Adding Music from Audio CDs and the Internet to Your iTunes Music Library

Listening to audio CDs with iTunes is fine, but for that purpose, any old CD player works just as well. iTunes' real power comes when you add all your music to the Library so it is always available to you. In addition to letting you find and listen to your music more easily, after it is in the Library, you can do all sorts of cool things with it, such as creating custom playlists and CDs.

Converting Audio CDs into the MP3 Format and Adding Them to Your Music Library

The MP3 format was the one that really started the digital music revolution. Although newer and somewhat better formats are available now, MP3 remains an important player in the digital music world.

Understanding the MP3 Format

MP3 is the acronym for the audio compression scheme called Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) audio layer 3. The revolutionary aspect of the MP3 encoding scheme is that music data can be stored in files that are only about one twelfth the size of unencoded digital music without a noticeable degradation in the quality of the music. A typical music CD consumes about 650MB of storage space, but the same music encoded in the MP3 format shrinks down to about 55MB. Put another way, a single 3.5-minute song shrinks from its 35MB on audio CD down to a paltry 3MB or so. This small file size opens up a world of possibilities.

The other aspect of MP3 that has made it so amazingly popular is that converting different music formats into MP3 is very easy.

These two factors alone have forever changed the way music is made, distributed, and listened to.

The first, and most famous (or infamous depending on your point of view), is the capability to move music files over the Internet. Although downloading a 35MB file is prohibitive for everyone except those who have access to high-bandwidth connections, moving a 3MB MP3 file is practical for just about everyone. In addition to the controversial practice of sharing music (sometimes copyrighted music), MP3 over the Internet also has more legitimate uses. Artists can create MP3 music and distribute it over the Internet without requiring that they sign with a record company. This makes self-promotion possible and can eliminate the middleman from the music arena. As never before, music can move directly from the musician to anyone anywhere in the world.

Copyright Conscious

Musicians creating their own MP3 files and distributing them over the Net is certainly legitimate. However, it is not legitimate to create MP3 files of someone else's music and distribute them without the appropriate legal permission to do so.

Napster and other music sharing sites violate the letter and spirit of copyright laws because people other than those who own the rights to the music are distributing it.

When you are dealing with music, you need to be very conscious of the copyright status of any music with which you work. Although copyright laws are complex, the basic idea behind them is not. Simply put, you cannot distribute material to which someone else holds a copyright without (written) permission to do so.

Unless you create the music yourself (not simply encoding it yourself), you should not distribute it in any form. The exceptions are when you have received a license to use that music or when the music is in the public domain.

A second benefit of MP3 files' small size is that storing an entire music collection in a relatively small amount of disk space is possible, thus eliminating the need to bother with individual CDs. An entire music collection can be easily stored, organized, and accessed with a few clicks of a mouse. By using playlists, that music can be listened to in many ways.

Third, MP3 created a new class of portable music devices. Because MP3 files can be stored in small amounts of memory, devices with no moving parts can store and play a decent amount of music. Other devices contain small hard drives and can store huge amounts of music, enabling you to take your entire music collection with you wherever you go. These devices are extremely small and lightweight, and their contents can be easily managed.

Following are the two main sources of MP3 music to which you can listen:

  • Music you encode yourself from your own audio CDs

  • MP3 files you download from the Internet

The more important source of MP3 files for your iTunes Library is your own audio CD collection. You can encode the music on your audio CDs into the MP3 format and add those MP3 files to your music Library (and then add the songs to any playlists you want). In iTunes lingo, this is called importing music. In more general lingo, this process is called ripping tracks. Either way, creating MP3 tracks from your audio CDs is really powerful.


Some audio CDs use copyright protection schemes that prevent you from listening to the CD on a computer (with the idea being that you won't be able to make MP3 versions of the songs for illegal purposes). Unfortunately, not only do these CDs not work in your Mac, but they can actually cause damage. Before playing a CD in your Mac, check the label carefully to make sure its label doesn't contain any warnings about playing the CD in a computer or that the CD is copy-protected. If it does, don't try to use the CD in your Mac.

Encoding audio CDs into MP3 files is straightforward. The only complexity you will encounter is the choice of specific encoding settings you want to use.

