5 Often Overlooked Caveats of Managing a Digital Music Collection

If you’re like me, you slave over your music collection on a regular basis making sure every song is properly tagged, free of any audible flaws, and overall as perfect as possible. Okay, well, you’re probably not like me. But still, having your music skip because you used a crappy ripping application or hiccup between songs because of a non-gapless codec is exceedingly annoying. Here we’ll go through five commonly-made mistakes by music enthusiasts when managing their music collection.

1. Careless Ripping

In case you’re not familiar with the lingo, to “rip” an audio CD means to extract the music from the CD and save it to your hard drive in the form of WAV files. These WAV files are simply uncompressed audio data, and they’ll play back in pretty much any audio or music player application. Before an application can make a compressed MP3 out of your music, it must first rip the raw audio data from the CD onto your computer. Most music applications, such as iTunes, will perform all of this behind the scenes for you. This is nice and convenient, but unfortunately doesn’t always yield the best results.

You may have previously noticed that when you’ve used iTunes or another application to try and import a CD that’s been scratched a bit, the end result is not too pleasing. You may end up with “clicks” or “ticks” in your music that are obviously not in the original recording, even when those discs play fine in a CD player. These artifacts are a result of careless ripping, and you may be pleased to know that you can probably still pull the music off those scratched discs without having to hear those annoying ticks all of the time.

The truth is, though, ticks sometimes even show up when ripping a brand new, scratch-free disc. They obviously show up more often on scratched discs, but unfortunately you can’t assume your music will always be ripped safely if your disc isn’t visibly scratched. This is because most ripping mechanisms in common music applications such as iTunes focus primarily on speed, and not accuracy. It’s convenient for the ripping process to be quick, but doesn’t do much good if the end result is poor.

Exact Audio CopyThere is one ripping application available, however, which does absolutely everything it can to make sure that the music that is being read is accurate. The application is called Exact Audio Copy, or EAC. Unfortunately, it’s only for Windows, but very fortunately, it is free. It will help to ensure your music is accurate in several ways, including using your CD or DVD drive’s on-board error control mechanisms and even checking your music against an online database to ensure it is correct (a feature called AccurateRip). EAC will need to customize itself for your machine and may take a bit of learning, but all the resources you need are directly on the website I’ve linked. Once you’ve used EAC, you’ll never go back to your old application for ripping, as it gives you 100% peace of mind that your music is without flaws, and even lets you resurrect old scratched-up CDs.

2. Lossless/Lossy Format Confusions

You may have never even heard of “lossy” audio compression before, but chances are your entire music collection is using lossy compression. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you need to be aware of the repercussions of using lossy compression and the alternative of using lossless audio compression.

When you rip your music directly to WAV from an audio CD, you’ll notice that the resulting WAV files are rather large, sometimes up to 50 megabytes or larger per track. It’s inconvenient to store and transfer such large files over the Internet, so people look to compression techniques to reduce the size of the files so that they are more convenient to use. There are two different types of this compression: lossless and lossy. Lossless compression works much like a ZIP file does; it takes the data and does its best to compress it as small as possible, without losing any data. When you extract a zip file, or play a lossless music file, you get the same exact data that was compressed in the first place. It is an exact replica of the audio that was on the CD.

Lossy audio compression, however, knows about how our human ears work, and attempts to remove the portions of the audio data that are the least important to our ears perceiving it as still sounding good. These algorithms are incredibly complicated and have been studied for years; modern lossy compression codecs are so good that most people can’t tell the difference between a song that’s been encoded using lossless or lossy compression. Therefore, in many circumstances, lossy compression is ideal.

FLACYou’re no-doubt already familiar with many lossy audio codecs: MP3, AAC (M4A, MP4), and WMA are all lossy audio codecs. You may have never heard of any lossless audio codecs, though; the most popular and recommended of which is FLAC.

