the tone zone



Making great music smaller: how to obtain high quality mp3 files


mp3s - but where from?
When you have a portable mp3 device such as an iPod or mp3 CD player, you'll find it has an enormous appetite for mp3 music. The iPod, for example, can store around 20 000 songs on its 120GB internal drive, and a clutch of ten CDs recorded with mp3 files will typically give you nearly 100 hours of listening time on your mp3 CD player. Where are you going to feed it from?

Sure, if you like Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs like eMule or BitTorrent you may be able to fill one or two CDs worth every day.

However, there are problems involved with using peer-to-peer. The first is that the RIAA (Recording Industry Association Of America) some time ago declared open season on file sharers. Secondly, many file-sharing programs are essentially a sweetened bait for delivering spyware to your computer. (I recommend Tixati if you want a dependable P2P client - it is free of advertising and spyware, and does not need java or any .Net framework.) Thirdly - and no less importantly - the quality of mp3 files shared on these networks is often pitifully low. Tracks with dropouts, clicks and pops, songs that have lost ten seconds of the fade-out, or which sound like they were recorded inside a tin bath using a dictating machine... all the results of ham-handed copying, often inherited from the student-powered Napster days of mp3.
 

Usenet demystified
What to do? If you still want to download but don't want to risk low quality, ISP bans or court summonses, try Usenet, where standards are higher. Usenet was the original bulletin board service, simpler than the Internet as it exits today - before Web browsers and torrent downloads. Most of the music you want will exist on various Usenet newsgroups, posted for sharing by users such as yourself, in either compressed mp3 files or lossless (usually FLAC or Monkey's Audio) files.

Baffled by exactly what Usenet is? How about getting your feet wet with it and downloading some music to find out? You will need two things to begin, a Usenet service provider and a download, (or News) client. I recommend Giganews as your service provider - they have the most complete sets of music files and their retention (how far back in time you can access files posted by other users) is the best. You can try one of their plans for 14 days, and if you cancel within that time you need pay nothing.

You can use a paid or free news client to download from Usenet. Once your News client is configured, you'll need to find suitable groups to download from. Think of a group as a forum web page containing many thousands of articles. If the group is a "binary" one, it will have attached files which can be downloaded. You don't want to waste time running through lines and lines of each group searching for the articles (music titles) you are interested in, it's much faster to search for the article by name. There is an even faster method of searching for articles by using NZB files to locate the exact posting of a file by that name across all (100 000 +) newsgroups.


Making mp3 files from your own CDs
If you already have a stack of CDs (and/or have enough friends with CDs of music you like) then start ripping that music to mp3. What's "ripping" mean? It's simply getting the information off the disc into your computer with as few errors as possible. Then you will be able to convert it to mp3 format. These two stages sound straightforward enough, but it takes only a short sampling of the music being offered on many of the file-sharing networks to hear that many people don't do ripping very well. The mp3 format  "throws away" much of the audio information on a regular CD (that's how an mp3 can be one-tenth the size of the equivalent CD file), so it will pay to take care of what's left from the music you want to listen to. You can, of course, rip with a "hands-off" package like Music Match Jukebox, but if you want to retain more control over the process, you'll need more specialised tools. Here is my audiophile's guide to ripping to mp3.

mp3 ripping tools
Before you start, download these two files (both free):

1 Exact Audio Copy  - get the one labelled "Exact Audio Copy V1.1" (5MB)
2 LAME mp3 encoder or here or here (416kB)


Ripping and re-wrapping
Start at the end. When you come to compress your ripped CD tracks you'll need your second download, LAME. Don't be misled by the name, this is a lean and mean little packet of code (originally so called as an acronym for LAME Ain't an Mp3 Encoder to avoid copyright issues). To begin, make a new folder in your Program Files called LAME or similar, and extract both the lame.exe and the lame_enc.dll from the zip download to here (note, if you don't run Windows XP or have an unzipping program on your computer you'll need to get a free trial of WinZip from here). Exact Audio Copy needs only the lame.exe file, but you may have need of the other if you use other programs (like Razor LAME) that need the .dll, so it's good to have both. LAME produces the best sounding mp3s, far better than the inbuilt Windows encoder, and is a must if you really want to hear the finest the medium can provide. LAME cannot work alone, it needs another application to pass the file to it with command line parameters specifying the bit rate and filters needed. Which bit-rate to convert to is an area of considerable discussion. I tend to use 192kb/s, but 256 is better, although of course you'll generate a much bigger file size with this. Anything less than 160kb/s isn't really hi-fi, although you'll commonly find material at 128kb/s and even below on the file-sharing networks.

Exact Audio Copy (EAC from now on) is superior to other "audio extraction" tools because it will read the information on the CD with minimal errors, returning to re-read a dubious sector until the results are error free. You will certainly be able to hear the difference on some CDs which have been copied from originals on a computer. Often, such copies will play fine on a domestic stereo system (domestic CD players don't read the CDs with great accuracy), but will produce "spitting" sounds (a momentary burst of pure white noise at full volume - wonderful!) when ripped to produce audio data on a computer. Using EAC is fairly intuitive once you've installed it and set it up for your CD drive. Again, you'll need to unzip the file you downloaded, but this time it has its own install wizard which will walk you through the installation and initial setup for your CD drive. It's important to set EAC to use LAME as the program to compress your mp3s. On the top menu, click EAC, then select "Compression Options" and on the box that opens, tick "Use external program..." and select "LAME mp3 encoder" on the drop-down menu "Parameter passing scheme." Then browse to where you extracted LAME on your computer in the step above (probably C:\Program Files\LAME) as the Program path.

For highest quality, I like these parameters for LAME (paste it directly into the box in the "Additional Command Line Options") :
-b 256 -m s -h --lowpass 19.5

Note that if you use these LAME compression parameters you must have EAC's "bitrate" menu also set to 256kBit/s, as that's what you'll be compressing to:

If you don't want to use my suggested parameters, leave the Command Line Options box empty and select your bitrate from the drop-down menu alone.

Look here for a brief tutorial on getting started with EAC and the other features you can fine-tune on it once you become more familiar with the program.

Once you have EAC set up (and it may take a little time to get it to recognise the error-reporting features of your drive, but stick with it as it's a once-only job) it will simply be a matter of slapping in a CD, highlighting the tracks you wish to convert to mp3, then clicking the "extract and compress" icon on the left side menu of EAC. It may take longer (than Music Match or Sonique for example) to produce the finished mp3 files, but quality is always worth a little wait, isn't it?

Making mp3 CDs
This is the easy part. Easy, that is, if you have a CD writer and appropriate software on your computer. Good software for this job is ImgBurn (free) or Nero (shareware), but you can use whatever mastering software came with your drive as long as it will burn data CDs. This is crucial - don't burn the mp3 files you produced with EAC/LAME as music or audio files. You must produce a data CD in the ISO format. Typically, your collection of music to write to a CD will be a compilation, either of one artist or of various artists. Put the similar files together in separate folders (for instance, all Louis Armstrong songs in one folder, Jello Biafra in another and so on), and then give each song a unique name prefaced by a number. This is important, because many mp3 CD players will sort your selection alphabetically, and this may not be how you want to index the songs. Then number each folder as well, so you can index the compilation how you please. The intricacies of burning a data CD are beyond the scope of this tutorial, but you'll find plenty of help in most CD writing software's help files. Just remember, you want a data CD: ISO level 1 - not an audio CD. When you've burnt the CD in your computer, put it in your mp3 CD player - it plays music!

 
 

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