Getting iTunes Music to Play in Windows Media Center

Media comments edit

While it was not my primary goal, one of the things I thought would be a "nice to have" in my Windows Media Center solution is the ability to play my music through the Media Center interface. The big wrench in the works there, though, is that I primarily use iTunes to manage my music and much of it is in AAC and Apple Lossless formats. Due, I'm sure, to some ridonkulous licensing crap, Windows Media Center does not play either of those formats natively, so getting my music in there looked like it was going to be painful.

The Goal: Get my music into Windows Media Center.

Requirements:

  • As few moving pieces as possible. That is, if I don't have to have a script that runs a sync operation that happens on a scheduled basis or something, I don't want it. This is similar to the "simple, simple, simple" goal I mentioned in my Media Center overview.
  • All music playable except the DRM-laden tracks. I want my entire library available, not just a subset of the tracks. That said, since I have very few purchased tracks from iTunes, if I can't play the licensed music due to DRM issues, that's OK. Out of like 13,000 tracks, I think like 10 or less have the DRM on them. (I have a lot of CDs.)
  • Metadata visible in Media Center. At the very least, I want to see album title, track name, artist, and the cover art. Nice to have would be the year, genre, etc. but I don't normally navigate by those things.
  • Playlist import is optional. I have several playlists in iTunes but I'm not necessarily glued to them. If they don't make it to Media Center, I won't be heartbroken.

Options:

Given all that, I basically have two options that I found.

  1. Buy MCETunes. MCETunes is a plugin that you install that syncs up with iTunes (on the same machine as the Windows Media Center) and updates the Media Center library with entries for iTunes music. It syncs up your playlists, too, so those are there, and when you play the songs, it's actually [somehow] wrapping iTunes. A lot of folks are using it and like it, but there are some forum posts that make me a little wary about the whole thing. Lots of moving pieces.
  2. Get Windows Media Center to play iTunes music natively. This is a little more manual work, but it means enabling AAC and Apple Lossless for play directly through the Windows Media Center interface. No playlists, and maybe less metadata than with MCETunes.

The road I went with was getting Media Center to understand AAC/ALAC (Apple Lossless) natively.

How To:

Here's how to get Media Center working with your iTunes music. For these instructions, I'm using Windows Media Player 11 on Windows Vista Home Premium. (The Windows Media Player info is important because Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center share the same library. If WMP indexes a file, it shows up in WMC.) You will also need Administrator privileges because you're going to be installing stuff.

As with everything, this is all at your own risk. If it doesn't work for you, if you hose your machine, if you end up launching a nuclear attack on a neighboring country... that's all on you.

Also, it may be handy (if you index something you don't want or want to "clean out" your Media Center library) to know how to totally flush the Windows Media Player library and start from scratch. I had to do that a couple of times before I got it right.

Read all the instructions before you start. It will help to understand the whole process before you start in. You don't want to get halfway done and have an "oh crap" moment.

With that...

  1. Make sure the "album artist" field is filled in on all of your music. This is just good metadata practice, but it will come in very handy later because "album artist" is how Windows Media Player gets album artwork and deals with other metadata issues. I have a script that may help you with that, but it is a lot of work if you have a lot of tracks.
  2. Get the DirectShow filter. A DirectShow filter is how you teach Windows Media Player/Windows Media Center how to play a new file type. DSP-worx has a filter you can download for free that will enable AAC/ALAC playback. You can download it here.
  3. Install the filter. Create a folder on your primary OS drive. Make sure it doesn't have any spaces in the pathname or it may not work. I made mine "C:\dsp-worx" - you may want to as well. Once you have that folder, unzip the contents of the DirectShow filter zip file you just downloaded into that folder. In there you'll see a "register.bat" file - double-click to run that. That registers the DirectShow filter with Windows so now you can play AAC/ALAC files. But you're not done yet.
  4. Fix up Windows Media Player metadata downloading. Media Player handles automatic downloading of metadata in a weird way that can sometimes mess up the metadata you already have on your files. Go to Library -> More Options... in Windows Media Player. Now you need to make a choice about whether you want Media Player to "augment" your iTunes files with metadata it thinks it needs or if you want to manage all of it through iTunes.
    • If you want Media Player to download data (this is not what I did)...
      1. On the "Player" tab in "Options," check "Connect to the Internet." This has to be checked for the player to be able to connect and get the data.
      2. On the "Library" tab in "Options, check "Retrieve additional information from the Intenet" and select "Only add missing information." That will allow Media Player/Media Center to augment the metadata on files in your library with stuff it downloads.
-   *If you don't want Media Player to download data (this is what I
    did)...*
    1.  On the "Player" tab in "Options," uncheck "Connect to the
        Internet." Doing this stops Media Player/Media Center from
        automatically connecting to get metadata.
    2.  On the "Library" tab in "Options, uncheck "Retrieve
        additional information from the Intenet." This will stop
        Media Player/Media Center from changing anything on your
        music files.
  1. Fix other Library options. There are some options you'll want to make sure are fixed up before you start indexing iTunes music. Go to "Library -> More Options..." in Windows Media Player and make sure you're looking at the "Library" tab.

