Using iTunes Match to get rid of DRM-protected music

Want to finally get rid of those low quality, DRM infested music tracks you bought from iTunes back before DRM free tracks arrived? Now you can.

When the iTunes Store first opened for business back in 2003, all the music tracks were locked up with a digital rights management (or DRM) scheme called “Fairplay” to prevent sharing. If you bought a track from the store, you could only play on it one of five authorized computers or via iPods that you had synced with one of those five. But not only could the songs not be shared with friends, you also couldn’t play the music you had just legally acquired on many other legal devices you might purchase, like a Sonos wireless speaker or almost all other non-Apple MP3 players. While DRM did nothing to discourage piracy, it harrassed, hindered and harried paying customers.

Eventually, the music industry saw the light, thanks in part to Apple agreeing to a huge price hike, and stopped requiring DRM encumbrances. That was a great move but it left a lot of us with collections filled with previously legally purchased music that still had the DRM lockdown. Apple graciously offered to upgrade such tracks to a higher quality, DRM-free version for 30 cents a pop. But the iTunes Plus upgrade service, as it was called, was a disastrous mess.

So I have long had a smart playlist I set up in iTunes to list all my music tracks that still had DRM. And, even after spending a small fortune on iTunes Plus, the list still had several hundred tracks remaining. Well, they were remaining until just the other day when Apple opened its cloud-based iTunes Match service as an extension to its regular iCloud music service. For $25 a year, iTunes Match lets you upload any tracks to iCloud which you owned but had not purchased from iTunes to share among all your registered computers and devices.

There is also another, less-publicized side benefit. Tracks downloaded from iCloud are DRM-free and recorded at the high-quality rate of 256 kilobits per second. This means that if iTunes match matched your leftover DRM-locked, lower quality music, you can finally get out of jail free. Here’s how:

1. Make a smart playlist where “Kind” contains the phrase “Protected AAC audio file” and the “bit rate” is “128 kbps.”

2. Everything that appears on this smart playlist is the old, locked up kind of music track. IMPORTANT: On the view of this list, right click at the top on the categories of stuff where it says Name, Time, Artist etc and add two more categories: “iCloud Download” and “iCloud Status.”

3. Run the “Update iTunes Match” on your library. It’s under the Store menu in iTunes.

4. Now you can start the laborious process of deleting these crummy DRM tracks and getting back better and freer tracks.

5. I started by sorting the list by artist. Then find all the tracks on the smart list that have an iCloud status of “Matched” or “Purchased.” THIS TRICK WILL NOT WORK ON TRACKS WITH A STATUS OF “UPLOADED” OR “ERROR.”

6. Unfortunately, you can’t delete tracks directly from the smart playlist. You have to identify each track on the smart list and then go back to your whole music library on iTunes and find it again. If you are paranoid, click command-I after selecting each track in the main music library to make sure it is indeed DRM locked, visible on the “Kind” line as “Protected AAC audio file.” Delete the track if so. DO NOT CHECK THE BOX THAT SAYS “ALSO DELETE THIS SONG FROM iCLOUD” — do not, not, not check that box. On the next dialogue box that comes up, click that you want to throw away the file in the trash.

7. Now that you have deleted the old DRM-ed file, the song should still be listed in iTunes but with a download from the cloud icon:

Click on the iCloud icon and a fresh new copy of the track will be downloaded from Apple’s servers, one that is DRM-free and 256 kbps. Sweet!

There are all kinds of tracks of that can’t be re-downloaded using this trick, unfortunately. In my library of 5,000 odd songs, I am still stuck with 25 that are low-quality, DRM-locked versions. Most are special versions of songs that the iTunes store no longer carries like an acoustic version of U2’s “Stuck in a Moment.” Some are from albums that are no longer sold for download, like Prince’s “Musicology.” Seven are tracks from the original, self-published release of Nellie McKay’s album “Pretty Little Head” that were excluded when Sony re-released the album later.

In some cases, though, the songs iTunes Match couldn’t quite match were just duplicates of songs I’d long ago upgraded via iTunes Plus. A little library clean up is in order in these cases. For example, a duplicate version of Matchbox 20’s song “3AM” was hanging around as the older DRM-locked file because it was listed as “3 AM” (note the extra space). I just deleted the duplicate from both my library and iCloud.

And that’s it! Good luck cleaning up your library.

Review: iTunes 8 is nifty but in need of a few tweaks

Downloaded the latest, greatest version of Apple’s iTunes software this morning and I’m finding a lot of love from the new “genius” recommendations. There are a few annoyances that can easily be fixed in an 8.1 — or even 8.01 — version but on the whole it’s a worthy upgrade.

