Rip It Good: From CD to MP3
A beginner’s guide for turning your CDs into MP3s.
March 05, 2008 by Dennis Burger

Whether you’re bringing a huge music collection into the 21st century, simply can’t stand the thought of buying all of your music in the digital domain, or just want to listen to some Beatles on your iPod or Zune, at some point or another you’re going to have to rip a CD. Don’t worry, though: lacerative neologisms notwithstanding, ripping your music can be as plain and simple as “Do-Re-Mi,” or it can be as complicated as you want to make it. The choice is yours.

The first thing you do is decide which file format to encode your music to. If you only plan to transfer your music to your iPod, AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) isn’t a bad choice. If you’re a Zune user, or only plan to use a Windows-based media server for music playback, WMA (Windows Media Audio) makes sense. But if you plan to share your music between several devices, and don’t want to rip your discs more than once, you’ll probably end up relying on the old standby MP3 format. The question of which program to use when converting your CDs to MP3 isn’t quite so easily answered, though.

The simplest and most obvious choice for Zune users is Microsoft’s own Zune software or Windows Media Player, which, as far as ripping options go, only allow you to select your bitrate. Bitrates determine not only how much disk space each song will hog, but also how closely the digitally compressed file resembles the CD source, sonically speaking: ostensibly, the bigger the file, the better it’s going to sound. But don’t crank that slider all the way to its highest setting automatically, assuming that anything less is going to be unlistenable. (Conversely, don’t set it to its lowest settings assuming you won’t be able to hear the difference.) A recent informal study at the science blog Cognitive Daily revealed that out of nearly 700 volunteers, only 33 listeners could reliably tell the difference between recordings encoded at 128 kilobits per second (kbps) and 256kbps. But you could well find yourself in that ~5% of listeners, so rip several songs at different bitrates, from 128 all the way up to 320, and see which file size best suits your ears.

For those who feel confined by Microsoft’s simple ripping options Apple’s free iTunes software offers a bit more control over the encoding process. And although some of its parameters sound a bit esoteric, they’re all quite straightforward when you dig beneath the jargon.

Variable Bit Rate Encoding (VBR): Allows your encoding software to use more disk space—hence less compression—for complicated or otherwise hard-to-compress parts of the song. With VBR turned on, your chosen bitrate becomes your minimum bitrate.

Sample Rate and Channels: Should be left on “Auto” in most cases.

Stereo Mode: Allows you to choose between Normal and Joint Stereo. The former encodes the left and right channels of your CD separately, while the latter combines some of the information from the left and right channels. At lower bitrate settings, Joint Stereo can add quite a bit of perceived audio fidelity to your music, at the expense of making it sound flatter.

Smart Encoding Adjustments: Let’s iTunes adjust some of your parameters to ensure higher-quality encoding. This won’t override any of the settings you’ve set yourself—it only affects only those parameters set to “Auto.”

Filter Frequencies Below 10 Hz: Given that the deepest, raunchiest bass in the loudest, hardest-hitting hip hop never gets anywhere near as deep as 10 Hz—not to mention the fact that no home audio system could be expected to reproduce frequencies any lower—there’s really no reason not to check this box.

Believe it or not, but some digital music aficionados even feel that, everything else being equal—bitrate, stereo mode, etc.—the choice of encoding software can affect the audio quality of your MP3s. Among the MP3 illuminati, by far the most revered encoder is LAME, an open-source project of questionable legality. The programs that use it—most notably MediaMonkey and WinAmp—are purported to produce better-sounding MP3s than iTunes or Windows Media Player, so if you have picky ears and don’t mind a bit of extra work, perhaps one of these options is more your speed. Try them out and see. The worst that can happen is that you’ll find yourself a member of a very exclusive—if somewhat dorky—new club.

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