather than a self-contained movie file. This approach lets you play the tracks in iTunes as either a single music file or individual tracks. (Of course, if you use this option, you shouldn’t delete the originals.)

iTunesJoin also includes several features that apply only when the resulting file will be in AAC format. If you’ve got Apple’s Chapter Tool ( download link ) installed, iTunesJoin will automatically add chapter marks to the merged file corresponding to the beginning of each of the source tracks. So, for example, when I play back the combined John Coltrane track in iTunes or on an iPod, I can quickly jump between the original tracks—in iTunes via the Chapter pop-up menu or on an iPod using the forward/back buttons.

iTunesJoin chapters
The chapter menu in iTunes

You can also make the resulting file “bookmarkable” via the “Remember playback position” option. This feature, supported by iTunes 5 and later and all Click Wheel-equipped iPods, remembers where you stopped listening to a compatible track so that the next time you listen to that track, it will pick up where you left off. (The “Remember playback position on old iPods & iTunes” enables a similar feature for older iPods and older versions of iTunes. A side effect is that the resulting audio file will be categorized as an audiobook in iTunes and on the iPod, and it will appear to be a “Protected AAC audio file.”)

As my comments above make clear, iTunesJoin isn’t very useful for music purchased from the iTunes Music Store; then again, based on reader emails and comments in the Macworld and Playlist forums from people trying to combine music tracks, I suspect that most people who need to use iTunesJoin will be using it to join tracks they’ve ripped themselves. A much more significant limitation, in my opinion, is that iTunesJoin cannot losslessly combine MP3-encoded tracks. Although I personally rip all my music using AAC or Apple Lossless, I know that many people still use the MP3 format for ripping CDs.

But if you do tend to use AAC format, iTunesJoin is a handy way to merge audio tracks. For example, I recently used it to create an AAC file for an audiobook ripped from a CD; instead of 20+ individual tracks cluttering up my iPod and iTunes libraries, I have a single track—and iTunesJoin automatically enabled bookmarking and placed chapter marks at the beginning of each chapter for easy navigation. I’ve also used it to combine movements in classical pieces that I’d previously ripped from CDs without using the “Join CD Tracks” option; now all my classical recordings are 1 track per piece.

iTunesJoin requires Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later, iTunes 4.8 or later, and QuickTime 7 or later. Note that iTunes 5 apparently has a few bugs that affect iTunesJoin; the developer recommends that those using iTunes 5 either upgrade to iTunes 6 or revert to iTunes 4 if they wish to use iTunesJoin.

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