Importing Audiobooks in iTunes

If you listen to audiobooks, and purchase or borrow them on CD, you’ll probably want to import them into iTunes so you can listen on your iPod, or your computer. It’s so much easier to listen to audiobooks on digital devices; you don’t need to carry around all the CDs, and you can stop listening whenever you want, yet still keep your place. Using an iPod–or another digital music player–for this is easy, and with iTunes, you can import your audiobooks in the format you want, and prepare them for listening with very little work.

However, you need to be aware of certain settings, and there are a couple of tricks that can make listening to audiobooks on an iPod much easier. Read on to find out how to do this.

Prelude: Choosing how You Want to Listen

Before you begin, you need to be aware that there are several ways to listen to digital audiobooks, and you need to make some choices before you starting ripping, or importing, your CDs. Bear in mind that these are choices you will generally only make once; the next time you import an audiobook, you’ll probably not change your procedure.

Note that audiobooks ripped in this manner will not show up in iTunes’ or the iPod’s Audiobooks menus. That involves tweaking the files a bit, and, frankly, is not always worth the headache (especially since there are bugs on iPods regarding bookmarking these files). I’ll follow up soon with another article covering those questions.

First, you need to decide whether you will listen only on your computer or with an iPod, or whether you may want to listen on other digital devices, or even burn MP3 CDs to use in a car or home player. This affects your choice of importing format (see step 1). If you are happy with your iPod, you can use AAC format, which is the default format that iTunes uses. If you may want to use the files you import with other devices, you should choose MP3, which is more widely supported.

Second, you must decide whether you will be content with multiple files for each book, or whether you want to join them to make fewer, larger files. With iTunes, you can join all the files on each CD, which does reduce the number of files you end up with. In most cases, the difference is moot; in fact, it may be easier to have multiple files, since you can put just part of a book on your iPod, if you’re tight on space. Step 2 looks at these choices.

Step 1: iTunes Importing Settings

iTunes is set, by default, to import music files from CDs. When you import audiobooks, you may want to change the settings, since spoken word recordings don’t need the same quality as music, and since you may not want your audiobooks to take up much space. Since audiobooks cover several CDs–most books run from about 10 to 20 CDs–it’s easy to fill up a small iPod if you use the same settings as you do for music.

One hour of music, at iTunes’ default bit rate of 128 kbps, takes up about 56 MB. This means that a ten-hour book, at this importing setting, would take up 560 MB. This is no problem if you have an 80 GB iPod, but if you have an iPod nano or shuffle, you won’t have much room for anything else. And longer books, which are common, will fill your iPod much too quickly. Since voice recordings don’t need the same quality settings, you can save space by using a lower bit rate (the bit rate is what determines the sound quality, and the size of the files is relative to the bit rate).

As I said above, iTunes uses a default bit rate of 128 kbps, and this is in stereo; spoken word recordings, which cover a narrower range of frequencies (the voice is much more limited in its frequncey range than any musical instrument) can get by with much less. In addition, you don’t need to use stereo for most audiobooks: only those recordings with multiple voices where you have a “soundstage”, or voices in different locations, need stereo. (You might want stereo for recordings of plays, or for full-cast recordings.) So, for your audiobooks, mono is fine.

As for the actual bit rate, this depends on whether you are tight on space. I tend to use 48 kbps for my audiobooks; this is a good compromise between size and quality. Since this is in mono, it is the equivalent of 96 kbps in stereo. You could use a higher bit rate, such as 64 kbps (which equals 128 kbps in stereo) if you want better quality sound; you could even go higher if you want, but you certainly won’t hear the difference. (If you are familiar with’s file formats, 32 kbps is the equivalent of Audible’s format 4.) Note, also, that AAC files sound better at lower bit rates than MP3 files, so that 48 kbps AAC file setting I use is probably as good as 64 kbps MP3.

Now, you may be confused by all these numbers and acronyms. If so, I’m going to recommend simply that you use 48 kbps in either AAC or MP3 format. Remember earlier, when I said your choice of format depends on what devices you plan to use? Here’s where you make your choice. If you only plan to use an iPod, or your computer, choose AAC; if you plan to, or think you may want to, use other devices, choose MP3.

To change the iTunes importing settings, choose iTunes preferences from the iTunes menu (if you’re using a Mac), or from the Edit menu (if you use Windows). Click the Advanced tab, then Importing to view these settings. To change the settings, first select the Import Using menu; here’s where you can choose AAC or MP3 (don’t worry about the other formats; you don’t want to use them for audiobooks). Select the one you want. Next, click the Setting menu and choose Custom. Here is where you select the bit rate and other settings. Choose your bit rate: let’s assume you agree with me and want to use 48 kbps. In this case, counter-intuitively, you must choose 96 kbps. Why do you do this? Because you’ll next choose Mono from the Channels menu, which halves the bit rate to 48. Finally, if you’ve selected AAC as your importing format, check Optimize for Voice–this is only available for AAC, and optimizes the encoding for the frequencies in voices, ignoring anything that’s too high or too low. Click OK, then OK again to save these settings.

(Note: when you want to import music again, you’ll need to change the settings back to your music settings. Not what settings you use so you don’t forget; unfortunately, there’s no way to save presets for importing settings.)

Step 2: Preparing CDs for Importing

Now that you’ve chosen which settings you want to use, it’s time to insert a CD into your computer and prepare to import the first disc. You’ll probably have noticed that, when you insert a CD, iTunes displays the name of the CD, the artist, the song names, etc. In principle. This works because iTunes checks and Internet database for track information, but for most audiobooks, you’ll see nothing more than Track 1, Track 2, etc. (One notable exception is Naxos audiobooks, where you’ll get actual track info, such as the names of chapters or the first words of each section. Some other audiobooks may find this information, but most won’t.) Because of this, you need to label, or tag your files, and the best time to do it is now, before you import your CDs.

