Roll Your Own Anamorphic iPod-Compatible Videos from Blu-ray

27 August 2011
HD and SD Versions

HD and SD Versions (click to enlarge)

My job has changed recently and now involves travel, so suddenly I have a use for SD versions of videos. Previously I would only rip a HD version of a Blu-ray.

The iPod Classic is the reference device for SD video in the iTunes ecosystem. It has an ostensible limit of 640 x 480 pixels. This can be stretched to 855 x 480 with the anamorphic flag switched on. This is possible to do with anamorphic DVDs in HandBrake.

However, Blu-ray is natively widescreen, 1920 x 1080, so there’s no such thing as anamorphic ratios. In order to produce an iPod-compatible anamorphic video, you have to tweak the dimensions. Here are the settings for this movie, which is in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1:

HandBrake Settings

HandBrake Settings (click to enlarge)

I used the Universal preset. The result:

Result in iTunes

Result in iTunes


What’s Been Happening Recently

16 February 2011

It’s been a while and lots of new iTunes and iDevices news has come and gone. I’m still working away diligently, building my collection and rocking the new HandBrake 0.9.5. This version produces such good results that for DVD, I’ve decided I’m not going to rerip any 0.9.5 video with future versions.

I’ve abandoned all other metadata taggers and am exclusively using Subler. This is the supreme application for this task.

I’ve started to rip Blu-ray and the results are pretty good, but I’m getting some blockies in dark regions of the image. When, as I predict, the Apple TV will support 1080, I will rerip them for 1080 and hopefully be able to increase the bitrate.


iPhone Supports Better-than-iPod Video Quality

10 September 2009

In versions of iTunes prior to 9, videos that are compatible with a device have been displayed with black text, incompatible with grey. In iTunes 9, I was looking at the TV settings for the iPhone and noticed that all of my TV shows appeared in black. I’ve ripped all my DVDs as 768 x 576 (4:3) or 1024 x 576 anamorphic (16:9), 2500Kbps H.264, 160Kbps AAC. Up to this point, I was never able to sync a file greater than iPod resolution.

To my delight and surprise, these PAL-derived monsters synced across and played. Here’s one from Arrested Development, ripped from a Region 4 PAL DVD:

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Compatible TV Show<br>Click to enlarge

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Compatible TV Show

This is the only 720 HD TV show I have, Dollhouse. It’s a rip from a TV broadcast. The iPhone wouldn’t accept it:

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible HD TV Show

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible HD TV Show

Next I tested an iPod Classic, the true standard. Despite the apparent compatibility (black text), it wouldn’t sync anything above iPod standard:

iPod Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible TV Show

iPod Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible TV Show

What does it mean? It means less work when preparing DVD content. I can now rip one version of movies, TV shows and music videos, as long as I sync to an iPhone (and presumably, an iPod Touch). This is a pretty major step forward. Perhaps next year we’ll be able to sync 720 HD.


Losin’ Myself in Lossless

9 September 2009

Predictably, I’ve decided that, in contrary to what I said in my last post, I’m going fully lossless. That means that all CDs will be reripped as Apple Lossless. The journey will end.

I’m going to start with those CDs that have hidden tracks. As I’ve ripped my collection, I’ve been alert to unusually long final tracks, which often denote a hidden track. I don’t rip these in iTunes. I open the CD in the Finder and drag the final track to the desktop. I then open it in QuickTime Player, find and chop out the hidden track, save that as an AIFF and save the shortened original as an AIFF. I then drag these into iTunes and rip as Apple Lossless. I used to then rip those to 256Kbps AAC and store the Lossless originals in a folder archive, out of iTunes.

So that’s the starting point. Rip the CD minus the two last tracks, drag in the Lossless tracks, done.

Well, almost. They need to be “double-tagged“. I’ve started trialling Meta X. It’s not perfect. For a start, it wants to classify a Lossless track as a movie, a TV show or a music video. It thinks it’s video. I run the tracks through Lostify first, specifying a kind of  Normal (Audio). Meta X then respects this. Meta X allows me to write two tags that Lostify can’t: audio Content Rating and Purchase Date. This latter is a little flaky. If I enter 2005-05-29, it’s converted to Zulu notation and given a time as well. The date is always a day later, so the above example will appear something like 30 May 2005 6:00PM in the Summary tab of the Get Info dialog for a single track. I need to understand how Zulu time works.

I’ve got a database listing every single CD I’ve bought, with the date, supplier and cost, so I have the purchase data. I’m hoping a later revision will also present the Purchased By tag so I can finish the job with my name.

