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The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related that it is difficult to class then separately

Tom Paine

Makin' Bacon...

How to make rip music in 3 easy steps

Contents
Introduction
Ripping the music
Compress it down
What format?
Play the music

Introduction

It's got to be one of the coolest uses for PCs — transferring hundreds, or even thousands of CDs onto the hard-disk of your computer, and playing them back, on demand. Literally Weeks of continuous music, instantly searchable. You can't go wrong!

Actually, you can go wrong.

There is a huge variation in the quality of music that you can end up with on your virtual Jukebox. If you are careful, and cognizant of the pitfalls along the way, you can get hours of perfect audio. If you just blindly try something that just 'seems to work' you can end up blowing hours of your time recording muddy, poor quality music. (Fancy looking all-in-one programs tend to do this - Xing, Real, and Microsoft — I'm looking at you!). You may not notice the difference now, but one day you might use some nice headphones, or replace those cheap PC speakers... It's best to plan for the long term, as you'll want to keep your collection forever.

I've spent a lot of time researching, and experimenting (to be honest, being really pedantic. I'm not proud...). I've put together the following tutorial to perhaps help others create their own music collections. I'll try not to get too bogged down in details, as I don't have that much time — and besides, details change.

While it it possible to make copies of your old tapes and records, almost all mp3s/oggs start life as CDs. Your violations of local copyright law could start here too. Use your own judgment, but whatever you do, don't make any money using the tracks you extract - music company behemoths hate it when (other) people do that... Use only CDs that you own to be completely safe.

Ripping — Get it on! (your hard-drive...)

Ripping is just a term we have gotten stuck with that describes the process of getting sounds off CDs and onto our computers.

What input format?

You have some old tapes, a pile of records, and, an unwieldy collection of audio CDs. How to get them onto your computer? Audio CDs are the best choice, as they are already in a digital format, but it is possible to digitise the older stuff too — You just have to go through an additional step first.

Analogue to Digital — old school...

Computers like numbers. More so even than accountants and pointy-haired bosses (and that's a lot). If you want to use sound from an analogue source (ie, anything that's not a CD), you need to convert it to digital using a fancy piece of hardware called a Digital Analogue Converter (DAC) — aka, The common, or garden, Sound Card... The basic method is to plug the 'line out' of your tape or record player into the 'line-in' of your sound card, then use some basic audio software to create digital versions of the tracks, often saved as 'wav' files (Audacity, which works on Windows, Linux, and Macs, is good, and free).

This can be seriously labour intensive, though there are a number of software packages out there that claim to make it easy. If anyone knows any free software that does a good job, let me know, and I'll mention it here.

HINT: Enable recording ONLY from the device from which you want to record - CD Audio, line-in, etc... This will minimise the extraneous hiss on older sound cards.

Rip a CD - the new wave...

If you were to just record music from your computer's CD player, using a sound editor, as above, you would lose some fidelity. When you just play a CD the drive itself converts the music from the original digital to analogue then that analogue signal passes down a cable to your sound card, and then your sound card converts the signal back to digital so that the computer can save it to disk. You lose a little bit of quality on each conversion.

On most CD-ROM drives it's possible to skip the sound card completely, and send the digital data directly to the hard disk, a process called DAE (for digital audio extraction). The quality is far better, and the process is a lot faster than just playing the CD in audio mode. You do need some specialised software to help out with this, however:


GNU/Linux Users

Linux users should check out cd paranoia. Like the Windows based EAC, Cdparanoia extracts audio from compact discs directly as data, with no analog step between, which gives us the best possible fidelity for our music.

Mac Users

I need some help here!

Until some nice soul either sends me an email or buys me a fancy Titanium notebook, I shall remain ignorant of what software to use with a Mac... (Under Mac OS X you could use the same tools as Linux, but that's not really the 'Mac way').

Windows Users

Under Windows, the only choice is 'Exact Audio Copy - EAC'. The price is a postcard to it's author, Andre Wiethoff, in Germany. It's well worth it: The program verifies the audio it is extracting, and can intelligently retry read errors. When the disk is in really bad shape, EAC will tell about the problems.


It may be a good idea to turn your screen savers off, and not use the machine for anything else while the CD is being ripped. Also make sure you have plenty of hard disk space. A single track can take up nearly a hundred Megabytes before compression, a CD over 700MB.

Squeeze me, Compress me...

