Multimedia file format conversions, ripping DVDs, playback and more

Recently, I’ve had cause to convert various multimedia items between formats and it’s not always been straightforward. I’m still learning as DRM, codecs and platform-related issues often complicate the process but this post summarises what I learned along the way with:

  • Grabbing audio content from another application.
  • Trimming audio files down to a particular section.
  • Converting Flash video (.FLV) files to video (as well as converting between a variety of other video formats).
  • Ripping DVD content for playback on the computer.
  • Playing Windows Media content on a Mac.
  • Playing QuickTime content in full-screen mode without buying QuickTime Pro.

I carry out most of my multimedia work on a Mac but some of these solutions will be equally applicable to Windows and possibly even to Linux users.

Grabbing audio content from another application

I’ve just three words to say that will describe how I did this – Audio Hijack Pro – a great application from Rogue Amoeba which takes the audio from any running application and allows it to be recorded.

Trimming audio files down to a particular section

In this scenario, I had about half an hour’s worth of audio, but only wanted to publish a section which was about 3 minutes in length. Apple QuickTime Pro will let me trim tracks, but didn’t seem to let me set the start and end points as accurately as I needed. There is another Rogue Amoeba application that I could use for this (Fission) but tasks like this are pretty rare for me and I didn’t want to pay $32 for what could potentially be a single use (the demo version inserts fades into the track to encourage purchase of the full software which seems fair enough as at least it lets me try before I buy). Instead, I used MP3 Trimmer from Deep Niner – the interface may not be as good as Fission’s, but it’s a fully-functional demo with no time limits and registration is just $10.95 should I find myself needing to trim MP3s more often.

Converting Flash video (.FLV) files to video (as well as converting between a variety of other video formats)

I spent all afternoon yesterday trying to work this one out – I had a bunch of Flash videos which I had downloaded from a website and although I could play them using Eltima Software’s SWF and FLV Player, I wanted to play them in iTunes. After searching the net for hours all roads seemed to lead to a Windows application that would convert the files to MPEG4 format for me (Moyea FLV to Video Converter). The demo version of this application inserts a watermark in the centre of the video (again, that’s fair enough – this is try before you buy) but as I really wanted something for my Mac I decided not to part with the $39.95.

Later that evening, my friend Alex recommended Perian to help me out with problems ripping a DVD (see below) and I found out that the Perian component for QuickTime had already been installed (probably when I had a quick look at the Democracy Player a few weeks back) so QuickTime could already play back my .FLV files! Because I have QuickTime Pro, it can also save the files as .MOVs although I’ve since found Vixy – an online service that will also carry out the conversion from Flash video to a variety of MPEG4 video formats including .AVI/.MOV/.MP4 and .3GP or to .MP3 (audio only).

After I’d done all this, Alex (who really should blog more often about the huge volumes of Mac and Internet-related stuff that he knows and I don’t) told me that he uses iSquint for converting Flash Video for iTunes playback. I had been under the impression that iSquint would reduce the picture size for iPod playback but it seems it can also retain TV size (whatever that is). iSquint also has a grown-up brother – Visual Hub – and, although I haven’t used it yet, it looks to be a pretty useful program which “bridges the gap between numerous complicated video formatting standards”.

Another toolset which may be useful is ffmpegX, which provides a Mac OS X interface to a number of open-source video and audio processing tools. There’s also the Apple QuickTime MPEG-2 Playback component, which enables QuickTime to play Video CD (MPEG1) and DVD (MPEG2) content and even convert them to MPEG4.

Ripping DVD content for playback on the computer

Ripping DVDs. Surely that’s illegal? Only if I then pass copies on to others, which of course I won’t, will I? Let’s be clear from the start that I’m only talking about backing up legally purchased content for personal use.

One application commonly used to make backup copies of DVDs is Mac the Ripper. There is a Windows application called DVDShrink (which allows the DVD content to be reauthored and if necessary “shrunk” to fit on a standard DVD) but to simply rip a copy for local playback the most commonly used application is HandBrake (also available for a while as MediaFork but the two development streams have now merged and future versions will be known as HandBrake). I was having problems using this last night but once I stopped trying to rip at a constant quality of 100% quality (and stuck with the default setting of an average bitrate of 1000kbps – perfectly acceptable for computer playback) everything was fine.

