Freeing MP3s from iTunes

Friday 2 January 2004This is over 19 years old. Be careful.

I’ve started using iTunes for Windows to rip CDs, and to buy one-off songs online. I’d sort of assumed that Apple had done a pretty complete job of ensuring that downloaded songs would remain within their DRM bubble, since they have limits on the computers they can be shared to and so on. So I was surprised to see how easy it is to buy a song online and turn it into an unencumbered MP3 file, and I was especially surprised that iTunes showed me the way.

I downloaded a song, and wanted to play it in the car, which has an old-fashioned CD player (only audio disks). So I put a blank CD-R in the burner, and used the burn button (I want more software with buttons like that one!). After burning, iTunes detected that the CD player now had an audio disk in it, and changed the burn button into an import button. That surprised me, but sure enough, clicking the import button ripped the audio CD into plain-old MP3 files.

So it’s easy to get MP3’s from the iTunes store, you just have to waste a CD-R to do it.


No big news. iTunes has always allowed to burn any number of CDs, although only 10 from one playlist. Of course you can change the playlist to be the same again. It just adds a little bit of inconvenience to fend off "industrial" use.

Since iTunes burns standard CDs you can of course reimport them. From there it is the old rip-share-burn cycle. You can even save on the cost of the CD-R and use a CD-RW.

Apple does not try to lock you in. They want a way to sell music to an educated customer.
There is a problem with the conversion and it has nothing to do with time or cost in CD-Rs. It's quality.

When Apple first rips the song to their protected AAC format, there's a slight loss in quality from the original source CD. Say it's a 10% loss from the original, mostly in ranges the human ear can't hear (but there is some perceptible loss in quality).

Now you burn the song to a standard audio CD. Fortunately, there's no additional loss in sound quality here (90% * 100% = 90%).

Finally, you rip the burned CD to the MP3 format. MP3 files are less efficient than AAC files at similar bitrates by a factor of about 1/3. Say you rip to a 128kbps MP3 (the AAC files are 128kbps), you're going to have about a 15% loss in quality, more of which will be in the perceptible range. Overall, there's a 23.5% loss in quality (90% * 80% = 76.5%) from the original source.

Granted, these percentages probably aren't accurate but you can bet that when you double-up on audio compression you're going to lose a lot more quality than you might think.
Greg is absolutely right, except for one thing: When you burn the CD, you still stand the chance of losing still yet data -- you're still changing the format, moving the bits around. Changing the format from AAC to CD Audio requires some creative interpretation on the part of iTunes, which means the song on the CD is something irreparably different from the original. You can think of it in terms of image editing: If you take a small image and upsample it to a big image, you don't really lose any data -- it's all in there somewhere -- but you're never going to get the original data back exactly like it was before. So you still lose (or, shall we say, irreparably transmute) some of the original data in turning the AACs into an Audio CD. Every time you change the format, you lose data.

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