Quality MP3s

Several years ago I ripped every CD I owned and converted them all to MP3. At the time I was dealing with, oh, about 300 CDs, so the process took some time. Then I trashed all those MP3s and started over.

Why would I do such a thing? My goal was to acquire very high quality MP3s. I wanted quality over size, MP3s that could be converted back to WAVs with more or less no audible degredation (okay, if you did this over and over, no MP3 would provide good quality… I was looking for a one pass WAV -> MP3 -> WAV type quality). An easy test of the MP3 quality is to pick some music that has nature sounds of some sort in it and listen to it on quality equipment (headphones, speakers, whatever). As the codecs that create MP3s are generally optimized for speech and music, cricket sounds, water, or whatever are an easy way to find their limits. That or a quality jazz recording with lots of airy cymbals.

In my first attempt, I bought a package (I think it was MusicMatch) that ripped the CDs and created the MP3s and added the tags, all in one package. The MP3s were fine, but they were not what I would call high quality. After a bit of research, I redid the whole thing addressing quality at each step. Here’s a summary of what I learned (and subsequently did).

1) Ensure an accurate rip. If the CD player reads a grease smudge off your disc, that noise will be encoded right into the MP3. If there is a scratch, you’ll probably hear that scratch in the MP3. The solution? Use Exact Audio Copy (EAC). It reads the CD tracks over and over, comparing them until it gets an exact match, thus enabling it to rip a perfectly accurate WAV file (unless, of course, the disc is unreadable). EAC is free, so go get it.

2) Use the LAME encoder to convert from WAV to MP3. There are numerous download sites like this one. It has a “lame” interface, but once configured, EAC can drive it for you.

3) Make sure your ID3 tags are done well. ID3 tags are the extra bits of data stored with the MP3 file such as Title, Artist, Genre, etc. EAC will usually be able to look up the tags for you when you load a CD using freedb.org, but always make sure the tags are accurate and complete.

If you Google “eac lame tutorial”, you can find a bunch of great step-by-step info on setting up the whole shootin’ match. I use the “insane” setting for the LAME codec, which is basically a VBR encoding scheme meant to match the quality of a 320 kbs CBR MP3, but the files average around 230 kbs. I use a much lower setting (around 64 kbs VBR) for audio books that I rip.

Once you get your collection set up, it’s easy to keep it up to date by converting CDs as you acquire them. Then the fun begins. I’ve got MP3s driving my music in my living room stereo and my car, and will post the details another time.

2 Replies to “Quality MP3s”

  1. Hi Jay, I am an avid iPod listener. I have about 200 or so CD’s on my 40 GB. For orchestral music, and other music high on my list of favorites, I have actually chosen to use Apple Lossless format. So one track might use up 20 Megs easy for a short 5 minute song. I just like keeping it as “real” as possible – for some reason even the high bitrate lossy formats sound a little funny to me. Some people don’t notice a difference – unfortunately I do, and it’s bad enough that I have been moving away from MP3. I also sometimes use AAC at high bitrates for stuff I don’t care as much about the quality. I have a totally not-fact-based theory that the iPod may have a little better support for AAC since it’s Apple’s codec.

    What amazes me is that even though I go with lossless format for most of the music, I still have way over 2000 individual tracks on the device.

    On another note, I have a small side project I am doing whose goal is to feed my “recently played” tracks to my blog via RSS. (See the link on my name). Thought you might find that interesting. I still have a ways to go, as time to work on it is limited, but I do have about 60% of the work done for a 1.0 version.

  2. Okay, you’ve pointed to where I’m ultimately going to go with all this. My main issue is compatibility. I use my MP3s in several different ways, and right now, MP3 is the only format that will work in all settings.

    In the long run, however, I know I have one more rip ‘n’ compress to go, when I move to a lossless compression format.

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