I will preface this by saying that I have no formal training and have taken no classes on audio engineering. It is just something that for some reason I find fascinating. All I know about audio quality comes from years of music pirating and hanging around internet forums. I will try to write this as simply as possible so people can understand it without prior knowledge, but feel free to comment on anything that is unclear. I am hoping that people read this and maybe learn a thing or two, although I will acknowledge that I probably speak for a rather small demographic.
My modest setup (I will clean soon, I swear!)
After getting serious about music I bought a decent stereo and speakers. Then I bought a nice turntable that will hopefully last me for a few years. I began to buy records after I realized that with a free computer program I could make an exact copy of a CD onto my hard drive (I realize you can rip vinyl too, but doing that and preserving quality is tough and expensive). What is this CD ripping program called? For good reason it is called Exact Audio Copy and is the premier CD ripping choice of pirates and audiophiles everywhere (using Windows). It is nice that iTunes can rip a CD in five minutes, but it can do this because it makes a small, low quality reproduction of every track. Exact Audio Copy is perfect for digitizing your CD collection because you won’t be losing any quality when you rip your CDs. Each track will retain the minute details that give music a fuller, more warm sound. I realize that the program can seem scary at first, as it certainly was to me. Luckily, a great community exists that will help you if you want. It is not hard to learn, and should only take about a half hour to set up. After that you should be set and ready to digitize all those CDs just sitting on your shelf! Just follow the instructions here.
Sure, you will lose the experience of putting the CD into your player/computer but was that ever much of an experience anyway? The only annoying thing about the program is that your CDs will only work if they are not scratched. This thing is sensitive. And I mean super-sensitive. Luckily, there is a solution for all your scratched CDs and that is Brasso! Here is a tutorial that has saved many CDs for me.
You can rip the CDs to many formats with EAC, but the most used are MP3 (not a perfect copy) or FLAC (the perfect one!). Of course, ripping to FLAC will create huge files on your computer…and what is a FLAC anyway? Well, it is easiest to explain FLAC as the highest quality rip you can get from your CD (assuming you have set up EAC correctly). That is why file types like FLAC or ALAC (Apple’s equivalent to FLAC) are called “lossless,” while MP3 or AAC files are compressed, or “lossy.” You can’t play FLACs in iTunes, which I understand is a deal breaker for a lot of people. I mostly reserve FLAC files for types of music that will benefit from a ridiculous amount of quality; think post-rock, classical, or Dark Side of the Moon. The amount of quality you want will depend on your audio setup and your ability to distinguish “the details” in your music.
Not All MP3s Are Created Equal
I have noticed that labels (at least “indie” labels) are becoming more progressive and actually including free MP3 downloads with their vinyl. I think that is a great step forward, but personally…those are useless for me. Again, I will acknowledge that I am probably a minority in this respect, but I know there are some people who are as obsessive about their music quality as I am. Most of the time I buy a record because I have listened to it on my computer, which means I already have the files. It’s only a minor point, but if actual high quality MP3s were given I think it would improve the label’s image in the eyes of the technology savvy listeners and give a better listening experience to those who choose to enjoy the music on their computers.
The quality of the included MP3s is also an issue. Even labels advertising high-quality MP3s don’t quite have it right. I hope I don’t lose you in the next few lines, but some distinctions must be made. There are a few different MP3 encoders that you can use, the main ones being Xing, FhG, and LAME. They all work a little differently and the quality is not the same across the board. LAME is generally agreed upon as the encoder that offers the best and widest range of quality. More technically, the highest kbps that an MP3 can reach is 320, but this can be overkill depending on what type of music you are listening to. Kbps (kilobits per second) or bit rate refers to the amount of information or quality in each track (this is not exactly right but the complicated explanation would be way too long and I’m sure I couldn’t do it justice anyway). To save hard drive space you can use the variable settings, V0 to V8, in EAC to encode. Basically, these cut out the dead space in the music file, with a very small reduction of quality (based on which number, 0-8, you use). The numbers, 0-8, tell the encoder what bit rate to aim for, with 0 aiming for the highest and 8 for the lowest. For example, if you are listening to Bon Iver there will be more space that can be cut out than if you were listening to say…Metallica. So, the encoder will go through and the bit rate (in kbps) will be variable (VBR), constantly changing depending on the intensity/loudness of the music. This will save more space than if you use a constant bit rate (CBR), which will encode everything at 320, 128 or whatever kbps you want. All MP3s are drastically reduced in size and somewhat in quality, which is why people use them. Many people don’t have the space for thousands of high quality FLAC files.
Still with me?
For music, an average aspiring audiophile it satisfied with either V0 or V2 settings, depending on how anal they are/if they think they can tell the difference in reduction of quality. V8 is usually reserved for audiobooks and spoken word. Personally I prefer V0 because V2 sounds slightly dull to me.
I know most people don’t care. They will continue to buy from iTunes and use it to rip their CDs. By all means, continue. We all have our priorities but music is my life. I’ve taken the plunge into a world of audio and I can’t go back now. My world is FLAC, V0 MP3, 24/96 vinyl rips, and sweet sweet analog vinyl. You can join me if you want. I hope I have helped and I am open for any questions you might have.