Encoding Classical Music and Operas – for iTunes and More

March 16, 2010DavidiTunes1

After ripping my CDs to MP3 for many years using iTunes, I finally threw away that approach and developed another model. For those who want to hear the answer quickly here is it: EAC/LAME/freedb/320kbps. For those who want the why behind the decision, here are the big picture goals.  And for an EXTREMELY  detailed, step-by-step illustrated  guide, head to my other site, and check out our eBook, “A Digital Workflow for Classical Music and Opera CDs: Creating High-Quality Archives of your CDs for iTunes, the iPod and other Management Software and Players.” It’s low-priced at only $9.95, comes with free support, and has a FREE excerpt available for download.

(Note that the eBook, now in its 3rd Edition, includes a separate “iTunes-Only Workflow” for those of you who want to simplify the Classical CD -> MP3 conversion process and avoid the use of EAC/LAME).

Ok, on to encoding:

1. I realized over time while I’ve been converting my CDs to MP3s using iTunes, I haven’t been consistent on the bit rate. Sometimes I used a low rate, sometimes a high rate, and sometimes variable.  I always used MP3 vs ACC — even though ACC is lossless, I still wanted the ability to have the “platform independence” of MP3. I know there is a hit on quality, but portability was the critical factor in this decision.

2. Over the years I made the mistake of allowing iTunes to manage my music folder. This was a dreaded mistake because iTunes really does a number on classical music and operas especially — I talk about this problem and the solution in this itunes opera post.

3. My tags are all over the place. While I can easily browse iTunes and make my way around my iPod, my naming convention was inconsistent to say the least.

4. I wanted to get the highest practical quality out of my CDs while I still have the time and motivation to do so.

So the solution I used is EAC and LAME. EAC is an open-source cd ripping program, and LAME is an MP3 encoder that works to allow EAC to convert your CDs to MP3 (they really go to.wav first and then to MP3). I’m not going to get into the details of setting up EAC/LAME. It’s takes a little more time than iTunes, but it’s well worth it. If you do a google search for EAC/LAME you will get a ton of good listings for setup tutorials.

Once I got EAC/LAME setup, I needed to decide on a bit rate. I read and read what others had to say about bit rate and the consensus was that over 196kbps that — for practical purposes — the average person couldn’t hear the difference between 196 and CD-quality on average audio equipment. I then asked a friend of mine in the audio business who made a good point — with disk space is so cheap these days, there’s no reason to go with the highest quality. The ideas is that while you may not be able to tell the difference now between a 196 or a 320 encoded mp3, you may have better equipment in the future that can take advantage of this quality. My friend also added that for current classical music, the difference may not be so great, but for older recordings, you want the highest bitrate setting to try to compensate for the quality of older recordings. So for these three reasons, I decided to encode all of my MP3s at 320kbps.

On the subject of freedb. After using the iTunes/gracenote system, freedb is a wonder! I have some fairly obscure opera recordings and it hasn’t failed yet. (Actually it failed once — it doesn’t have the information for a recording of Hans Knappertsbuch/Wagner Overtures, but let’s be fair).

And to answer the argument the iTunes can do a good job, and that all EAC does is squeak out the extra quality for a potentially damaged disc, I think that the time investment with the EAC setup is worth it. I love my CDs, so much so that some of them are scratched beyond repair from me listening to them over and over again. Actually it’s from leaving them out and taking them with me so much over the years that really scratched them, not the re-use (though I have a friend of mine who in the early 90’s claimed at the time that his brother ruined a doors CD by playing it over an over again — a story that is now folklore). But in all seriousness, the idea behind encoding my CDs at the highest possible bitrate is so I don’t have to go back and encode them again later, and so that I spend most of my time listening to the MP3’s, and not the original CDs.

And finally on the subject of tags, I decided to wipe out my entire classical collection and re-tag the whole library. It’s a pain for sure, but I actually have found it much easier to encode with the correct tags (or close to it) than to go back and re-tag an already established library. In a future post I’ll go over the tools I use for tagging MP3’s and my naming conventions (for operas especially) — and don’t do it by hand — there’s software that will save you hours.

So that’s my protocol. What do you think?

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