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Media Digitalization: Converting 425 CDs to FLAC

With cheap storage available, it is almost a no brainer to digitalize important documents and media. My family has an extensive CD collection most due to my dad’s keen interest in music. My dad is an audiophile. He is extremely particular on sound staging, transparency and capturing audio performance in his sound room the way it would be heard live. Yes, we have a sound room. A room that is crafted completely for sound performance. The room has sound proofing, a carefully calibrated slanted ceiling, carpeting and the like.

Digitalized: 425 CDs and more than half a month of continual playback

Digitalized: 425 CDs and more than half a month of continual playback

The popularity of CDs have dipped and we are at the stage where music is no longer first distributed on CDs. Digital platforms have taken over. I’ve advised my dad against buying a new transport (CD Player) because of the dying platform of CDs. His relatively new purchase of the Bryston BDA1 DAC has opened up digital possibilities of enjoying sound. With a massive 425 CD collection carefully stored in cabinets, I decided it was time to digitalize all of them.

 

Format

Going for FLAC was a no brainer. Lossy compression was not an option especially when it came to audiophiles. FLAC is the gold standard for digitalizing music with no quality compromises. You do not get the usual 3-5MB MP3 file but FLAC stores music at its full quality and yields a 15-25MB file depending on track length. Storage is cheap, the 425 CDs resulted in 6331 music tracks. This took up only 134GB of space.

 

Storage is cheap, the 425 CDs resulted in 6331 music tracks. This took up only 134GB of space.

 

FLAC is similar to zipping up files. You lose no quality and you save about 30% the space of uncompressed audio. On top of that, meta tagging is possible. This is especially important for a huge digital music collection.

 

Ripping

The process is simple but tedious. Pop all 425 CDs one by one and rip them to FLAC. I utilized 2 different pieces of software for the task.

Exact Audio Copy

Ripping CDs have become some what of an art with Exact Audio Copy. This method of ripping is slower because it does it a few times to ensure that quality is maintained. It is often tricky when converting from analogue (CDs) sources. The first capture may not be the best one. Exact Audio Copy captures every track multiple times, compares it with an online database and picks the closest matching quality. To be frank, this is nit picking. It is almost impossible for the human ear to detect the differences between different versions of ripped tracks. But if I was going to make this count, I was going to do this right. Exact Audio Copy also hooks into other databases to grab meta data.

Exact Audio Copy - Top notch ripper for sound accuracy.

Exact Audio Copy – Top notch ripper for sound accuracy.

Do note that Exact Audio Copy should only be used for original CDs. Do not try this for compilations or custom CDs that you created. The source matching feature will not work and EAC is often so nitpicky about the quality of the rip that non industrial pressed CDs will seldom pass its quality test.

Not all CDs are created equal. CDs that were manufactured are pressed physically with tiny grooves punched in. On the other hand, custom CDs that you create or burn utilizes the CDR/RW drive’s laser to cut an even tinier groove on an erodable chemical layer of a recordable CD. This is why custom CDs that you burn have a much shorter lifespan. This is also why these CDs do not hold up in the quality check. So, to keep things simple, original CDs should be ripped by Exact Audio Copy. Non original, custom compiled CDs should be ripped by more conventional means.

 

Original CDs should be ripped by Exact Audio Copy. Non original, custom compiled CDs should be ripped by more conventional means.

 

FreeRIP

This is the software I use for custom CDs. It works fast and pulls meta data well too. The software is free like EAC and does a great job converting CDs to FLAC. In fact, this ripper was a big reason why ripping 425 CDs turned out to be less painful and time consuming that I thought.

 

Tagging

Not all CDs are automatically tagged. If you have plenty of custom compilations, you’re in for manual tagging. Things get tricky if you have Asian language based songs. Tagging was done via MP3Tag which made the job really easy. It was also quick when working through an entire library of 6331 tracks.

MP3Tag - Meta data for music files made really easy.

MP3Tag – Meta data for music files made really easy.

 

Storage

I was contemplating storing the FLAC files on a NAS so that the source is kept central. However, a good NAS is rather pricey and buying 2-4 drives will add to the cost.

On top of that my dad prefers to have his music files piped into his system via a SSD (because the movement of mechanical drives will affect the sound apparently). My mom has tons of spare space in her drive as well. As such, I simply made a copy of each on each of our systems. This also creates 2 ‘off site’ back ups besides my own.

 

Playback

After trying a few different pieces of software, Winamp was picked. It is fast, effective and reads FLAC files natively. On top of that there are plenty of customization options available. Great features and ridiculously speedy performance. Apple and Microsoft should quit making media players. iTunes and Windows Media Player completely stink compared to Winamp and other third party alternatives.

Winamp - Solid, lightweight yet feature filled player.

Winamp – Solid, lightweight yet feature filled player.

 EDIT: I’ve gone and tested a paid player – JRiver Media Centre and it is a far superior player for audiophiles. You get plenty of options and controls. Needless to say it outperforms nearly everything on Windows. You may wish to check out this article to get a feel of it.

 

Does It Last Longer?

An argument is often made that photos and CDs can last longer than a hard drive’s mean-time-before-failure,  if preserved carefully. This is true but misses the point completely. Mechanical hard drives may have a life span of 4-5 years if handled carefully. Solid state drives doubles that depending on the quality you buy. CDs may last 20 years. Photos can go up to 15 years if preserved at the right settings.

The key take away is this. Your hard drive may have a shorter life span but you can always change the drive and preserve the data. When a CD or photo is damaged, it is gone. That is the one and only source. A digital version, is a copy of which you can make multiple exact copies of. Unlike analogue media where 1:1 copying ratio is nearly impossible, digital copies are pure matches to the source. What is key is to make copies of the same file over different drives. In short, backup.

 

This means I have 6 digital copies of every track. 5 in different hard drives and 1 on multiple servers in the United States. I am pretty sure my digital data will outlast physical CDs.

 

This is what I do. All music tracks are stored on an internal mechanical hard drive. This is mirrored (copied) from the primary SSD to 2 other mechanical drives. My dad (SSD) and mom (another mechanical drive) have a copy each. On top of that, I have all the tracks backed up on online servers (CrashPlan+) in case something unfortunate happens to my home. This means I have 6 digital copies of every track. 5 in different hard drives and 1 on multiple servers in the United States. I am pretty sure my digital data will outlast physical CDs.

 

Conclusion

After converting our family’s entire collection of music, there is a strong sense of satisfaction in immortalizing music worth over $6,000. Music is also made more available to the entire family and digitally browsing through music is a breeze. To top it off, sound quality was not compromised.

It was a lengthy project spanning 2 months and I took my time with it but it was well worth the effort. If you have a huge CD/DVD/etc collection, it may be time to start that digitalization process.

Dave Junia

Dave Junia | administrator

Analyst. Cyclist. Photographer

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