For most people, dropping a CD into their disc drive and clicking "Import" in iTunes is good enough. For music freaks, though, it's not—and with good reason. Here's how to digitise your tunes, the right way.
First off, some reasons to take this road: iTunes is a decent audio encoder, and it'll get your music from point A—the CD—to points B, C and D—your computer, your MP3 player and your backup drive—without much trouble. But it'll do it with a less-than-great encoder, with occasionally inconsistent tagging, with album art that'll only work on Apple devices, and without support for the best lossless audio formats and MP3 encoding options, which you probably want, whether you know it or now.
In short, the ripping process deserves a little more care than iTunes or Windows Media player can give it. You can pay people for this, which feels dumb and wasteful, or you can do it yourself. It's not difficult, at all. Here's what you do:
Get Your Software
The first step to ditching iTunes is to, well, ditch iTunes. What we're looking for is ripping software that offers more encoding options than iTunes, but more importantly, a better encoder. And as far as MP3 encoders go, the open source LAME is as good as they get. There's plenty of software for both Mac and PC that leverages this encoder, but here are two programs that do lots, lots more.
Mac OS X: Max From the makers:
When extracting audio from compact discs, Max offers the maximum in flexibility to ensure the true sound of your CD is faithfully extracted. For pristine discs, Max offers a high-speed ripper with no error correction. For damaged discs, Max can either use its built-in comparison ripper (for drives that cache audio) or the error-correcting power of cdparanoia.
What this translates to: Great error reduction, fantastic sound quality and tons and tons of encoding options—not that you really need those to do a good rip, but hey, they can't hurt. On top of all this, Max is also a great file converter, in case you've got some delinquent WMA files scattered around.
Windows: Exact Audio Copy From the makers:
Exact Audio Copy is a so called audio grabber for audio CDs using standard CD and DVD-ROM drives. The main differences between EAC and most other audio grabbers are • It is free (for non-commercial purposes) • It works with a technology, which reads audio CDs almost perfectly. If there are any errors that can't be corrected, it will tell you on which time position the (possible) distortion occurred, so you could easily control it with e.g. the media player
What this translates to: The best error correction money can buy, for free. Seriously: Audiophiles swear by exact audio copy, and with good reason. You'll have to download your own LAME encoder before you can enable MP3 encoding in the program options, but you can do that right here without a problem. Additionally, setting up tagging, which you'll definitely want to do, takes an extra, albeit easy, step.
If you want to take a simpler route you can just download CDex, which supports LAME and tagging databases out of the box, and produces results nearly as good as—if not as good as—Exact Audio Copy.
On both platforms, you're going to have a lot of personal decisions to make. How do you want to organise your files? How do you want to name them? Unlike iTunes, these apps don't pressure your to store your music in a certain way—it's up to you to archive as you please. Both offer plenty of options for storage and organisation, easily available in their Preferences menus:
As I said, this one's up to you.
Choose Your File Type MP3: If you're encoding only for portable devices, not concerned about archiving perfect copies of your music, hate hate hate audiophiles, think FLAC and OGG just sound like gurgling baby noises, you're probably going to want to stick with MP3s. Yes, there are other formats that offer a better size-to-sound ratio, and no, it's not open source or anything, but for pure compatibility, control and encoder choice, it's hard—no, impossible—to beat MP3. And if you set up your encoder correctly, MP3s can sound great.
It's tough to pick the optimal MP3 bitrate on your own, since at a certain point, differences in sound quality seem to come down as much to psychological factors as to actual clarity. Thankfully, we've crowd-sourced this issue and come up with a rough guide: 256kbps is, it seems, where people just can't really tell the difference. In practical terms, this means setting your encoder to these settings:
That's no higher than 256kbps VBR—for variable bitrate, which modifies the amount of information in your file's stream according to how much is needed, and saves you space without sacrificing quality—with the highest (read: slowest) available encoding option. For almost everyone, in almost all circumstances, this'll do, and it sure beats iTunes default 160kbps constant bitrate rips.
FLAC: If archiving is your intention—as in, digitising your music without losing any quality, no matter how imperceptible—then you're going to want to go lossless. And of the lossless formats, FLAC is the most well-supported in terms of software and hardware, albeit not on any of Apple's products—though iTunes can be made to play nice with FLAC with a few simple tweaks.
But don't fret! The beauty of FLAC music is that it can be converted to other lossless formats, like Apple's iPod-compatible Apple Lossless, without losing any quality, or compressed into MP3s without having to worry about muddy transcoding. Think of them as CDs without the physical disc, basically.
Embed Your Album Art
This is something else that iTunes doesn't do right: album art. Sure, it'll find it, but when you transfer all your music to a non-iPod music player, your art is gone. Why? It's because iTunes stores the album art in a separate database, rather than in the song file's ID3 tags, where it should be. On Mac OS, assuming you're doing your listening in iTunes, which is pretty handy at fetching album art, you can just use one of Doug's famous iTunes scripts to write said album art directly to your MP3 files. Here's how you install it:
To install the files/folders, drag the items in the disc image window to your [username] /Library/iTunes/Scripts/ folder. If there is no folder named "Scripts" there, create one and drag the files into it. AppleScripts placed in this folder will be listed in the iTunes Script menu. You do not have to install the .rtf/.rtfd documentation file in the "Scripts" folder, but it's as convenient a place as any.
For Windows users, Lifehacker's written a fantastic guide to collecting and embedding album art, which you should definitely read. The short version? Download MediaMonkey, and let it do the work for you.
Granted, once you embed album art into your files, apps like iTunes and Windows Media Player might not display it, and may ask you to search for it from their databases. This is fine: Both programs use proprietary album art storage systems, so just because they can't see your ID3 tag album art doesn't mean it's not there, or that you shouldn't have embedded it—having it around can't hurt, and it's by far the most compatible and rational method for storing album art, as far as other software, most MP3 players and long-term storage go.
Anyway, that's it! Now you can set your CDs aside comfortably, knowing that you've squeezed the purest, most delicious audio files you can out of them. Now:
Listen to Your Music
Because that was the whole point.
If you have more tips and tools to share, please drop them in the comments. Happy ripping, folks!