How to make your digital music library

First things first… legality

The first issue to address is the legality of ripping your own CD’s.  If you own the CD, you are free to place copies on your computer, MP3 player or whatever device you own so you can listen to it.  What you can’t do legally is distribute it to others freely.  Or even trade it for others. This rule also applies to DVD movies.  You are completely within your rights to make a digital copy and watch it on your own computer. (That post will come later)

Time for a history lesson

The next issue has to deal with copying your CD’s to computer.  A bit of history first so you can better understand the topic. You might have heard the term “ripping”.  This refers back to the old days when you had to be a bit creative to bypass the copy protection bit that’s present on most audio CD’s and it was considered ripping off the music.  This has pretty much become ignored over the years, but the term ripping is still used.

Warning: Geek-Speak ahead…

The original format for music on CD’s is considered RAW format.  In this format, the music is sampled at 44kHz (44,000 samples per second) and defined as two 16-bit numbers (0 to 56,356) for stereo.  If you do the math, 80 minutes of music adds up to about 700MB, the size of one audio CD.  Back in the day, a 1GB hard drive was luxurious and there was little room to store that much information, so a compression technique was invented called MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (aka MP3).  Here’s the full article explaining how it works on Wikipedia.  The end result is the same music with nearly the same quality now only takes up 1/10th of the space as before.  You can only hear the difference if you are seriously into music and have a real good sound system.

Safe now… Geek-Speak finished.

After MP3’s started to get popular, people started to come up with ways to share their libraries of digital music with other people.  It started with Napster which became popular extremely fast.  The music industry started pitching a big fit about lost revenues and Napster got clamped down on pretty fast.  Around this time Microsoft got into the game with their own proprietary version called Windows Media Audio (WMA).  It used a better compression technique that was able to preserve the same quality but with half the size of an MP3 (or so they claim).  But what made the WMA popular with the music industry was the ability to embed media rights directly into the file.  As a result, the record companies could sell their music online with a license that would only be valid on the computer with the correct “key” on it.  If you tried playing the same file on another computer, you would be informed you don’t have the correct key and offer you a chance to purchase the song legally.

As you can guess, WMA’s were welcomed slowly on the scene.  In the absence of Napster, new sharing techniques popped up using the Gnutella backbone.  Limewire is likely the most popular.  I strongly recommend against using that now.  There are so many traps and virus’ it’s like a minefield just trying to find a legitimate song.  Nowadays, the most popular way of sharing and pirating music is using Torrents.  Due to issues of legallity, I will refrain from any tutorials on that subject.

That’s all nice, but where do I get my music?

So enough background information and on to your question… How do I build a music library?  The best way to do it is to purchase the music legally in the form of CD and create your own MP3’s from the original.  That way, you control the quality and the tag information.  I’ll get to that later. “But that can get costly.”  Not really.  I was able to purchase a LOT of CD’s with by exploiting the Used option.  Most CD’s allow you the option to purchase new or used.  In a lot of cases I was able to purchase the complete CD in good condition for just a few dollars.  In most cases I paid more for the shipping ($2.49 at the time) than I did the actual CD.

Your next option is to purchase the music online and download it.  This gets tricky since almost all sites that support this will embed copy protection into your download which prevents you from using the files on other computers.  If you don’t properly back up everything regularly you could lose everything in the event of a hard drive crash.  Even if you had the music somewhere else, the “key” dies with the operating system and you aren’t the recognized owner anymore.  As you can tell, I’m not a fan of this method.  That’s not to say there is a VERY large membership to iTunes.  You can download a song for $1 easily.  However, if you end up wanting the whole CD, it’s cheaper to just order it used and have the original. Also, iTunes uses its own proprietary format called an OGG.  It gets real confusing keeping all the different formats straight.  As a result, I stick to the tried and true old fashioned MP3.

Time to start RIPPIN’!!!

Now to the next part… How do I rip the CD’s?  The best and easiest option is to use Windows Media Player that already comes with Windows.  The default setting is to save files as WMA’s, but this can be changed to MP3 on the Options Dialog on the Rip Music tab. (older versions of WMP don’t have the mp3 unless you install the codec)  This tab also displays where the files are stored.  The default location is in the users Music directory.  Depending on which version of Windows you are running, this can be in several locations.  In XP it would be “C:\Documents and Settings\USER\Documents\My Music”.  USER is whatever name you are logged on as.  If there is more than one person that has an account on the computer and you want to share it with everyone, you can redirect the location to the Public\Music directory.  In my case, I direct files to be stored directly to my server (\\Samwise\Music).  Handy… huh?

Once you have all those settings established, it’s time to get started ripping.  With Windows Media Player running, insert a CD and wait for it to load.  WMP will start playing it by default, but then it does something really cool.  It uses the track lengths like a thumb print and looks it up on a big database (CDDB) online and downloads all the CD information. This includes track names, artist, album name, year recorded, and even a small picture of the CD cover.  This is all called tag information.  Somewhere around the top of the window, there should be a Rip tab.  Click on it and go to the Rip portion of the software.  Since all the settings are in place, and all the tags are downloaded, WMP will automatically place the music in a subdirectory of the artist and album and label the songs by the track number and name.  All the tag information is embedded into each file. It’s really gotten so much easier over the years.  I can’t tell you how many times I used to have to hand enter all that.  Ugh…  Once the album is done, the CD is ejected since it is no longer necessary to listen to the music on the computer.  The songs are already in your library and can be played at your leisure.

Two MP3’s to go, please. Hold the pickles.

Last question… How do I get them onto an MP3 player?  Typical simple MP3 players will show up automatically in Windows Media Player also.  You can create a sync list that will automatically transfer the songs you add to that list over to your player.  A small bar that shows capacity should show up to let you how much space you have.  You should also be able to do it old school by just opening “My Computer” and opening the MP3 player.  Different players use different filing styles, but it should be obvious.  You should just be able to drag and drop the songs you want from you’re My Music directory into your device.  But, all devices are slightly different, so this is best handled on a case by case basis.

If you are using an iPhone, it’s a bit simpler.  Just put your CD in the computer with iTunes running.  It will ask you if you want it added to your library and handle everything for you.  I still prefer making my own MP3’s and importing them into iTunes.  I have better control over the file structure.

That’s not what it looked like on my computer!

So… here’s my disclaimer.  Depending on which version of Windows and Windows Media Player, these options can be in different places.   The instructions I’ve provided here are fairly generic in nature and I tried to stay away from specifics where possible. If you have questions about any particulars, make sure you include which version of Windows and Windows Media Player you are using.

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