Others have written better guides on this than me… you can find some here:

Playing Windows Media content on a Mac

Although I have a copy of Windows Media Player 9 for Mac OS X (which I think came with Office 2004 for Mac), Microsoft discontinued development of this product a while back and now distributes the free Flip4Mac Player as the Windows Media Components for QuickTime. Unfortunately there is no support for content that is protected with Windows Media digital rights management (DRM) but I’m sure there are cracks and workarounds for those who are motivated to do so… if the BBC distributes content in Windows Media format (therefore cutting out Mac and Linux users) then I might even have a look myself… the Wikipedia article on DRM is a good place to start.

Playing QuickTime content in full-screen mode without buying QuickTime Pro

Apple QuickTime Pro it is a handy application for $29.99 (although, yet again Apple rips us off in the UK with a dodgy exchange rate so it’s £20 here) as it can be extended to play other media formats (as discussed above); however one of the Pro benefits is playing content in full-screen mode. It seems that Mac users can trick the standard QuickTime application into playing content in full-screen mode using a little AppleScript. For QuickTime users on Windows, I wrote about some methods for full-screen MPEG4 playback last year – including simply playing the content through iTunes!

I hope this pile of multimedia tips has been useful. Comments are welcome from those who have other free or low-cost solutions to contribute to the mix.

The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about Microsoft Office 2007, including the new OpenXML file format. In a recent Windows IT Pro magazine network WinInfo Daily Update, Paul Thurrott reported that the competing OpenDocument Foundation has announced a plug-in for Microsoft Office that will let users open and save documents natively in the open-source OpenDocument format (ODF), which has recently been standardised and is supported by IBM and Sun Microsystems. The plug-in, which has been in development for about a year, makes OpenDocument documents seem as if they’re native to Office. Add Adobe’s portable document format (PDF) and Microsoft’s XML paper specification (XPS – formerly codenamed Metro) into the mix and we have plenty of scope for document confusion.

Both OpenXML and ODF are open standards that are freely licensed but it remains to see whether either will become dominant. I have a feeling that we’ll have competing XML-based document standards to grapple with for many years to come.

Microsoft’s Open XML document formats

There has been a lot of media and industry comment of late about Office document formats, including Microsoft’s willingness (or otherwise) to embrace open standards. Whilst there will be some limited PDF support in the next version of Office (Office 12), Microsoft is hoping that it’s submission of the new Office formats to the ECMA will be sufficient to make the new Office file format a global standard.

In a newsletter sent to Windows Vista and Office 12 beta testers, Microsoft commented that:

“…Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents are now zipped files containing separate XML components. This format has just been released to ECMA and can be used royalty free.”

They continued to extol the virtues of this approach, claiming that:

“This means that you can build robust server side processes that manipulate and create office documents without ever needing the client [applications] running on the server. The openness of the file format means that ISVs can access the full semantic content of their documents without relying on Microsoft code to extract strings.”

On the face of it, this sounds good, but my first impression is still “oh no, yet more explaining to customers why their users on previous Office versions can’t read documents that have been sent from Office 12 users”. Oh well, I guess that’s the price of progress, but isn’t .PDF a de facto standard for document interchange these days?

Migrating e-mail from Mozilla Thunderbird to Microsoft Outlook

Since the end of November, I’ve been using the Mozilla Thunderbird client for my personal e-mail. It’s quite good (and in many ways better than Microsoft’s Outlook Express, which is no longer being developed), but it lacks many features that I used daily in the full Microsoft Outlook client (and quite frankly, Outlook was doing a better job of filtering out spam). The biggest drawbacks for me were a lack of calendar functionality, no longer being able to send SMS messages from within my e-mail client and that the address book only has space for two e-mail addresses per contact.

Anyway, sometime this afternoon, my laptop is due to be collected for repairs, so I needed to get my e-mail data out of Thunderbird and into a format that I could use on my work PC for a week or so (i.e. Microsoft Outlook personal folder – a .PST file).

