20 February 2011

borrowing DVDs, permanently

How very satisfying to trudge home through the snow clutching your latest box-set of a solid British drama series. Even better as the Library lends DVDs for free. There are buts coming and they're tricky ones. But what if the set is in high demand so the loan period is only seven days and there are four discs containing twelve one hour episodes? What if you have a busy week ahead just as this treasured series has become available?

Make copies! Not for broadcasting or sharing of course but to allow you that little extra time to view them in. Oh, and it’s useful to have the set handy in case you want to watch it again, right? But DVDs are usually between 6GB and 8GB in size whereas a blank DVD-R holds a mere 4.7GB. What to do? Are we thwarted? Not on your Nelly!

Squeezing lots of video data onto a small disc is certainly possible but you have to shrink the file. I have an interest in solving technology challenges and this is the copying method I have developed. The freely downloadable software DVD Shrink is a good place to start. It compresses the data during copying to ensure it will fit comfortably on any commercially available blank DVD. It’s easiest to choose to rip the disc as an ISO image file.

But to back up for a moment (pardon the pun), it is a good idea to clean the discs thoroughly first. In the case of well-worn discs, deep scratches will be unreadable by a computer drive so you may as well give up at this stage and save yourself the hassle. But light scratching, which will be bothersome to a computer drive, can be polished down sufficiently using a car body scratch remover – the kind that will gently buff away surface scratching.

Sometimes no matter what you do, the disc may be impossible for your drive to read, it may be badly pitted. Or perhaps you want to rip a ‘Region 2’ disc in your ‘Region 1’ drive. Try DVD Decrypter. That has more powerful features, will crack regional encoding and seems less fussy. Europe is Region 2, North America is Region 1 but DVD Decrypter will render the copied image region-free. However, the ripped file you end up with this way will still be far too big, so you will need to reduce the ISO file size in DVD Shrink. Earlier we shrunk an actual DVD but this time you will need to “mount” the ISO file on a virtual drive. Magic ISO will achieve this by treating the ISO file as a playable DVD and will allocate a virtual drive letter to it.

When you’ve at last got an ISO file on your hard drive coming in at just under 4.7GB then you’re ready for the easy bit, the burning. I use Nero or Roxio but any burning software will put the ISO image file onto a blank DVD. I find DVD-R discs are readable by most DVD players. I don’t notice an appreciable loss of quality even though the copied image is considerably smaller than the original.

After all that effort you’re ready to watch. Slip into your old slippers, light your pipe and relax in your favourite armchair... and don’t forget to take the DVD back to the library, you don't want a late fee do you!

16 February 2011

making new music

I returned from England a couple of weeks ago with, among many things, a great deal of new music. It came in the form of mp3 and wma files stashed on my external hard drive. This trove came from a friend I visited in Birmingham. He lives in a ninety room mansion but curiously confines himself to a single suite positively brimming with CDs and vinyl.

He and I have exchanged music for years. To sidestep any legal difficulties I prefer to think of it as storing backup copies for personal use (three thousand miles away). Luckily for me he has other friends who are equally acquisitive on the music front and are just as keen to keep copies somewhere safe and sound. This arrangement makes for a vast reservoir of music into which I can occasionally dip.

Usually these exchanges take place under plain brown cover through trans-Atlantic correspondence but this time, after two flights and a two hundred mile drive up the M5, we could hook up USB-wise in person and plunder each other's external hard drives with abandon. The result of this debauchery was a horde of around ninety albums. Plus of course an interesting and entertaining couple of days during my three week trip back to England.

Extreme Virgo tendencies won't ever let me leave it at that. Oh no, the harvest was just the beginning. Now the online work would begin in earnest. First a quick sampling to identify candidates for burning to CDR, then a tidying up of "tags" to be sure all tracks are properly labelled with title, band, album, genre and year. Next comes the job of burning to CDR, a big task but worth it for those albums which I will want to hear on my hi-fi.

Temporary labels adorn the pile of discs at this stage while the printing phase swings into action. This is a time consuming but vital part of the exercise if the CDRs are to be protected for storage on my shelves. Google Images is a happy hunting ground for the cover art and sites like Amazon provide track-listings which I can either copy and paste or transcribe. I paste the images and data one by one into an MS Word template I made many moons ago. Each gets printed on white cardstock.

Next out comes the guillotine and I do some trimming. I've done this so often now that I can slip the card in out and bring down the guillotine arm almost before the card has stopped moving. Swivel it round ninety degrees and slice off the excess, repeat twice more then cut around the folding tabs. Folding each tab is a long process with a batch this size but makes the gluing stage easier.