Uncompressed (.raw or .wav) music files are huge. You'd need many Gigabytes of storage space to hold just a modest CD collection. Something must be done. There are a number of competing methods available to take the raw audio file, and compress it down to only something like a tenth of it's original size. Think of it like a PNG or JPEG file vs. a raw bitmap — You can get great quality in far fewer megabytes, and without a noticeable loss in quality, just so long as you are careful about the settings you use.

Show me the Codecs - the competing formats

Not so long ago this tutorial dealt only with mp3s, but I've had to update it to cover a number of competing formats, now that mp3s are no longer the only show in town.

mp3
The first widely used, high quality, audio compression codec — still synonymous with music and the Internet. It has continued to mature over the years, and implementations now exit (see below) that far out-perform the original versions, and there is now a lot of hardware support to play them directly. They are by far the most popular form of compressed audio around. However, just like in High School, popularity is a poor metric of quality...
ogg (vorbis)
The new kid on the block, and my personal choice. Technically, the best of the lot. It's multi-platform, free, and totally unencumbered with Patents. It provides better sound quality than mp3s, with a smaller file size. Because of it's youth, there is currently less play-back support than with mp3s, but that situation is improving rapidly. 'Vorbis' is the high fidelity audio compression component of the larger 'Ogg' project. The Ogg project also contains a number of other multimedia compressors.
aac
AAC is MPEG-4 audio, much as mp3 is MPEG-3 audio. Perhaps the format should better have been called 'mp4'. Apple has gone into this is a big way. It provides excellent quality and low bit rates. The drawback here is that Dolby, AT&T Sony, and Fraunhofer all own patents in this technology. It's a nightmare of licensing.
wma
Windows Media Audio. A patented Microsoft-only format. Not worthy of mention really, except that it gets attention sometimes because of small file sizes. Testing from various sources shows that (perhaps fittingly) such small files are only the result of over-aggressive optimisation — not a better quality codec. Avoid it.

Getting, and using the Codecs.

I'm not going to try and cover the details on how to integrate the codec you choose (below) with your ripping program. The best place to find such is in the docs of your ripper. Almost always, you can simply tell your ripping software (eg. EAC) that you want it to compress the tracks after it has ripped them, specifying the compressor to use. It's usually a matter of filling in a couple of fields in a form. What I will do is provide some suggestions on implementations, and settings...


Ogg Vorbis

The Ogg Vorbis codec can be freely downloaded from it's homepage: http://www.xiph.org/ogg/vorbis/. Like LAME, there are versions available for all platforms.

Ogg uses 'variable bit-rate' encoding, ie. it uses only the number of bits it needs. Classical music tends to compress much better than rock, all else being equal. I use a 'quality setting' of 5, after having tested the 10 levels. It's a little bit of overkill, but it's better to err on the side of caution when you are building a collection for the long term.

LAME mp3

I no longer encode my CDs into mp3s, preferring instead the ogg format. However I can vouch for the LAME mp3 encoder, http://www.mp3dev.org/mp3/, an opensource project. LAME produces the best quality output, and quality is what this tutorial is all about...

I recommend that you use the options:
--r3mix -b112
This uses variable bit rate compression to obtain ~300kbs levels of quality, while only using anywhere 130-180 kbs.



Play that funky music

Before you play anything, you should get yourself organised. It gets boring very quickly trying to keep track of 1000s of music files without some sort of system. Some people like to use some sort of management software to do this, which is fine. I prefer to simply use a strict naming convention.

I use a new folder for every album, in the form:

(Artist), (Album Name)
and name files:
(track number) - (Track Title)

eg:
Darcy Clay, Jesus I was Evil
    01 - Jolene.mp3
    02 - Jesus I was Evil.mp3
    ...

This scheme eliminates the need to edit the ID3 tag manually, but do what ever works for you. Do decide on some scheme early on though, then stick to it...

Playing those songs.

I still think Winamp is still the best player under Windows. For Linux users, mpg123 is very flexible and efficient. XMMS is a winamp clone, and is very easy to use. There are a number of portable hardware devices around that play mp3s on the run. I have a tiny 64MB flash-storage keychain player that plugs into a USB port. Most of my collection is in ogg format now though, so I have to 'transcode' an hours worth of music everytime I want a change (the loss of quality isn't noticeable while sitting on the bus...).

Playing .ogg files takes a little effort under Windows, as the format is still relatively new. You can download a Winamp plugin from the Ogg Vorbis homepage, http://www.xiph.org/ogg/vorbis/, which is probably the easiest way to do it.

The End...

Having a playlist a couple of months long has been great company during long hours working at my desk. I hope this overview will be useful in helping you create your own, quality, collection...