In this article, you will read about the followings:
- Why is there a need to digitize your CD collection?
- Which music encoding format works for me?
- What tools do I use to encode or rip my music?
- What tools do I use to manage my library?
- What is the end to end digitization process like?
- How do I listen to my digital music?
Just a bit of background about me. I am a music lover and have over 12,500 music tracks in CD format. I enjoy listen to my music, in hi-fi quality and I would not wish to compromise quality when converting my CD collection into digital format.
Why is there a need to digitize your CD collection?
CD deteriorates over time. Some of my CDs have molded to the state whereby they cannot be played. Some of them have scratches all over them. I swear I take care of my CDs in as much as I can. But the reality is: CD does not last forever. How nice if we could preserve the state of our CDs like the first day we bought them? Yes we can! That’s why you are reading this article.
Beyond preserving our music in its original state, increasingly, I am finding it hard to access to my physical music collection. If it takes too long to find a music album, chances are, I am not going to listen to it. That’s a shame. But with a digital jukebox, finding my music is a breeze.
For those of you who has a large house or apartment, streaming your music to different rooms or locations simultaneously from one single music source can now be a reality.
And you and I know that in time to come, listening to music in digital format is the way to go. No, I am not talking about playing back music via our computers here. We are talking about CD quality music listening from a proper audio system.
By now, you may be curious about how my digital jukebox setup is. Below is a simple diagram on an overview of the setup.
- I use my computer at home to encode (or rip) my CD collection into digital format. I then transfer the music files to my Network-attached Storage (NAS). During my listening to music, my computer needs not to be switched on at all.
- The NAS is essentially a home network server equipped with multiple hard disks. In the event of hard disk failure, the hard disk can be pulled out of NAS (even with the NAS switched on) and a new hard disk can be slotted in. No data is lost through this process. Beside using it as my home file server, the NAS also acts as my music library, as well as to provide music streaming services.
- The key to my setup is that tiny Logitech remote controller that looks like an iPod. It pulls the entire music category and allows me to choose the music I wish to listen to. After I have made the selection, it facilitates the streaming of digital music (in CD quality) into the Logitech Squeezebox receiver.
- The Squeezebox receiver receives the digital music stream, decompresses and decodes it into analogy audio format. It then outputs to my home audio system – in my case, my hi-fi.
Which music encoding format works for me?
I have gone through days and nights of research on which music encoding format works for me. After all, I have more than 12,500 music tracks and I would not in a million years wish to redo all that I have done. Besides, CD deteriorates over time. I need to make a good decision as my stake is high.
Of course, you too could do the same research and arrive at your own decision. But whatever you do, try not to make a decision based on the tool you are currently using to rip your CD. Reason being tools like Apple iTune and Microsoft Media Player are not known for great ripping tools. They get the job done. Period. They take no consideration of the condition of your CD and the calibration of your CD player in making sure that the digital copy is the best you can get out of your CD. For a brand new CD, it probably doesn’t matter that much. But certainly not for some of the older ones you have.
Why should you care anyway? Because I presume – since you are still reading this article – you want nothing but the best for your CD collection in digital format.
Once we get the encoding tool out of our way, let’s focus on the encoding format. I use FLAC (stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec). You can read more about FLAC from Wikipedia by clicking here. In short, this particular codec unlike the ones used by Apple iTune, Microsoft Media Player, and etc. is not proprietary. Completely free to use. Widely implemented. And best of all, it is designed for music streaming purposes. Once a CD is ripped into a FLAC format, it can be restored to its original CD form. In exactitude.
I use FLAC. You can research and read up on why other formats are not as good. But I sincerely hope that you will arrive at the same conclusion.
What tools do I use to encode or rip my music?