By default, the genius is turned off because it only works if you agree to let Apple know all about your music library (anonymously, the company says). So to try it out, go to the “store” menu and click to turn it on. A new window pane opens at the right-hand side of your music list. Then there’s a slight delay before you get any recommendations as iTunes uploads your library data. Once that’s done, click on any song in your library and genius tells you top songs by that artist not already in your library and songs by other artists you might also like. I found the recommendations interesting and relevant. It doesn’t work for stuff that’s too obscure or non-commercial, however. DJ Dangermouse’s illegal Grey Album, for example, produces missing songs from a different artist (DJ Dangerous) and no related artist recommendations.

There’s also a small flaw in the recommendations engine which seems to happen when an identical song appears on a couple of albums, say, its original release plus on a greatest hits album. If you have a copy of a song from a greatest hits album, the genius may still recommend the exact same song from the original album. So you have to be a little careful about what songs you actually may be missing before clicking to buy.

There’s one big problem with the way genius recommendations are displayed, however. As you can see, there’s no indication whether a song is protected by the Fairplay DRM (yuck) or comes unprotected from the iTunes store “plus” section. Since the record labels are trying to put the squeeze on Apple, most of the music in the iTunes store still carries the justly hated DRM. The labels are trying to bolster iTunes competitors like Amazon and Rhapsody by giving them a huge selection of unlocked music that’s not made available on iTunes. That’s stinky and absurd but it’s the current reality for consumers. I recommend only buying unlocked music — which is also ripped at a higher quality setting — whenever you can. In my case, that means I always check Amazon’s MP3 store for tracks that iTunes offers only with DRM.

No doubt that the unfair treatment infuriates Steve Jobs and company but it’s no excuse for this consumer-unfriendly feature of iTunes genius recommendations. The program ought to show if a recommended song is available in the non-DRM “plus” format or not. They could easily show the small “plus” icon that iTunes uses throughout the rest of the store to indicate DRM-free music.

I do really like iTunes’ newly enhanced grid view that shows a mini picture of each album cover. At the top of the grid view, you can press a button to sort by album, artist, genre or composer. Double click on an album cover in the “album” view and you go to a listing of all the songs. Double click on an album cover in “artist” view and you get all that artist’s songs sorted by album. Same with the “genre” and “composer” views. Double click to get a list of all songs in the category sorted by album. And the new grid view works similarly for other stuff in your library like Tv shows and podcasts.

Finally, there’s been a slight hue and cry over features Apple supposedly removed from iTunes. A lot of this controversy is misplaced. Import and CD burning choices that used to be in one place have simply been moved. The two sections used to be under separate tabs in the “advanced” pane of iTunes preferences. Now the import choices have been moved to an “Import settings…” button on the general pane of preferences. And a pop-up options box appears when you press the “Burn Disc” button with all the same old options that used to be in preferences. There’s been no loss of MP3 settings, most importantly.

The choice to display different columns of data about each track has also moved to a new “View options…” box available off the main “View” menu. It seems like this new option box, with almost 40 check boxes including everything from album and artist to sample rate and release date, is actually a cool enhancement.

The only real loss I’ve discovered so far is that you can’t easily remove the little arrow links to the iTunes store from every track listing. I’m not sure that’s a huge loss but enterprising folks are already devising ways to hack iTunes settings back the way you want them.

Overall, while there’s nothing insanely amazing in iTunes 8, it’s a solid and substantial upgrade. Hopefully, a slightly tweaked version will be following soon.

Getting Verizon’s Actiontec to play with Airport Express and Remote App

Apple\'s Airport Express with stereo connected(Updated 5/13/2010) With Apple’s new Remote App for the iPhone and iPod Touch, the teeming masses who couldn’t afford hyper-expensive schemes (cough – Sonos – cough) to connect their digital music collections to their stereos suddenly had an alternative. If you load Remote onto your iPod, you can control iTunes on the Mac in your office from the couch in your living room. And it’s pretty full control, choosing what to play by album, artist or play list as well as a simple search function. You can even adjust the volume.

Now, suddenly, Apple’s $99 Airport Express is an incredibly great and desirable little piece of equipment. This mini wireless base station has a stereo out connection. The idea is you keep your music library wherever it is and virtually hook it up over wifi to your stereo system or even just a pair of powered speakers somewhere else in the house. Before now, that wasn’t a great solution because you had get up from where the stereo lived and go back to the computer where the music lived to change songs or select a new play list. Now, your iPod or iPhone can function as a super-smart remote control with all the visuals and you don’t ever have to run back and forth. Couch potato nirvana!

