Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about how you go about turning you CD collection into a music library you can listen to on your iPod or other portable music player. There’s some concrete advice in there, do read it if you are interested in having a go yourself.
Just one point before going ahead, though. As the law in New Zealand is currently, loading your CDs into your computer or iPod is illegal. That’s right, against the law. It’s perfectly legal in most other countries, of course. The government has shown us a draft law which is supposed to make it legal to use your iPod, but the last time anyone saw that, it still had big holes in. New Zealand badly needs the government to make iPods unconditionally legal as they are everywhere else.
Read on for the speaking notes, and some links at the end.
Now to iPods and other digital music players. Here’s a few…
Q: So what are all these players?
A: This is really old MP3 player that I bought about 5 years ago. It’s got 128 Megs of memory, which was the state of the art at the time. That memory is what they call flash memory – it’s solid state computer chip based memory. If you opened this up you’d find a couple of chips and a rechargeable battery. The whole thing is about the size of my thumb, maybe a little bigger, and it plugs straight into a computer’s USB port.
Next, here we have an iPod nano. This is about a year and a half old, it has a screen, it’s pretty small, maybe the size of a stack of 3 or 4 business cards. It has 2 Gigs of flash memory, and it’s got the usual clean Apple design.
Q: Is it in some kind of case?
A: Yes, it’s got a hard clear plastic shell that I’ve added – iPods can scratch really easily and some of these little ones the screen could crack if they weren’t handled well. And my iPod has to live in my pocket with keys, coins and who knows what.
Q: And this one has a case, too…
A: Yes, that’s a video iPod, about 6 months old. It’s a bit larger, maybe the size of a pack of cards but only half as thick. This one has a hard drive in it, and that means it can store a lot more music and video than the baby flash players. Having a hard drive also makes these a lot more fragile – they really hate being dropped. I always buy extended warranty on hard drive players, but not the others.
Q: And this one is tiny!
A: This is a Samsung bought a couple of weeks ago, it’s a lurid blue colour, it has 2Gigs of flash memory and its very small, smaller than my little finger. It’s got a really bright OLED display – OLED is the technology that will replace LCD screens in a few years. Anyway, I haven’t been able to make this one work on a Mac, it comes with its own software which is Windows-only.
Q: How do these players work?
A: Essentially these are gadgets for holding computer files that represent songs, and playing them back through an audio interface. So, your iPod might have an MP3 of, say, this programme and…
Q: What’s an MP3?
A: MP3 is a sound file format. It’s a way of describing a sound in a computer file.
Q: Like a CD track?
A: Very similar, but the CD track takes a lot more bits to describe the same sound as an MP3
A: Mainly because when you convert a CD file to an MP3 you throw away a lot of the information on the CD so you can make the file smaller.
Q: Why doesn’t it sound terrible?
A: Some audiophiles would tell you it does…but to most of us, on portable equipment you won’t hear the difference, provided you have the quality set ‘high’ when you make the MP3. That’s because the MP3 format throws away the information that you are least likely to hear – quiet sounds at the same time as loud sounds and so forth. There’s a lot of science involved. I’ve linked an article describing the MP3 format in some depth if people want to go into it.
Incidentally there are alternatives to the MP3 format. Microsoft’s got its own format of course, it’s called WMA, and Apple has it’s own called AAC. And there’s an open source format called OGG that is getting some traction. And for the hard core audio heads out there, there are WAV files which are pretty much the same as what’s on the CD, with no information thrown away. WAV files are big. But my advice would be to use a high-quality MP3 as your format – it’s a bit bigger than some of the new formats but it plays on anything.
Q: So I have to convert my CDs to MP3s?
A: That’s the first step – it’s called ‘ripping’ by the way. You need some software for that. iTunes is very good for this, and it’s free. iTunes handles all the process of copying the music from your CD onto your computer and turning them into MP3s for you. Make sure you are connected to the Internet when you do this, and iTunes will look up the track list of the CD for you so you don’t have to type it all in. That will even work if you are still on dial-up, by the way.
Q: How do I get iTunes?
A: From the Apple web site – there’s a link – and it runs on Macs and on Windows boxes. For Linux people – there are equivalent programs. I used to use one called Grip, but that’s a few years ago and there is probably something better. If someone wants to leave a comment on my blog with their favourite open source ripper and music library tool, that would be neat.
Q: How exactly do I use iTunes?
A: Fire it up, then when you load a CD into Windows, iTunes should ask you if you want to import. Say yes, and it does. It takes five or ten minutes. That’s it in a nutshell.
Q: As easy as that?
A: Pretty much. I always have the quality turned up and I’d advise everyone to do that. It will soak up some more disc space that way, because the files it makes will be bigger, but you won’t have to rip your CDs again if you get a nice new stereo and the computer sounds too bad through it. So in the iTunes menus, you go Preferences, Advanced, Importing, then make sure you have the MP3 option selected, and under settings go custom, highest quality. It’s well worth doing this, because you will get very high quality sound files which should play back on most machines.
Q: So how do I get the music onto my digital music player?
A: iPods are just so easy, because Apple makes them integrate so beautifully with iTunes. You just plug your iPod into your computer, it’s a simple as that. If you have one of the bigger iPods with a hard disk in it, you can have your entire music collection on – just set it to automatically load the entire library and iTunes will do that. If you have a smaller iPod, set it to load manually, and it’s as simple as pointing at the songs you want in iTunes and dragging them into the little image of the iPod.
Q: What about other players that aren’t iPods?
A: Mostly you can load them from iTunes as well, but not quite as easily. Plug your player in, and it should appear in My Computer if you are on Windows, or in Finder on the Mac. Then you can drag things straight from iTunes to the player in My Computer or Finder. That should work – each player is different, and you would be well advised to check when you are buying a player that you can return it if you can’t get it to work on your computer, like my little Samsung here.
Some players come with their own software – I’d avoid using that if possible. It might not use MP3 format, it might be Windows only, it might not work on your version of Windows.
So to summarise – buy a player you are happy with, get iTunes or some other piece of software that looks similar, turn up the quality settings, feed one CD into the computer and rip it, then plug in the player and see if you can transfer the music to it. When you are happy that it’s playing properly, start feeding your CDs into the computer and ripping thew. Allow an evening or two for that, depending on how many you have – but at least can read a book or listen to the radio at the same time!
And once you’ve gone through the pain of loading all your CDs into your computer, make sure you are backing up regularly. Computer drives fail, after all. I think there’s a another programme in how to back up your computer, maybe in a few weeks…
Q: You mentioned playing your music back on your stereo from you computer – how do you do that?
A: The simplest way is just wire your computer straight to your stereo. Dick Smith’s can sell you a bit of wire for that. But it’s a rather ugly way to go about it – and it may not be practical if your computer is in a different room, and particularly if it’s a laptop.
There is a really neat gadget called a squeezebox that you can get. It sits on your stereo, and it can read the music in your music library. It needs you to have a home computer network, although it would probably work just straight off a wireless laptop. Anyway, these are great gadgets. I’ve had an older machine from the same stable for about 5 years. I’ll put it in the links.
Get iTunes, Apple’s free music library software for Windows and Macs.
Understanding MP3 file compression.
The Squeezebox – a gadget which joins your com