I use Windows platform. And I strongly recommend Exact Audio Copy (EAC) to encode your CD (click here for the official website). I will not repeat what EAC does here in lengthy details. You can read the long article on the technology involved over at their official website. In short, EAC spins down the CD reader’s speed if it encounters error (as per unique calibration of your computer hardware performed once when you first install the application) and attempt to get the best out of your CD and your hardware. You will be surprised that for older CD, minor error does occur (which other applications such as iTune and Media Player would ignore). What EAC does is that it starts the reading speed high and then it slows down to as low as x0.1 times of normal speed depending on the condition of your CD. And that is when the error correction algorithm kicks in. When that happens, it may even take hours to rip one CD (read later section on what you can do to speed up this process). That is the bad news. The good news is that you will have a digital copy as good as it can get. Normally, it wouldn’t take much longer than other ripping tools if the CD condition is good.
Another wonderful feature of EAC is that it calculates the track accuracy and compares that with what the wider EAC community gets. If your copy is the same as the majority of the listeners out there who use EAC to rip their CDs, you can safely assume that you have a good copy.
My only complain with EAC is that it uses freeDb as the music track database, which is based on user submission and is not always correct. The support for CJK character set (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) is non-existence. But hey, that is not the end of the world. Read on to see how you can make your life better.
As for Mac user, I am sure there is a EAC equivalent because some of my friends are on the Mac platform. Better still, it is reported that some Mac software manages to tap onto iTune’s database for track information.
In summary, I would strongly recommend you to use EAC to rip your CD into FLAC format. Of course, you could choose other format. I have tried tagging WMA tracks. It was a nightmare compares to FLAC (everything is relative).
One tip with regards to EAC is always use your local disk (instead of network drive like I once did) as the working directory. It is much faster that way. You can always copy the music to a network drive in batches, after the ripping is done.
What tools do I use to manage my library?
I use Media Monkey (Windows platform). I use their free version, which is good enough for me. The paid version does have extra functionalities that you may or may not find it useful. The official website can be found in here.
The first thing you need to consider – same applies to EAC – is the directory structure. How do you wish to organize your music files? I choose artist as the main folder, then the album name, and the track is named as [track number] [artist name] [track name].flac. You can choose your own. Just make sure that it is consistent.
You could use Media Monkey to rip your CDs. Again, if you want the best possible result, EAC is the way to go.
I use Media Monkey to tag the music albums. It does interface to different locations of Amazon.com to pull the track names (which is often not correct) as well as to download album arts (which I use a lot). I admit that Amazon.com doesn’t always have the best looking album art. These days, it is so easy to Google an album art, for your music album. To add an album art to a FLAC library is simple. Just drop the image file to the album directory with the file named as “folder.jpg”. Or you can choose to tag the image into the music track. Entirely your choice (I tag it in). Remember I mentioned that EAC is not necessary good in tagging track information? In the event whereby EAC fails you on that, Amazon.com may be able to help.
What if you have other MP3 devices that do not read music encoded in FLAC? Media Monkey converts music FLAC into any major formats. So worries not. Think of music library in FLAC format as the repository. You can play back the music directly from this repository of yours if you listen via Media Monkey. Or if you have a hardware device that can understand FLAC format (read more below).
There are other options to manager your FLAC encoded music library. Media Monkey happens to be one that work for me.
What is the end to end digitization process like?
Oh no, this sounds like hard work, you may say. Yes, it is hard work. I wish that music industry distributes the music in the highest digital quality, but it doesn’t. On a side note, I heard that some companies provide professional service just for this purpose. It took me 6 months on and off to rip all my 12,500 music tracks. So what is the process like?
First, obvious as it may sound, you need to clean you CD. I use micro-fabric cloth bought from HMV to clean the underside of the CD. I use a soft moist cloth to clean the top of the CD. Before cleaning the underside of the CD, I could give it a warm breath before wiping it (much like how camera lenses are cleaned). Or later on as I have discovered, I hold the CD on top of a cup of hot water. It gets the job done.