So what are the advantages of using a lossless codec? Though you may not be able to hear the difference between lossless and lossy, lossless music files are much more flexible for the future. Often people don’t realize that every time you re-encode a file from one lossy codec to another, you lose quality. For example, if you take an MP3 and re-encode it to an M4A file to match the rest of your collection, you’ll end up with a lower quality file than you had in your original MP3. This is because of the lossy audio techniques used in the compression, which are meant to only be used once. If you keep converting your files to different codecs, you may start to hear the loss of quality relatively quickly. Re-compressing a lossy music file is a no-no; never re-compress a lossy music file to another lossy codec to match the rest of your collection. Lossless music files do not suffer from this problem, however, and can be re-compressed to any format in the future without any loss of quality, which is the biggest advantage to using a lossless codec.

For most people, though, as long as you’re aware of what not to try and do with a lossy music file, lossy is the way to go. This is because you generally don’t need to re-compress your music these days, and you most often can’t hear a difference between modern lossy and lossless audio formats. Lossless is nice to have, but doesn’t compress near as well as lossy does, so lossless music files are often ridiculously large and difficult to manage (not to mention player support is still fairly limited).

foobar2000If you want to try and hear the difference between lossless and lossy audio formats, download the foobar2000 music player and the ABX Comparator plugin. This will guide you through a series of “double-blind” listening tests to see if you really can tell the difference. Trust me, though, you probably can’t. Foobar2000 is also very useful and convenient for compressing and tagging music files after ripping them.

3. Non-Gapless Audio
Chances are you’ll have some CDs or albums in your collection where two or more tracks are strung together without any silence between them, sometimes with the same instruments playing across the tracks. If the codec, encoder, and/or player you’re using are not gapless, you’ll hear a glitch, or pause in the music between these tracks. This gets very annoying and breaks the listening experience between tracks.

It wasn’t until recently that lossy audio codecs supported gapless audio, so it used to be that this was another good reason to use a lossless audio codec. These days, however, gapless is supported by several lossy formats, so gapless audio is no longer a reason to use a lossless codec.

In order to get gapless playback of your lossy music files, though, you need three things: you need a codec that supports gapless audio, an encoder that creates gapless audio files, and a player that will play these gapless files correctly. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds, though you may find that some of your older music files are not gapless and will need re-ripped using more modern tools.

No Windows Media PlayerThe easiest way to create gapless files these days is to use iTunes to encode to VBR AAC 256. These are the default encoding options for the latest versions of iTunes, but make sure you get the latest version as previous versions of iTunes did not encode gaplessly. There are many other options, but this format is in my opinion the most ideal because of the quality, compatibility, and features (such as gapless playback) available. Remember, though, to use EAC to rip the files first before using iTunes to encode the files. These gapless files can then be played gaplessly in iTunes, foobar2000, or Winamp, among other players. Many players, however, such as Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, still do not play these gapless files correctly, and will still result in hearing annoying gaps between tracks. This is a good reason to avoid these players.

4. Improper Compilation Tagging

You may have noticed previously that sometimes music players don’t handle compilation albums well, or albums that have a different artist for each track. Ideally, you want to be able to find your music both by the main artist or topic (such as in a soundtrack) of the album, and by the artist of each individual track. Modern tags and music players solve this issue with the “Album Artist” tag.

For example, if you have a soundtrack album, you would put each separate track’s artist name in the “Artist” tag for the song. Then, the standard is to put “Various Artists” in the “Album Artist” tag. This way, the album will show up in your collection as “Various Artists – Name Of Soundtrack Album”, but will still be searchable by the various artists on the album. Otherwise, without populating the “Album Artist” field, most players will interpret the album as many separate albums, one for each different artist on the CD. iTunes does work slightly different, though the concept is the same. They’ve simply added a “Collection” check box to the tag, which specifies that the album is a collection (though you can still use the “Album Artist” tag just the same).