Setting MP3 Import Preferences

Although the default MP3 encoding settings are probably fine, you should understand that you can make adjustments to the particular encoding settings iTunes uses to convert your music to MP3. The reason you might want to do this is to get the smallest file sizes possible while retaining an acceptable quality of playback.

The quality of encoded music is determined by the amount of data stored in the MP3 file per second of music playback. This is measured in kilobits per second (Kbps). The higher the number of Kbps, the better the music sounds. Of course, this means that the file size is larger as well. The goal of MP3 encoding is to obtain an acceptable quality of playback while minimizing the size of the resulting MP3 files.

The encoding level you should use depends on several factors, which include the following:

  • Your sensitivity to imperfections? If you dislike minor imperfections in music playback, you should use higher-quality encoding settings. If you don't mind the occasional "bump" in the flow of the music, you can probably get away with lower-quality settings.

  • The music you listen to? Some music hides flaws better than others. For example, you are less likely to notice subtle problems in the music while listening to grinding heavy metal music than when you listen to classical music.

  • How you listen to music? If you use a low-quality sound system with poor speakers, you probably won't notice any difference between high-quality and low-quality encoding. If your Mac is connected to a high-fidelity speakers, the differences in music quality will be more noticeable.

iTunes provides three standard levels of encoding: good quality, high quality, and higher quality. As an experiment, I encoded the same 4-minute song using each of these levels; the results are shown in Table 16.1. These results might or might not match the particular encoding you do, but they should give you some idea of the effect of quality level settings on file sizes. In this case, I couldn't detect much difference between the quality levels in the sound of the music, so I could save almost 0.5MB per minute of music by using the good quality level.

Table 16.1. Default Encoding Levels Versus File Size

Quality Level

Data Rate (Kbps)

File Size (MB)










You can also use custom encoding levels if the standard levels aren't suitable for you.

The encoding settings iTunes uses are accessed with the Preferences command:

  1. Select iTunes, Preferences.

  2. Click the Importing button (see Figure 16.8).

    Figure 16.8. The Importing pane of the Preferences dialog box enables you to control the encoding settings used for your music.


  3. Use the Import Using pop-up menu to select the particular encoder you want to use. You have four options: MP3, AAC, AIFF, and WAV. Obviously, you should choose MP3 to create MP3 files.


    You can also use iTunes to convert or import songs in the AIFF or WAV formats. Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) is a standard audio format used to move audio content among applications. Waveform Audio File (WAV) is a standard audio file format on the PC. iTunes can work with either of these file formats just as well as it can work with MP3 and AAC files. However, because MP3 and AAC are the formats most widely used for music, those formats are the focus of this chapter.

  4. Use the Setting pop-up menu to select the quality level of the encoding?for example, select Good Quality to create smaller files. The Details area of the window provides information about the encoding level you have selected.

  5. Check the "Play songs while importing" check box if you want to hear music as you import it. The encoding process finishes much earlier than the playing process so music continues to play after the encoding is done. This can be a bit confusing.


    If you select the Import Songs and Eject option on the On CD Insert pop-up menu in the General pane of the iTunes Preferences window, the CD is ejected when the encoding is done. This is a good reminder that you can encode the next CD. (The music from the previous CD continues to play.)

  6. Check the "Create file names with track number" check box if you want the MP3 files iTunes creates to have the track number included as a prefix in the filename.

  7. Click OK. The next time you import music into the Library, it is encoded according to the settings you selected.


You can vary the quality level you use from album to album or even from song to song. For example, if you want to play certain songs on a portable MP3 player, you might want to use a lower level for those songs so you can download more of them to the player.

You might want to create one version of the tracks at low-quality levels and another version at high-quality levels. You could then create a lower-quality playlist to import to an MP3 player.

You can also create and use custom encoding levels if the standard choices aren't suitable. You configure custom encoding with the same steps you use for standard encoding. The difference is that you select Custom on the Setting pop-up menu. When you do that, the MP3 Encoder dialog box appears. This enables you to configure the following:

  • Stereo Bit Rate? You can control the bit rate for stereo encoding. You can select rates between 8Kbps and 320Kbps. The higher the bit rate, the better the quality and the larger the file size will be.

  • Variable Bit Rate Encoding? With this option turned on, the encoder uses a guaranteed minimum bit rate. You can set the level of this encoding using a secondary Quality setting that ranges from Lowest to Highest.

