Building Your Digital Music Library (Part 1 of 2)

This article is part 1 of a 2 part series. Click here to read Part 2.

Digital music, it’s the wave of the future. More specifically it is very much the now of the digital era. Digital music files (mp3s, m4a, aac, oggs) can be played on computers, mp3 players, media devices, and even on home theater PCs. How many of the readers out there have a large CD collection? How many of those same readers only have a small part of their CD collection on their computer in a disorganized mess of files? If you are anything like some of the people I know, you probably are dealing with one of two options. Either you own a large CD collection that’s sitting on your bookshelf gathering dust or you have a large digital music collection that is anything but organized. About a year ago, I went through the process of converting my 650 CD collection into a digital music library and I learned a few things along the way. Over the course of a two part series of posts I am going to go over digital music and how to organize it. The first part (this post) is going to deal heavily with the ripping and encoding a CD collection into digital files. The second part will be dealing with the tagging and organization of those digital files. If you have already ripped your CD collection, I encourage you to read part one of this series anyway since it might cover something you did not already know.

And now on to the main event…

Things to Consider

Before we can get to ripping that incredibly large CD collection you own, we must first look at a few items of great importance when building your digital music collection. If you are using iTunes and wish to “Keep It Simple Stupid” than it’s as simple as inserting the CD into a drive and letting iTunes rip it. However, you’ve spent a lot of time building your music collection and to just blindly have iTunes rip it by default can cause you to do a great disservice to yourself. Some things to consider when preparing to rip your CDs are: hard drive space, file format, accessibility, possible uses, and organization. Lets look at each of these in more detail.

Hard Drive Space

Chances are you have a fairly large amount of music you are going to rip so it is only natural to assume you are going to need a large amount of space to hold it all once you have ripped it. You probably have hard drive space on your computer but it’s probably limited to around the 10s of gigabytes (40 gigs, 80 gigs, etc). You can rip to this unused space no problem, but the more music you rip the less space you will have for other things such as documents or photos. With that in mind you have a couple of options. The first of these options achieves the space goal and allows for portability, that option is an external hard drive. With an external hard drive there is no need to open your computer, your given extra space, and it’s portable. The second option is an internal hard drive. While the internal hard drive allows for less desk clutter, it requires you to know exactly what you need to buy, open your computer, and install it. Both of these options will achieve our goal of adding more storage space for our music. I would like to advise that whichever option you chose, you pick something with plenty of room to to spare since you will most likely continue to buy CDs and it will also allow you to store other media on there like movies and photos. To know how much space you are going to need depends on several factors which we will go over next.

File Format and Accessibility

As you prepare to rip those precious CDs into digital ones and zeros, you have to pick a file format. You have several to choose from and they all have their pros and cons. The main issues here are of course file size and accessibility (how many places can you play the file). Your choices are FLAC (lossless), Mp3 (lossy standard), Ogg (lossy Open Source standard), and AAC (lossy Apple standard). You might notice that all but one of those options says lossless and you might be asking “what does lossless mean?” well, lossless simply means that there is no quality loss when utilizing that particular compression method. When compressing audio into mp3 you will loose frequencies, but the debate on if a regular person can tell the difference has raged on longer than most of the formats have been around. FLAC will only play on a couple of devices outside a computer with the software installed. Mp3 files will play on just about anything. Ogg will play on computers that have the software installed and a couple of portable devices and last but not least AAC will play on any computer that has iTunes and on iPods (and the more recently announced Zune). I think a person’s best bet is going to be to go with the Mp3 format since it will work on just about anything and has a comparable file size. For more information on file sizes with regards to these specific formats you can look here.
Along with file format you have your choice of quality under each one. The iTunes standard is 128kbps AAC which averages out to around one megabyte a minute, so a three minute song is around three megabytes in size) and a 128 kbps Mp3 file is just a hair bigger. Since I have advised going with the Mp3 format I’ll concentrate on that. Here’s how it breaks down.

Time Bit Rate File Size
4 minutes 31 seconds 128 4.2 MB
4 minutes 33 seconds 192 6.3 MB
4 minutes 29 seconds 256 8.3 MB
4 minutes 34 seconds 320 10.5 MB

These numbers were taken from 4 different files with the different bit rates from songs that are pretty close in style. Encoding into anything less than 128 is pointless as is encoding greater than 320. There comes a point at which your ear is not going to be able to tell the difference the higher you encode. The bit rate of 192 will get you a slightly better quality file without sacrificing too much more space. I personally chose 256 because it was the best in between for sound quality versus file size however, your mileage may vary. For you the difference between a mp3 encoded at 192 sounds just as good as one encoded at 256, my ear is just trained better of years of recording and mixing audio.


Last but not least, you need to decide how you wish to organize your music. Are you just going to dump it all into one music folder and have the artist and album info in the file name? Are you going to have a folder for each artist and then a folder for each album under that? What information are you going to include in the file name of the actual mp3 file? These might seem unimportant now, but as you start to rip more and more of your music, you need to be able to find quickly and without browsing through pages of files. While this will have little bearing if you decide to have your music player of choice organize it for you, whatever decisions you make you have to stick to them. Otherwise you will be left with a mess of files that you are not exactly sure for what they are and believe me cleaning that up is a mess.

