iTunes 7’s most interesting hidden features is its explicit support for multiple iTunes Libraries. If you hold down the Option key when launching iTunes 7, iTunes will ask you which Library you want to use. That’s a great feature for computers shared by people with diverse musical tastes. (Parents and kids, we’re looking at you.) But it opens up a bunch of other interesting options, too.
I’ve been listening to MP3s since before there was an iTunes. This means that, like many other wily digital-music veterans, I’ve ripped my audio CD collection into MP3 format more than once. In fact, a whole lot more than once:
- The Audiocatalyst era: My Mac’s hard drive doesn’t have enough space to hold more than a few dozen songs. So I selectively rip tracks from my favorite artists as 128kbps MP3s.
- The dawn of iTunes: Hard drive space expands, and so does my computer music collection. I begin ripping my entire CD collection, including all but my most disliked tracks, as 128kbps MP3s.
- The quest for quality: At some point, I realize that 128kbps MP3s sound kind of crappy. I ramp up my CD-ripping settings to a much higher bit rate, with variable bit-rate encoding. New CDs and favorite oldies get the re-ripping treatment.
- Hunting down the dogs: A targeted smart playlist named “re-rip me” reveals hundreds of CDs that somehow escaped the conversion from 128kbps. Another session of sticking in CDs and waiting for iTunes to pop them back out again ensues.
At some point I realized that this has gotta stop. What I really need to do is invest in a large hard drive and re-rip my CDs, once and for all, into a lossless format. That way, I can file the original CD media away in my garage, safe in the knowledge that I’ve got full-quality digital versions of all my tracks.
Here’s the problem, though: my family has iPods. My capacious 60GB iPod could handle the size of lossless encoded using the Apple Lossless format, although I’d have to sacrifice a lot of my music catalog. But my wife’s iPod mini couldn’t fit many of those songs on there. And the iPod shuffle we use casually? Sure, iTunes can be set to convert large music files to 128kbps AAC when copying them to the shuffle, but it’s a time-consuming process that must be repeated every time you move songs onto the device, because iTunes doesn’t cache those down-converted files anywhere.
Enter iTunes 7, and I think I’ve finally got a workable approach to ripping those CDs for the very last time. I’ll create a new library in a separate location, and fill it full of lossless versions of my CDs. This is, for lack of a better phrase, my master library.
But I’ll also create a second library, add the lossless tracks to it, and then have iTunes convert them all to a small (but still decent sounding) MP3 or AAC file. Then I’ll remove the lossless files from the library, and I’ll have created two different versions of my music collection: one that’s lossless, and one that’s smaller and therefore more portable.
Of course, it would be even better if Apple would introduce new features to make this sort of thing even easier. Why not encourage people to encode their music at the highest of quality levels, and provide a convenient way for iTunes to cache a smaller, low-resolution version for use on iPods (or for sharing over the network to computers and other devices)? This concept leads to something ZDNet’s Jason O’Grady calls
MacBook Sync —a feature that would let you put your library on your laptop’s hard drive, which is presumably smaller than the big honkin’ music disc you’ve got at home.
Yes, as hard-drive-based iPods get bigger, there’s more room for huge, high-quality music files. But let’s not forget that Apple’s
30GB and 80GB iPods aren’t the company’s best sellers: it’s the iPod nano,
now with sizes of 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB. For nanos and shuffles, the ability to offer a reduced-quality song file (that’s cached and ready to quickly copy to another device at a later date) would be great.
And it would mean that, once and for all, I’d be done with ripping my CD collection.