How to rip audio from your Blu-ray discs

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[Editor’s note: The MPAA and most media companies argue that you can’t legally copy or convert commercial DVDs for any reason. We (and others) think that, if you own a DVD, you should be able to override its copy protection to make a backup copy or to convert its content for viewing on other devices. Currently, the law isn’t entirely clear one way or the other. So our advice is: If you don’t own it, don’t do it. If you do own it, think before you rip.]

Regular readers of this column know that I’m a classical music fan. As such, I have a number of Blu-ray discs of classical concerts and operas. I recently got it into my head that I wanted to rip the audio from some of these to be able to listen to them on my office stereo. I wasn’t interested in the surround-sound mixes—I don’t have the appropriate equipment to play back music in such formats—just the stereo tracks. So, to this end, I bought an external Blu-ray drive and set out to figure out how to get the music from my Blu-ray discs into my iTunes library. (I’ve already written about doing this from DVDs, and assumed it would be a similar process.)

For starters, you probably know that Macs don’t support Blu-ray playback. Famously described as a “bag of hurt” by Steve Jobs, Blu-ray uses a complex system of digital rights management and High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). Apple clearly doesn’t want to get involved in such licensing issues, and feels that if you want HD movies on your Mac, you should simply buy or rent them from the iTunes Store. Given that there seem to be no classical recordings in the iTunes Store’s Movies section, there aren’t many choices for those wishing to see a concert by a pianist or an opera in HD on their Macs.

However, Macs do support Blu-ray drives as data sources. I bought a Plextor PX-B120U external Blu-ray drive and connected it to my USB hub. When I popped in a disc and closed the lid (yes, it’s an oddly anachronistic top-loading drive), the disc showed up in my Finder sidebar. If it were a data disc, I would be able to copy any files it contains; I just can’t play its video.

To start with, you need to rip the Blu-ray disc to a format that you can manipulate. Forunately, Macworld Senior Editor Jonathan Seff had done the heavy lifting for me, writing about Blu-ray ripping last year. Using the currently-free-because-it’s-in-beta MakeMKV, I was able to choose which parts of a disc I wanted to rip. I chose specific titles, and also specific audio tracks (in my case, I left out the surround-sound mixes). This process rips the content of the disc to an MKV file—removing the copy-protection at the same time—but does not compress it. Ripping is relatively quick—it took one to one-and-a-half hours for each of the two discs I ripped. The resulting files are very big—one disc, a piano recital lasting two hours and 10 minutes, is about 25 GB; another, a four-hour opera, is about 31 GB.

Using MakeMKV, I chose which parts of the Blu-ray disc to rip. Here I chose the 2-channel audio mix, and not the surround-sound mix. (Click to enlarge.)

To watch these files, you can use the free VLC media player, and they do, indeed, look great on a Mac. But I wanted to extract the audio from them. Theoretically, you should be able to do this with VLC as well. If you choose File > Streaming/Exporting Wizard, you can choose to export the MKV file in a number of formats, one of which is an audio extraction. This worked for short tracks—trailers on the discs from two minutes to four minutes long—but failed with every type of settings for longer tracks. I don’t know if this is because MakeMKV didn’t make the MKV files correctly, or if VLC simply can’t handle exports from such large files. This may be resolved in the future, but for now I was stuck.

iMkvExtract lets you split an MKV file into its constituent parts. I chose here to simply export the audio it contained.

So, I went out in search of a de-muxing tool for MKV files. This type of program can split a file into its different elements: video, audio, and subtitles. I found MKV4Mac’s free iMkvExtract, a simple program that, while a bit rough around the edges (some of the interface texts are in English and others in French, for example, and the app itself has no icon), did the trick. I was able to export the audio in its original PCM format. However, the files I exported had an odd .??? extension, so the next step was to figure out how do deal with these.

The trusty free XLD, or X Lossless Decoder, came to the rescue. I simply dragged the file onto the XLD icon, and it proceeded to convert it to AAC format. (You can choose which format you want XLD to output in its preferences; anything from AAC or MP3 to FLAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, or others.)

However, I had one long track of a piano recital, and another of an opera. This is not the ideal way to add music to my iTunes library, so I used Rogue Amoeba’s $39 Fission, my go-to tool for splitting and editing tracks without re-encoding them. On the piano recital track, I went through and split each individual work into its own file. (While I was at it, I stripped the applause as well; I don’t need to hear this when listening on my iPod.) For the opera, it was a bit more difficult. I decided to split it into acts, and checked the booklet that came with the Blu-ray disc for the correct timings. Again, I split at those points, and removed the applause.

Fission lets you split files and edit them without any loss in quality. Here I split the piano recital into one track per work.

At the end of the day, I had two sets of audio files that I added to my iTunes library. While I’ll clearly want to view these discs again, notably because of the excellent surround-sound mixes, at least I can listen to the music on its own whenever I want.

[Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville. Twitter: @mcelhearn Kirk is the author of Take Control of iTunes 10: The FAQ.]

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