  • Sample Rate? Music is encoded by taking a sample of the bits that make up specific instances in the music at various speeds. The rate at which these samples are captured, called the sample rate, affects the quality of the music. Higher sample rates result in higher-quality music (again, more data is collected per second of music). You can select a specific sample rate from the Sample Rate pop-up menu, or you can leave the default Auto setting (which enables iTunes to choose the sample rate).

  • Channels? You can choose to capture one channel of music (Mono), both channels (Stereo), or let iTunes decide which to use (Auto).

  • Stereo Mode? Your choices here are Normal, which causes each track's information to be stored independently, and Joint Stereo, which causes information that is the same in both tracks to be stored in one track while the unique information is stored in another. According to Apple, this mode improves sound quality when encoding at 128 kbps or below.

  • Smart Encoding Adjustments? This setting enables iTunes to adjust the encoding rates as necessary to maintain the optimal ratio of music quality to file size. Unless you have a specific reason not to use this feature, you should leave it turned on.

  • Filter Frequencies Below 10 Hz? Music frequencies below 10Hz are not audible, so there is really no reason to include them in the encoding process because it wastes disk space. This feature should be left on as well.

Adding Music in the MP3 Format to Your Library

To encode music from an audio CD into the MP3 format, use the following steps:

  1. Insert the CD containing the songs you want to encode. iTunes connects to the Internet and identifies the CD (again, assuming that you haven't disabled this feature or haven't listened to the CD before).

  2. Select the CD in the Source pane (if you just inserted it, it is selected by default).

  3. Uncheck the box next to the title of each song you don't want to encode?by default, every track is selected and is therefore imported. You can use the boxes to "unchoose" songs you don't want to import.

  4. Click the Import action button. iTunes begins to encode the songs you selected. Depending on how fast your Mac is and the number of songs you selected, this process can take from a minute or two to half an hour or so. You can see the progress of the encoding process in the iTunes display window (see Figure 16.9).

    Figure 16.9. This iTunes window shows a CD being imported; information about the song currently being encoded is shown in the Display area.


    When the encoding process is completed, the song is marked with a green circle containing a check mark. The resulting MP3 files are added to your Library, and you can listen to them from there and add them to playlists.

Following are some pointers to improve your importing experiences:

  • When you first start building your Library, set iTunes to Import Songs and Eject a CD when you insert it (use the On CD Insert pop-up menu on the General pane of the iTunes Preferences dialog box). When you insert an audio CD, iTunes imports it automatically. After iTunes finishes importing a CD, it ejects it. Then you can insert another and add it to the Library. After you have built your Library, select a different CD insert option; otherwise, you might end up with multiple versions of the same song in your Library (iTunes enables you to create multiple versions of the same songs in case you want to have songs encoded with different quality levels or in different formats).

  • You can cancel the encoding process by clicking the small x at the right end of the encoding progress bar in the display area.

  • You can listen to the music you are encoding while you are encoding it. Because the encoding process moves faster than real time, the import process is done before the selected songs stop playing. This can be confusing because it seems natural that both should stop at the same time. If you set CDs to eject after they are imported (using the On CD Insert pop-up menu), the end of the importing process is quite clear (because the CD is ejected).

  • You can also listen to other songs in your Library or playlists at the same time you are importing songs from a CD.

  • After the import process is complete, you can find the location of the encoded file for any song in your Library by selecting it and selecting File, Show Song File (graphics/mac.gif-R). A Finder window containing the file you imported opens, and the file is highlighted.

Downloading MP3 Files from the Internet and Adding Them to Your iTunes Music Library

Although illegal sharing of MP3 files is done over the Internet, there are also many legitimate sites from which you can download MP3 files to listen to. You might wonder why musicians would post their music in MP3 format on such sites. One reason is that they feel a desire to freely share their music with the world. Another reason is that musicians hope that, when you listen to their music, you will like it so much that you will purchase more of it (usually on audio CDs). Either way, you win because plenty of great music is available in the MP3 format that you can listen to.

Downloading MP3 Music

To find sites from which you can download MP3 files, I recommend that you start at This site has thousands of songs you can listen to online and download to your Mac. You can browse music by genre and search for music. Whichever way you do it, you are likely to find more music to listen to than you have time to listen to!


