I started copying CDs to my hard drive in the fall of 2001 when my CD collection had exceeded 300. I had already done two tours overseas, lugging a 200 disc case double packed to the brim everywhere I went. The idea of dragging them around the world on MSG duty for three years wasn’t too appealing.
I was sporting a 755MHz Pentium with a 20 GB hard drive and a whopping 128 MB of RAM in those days. I had heard rumors of “ripping” CDs to my hard drive, thus being able to listen to them on my laptop without the actual CD, so I researched it up went wild. For the two month duration of MSG school I ripped my entire collection and every single album I could get my hands on. I didn’t know too much about bit rates or file formats, but the default settings of my music manager seemed good enough. I strode onward.
By the time I reported for duty in Pretoria, South Africa on 15 December 2001, my digital music collection was well over 400 albums and most of my hard drive. In the next three years it would balloon to almost 13,000 songs, over one month of music, and would be the dominant space taker of every laptop I owned.
I was ripping, organizing, tagging, and burning mp3 files at lightning speeds. I could borrow a CD wallet of twenty-four discs, and an hour later have them ripped and returned to their rightful owner. But the really exciting thing happened when I discovered mp3Pro.
Mp3Pro was supposed to revolutionize the file format. It was the same quality as regular mp3, was backwards compatible, and was half the size. Oh happy days! I immediately began the arduous process of converting my immense collection to mp3Pro. I watched in awe as every song I converted actually decreased the used space on my hard drive. As my collection continued to grow, the file sizes halved and I was a happy man. What magic lie in mp3Pro? I didn’t know, but it didn’t stop me from ripping CD after CD, from South Africa to Brazil to Canada to Iraq, at mp3Pro.
But there was a catch, I guess you could say. I learned mp3Pro was best played through a medium equipped with the decoding technology. At its debut, only RCA had mp3Pro support built into its digital music players, but what company would turn its head to such wonderful things? Surely it would catch on and the rest of the players in the market would jump on the bandwagon.
So I waited. I waited for Rio to offer support for the mp3Pro format, but none came, so I bought one anyways. And by god, those little mp3Pro songs sounded just fine. Phooey on everyone! In every digital music player I owned my music sounded the same. It was fine. Just fine. No problems. Nothing noticeable at all, really. Not even in my Bose Quiet Comfort headphones. Did mp3Pro really need special decoder technology? I thought not.
But, in retrospect, trouble was afoot. On long, cross country drives I’d hook an FM transmitter to my laptop and jam to my tunes on the car stereo. The songs sounded a bit muffled, but I blamed it on FM shortcomings. When I bought my BMW 325Ci last September, I immediately went to work tearing the center console apart and installing an auxiliary input for my mp3 player-at-the-time, the Rio Chuba. The BMW was blessed with a Harmon Kardon sound system. Bimmer top of the line. When I hooked it up, it too sounded, well, not so muffled really, but quieter. I couldn’t figure it out. The audio CDs I burned from my mp3Pros sounded fine. So why the difference from the mp3 player? I chalked it up as resistance and noise over the auxiliary line. Problem buried.
The real digital heartbreak came with the purchase of my new truck this February, a 2006 Nissan Frontier NISMO crew cab with Rockford Fosgate system and in-dash, 6 disc CD/mp3 player. Armed with mp3 playback capabilities, I dug out a few mp3 CDs I had burned ages ago, popped them in the CD player, and prepared to rock.
They sounded like shit! I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I ran straight to my laptop and Googled my mp3Pro woes. It had been the first time since its creation I had researched the format. Turns out mp3Pro never quite caught on as the inventor had hoped. Designed for its small size, and thereby attractive to digital player and laptop owners with storage limitations, mp3Pro was supposed to catch like wild fire. The only problem was storage capacities for those very same devices were growing practically exponentially. No one needed the small file size in trade of sound quality. They had hard drives exceeding 40 GB and low cost digital music players capable of storing over 1,000 songs at CD quality. I was sunk.
I felt bilked. Like I had gambled and lost. Lost big. Here I had over one month of music (that’s over thirty days of listening, twenty-four hours a day, non stop, if you’re counting) ripped at a quality that wasn’t worth a shit on anything but computers. So now what?
I put my nose back on the grindstone, researching everything digital audio. Mp3. WMA. AAC. FLAC. You name the format, I’ve read a dozen articles on it. I finally settled on one based on quality, compatibility, and most importantly, my own ear. Don’t laugh, you bastards. My hearing test three days ago showed stability or improvement in every frequency range across the board. A bit hard to believe, I admit, after over eight years in the Marine Corps and a very loud tour in Iraq, but true none the less.
I decided on the mp3 format encoded at 192kbps. It’s CD quality with a comfortable margin. I won’t get in the weeds with my research, but do not rip your own CD collection at anything less than 160kbps. Not even 128kbps. Mp3 as an audio format has no digital rights management (meaning nothing limiting the transfer of your music to whatever or how many digital music players or computers you so desire), is equivalent to WMA and AAC (the other two major contenders, WMA being Microsoft based and AAC being used primarily by Apple) at equal bit rates, and is the most compatible format on the planet. Period. Use it. Love it. Don’t ask questions. Just do what I damn tell you.
The rest is history. I’m once again snatching up every CD I can find like some dirty little Iraqi kid at a Wal-Mart (I did time in Iraq, so I can make that joke) and reripping each and every one. The process is surprisingly faster than my first experience five years ago, due mainly, I guess, to faster drive speeds. I’ve got a couple hundred CDs done already. Good, by anyone’s standards, but so damn many to go.
Come back soon, when I discuss the iTunes versus MusicMatch debate, dispel plenty of myths with surprise endings, and throw reluctant props to Apple and their merry crew after my recent purchase (I’ve bought a lot of shit lately) of a 60 GB video iPod.
Until next time…
Addendum: 10 March 2007
I’ve learned a lot about digital music formats since this post was written over a year ago. Following the purchase, sale, purchase, sale, and purchase of three different models of iPods, and discovering the wonder that is iTunes and the iTunes Store, my music collection is almost 100% AAC at 128 kbps. The only Mp3s in my 11,000+ song collection are podcasts (for maximum compatibility).
Since I love the seamless integration of iPod and iTunes, and well as the best navigational interface of any digital music player I’ve ever used, it just made sense to convert to AAC.
If you use and love iPods, make the move to AAC.
This doesn’t mean you need to spend hundreds of dollars at the iTunes store. I still purchase a vast majority of my new music from BMG Music Service and used albums from Amazon. The albums I pick off the iTunes Store are few and far between, usually albums I can’t find anywhere else.