Occasionally, you may find an album that has a true album artist, but has subsequent artists for each track. In this case, the solution is obvious; put the album artist’s name in the “Album Artist” field, and each track’s separate artist name in the “Artist” field. This works much the same as in the previous, soundtrack scenario.

5. DRM

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few years, you’ve probably heard something about DRM related to music. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management and it’s a way for the rotten record companies to restrict where and when we can listen to the music we’ve purchased. Until recently, everything purchased from the iTunes store was covered in nasty DRM. Thankfully, DRM has been removed for all future purchases, but you’ve probably got some still in your collection if you’ve purchased music from iTunes in the past few years.

Eliminate DRMDon’t let DRM bite you when you least expect it. Do your best to only purchase DRM-free music, and consider your DRM-laden music files not future-proof unless you can somehow strip them of the DRM (yes, in some cases, you can, but it’s not easy).

It’s also worth noting that though music purchased from the iTunes store no longer has DRM, it can still be tracked back to you as the person who bought the song, and get you into legal trouble if you share it. In my opinion, this is reason enough in itself to boycott the iTunes store (though I have to admit I haven’t been as faithful to this as I’d like to be).

Whew!

By now, if you’ve made it this far, you’re practically a digital music collection master. Or something like that. To reiterate, here are the five main points to remember:

  • Do your best to rip audio CDs accurately using EAC.
  • Don’t abuse lossy audio formats; never re-encode from one lossy format to another.
  • When possible (and necessary), be sure to use a gapless codec, encoder, and player.
  • Tag your compilation albums properly using the “Album Artist” tag.
  • Avoid DRM whenever possible.

These tips should help you to obtain a much more consistent and higher quality music library. If you’ve gotten this far, surely it’s worth leaving a comment or two! Let me know if you disagree with anything in the article or have anything to add. Comments will always receive a reply. :)

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8 Responses to 5 Often Overlooked Caveats of Managing a Digital Music Collection

  1. Justin Chmura says:

    That’s quite a process. So what exactly is your process then starting from when you have the physical cd in your hand? Seems like a lot of work :)

  2. Jason Carr says:

    Well, for the most part, you’re good just using EAC to rip and iTunes to encode, all with the default settings.  That’s what I would recommend if you decide not to go lossless.  Anymore, iTunes (at least the latest version) pretty much covers #2, 3, 4, and 5.

    That’s all for new music though.  Converting your existing collection is another story.

  3. Justin Chmura says:

    I use Winamp to rip a cd to flac, is it better to rip to wav first?

  4. Jason Carr says:

    Other than not using EAC to rip (Winamp is not near as quality of a ripper as EAC is), there’s nothing wrong with ripping straight to FLAC.  FLAC is lossless, so you’ll get the same quality as ripping to WAV.  It’s fairly easy to set up EAC to rip directly to FLAC, as well.  Once configured, this would be a one-step process.  If you’re ripping to FLAC, that’s the way to go.  Get EAC setup to rip directly to FLAC.  Let me know if you need help.

  5. Jason Carr says:

    By the way, using EAC covers issue #1.  Using FLAC automatically covers #2, 3, & 5, so then the only thing you have to worry about is getting your tags right.  EAC will automatically download tags from the Internet using freeDB, so I typically download the tags and then verify that they’re correct.

  6. david says:

    So I should rip my cd’s in 44.1 8bit mono? Sounds great to me.
    haha. But seriously, I think iTunes’ does a great job of ripping lossless. I have to admit i do use the AAC codec because all the devices I deal with in day to day life are Apple. Great article!

  7. Jason Carr says:

    Thanks, David. :)

    Yes, for ease of use and overall general accuracy iTunes takes the cake.  There are reasons to stray from it, though (such as trying to rip a scratched up CD).

  8. Jason De Sante says:

    Okay Jason I’ll leave a comment….only because I’ve been reading your website for a few hours just because I wanted to check up on my favorite programmer :)

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