    • Don't let Media Player delete your stuff. Uncheck "Delete files from computer when deleted from library." If you don't do this, then Media Player will delete files out from under iTunes when you manage your files in Media Player/Media Center.
    • Don't let Media Player move your stuff. Uncheck both "Rename music files using rip music settings" and "Rearrange music in rip music folder, using rip music settings." If you leave either of these checked, Media Player may move your music around out from under iTunes.
    • Decide on where to maintain ratings. I maintain my song ratings in iTunes so I don't need the ratings in Windows. I unchecked the "Maintain my star ratings as global ratings in files" option. You may want those ratings. If so, check that option. I don't think it hurts either way, I just didn't want to hassle with it. If you leave it unchecked, the ratings only persist in the Media Player library database.
  2. Download the tag extender. A tag extender is what allows Media Player to read/index the metadata tag information (title, artist, etc.) from the AAC/ALAC files. I'm using this one from Softpointer. I tried this one on Sourceforge but didn't have as much luck with it. Maybe it was just me. The Softpointer one also handles a ton of other formats, so big ups there, say, in case you want to add FLAC or Ogg Vorbis support later.

  3. Install the tag extender.Whichever tag extender you just downloaded, install that bad boy.

  4. Reboot. I'm not sure if this is entirely necessary, but I did. Can't hurt. You just updated WMP/WMC to understand how to play a new file type and read those metadata files. I'm sure something is cached in memory somewhere that will be hosed up if you don't reboot, so start that and go get a refreshing Coke.

  5. Tell Windows Media Player to index your iTunes music. I think you can technically do this from either WMC or WMP, but you get more instant results and a better progress bar in Windows Media Player so it's easier to do it there. Since WMC and WMP share a library anyway, one is just as good as the other. In WMP, go to "Library -> More Options..." and, on the Library tab, click the "Monitor Folders..." button. Follow the prompts to add your iTunes music folder to the library. (If it's already there, you may want to remove it and re-add it to force the reindexing of the folder.)

  6. Wait. Depending on the number of tracks you have, it may take a while.

  7. Enjoy. It should have found all of the *.m4a tracks (AAC/ALAC) that were in the folders and they should show up in the library. Double-click one - it should play. You should also, at a minimum, see the track title, album title, and artist on there. If you fire up Windows Media Center, the same information should be present.

Postscript - Album Art:

My experience was that the album art didn't automatically make it through when I indexed my tracks. There are a couple of things you can do about that.

  1. Easy but painstakingly slow: You can right-click on each album in the library that doesn't have album art and select the "Find album art" option. From what I can tell, this downloads the album art and stores it in the WMP database. (For a while I thought it was downloading the album art and saving the images in the folder with the music as hidden files named "AlbumArt_{LONG-GUID-HERE}_Large.jpg" and such, but after reindexing a couple of times, I'm not finding those files. I can only surmise they're in the library.)
  2. Faster but more work up front: If the cover art is stored in a file called "Folder.jpg" in the folder along with the songs that make up the album, the album art will be assumed to be that image. (This is the same as how the DVD Library works.) If all of your tracks have album art, you could write a script using the iTunes scripting interface that goes through each track, figures out what folder it's in, and if there's no "Folder.jpg" in there, have it extract the album artwork from the track and save it as "Folder.jpg" in that folder. When the scheduled/background indexing process runs to update the WMP/WMC album art, it'll find this image and automatically update the displayed album art.

I'm taking the scripting route, but I haven't written the script yet. I'm still assigning album art to my tracks so it'll run without any hitches. When I have the script written, I'll be sure to post it.

Anyway, that should do it - you should be able to play your iTunes music natively in Windows Media Center.

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