Ripping a CD

Once you’ve got your drive space figured out, your file format, and bit rate picked out you are now ready to begin ripping your music. Again you have several options to choose from when deciding how you want to do this but what kind of how-to would this be if I didn’t recommend a product. And that product is Easy CD-DA Extractor. I know, I know, this is not a free piece of software. I can however tell you that I tried iTunes, Windows Media Player, a variety of open source options, and Easy CD-DA Extrator and it came out miles above the rest in handling a CD scratched beyond readable. It’s error correction (if turned on) is the best out there and Easy CD-DA Extractor is worth every dime of its $29.95.

When you first open up Easy CD-DA Extractor, you will notice a handful of options. Everything is laid out in a way that makes sense but the first thing you want to do is turn on its error correction to the highest setting. Note that this will slow down your ripping speed, but it will ensure you the best rip possible. Like I said, there is a reason this software is worth paying for. To turn on error correction, press F6. This will open the Options window. In Options window there is a tab for CD-reader. Under this tab there are two things you need to change. The first is the Read Mode option. Set the Read Mode option to “Error Recovery & Repair”. Secondly click the checkbox for “Enable C2 error Information”. The checkbox will output the errors Easy CD-DA Extractor gets while ripping your CD. It might mean little to you, but it can let you know if a disc is rippable. If you get a lot of errors, you might wish to consider replacing the disc (if possible). If the disc is replaceable, I would recommend using eBay,, and various used CD stores to find a replacement ensuring you spend the minimal amount of money possible. I would avoid replacing a CD with a digital download version (say from iTunes or Napster) since these are usually pretty low quality and re-encoding will only further degrade the quality.
When you insert a disc into the CD-ROM drive of your computer, Easy CD-DA Extractor will automatically attempt to download the disc information from FreeDB (a free online cd database resource). If it can find the data it will automatically populate all the most necessary fields such as artist, album name, track titles, track numbers, and genre. You can use Easy CD-DA Extractor’s to download album art from or to load your own from disc (for out of print/hard to find albums). Putting the album art in now will require you to do less work later when tagging the audio files (this subject will be covered in depth in Part 2). So try to fill in any blanks you see in the disc information before you rip, the more you do now the less you have to do later. Once you have filled in the disc information you will need to set the “Output folder” and “Output filenames” located at the bottom of the “Audio CD Ripper” tab under the “Output” tab. The program comes with a couple of default settings for filename output as well as giving you the ability to choose your own. To simplify things, you should probably use one of the default selections available but if you know what you are doing then create your own output filename structure. Whatever one you choose, you should be sure to stick to it for the duration of the ripping processing.

Possible Issues

During the process of ripping your CDs you might notice that not all CDs are created equal. For instance, you might have a compilation CD (a single CD with multiple artists) or even a multi-disc set. These things can wreck havoc on your organization scheme and require extra steps to counter during both the ripping and tagging parts of building your digital music collection. I want to take some time to give you some quick tips on how to handle these kinds of situations.
The first (and easiest) situation I would like to cover is the multi-disc set issue. Currently, Easy CD-DA Extrator, does not have an input option for the tag “Part Of Set (or TPOS in ID3 terms) so your best bet is to handle this when doing the actual tagging of your audio files (Part 2 of this post series). To get around this during the ripping phase tagging “(Disc #)” to the end of the “Album” will cause each disc to be ripped into its own seperate folder. This will allow you to tag and rename the files accordingly later.
The second issue you will run into is compilation CDs. These CDs are the bane of the digital music library builder because the require a series of extra steps as well as a separate organizational strategy. But while I make it seem daunting to handle these kinds of discs, there are 2 easy steps that will allow you to handle them easily during the ripping phase of building a digital music library. The best way to handle this is, when editing the disc information inside Easy CD-DA Extractor you can click on the “enter disc data” icon and this will give you the option of entering information for a “Normal CD” or “Compliation CD”. After you click on “Compliation CD” you will see the “Artist” field up at the top change to “Various Artists” and you will be asked to enter in the artist name and track name of each track on the CD. The reason for this is because there is a difference in the digital music world between “Track Artist” and “Album Artist”.

Album Artist Track Artist
The artist that the album is filed under. For example an Elvis Costello and the Imposters record would have an “Album Artist” of “Elvis Costello” and a “Track Arist” of “Elvis Costello and the Imposters” The artist for an individual track on a compilation CD. For example the first song on the soundtrack to the film Batman Forever, which is “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” by the band U2, would have an “Album Artist” of “Various Artists” and a “Track Artist” of “U2”

Since the “Artist” field at the top of Easy CD-DA Extractor is the “Album Artist” field, when your CDs are ripped they will be ripped to a folder called “Various Artists” (assuming you stick with the default options). We will cover more on the “Album Artist” versus “Track Artist” tags in Part 2.
So, I hope you have learned much from this article and if you have any questions, corrections, or comments please do not hesitate to contact me. Next week we will go over the tagging of these digital files for importing into your media player of choice. Until then, get ripping.

Part 2 can be found here.
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3 Responses to Building Your Digital Music Library (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Building Your Digital Music Library (Part 2 of 2) - Almost, Not Yet by Michael Koby

  2. michael says:

    If I use Easy CD-DA Extractor for ripping, can I still use iTunes for playing and managing music?

  3. michael says:

    If I use Easy CD-DA Extractor for ripping, can I still use iTunes for playing and managing music?

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