Finding the Thunderbird data was easy enough – the Thunderbird FAQ pointed me to %appdata%\Thunderbird\Profiles\randomstring.default\; however, Thunderbird uses the standard Unix .MBOX format whilst Outlook Express uses proprietary .DBX files (but understands .EML, which are plain text files) and Outlook stores messages in binary proprietary .PST files.

Outlook can import data from Outlook Express, and Outlook Express claims to be able to read Eudora data (which is also in MBOX format); however I couldn’t get Outlook Express to read my Thunderbird files, instead displaying the following message:

Import Message
No messages can be found in this folder or another application is running that has the required files open. Please select another folder or try closing applications that may have files open.

A Google search turned up some anecdotal evidence of successful conversions using Eudora as an intermediary, but this was based on Eudora v5 (v7 is the current version available for download). After digging further, I found two articles which used third party utilities to convert the .MBOX data to .EML – one from Robert Peloschek (aka. Unic0der), and the other from Broobles. The principles are the same:

  1. Compact folders in Thunderbird (optional, but prevents conversion of deleted messages).
  2. Back up Thunderbird mail data (a simple file copy is fine).
  3. For each Thunderbird file without an extension (e.g. Inbox – but not Inbox.mfs), convert this to a series of .EML formatted files, for example using the Broobles IMAPSize utility (this is what I used) or Ulrich Krebs’ Mbox2eml (which relies on a Java runtime environment being present).
  4. Drag and drop the resulting files from the file system to Outlook Express.
  5. Import Outlook Express data to Outlook.

It worked for me, with one caveat – messages I had sent, but that were filed in locations other than in my Sent folder, all have the date stamp set to yesterday. I’ll live with that (after 2 hours of converting the data in each individual folder to a series of .EML files and the dragging and dropping them to the appropriate locations in a new folder structure, I’m just glad to have my data back where I want it) but I did read that this can be controlled by changing the sort order from received to sent before the file conversion and import.

So, that’s my Thunderbird experiment over. I’ll probably try out the e-mail and calendar client on my Solaris box soon (so will be back to .MBOX format I guess) but for a long while now I’ve been meaning to set up a mail server at home so that I can keep the mail there and use IMAP to access it online from whichever client I choose.

Office 12 PDF support

I just read on Stuart Preston’s blog that Microsoft will support the portable document format (PDF) natively in Office 12. Unfortunately, this is a publish (one-way) operation so we’ll still need Adobe Reader (or another application capable of reading PDF-formatted documents).

Metro: read all about it!

A while back, I read that Microsoft is switching to XML-based document formats in the next release of Microsoft Office and I just read some more…

According to PDFzone, Microsoft is developing a new document format (codenamed Metro), which is:

  • A new document file format, similar in many ways to portable document format (PDF).
  • A spool format, suitable for spooling to a device through the print subsystem.
  • A page description language, similar to printer control language (PCL) or PostScript, that can be used to transmit the information all the way down to a printer.

Apparently it’s all part of the WinFX API, being developed as part of Windows Vista but also due to be released for Windows XP and Server 2003 and according to Paul Thurrott’s Windows Vista FAQ:

    “Based on XML, Metro is to Windows Vista as Adobe PDF is to Mac OS X: It’s a device- and application-independent printing architecture that allows documents to retain their exact formatting in any application, and when printed. Unlike PDF, however, Metro is based on XML and will be released as an open standard. Metro will also incorporate ZIP technology – similar to that used by the next major version of Microsoft Office – to compress and decompress files on the fly. From a technology standpoint, Metro includes an XML-based electronic paper format called Metro Reach, a document viewer for viewing, managing, and printing Metro files, the ability to digitally sign Metro documents, APIs that allow programmers to integrate their applications and services with Metro, a print pipeline, and a new driver model for Metro-compatible printers.”

Finally, an open document standard that doesn’t require an expensive application license to produce a document (I’m guessing as it’s XML-based, I could write Metro documents using Windows Notepad, edit.com – or if I was feeling particularly masochistic, I could use edlin.exe or the UNIX vi editor!). It will be interesting to see how this new format compares with DocBook.

Brian Jones’ blog has more information and links about the Microsoft Office Open XML formats in Office 12.