The music site enables you to preview songs before you download them. You should take advantage of this to prevent wasting the time required to download music you don't like and will end up deleting later anyway.

Downloading MP3 files is done in the same way as other files.

To learn how to download files from the Web, see "Downloading and Preparing Files," p. 411.

Configuring iTunes to Keep Your Music Organized

Later in this chapter, you'll learn in detail how and where iTunes stores the music you add to your Library. For now, know that you should have iTunes store files you download in the same way as those you encode yourself. Here's how:

  1. Select iTunes, Preferences.

  2. Click the Advanced icon.

  3. Check the "Keep iTunes Music folder organized" check box if it isn't already checked.

  4. Check the "Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding to library" check box if it isn't already checked. This causes iTunes to place copies of songs you have downloaded in the appropriate iTunes Music folders.

  5. Click OK.

Adding Downloaded Music to the Library

After you have configured iTunes to store the music you add in an organized way, add the music to your library:

  1. Select File, Add to Library.

  2. In the Add To Library dialog box, move to the MP3 files you want to add to your Library, select them, and click Choose. The files are added to your Library and you can work with them just like tracks you have imported.


If you have unchecked the "Copy files to iTunes Music folder when adding to library" check box for some reason, you see a dialog box explaining that iTunes doesn't actually move the files but uses a reference to the files you choose. (If this check box is checked, iTunes does make a copy and places it in the appropriate location.) Just read the information in the dialog box and click OK.


You can also add music to the iTunes Library by dragging song files onto the iTunes icon on the Dock.

Converting Audio CDs into the AAC Format and Adding Them to Your Music Library

Like most other file formats, there are more than one digital music file format. One of the newest formats is the AAC format.

Understanding the AAC Format

With the release of iTunes version 4, Apple introduced a new audio format called Advanced Audio Coding (AAC). The AAC format is part of the larger MPEG-4 specification. The basic purpose of it is the same as the MP3 format: to deliver excellent sound quality while keeping file sizes small. However, the AAC format produces files that have better quality than MP3 at even smaller file sizes.

Also like MP3, you can easily convert audio CD files into the AAC format.

One of the most important aspects of the AAC format is that all the music in the Apple Music Store is stored in this format; when you purchase music from the store, it is downloaded in this format.

AAC files have the .m4p filename extension.

Functionally, you aren't likely to notice any difference between AAC music files and MP3 files except in one area?most music players (such as MP3 players) don't support AAC-formatted music. The Apple iPod is a notable exception, so any music you purchase from the Apple Music Store can be placed on an iPod for playing on the move. You can also convert music in the AAC format into the MP3 format to put that music on regular MP3 players. (You'll learn how to do this later in this chapter.)

Setting AAC Import Preferences

Also similar to MP3, various settings can be configured to adjust the way in which files are imported in the AAC format. Unlike MP3, there are only two choices for AAC importing options: High Quality and Custom. Do the following:

  1. Select iTunes, Preferences.

  2. Click the Importing icon.

  3. Use the Import Using pop-up menu to select AAC Encoder.

  4. Use the Setting pop-up menu to choose the quality level of the encoding. Select High Quality or Custom.

  5. If you chose Custom, use the AAC Encoder dialog box to see the Stereo Bit Rate, Sample Rate, and Channels options. The Stereo Bit Rate and Sample Rate options are analogous to the same properties of MP3 files. The Channels setting enables you to select Mono or Stereo. After you have configured the settings, click OK to close the dialog box.

  6. Check the "Play songs while importing" check box if you want to hear music as you import it. The encoding process finishes much earlier than the playing process so music continues to play after the encoding is done. This can be a bit confusing.

  7. Check the "Create file names with track number" check box if you want the AAC files iTunes creates to have the track number included as a prefix in the filename.

  8. Click OK. The next time you import music into the Library, it is encoded in the AAC format according to the settings you selected.

Importing Music from Audio CDs in the AAC Format to Your Library

After you have selected and configured the Import preferences, the steps to import music from Audio CDs in the AAC format into your Library are exactly the same as those you use to import tracks in the MP3 format.

To learn how to import tracks from audio CDs to your Library, see "Adding Downloaded Music to the Library," p. 535.

    Part I: Mac OS X: Exploring the Core
    Part III: Mac OS X: Living the Digital Life