If your CD has scratches, you could ignore them and let EAC works hard for you (with the error correction and spin down). But that may take forever. I have this CD repair kit I bought when I was in Hong Kong. It is a lotion that smells like pesticide. Awful as it may be, it works wonder. You may be able to get it from eBay. I use that for CD and for DVD.
After cleaning the CD (if need to), I rip it using EAC. I have 2 computers at home so I use both to rip CDs at the same time. Some of the enhanced CD or copy protected CD my newer computer runs in Vista has difficulty in ripping (always hang). But my older XP computer seems to have a higher tolerance when it comes to cases like these. Still, I have copy protected CD that I fail to rip. On a hindsight, I will not purchase any CD with copy protection no more.
I then copy all the digital copies into my Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. I would strongly recommend you too store your music files in a location whereby in the event of a crashed hard disk, all your files are still intact.
Next, I use the Media Monkey to scan all these newly added files. Tag them nicely. Some friends of mine have even gone to the extend to scan in the album cover, back, and booklet, and tag the images into the album. In the event whereby the album information is modified (for example, the album information is not accurate in EAC for that particular album), you may also wish to rebuilt the directory structure. There is a function in Media Monkey to do just that.
The last step – depending on how you listen to your digital music (see below) – is to instruct your music streaming device to rescan the music library.
That’s it! You can now enjoy thousands of music tracks with literally a flick of a button.
OK, maybe a few buttons. But you get the drift.
How do I listen to my digital music?
I use Logitech’s Squeezebox Duet (click here for official website). It is not for the faint hearted people, I am warning you. Provided that you have a Squeeze Center installed in either a NAS or a computer, you can listen to your music anywhere at home so long as there is a wi-fi coverage – CD quality, I have to stress. You could have one in your living room, one in each of your bedroom, maybe your bathroom and kitchen. All you need is a receiver that is attached to an audio system. The audio system could be your high end hi-fi. Or just a pair of speaker installed at the ceiling of your bathroom.
A point to note here. Your music library does not reside in the Squeezebox. Squeezebox is merely a hardware device that streams your music from where your library is (and it happens to understand the FLAC format too) and feeds the music into your audio system. So if your music library is inside a NAS (that uses a lot lesser electricity and is a lot quieter than a normal computer), the Squeezebox streams the music from the NAS. If inside a computer, it streams the music directly from the computer.
To listen to music, all you need is a controller that looks like an iPod (it comes with the package). It controls all the receivers you may have (I only have one). Each receiver can play different music tracks simultaneously. Or they can be synchronized to play the same music. How cool is that when you have a house party!
The Squeeze Center streams music in FLAC format (in fact, the Netgear NAS I have got supports the iTune Server too). It comes with Internet Radio as well, which I often use.
Now, those are the good news. The bad news is that you have to be quite technically inclined to make full use of the entire setup from NAS to Squeezebox. And you have to accept that not everything works as intend. I had such a hard time to get the Squeezebox works with my home network. I am still staring at the phone jack of the remote controller asking why it doesn’t work (it is for future usage … huh?!). But if you do have a Squeezebox and if you do run into problems, fear not. Follow this link for a detail resource in a Wikipedia style. It has helped me a lot.
On a side note, for its price range, I doubt if there are other options in the market, for now.
Months ago when I first bought the Netgear NAS, I was really excited about its potential. That’s why I bought the Logitech Squeezebox to realize my dream of having a digital jukebox. Round about the same time, I have also bought a Nokia Comes With Music phone that grants me one year free music download (192 kbps) from the Nokia Music Store. For close to two decades, I have collected 12,500 tracks in CD format. For merely six months, I have downloaded more than 4,500 tracks from Nokia Music Store. In no time my digital jukebox will become insignificant compares to the tracks downloaded online. Of course, it is still true that my digital jukebox is of a higher quality. But one thing is certain: the way we consume our music is changing. Now, what I need now is for Nokia to allow playing of the digital music directly from my NAS. That would be perfect.