The tabs are brushed with a glue stick then the whole template is folded into its final shape, a slim CD-sized sleeve. While the seams dry I start on labels for the discs. These I form from a homemade template in DesignPro Lite. I keep the labelling simple just band, album title and year. I pick a background colour to match the cover art and print off the labels, two to a sheet.

I apply the self-adhesive labels with a trusty Fellowes labelling device which emigrated from England with me years ago. Finally I slip each CD into its new case and there it is, a stack of music to play on the hi-fi.

08 February 2011

the Realplayer Video download phenomenon

See important qualification at the end - 23 Jun '13 .

Some months ago I downloaded the latest version of RealPlayer. It’s not my preferred software but I needed it to watch a particular video. Since then I began to notice the appearance of an invitation: “Download Video with RealPlayer?” whenever I hovered my mouse over a video in YouTube.

Still not that interested in the message, I ignored it. Easy... as it vanished whenever I moved my mouse pointer away. Who downloads video anyway? With modems and routers permanently online these days, any video you might want is only a click away, right? Yes, but recently I decided to download a documentary to watch on my iPod. I clicked on the Realplayer message and collected a chunky video file. Next a dialogue box asked me what format I would like to convert the file to. The options catered for a host of end viewing platforms. I chose mp4 (for iPod).

But where is all this leading? I watched an hour long documentary on a screen the size of a matchbox but hidden in the recesses of my mind was the list of other file formats I had spotted on RealPlayer’s lengthy menu of conversion options.

Fast forward to last week when I was rummaging through a horde of over a hundred mp3 albums I had acquired from my friend Steve during my trip to England. Oddly some albums were missing a track here and there. The cogs in my head turned and there was a faint smell of burning. Hmm, music tracks are widespread on YouTube. Could I download the relevant video file using the obliging Realplayer downloader then convert to mp3 using the helpful Realplayer file converter? Yes, it worked!

Teenage scavengers of music may well have winkled out this little scam long ago but I have only just hit upon it. Today I picked half a dozen albums from my wish list, obtained a track-listing for each, searched for the tracks on YouTube and found ninety-nine per cent of them.

I triggered the RealPlayer Downloader for each, switched the YouTube quality control to 480p or above, hit the download button and soon had a dozen tracks downloading in a jolly, nice list-box. A few were preceded by irritating adverts but the helpful men at RealPlayer had that covered too. If the commercials are embedded, then when the download is complete you just call up the handy RealPlayer Trimmer, set start and end points on the video file and clip off the loathsome parts.

Next you open the video files in RealPlayer Converter and choose mp3 from the list of conversion options. After the swift conversion process you’re left with a music file recognizable by any portable player. I like to burn the best albums to CDR for my hi-fi so I chose a high-ish bit rate for mp3 encoding.

Next you slip the files into a folder named after the album and save that in a folder named after the band/artist. Then you open the music file “tag”-editor by right clicking the tracks and choosing “properties”. That way you can categorize the music with band, album, track number, genre and year tags for correct sorting when imported into Windows Media Player.

I like to print some of my patented cases on cardstock to store any burned discs complete with cover art harvested from Google Images and track listings prepared in Excel.

I should acknowledge that downloading is usually slightly illegal. But this method uses software available free from Internet giants and does not involve wicked file-sharing sites. Users of the YouTube/RealPlayer system rely on naughty people uploading their favourite new music to YouTube and newly released albums are subject to a flurry of deletions from YouTube. Literally millions of tracks from almost any CD you care to name, new or old, mainstream or obscure are on YouTube either with a video or a still image.

Finally, I am a fan of many bands and have spent a small fortune on a large CD collection and scores of concert tickets. For more than a casual listen I support the artist and invest in the CD (if you can call this convoluted process of downloading, trimming, converting, tagging, burning and printing casual!)

23 Jun '13 - I am adding this qualification. This month when attempting to use the Real Converter on my Windows 7 laptop I was confronted with an offer from RealPlayer to BUY the software! There is no option to decline. Clicking 'close' on the offer just stops the entire process and no conversion takes place.

Various Forums are suggesting this is a temporary issue between RealPlayer and YouTube and is under investigation. However the 'free' nature of this set-up seems under threat. I tried using various older versions of RealPlayer but none was compatible with the latest Firefox or IE. Another problem seems to be that files downloaded from YouTube are coming in the form of MP4 which limits the choice of converter. As a workaround I uninstalled RealPlayer and replaced it with just the RealDownloader. I am currently using the conversion feature in Freemake Video Converter (Take care to uncheck all the bloatware that comes with it) to convert from video file to MP3.

I might add that RealPlayer functions in the latest version remain (for now) unaffected on my Windows Vista laptop.