Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 10/21/05 Best format for digitizing my CD collection

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) October 20, 2005 9:11 AM PDT

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10/21/05 Best format for digitizing my CD collection

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 10/20/05 9:11 AM

Question:

I finally decided to digitize my huge CD collection, but I need a little guidance. What do you think is the best format to rip CDs (MP3, MP4, WAV, and so forth), what's a reasonable capture setting (I don't have a huge hard drive, so I can't go too high end), and what software would you suggest for not only ripping, but organizing and playing my music?

Submitted by: Edward H.



Answer:

There are several formats that digital audio tracks can be encoded into. First, let's get some terminology straight. When you say "ripping," what you are doing is extracting the digital audio contents of a CD onto a computer into WAV format. WAV is an uncompressed file format. It is also considered the closest match to CD quality.

Now, let's introduce you to the term "encoding." Encoding is the term used for converting an uncompressed WAV file into a compressed format. Common compressed formats are MP3, WMA, and OGG, among others.

Try thinking of this in the same way you'd think of a ZIP file. A ZIP file is an archive file that can compress and store one or more files into a single, smaller file. Your choice audio file player, in layman speak, looks inside the compressed file and sends the data to your sound card, where the result is sound coming from your attached speakers. The only difference here is that you're normally only going to have a single music track within each MP3, WMA, or other file (although it is possible to combine multiple tracks into a single file).

As far as which format to use is concerned, I personally don't think it really matters much, although MP3 and WMA are by far the most common formats. However, if you plan to buy an iPod (or similar portable audio device) in the future, I would definitely go with MP3, as WMA does not seem to be supported by the iPod.

For your ripping needs, my personal choice is a program called Audiograbber. In the past, it was a shareware (try and buy) program, but early this year it became freeware. If you use this program, you will also need a separate encoder (mechanism for converting from WAV to MP3), but thankfully the encoder preferred by most people who want quality encodes also happens to be a free download. The encoder I'm referring to is called LAME. You might think an encoder is an encoder and it really doesn't matter which you use, but there really is a big difference between encoding with LAME and encoding with a lower-end encoder like Xing. When encoding, you also want to consider the bit rate you want to encode at. The higher the bit rate, the higher the quality of encode. The highest bit rate is 320kbps, which produces "near loss-less" compression but file sizes rivaling that of uncompressed WAV files. With limited hard disk space, this setting clearly will not be the one you want.

It used to be that encoding at 128kpbs was the "standard" quality MP3, but many people now consider that "sub-standard". When thinking about bit rates, consider the lower and upper frequency limits that the average human ear can hear. Let's say the average person can hear anything between 20Hz and 20,000Hz (aka 20kHz). WAV files contain all data in that entire range. But anytime you encode to a compressed format like MP3, you're essentially cutting off some amount of each end of that range. Higher bit rates result in less data cut out of each end of the music, while lower bit rates cut out more. At some point, the amount cut out will be enough to be noticed by you. Since you have limited space, you might consider encoding at 128kbps or at 160kbps if you have enough room. However, the ideal bit rate should be at least 192kbps.

Now to further complicate this whole encoding mess. There are 2 types of encodes: CBR and VBR. CBR stands for Constant Bit Rate. When performing a CBR encode, you're encoding the music into MP3 using the same bit rate across the board. However, there might be certain parts of the music that would be better served with higher bit rates while other parts of the file might not even need as high a bit rate as you decide to use. This is where VBR (Variable Bit Rate) comes into play.

With VBR encodes, you can actually encode each small piece of a file at whichever bit rate is best suited for that piece. Pieces of the file that have no data near either extreme of the audible frequency range can use lower bit rates without affecting sound quality.
Because VBR gives each piece only as high a bit rate as might be necessary to prevent loss of quality, you can actually get reasonable quality encodes without sacrificing so much space on your hard drive since VBR encodes tend to be smaller than their CBR counterparts (assuming overall encode rates are about equal).

If you'd like to try Audiograbber, you can download it from:
http://www.audiograbber.com-us.net/

For the LAME encoder, visit:
http://tinyurl.com/4w5mb

Submitted by: Scott Z.

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