Simple, right? So I loaded the Remote App on my iPod Touch and got an Airport Express. I plugged in the Express and connected it to my stereo with a simple audio cable. Then I pulled up Apple’s Airport Utility program on my laptop and set up the Express and…hmm, not so simple after all.

Seems that Airport Express and the Actiontec wireless router that Verizon makes us use with their otherwise awesome FIOS system don’t play nice together. You can’t actually use the Airport Express as a wifi network extender, my original plan. The Actiontec is already running a wifi network in the house and even sends decent reception down to the stereo closet. But the Express and the Actiontec don’t speak the same language, although they both as only the Apple product supports “Wireless Distribution Standard,” or WDS (UPDATE: I used to think both did but Actiontec now clearly says they do not support WDS). In fact, when I used the Airport Utility to set the Airport Express to “extend a network,” it froze up, couldn’t be reached anymore and I had to unplug it and press the factory reset button. Youch. Don’t try that one at home, kids.

In the end, I had to be a bit klugier than I had hoped. I plugged one of Netgear’s great Powerline HD adapters (which run ethernet over the electrical wiring in your house) into an outlet by the stereo, ran an ethernet cable to the Airport Express and set the Express to run its own wifi network. That means setting the Express to “Create a wireless network” under the “wireless” menu in the Airport Utility. Key detail: the Actiontec router is still in charge of dealing with the Internet and handing out network addresses so the Express also has to be set to “bridge mode” on the connection sharing setting which is under the “Internet” menu in the AIrport Utility (see below).

Setting an airport express to bridge mode

Once I got all that working, I went upstairs to my Mac and in the lower, right-hand corner of iTunes a new selection menu appeared letting me designate where to output the sounds from iTunes. The choices were my computer, the new living room Express or both at the same time. Apple calls this feature AirTunes, I believe. I set iTunes to send music to the Express.

Then on my iPod, in the Remote App’s settings, I selected add a new library. On my Mac, the iPod appeared under devices in iTunes and asked for a four-digit PIN code. Sure enough, the iPod was displaying the code and, once I typed it in, the Remote app was “paired,” or linked to, that iTunes library. You can pair the remote with multiple libraries and choose which to control – just remember to assign your libraries different names under iTunes’ “Shared name” setting. My laptop and desktop Macs had defaulted to the same name in both copies of iTunes. MacWorld has a more detailed run down of using Remote here.

So…after just an hour or so of fiddling, I finally had my amazing set-up set up. I recline on the couch, beverage in hand. I sip and put the drink down. I grab the iPod Touch and meander  through my entire music library, including all of the zillions of tracks I bought from the iTunes store that are locked up with the Fairplay DRM. Even the Sonos can’t play Fairplay-protected tracks. I select a track or an album or a play list and it starts to play instantly on my stereo. Even though I’m viewing the music library that sits upstairs on my Mac, it’s much like looking through the local collection on my iPod Touch. I can shift the volume, as well. I pull up Dire Straits album Communique, put down the iPod, pick up my drink and drift off to the fantasy land of tech nirvana where everything works right and all the children are above average.

Yes it’s no use saying that you don’t know nothing
It’s still gonna get you if you don’t do something
Sitting on a fence that’s a dangerous course
Ah, you could even catch a bullet from the peace-keeping force
Even the hero gets a bullet in the chest
Oh yeah, once upon a time in the west

Cheaper noise cancelling head phones work pretty great

Me rocking out with new headphonesLast year I bought my wife a pair of pretty high-end Sony MDR-NC50 noise canceling headphones to take on airplane (business) trips. They are amazing — pristine sound quality for your music (or anything else on your iPod) while tuning down, down, down environmental sounds like jet engines, train whooshing or even construction equipment working down the road. But they also cost an arm and a leg. I occasionally get to borrow them, but they’re really hers and she uses them quite a bit.

So facing a long plane ride to Europe and back next month, I was interested in somehow getting my hands on something similar if a bit cheaper. After checking out various low-end headsets, I settled on the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 QuietPoint Active Noise-Canceling Headphones, which cost $120 at Amazon. They do a great job canceling outside noise though the sound quality for music etc is not quite as crisp and fantastic as the Sony headphones.

Operation couldn’t be simpler. Plop in a AAA battery, flip a switch and watch the blue noise cancelation light light up. Put the cups over your ears and tune out the world. The set came with a nice hard carrying case and the cups actually fold sideways to fit snugly. There’s also the usual complement of plug adapters for connecting to fancier stereo gear. If you have to make the trade-off to save some cash, I can recommend the Audio-Technica headphones as a better than decent option.