There are several reasons for tagging files: you want to mark the name of the book and author, and you also want to indicate disc numbers, which is important when you listen to books, to ensure that the files stay in order. To do this, select all the files on the CD (Command-A on Mac, Control-A on Windows), then press Command-I (Mac) or Control-I (Windows) to display a window where you can edit tags for all the files. I enter the book’s title in the Album field, and the author in the Artist field. I also enter a genre; you can use Audiobooks or Spoken Word, or whatever you want. Just type in any genre you want to use. One other item that’s important is to enter the disc number; enter, for example, disc 1 of 10 (or simply disc 1) in the appropriate fields. When you have finished, click OK to save this information. Now, when iTunes imports the disc, it will save the files with the information you have entered.

Another thing to consider is whether you want to import all these files individually, or import the entire CD as a single file. If you do the former, you may end up with hundreds of files for any given book; the latter gives you as many files as you have CDs. Since you can set iTunes to remember your playback position (see Step 3), one file per CD is a good choice. But if you’re ripping for other players, you might not want to do this. To join tracks, just select all the tracks on the CD, then select Advanced > Join CD Tracks. You’ll see in the iTunes window that a bracket forms around the tracks, showing they are joined.

When you’re ready, click the Import CD button at the bottom of iTunes’ window. This will take a few minutes per CD. When you’ve finished the first CD, eject it, then insert another CD, tag the files, join the tracks if you want, and import. Repeat until you’ve ripped all the CDs.

Step 3: After Importing

So, now that you’ve imported all your CDs (which may take a while for long books), there are a couple more things you need to do to make it easier to listen to your books. First, find all the CDs; if you’ve tagged them correctly, this should be easy. Click the Music icon in the iTunes Source list (at the top left of the window), and, if you don’t see a two-or three column browser at the top of the iTunes window, select View > Show Browser. Next, find the artist (which is the author’s name, if you’ve followed my advice), and click that name. You’ll see all the files you’re ripped for this author; if you have more than one book by the author, click the book’s name in the Album column, and you’ll see only those files in the main section of the iTunes window.

You may want to change the names of the files; if you have joined them, they’ll show with names that are probably not very useful. So click one file to select it, then press Enter; the name will be highlighted. Type a name, such as Bleak House 1, for the first file of Bleak House. Do the same for the other files, so you know which is which. You don’t have to do this, especially if you follow the smart playlist instructions in Step 5, but it really is better to know what the files are and where they fit. (You might want to use number such as 01, 02, etc, because, if not, some players might not sort the files correctly if there are more than ten of them.)

Next, select all the files, and press Command-I (Mac) or Control-I (Windows). You’ve seen this info window before; what you want to do now is change two settings at the bottom of the window. Look for Remember Position, and select Yes from its menu; look for Skip when Shuffling, and select Yes. Then click OK.

The first setting, Remember Position, tells iTunes or your iPod to “bookmark” your file, or record the place where you leave off when you stop listening. This means that you can stop at any time, listen to something else, then come back to where you were. The second tells iTunes and the iPod to not add these files when you use shuffle playback; it’s clear that you don’t want to listen to your books in random order.

Step 4: Listening to Your Book

Now, you can listen to your book in one of several ways. You can navigate on your iPod, or in iTunes, finding the book by Artist (the author) or Album (the title) and play a selected file. But you have to remember the last file you listened to if you do this; for this reason, using one file per CD can be easier. However, using iTunes’ smart playlists, there’s an even easier way to do this.

Smart playlists let you set up rules for finding files in iTunes and on your iPod. Any files that match these conditions get added to the playlist; you don’t have to add files manually. Setting up a smart playlist to listen to an audiobook is both easy and very efficient.

In iTunes, select File > New Smart Playlist. You’ll see a Smart Playlist window which offers to “match the following rule”. By default, this is Artist contains, then a blank field. Select the “contains” menu, and change it to “is”. Then, in the field, type the name of the author.

Next, click the + icon next to that rule to create another rule. From the first menu, select “Album”; select “is” from the second menu; then type in the title of the book.

Click the + icon again. Select the first menu and choose “Play Count”. The second menu will change to “is”, and the field will fill with 0. Now, click OK. You’ll see the playlist and its contents, and it will be named Untitled Playlist; this name is highlighted, so to change it, just type over it. (Name it with the title of the book, or the author, or My New Audiobook, or anything you want.)

Here’s what the smart playlist does: it groups all the files by the selected author and with the selected title, but only those with a play count of 0. This means that when you’ve finished listening to the first file, its play count will become 1, and it will no longer be in the list. So to listen to a book, just select this playlist on your iPod or in iTunes and start listening to the first file. Since files you have listened to won’t be in the list, the first file will always be the next one to listen to. And since you’re remembering the playback position, even if you haven’t finished a file, it will be at the top of the list at the correct position.

When you sync your iPod, these files and their playlist will be copied. When you’ve finished listening to the book, you can either delete the files, or store them someplace else if you think you’ll want to listen to the book again. And to delete the playlist, just select it and press the delete key.

So, with these instructions, you’re ready to rip all your audiobooks and listen on your iPod. If you have any questions, post a comment below, or send me an e-mail (click the Ask Kirk link at the top of the right-hand column of this page).

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