What about the other end of the equation, the real bottleneck, the iPod? I had an inspiration. My two-year-old 160Gb Classic would not be worth too much now, especially after tomorrow’s iPod event, so I’m better off keeping it. The solution is simple: buy an additional Classic and run two Classics to hold the library. I would have put off getting an additional Classic until next year but the free space is being consumed at an alarming rate and I’ll run out in about a month. Two Classics, especially if the new one tomorrow is 160Gb or greater, is the solution until that fabled 500Gb iPod Touch becomes reality.

I tried to work out how much space to expect Lossless files to take up, but the math is difficult. I believe Lossless compresses at different rates depending on the audio pattern. For example, the last track of Massive Attack’s 100th Window, Antistar, is bigger than the hidden track, LP4, even though LP4 is much longer. LP4 is little more than 11:23 of static, which is super-efficient to compress. It will take months, probably a year, given all my projects, before I could rerip everything, so space will not be an immediate concern.

So that’s my journey. Light at the end of the tunnel at last. Enjoyable all the way.


Going Lossless

24 August 2009

I’m ripping CDs to 256Kbps AAC, mostly because it’s Apple’s standard on the iTunes Store. I started out in 2002, ripping to 128Kbps, again because it was what Apple was doing, but also because my iPod was 30Gb and I had to fit everything on it plus leave some space for my rapidly burgeoning collection. iPods, in my book, dictate the bitrate you will be using.

I just bought two albums from sources other than the iTunes Store: the remarkable chiptunes tribute to Kind of Blue, Kind of Bloop and a new Paul & Price EP, Believing. I like the iTunes Store’s 256Kbps, but these two titles had a killer feature–they both were available in a lossless format. I ripped both to 256Kbps AAC and stored the lossless files away for later use.

I’ve been through three bitrate standards: 128Kpbs, 192Kbps and now 256Kbps. Each phase represents a time when the iPod (and to a lesser degree, local storage) capacity increased markedly. There is another phase to come, but thankfully it will be the last. When the iPod has another great leap forward in capacity, say to 500Gb, I will make that final step to full lossless for all my CDs.

The beauty of lossless, from a management viewpoint, is that you can’t make it any better, and thus your bitrate journey is over. By lossless, I specifically mean Apple’s Apple Lossless format, because that’s the one I’ve selected for compatibility with iTunes and the iPod.

It struck me, with these two titles I bought, that I don’t need to convert them to 256Kbps. There are only 9 songs between them, and keeping the lossless versions in iTunes means I don’t have to archive copies and there is no need to maintain two versions. My 160Gb iPod Classic still has about 25Gb free, and my iTunes library is on a readily upgradeable Drobo, so there’s no need to be careful about space considerations. I wouldn’t do this with all my music yet–there’s still the iPod capacity barrier, but the distinction here is that these files do not have a hardware CD source. I might as well leave these bits and bobs as lossless. Now I need replacement lossless versions for the Neptune Pink Floyd tribute compilations None of Us is Pink and The Return of the Sons of Neptune, lost in a hard-drive accident.


My New Movie Server

13 January 2009
PowerMac G5

Photo © Apple Computer, Inc.

I’m lovin’ my new movie server. The PowerMac G5 is still a good machine for recording and playing back video. Principal advantages are its two drive bays for RAID-striping up to 2Tb and built-in 5.1 audio support over TOSLINK optical audio. Finally mine is doing more than just EyeTV recording and transcoding to MPEG 4 for Apple TV.

For years I had been plotting to use my G5 in this capacity but the problem was the video connection. I tried an adapter to go from DVI to component, as my TV’s best input is component (too old for HDMI), but despite reported compatibility with my video card, I could only get 800 x 600 resolution. Then my friend pointed out the obvious: stop striving for the pinnacle of video quality in favour of something that actually works, and get Apple’s own DVI to Video adapter. Instant solution. Now I’m living the dream.

It hasn’t replaced my Apple TV, which is still the keystone of my entertainment system. I have found that it is notoriously difficult to get good results in converting DVD to MPEG 4, so I’ve limited this process to TV only, for which the benefits of fully tagged separate episodes outweigh any slight loss of quality. Considering that a movie can be stored on a hard drive in the exact same format, and thus with no loss of quality, it is worth keeping movies in this way. I use Front Row, part of Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard”, as my interface to the movies.

To save space, and as the movie itself is the main thing you will want to play, I extract the movie itself from the DVD and discard the rest. I have used MacTheRipper to rip as “main movie only”, but it produces lousy results (often crashes after ripping and the movies crash DVD Player if fast-forwarded), so I have started to use a Windows app, DVDFab Decrypter, exclusively. This app is stable and produces error-free rips. Most impressively, it also overcomes a lot of copy protection that MacTheRipper can’t cope with. Examples: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (ARccOS copy protection), The Dark Knight (Warner deliberately “damaged” the disc to prevent copying). The result is a separate folder for each movie containing a VIDEO_TS folder and sometimes an AUDIO_TS folder as well. In this movie folder, put artwork for the movie from your own scans or the internet. impawards.com is one of the best sources. The image file must be called Preview.jpg (case sensitive). Front Row uses this file as artwork to illustrate the movie. It interprets a movie folder as a discrete unit, as if it were a single file with embedded artwork.

