How do you encode your CDs into MP3’s?
Lots of people probably use iTunes or Windows Media Player. You may think that it doesn’t matter – mp3’s are all the same. The truth is it isn’t. The quality of the music stored in an mp3 can vary depending on many factors. Just think of it as this process:
1) Source music material – is the source a CD, tape, radio, etc? Obviously, the cleaner and better the source, the better sounding mp3 you’ll end up with.
2) Read the source music material – if the source is a CD, is the CD defective or scratched? There are specific programs for the PC that are better at reading and correcting bad reads from a CD than others.
3) Encode the source music material – now that we have the source audio in raw format, the computer will need to encode it into an mp3 format. The quality of mp3 depends on many factors here like the amount of compression (which affects the final output size), compression method (eg. variable bit rate, constant bit rate, etc) and especially the mp3 encoding algorithm. Also not all mp3 software compressing tools are the same.
4) Decoding the MP3 – playing back the mp3 means uncompressing the mp3 file and playing it back through your speakers/headphones. The quality of music at the end will also depend on how the mp3 is uncompressed and processed to sound better.
Enthusiasts (read geeks) on the internet have played around with many mp3 encoding settings and performed many tests over the years to come up with the “best” settings for mp3 encoding. The “best” settings have also changed over time as new combinations of mp3 encoding settings are found and tested. (Anyone remember r3mix?). “Best” of course is also a balance between file size and sound quality. With large 1 and 2TB drives being common nowadays, there are many people who recommend just using a “lossless” format (basically an identical copy of the original music). Unfortunately, portable music/media devices don’t have that much space, so compressing to a lossy format is a workaround we’ll need for a while more.
So what should you look out for?
- You may want to change the program you use to encode mp3s to LAME. It’s not the most user friendly program out there (being a command line utility), but there are other programs that use it, like EAC.
- Use a Variable Bit Rate. This means that the parts of the music that is more detailed will use space, but the parts of the music that is not so detailed will use less. It’s also related to the frequencies in the music. For example, if you’re encoding old recordings that had a limited frequency range, they will take up less space than a constant bit rate encoding.
I’ve been using this set of software and settings recently:
- EAC (Exact Audio Copy) – this program has advanced algorithms to ensure that a CD is read as accurately as possible
- LAME 3.97 – this is the latest recommended mp3 encoder
There are quite a few good guides on using these software on the net, but sometimes it’s not easy to find where to start. Here are some links to start with:
- Recommended LAME settings – http://wiki.hydrogenaudio.org/index.php?title=LAME
- EAC and LAME – http://wiki.hydrogenaudio.org/index.php?title=EAC_and_Lame
- MP3 Tools – http://www.hydrogenaudio.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=28124