Let It Rip

Compact Disc Logo

Any audiophile will tell you that original audio CDs will always sound better than compressed music. And yet the proliferation of digital music players requires us to sacrifice quality for convenience. However, there are ways to squeeze out every last bit of fidelity from your music in the transition from disc to file.

You don’t need to have a golden ear to appreciate the difference between a badly ripped, poorly encoded file from one that was more carefully produced. For the best possible results, you don’t even need expensive or bloated software, just a few well-honed, lean and mean freeware tools. CD Ripping might be one of the more common tasks performed on PCs these days, but not everyone may be aware that not all CD rippers are created equal. At the very least, you should make sure that the program you are using has some form of error correction to prevent unwanted skips or pops.

Exact Audio Copy Icon

Exact Audio Copy Icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exact Audio Copy  or EAC (www.exactaudiocopy.org) is widely recognized as one of the best audio extraction programs. Using an advanced reading technique called secure mode, EAC is able to recover audio data that other programs may discard.

The popular CDex (cdexos.sourceforge.net) also has a Paranoia mode that adds an extra level of error checking to compensate for defects on the CD.

And for iPod users, Apple’s inimitable  iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes) also has an error correction mode for importing CD audio tracks.

Vorbis Logo

Vorbis Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For convenience, you should generally rip to the format which most of your devices can play. But while MP3 may be the undisputed leader in terms of compatibility, it definitely lags behind in quality and compressibility. More advanced codecs like Apple’s AAC (the preferred format for iPods and the iTunes music store), Microsoft’s WMA (integrated with Windows Media Player and a wide range of products and services) and the open source Ogg Vorbis (gaining ground among more manufacturers like iRiver, Rio, and Neuros) all offer better-sounding music at smaller file sizes. Aside from ripping to uncompressed WAV files, you can install plug-ins into both EAC and CDex that enable them to encode directly into either MP3 and Ogg Vorbis among other formats. Naturally, Windows Media Player defaults to WMA, while iTunes encourages using AAC.

FLAC logo

FLAC logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For music archiving, you may also consider using a lossless codec that doesn’t toss out any audio data, such as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec, or Monkey’s Audio). While these codecs work on fewer portable players, they do shrink files up to 4 times smaller with absolutely no quality loss, and you can easily play them on your PC or media center. Both AAC and WMA also have their respective lossless flavors.

But if you want to stick to good old MP3, then you really need to use the LAME encoder to get the best results. LAME properly supports VBR (Variable Bit Rate) encoding, and is constantly under development by dedicated audiophiles.

As to what bit rate one should rip to, higher is indisputably better, but your mileage may vary. For MP3, 128 kbps has long been used as a standard, but you really need to use at least 192 kbps to avoid getting nasty-sounding artifacts. Over 256 kbps, and any improvement in quality is negligible. Using a more advanced codec, you can go as low as 64 kbps and still get acceptable results, although 192 kbps will sound like CD quality for most people.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in PC Mag Philippines, 2005. 

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