I store the movies in the following subfolders in the Movies folder in my local account:

  • Movies: For movie-only movies.
  • Music Videos: Even though I rip all music videos for iPod so that I can take them with me, some DVDs warrant the respect they deserve in terms of video and audio quality, like concerts. This folder houses the more quality-critical DVDs for home viewing. The folder structure for this folder is Artist/Title. The Title folder is the DVD folder itself, e.g. ~/Movies/Music Videos/Flaming Lips, The/UFOs at the Zoo.
  • Short Films: Some DVDs consist of a number of short films, like Wallace and Gromit. I rip the films separately and put them here.
  • Special Features: When I buy a DVD, I rip the whole of a bonus DVD for convenient access. I delete the DVD folder when I’m finished with it to free up space.
  • _Spillover Video: This is actually an alias. I have 2 x 320Gb drives in the G5 but this is not enough. As a temporary measure, I am using some space on an external FireWire drive on my other desktop. Simply mount the drive as a share, then create an alias to the spillover movie folder in the Movies folder in your local account. The share will be mounted whenever you boot. Of course, the other desktop must be online to be able to access that content. When 1Tb drives drop in price, I will buy two and replace the two 320Gb drives currently in the machine.

There is a caveat with Front Row: If you put a series of movies into a subfolder, such as Dirty Harry, the folder will appear at the bottom of the list. There is no good reason for this, but you might not think to look at the bottom for a movie series. An alternative approach is to rename the movie folders with a prefix, such as Dirty Harry 1 | Dirty Harry, Dirty Harry 2 | Magnum Force, Dirty Harry 3 | The Enforcer, etc. I use a pipe character | instead of a colon as the colon is a reserved character in Mac OS X.

Also, any folder starting with The, A or An will of course be incorrectly alphabetised. I put the article at the end, e.g. Golden Compass, The.

To control Front Row, I use Leopard’s screen-sharing feature with my laptop, then navigate using the arrow keys. This makes the laptop hot as it’s constantly refreshing the sharing window, so I tend to quit Screen Sharing once I’ve got the movie going. I’ll have to get a remote for playback. You can’t totally give up a keyboard and mouse as you need to be able to do operations like copying files, trimming the length of EyeTV recordings, etc. Sharing the screen is perfect because you don’t have to supply a keyboard and mouse for the machine.

In addition to running Front Row, I still use the machine to record TV with EyeTV, but I no longer have to transcode for Apple TV. It’s a revelation to simply play a recording. Sometimes I start watching it before it’s finished recording. Sometimes I even watch live TV!

There’s a lot to be said for the movie server. An older machine with plenty of storage makes a great complement to Apple TV, which can concentrate on movie rentals, TV shows, music and podcasts.


Anamorphic Video on iPod

26 November 2008

I’ve been experimenting with anamorphic video. I read after the 2007 models came out that they supported anamorphic video, so the maximum matrix of 640 x 480 pixels can be used to squash a widescreen video with an anamorphic flag, so the iPod, iTunes and Apple TV would interpret it as roughly 855 x 480 pixels. Obviously the iPod would have to shrink this to 320 x 160 or so for its built-in screen.

Problem is, the results are disappointing. These two screenshots are from the same content and the exact same frame, Lemon Jelly’s ’64-’95 DVD:

'64-'95 DVD (720 x 400)

Lemon Jelly: '64-'95 DVD (720 x 400) (Click to enlarge)

'64-'95 DVD (854 x 480)

Lemon Jelly: '64-'95 DVD (854 x 480 anamorphic) (Click to enlarge)

Lots of ugly artefacts in the anamorphic version. There are also frequent failures to resolve detail, with the effect that spots of the video suddenly go out of focus for a few frames. Movement has the occasional judder or skip. These are all present in non-anamorphic iPod rips, but far less frequent or noticeable.

I also did test rips of Sigur Ros’ Heima. What’s most disturbing about the results is the fact that the source in both cases is pristine, some of the highest bitrate, cleanest, most perfect DVD I’ve ever seen. If I ripped trash as anamorphic, the effect could only be more pronounced.

So I don’t think anamorphic is for me, despite the unassailable coolness this brings, especially as the increased resolution makes it more attractive for both iPod and computer/Apple TV use, perhaps leading to one version, not two.