Digital Audio: Step by Step

Although many people are comfortable with online music services, ripping CDs, and Apple Computer iPods and other portable audio devices, the process of digitizing a music collection might intimidate others. But fear not: Digital music is one of the best reasons to own a PC or Macintosh, and you probably already own many of the tools you need to move your music consumption completely into the digital realm. This month, I examine how you can make this transformation, step by step.

Step 1: Acquisition
Before you can enjoy and manipulate your music collection digitally, you need to get it on your computer. The dozens or hundreds of CDs you already own might represent a nice start to your collection, but you can't easily share them throughout your home, copy them to portable digital devices, or use them as sources for custom mix CDs until you store their songs on your PC. The process of copying music from an audio CD to the PC is called "ripping," which isn't as violent as it sounds.

Naturally, you have many technical factors to consider. You can use a variety of tools to copy music to your PC, including Windows Media Player (WMP) on Windows and Apple's iTunes on the Mac; both tools are free and excellent. (As an impressive alternative, Apple iTunes is available in a Windows version.) You also need to consider the format you use to copy the songs. For the sake of compatibility, I recommend the MP3 format, but Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (WMA) format and the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) format are both higher quality and can fit more songs in the same amount of hard-disk space than the MP3 format permits. But even the largest CD collections wouldn't fill a modern hard disk, and hard disks are cheap.

A third consideration is quality level. For CD-quality recordings, use 160Kbps MP3 (or higher) or 128Kbps WMA or AAC to record your songs. If quality isn't a concern, and you intend to use the songs mainly on low-capacity portable devices, consider lower qualities, such as 128Kbps MP3 or 64Kbps WMA. Audiophiles might expect more from their music, though I can't generally tell the difference. One format that high-end listeners might want to consider is WMA's new Lossless mode, which isn't compressed but takes up much more disk space.

For more information about ripping CDs to a PC or Mac, please review the following Connected Home Media articles:
- Digital Strategies, Part 2: Digital Music
- Use CD-R for Digital Audio, Data Archival
- MP3 Convergence on a Dime
- A Guide for Managing and Playing Your Digital Audio Files
- Choosing the Correct Format for Digital Music

Many of us have large collections of analog music, such as cassettes, albums, and even 8-track tapes. (You can also record audio tracks from videos, such as concert footage.) You'll need to invest a bit more work to digitally copy these types of recordings, and you can't automate the process as you can with CDs. You also can't use the same tools to record such songs. Instead, you'll need to rig some sort of audio connection between your stereo system and PC, and use a custom tool to get the job done. The recording you make will be very similar to tape recordings you might make from the radio--that is, you'll need to edit them so that each song is contained in an individual file, and so that each song starts and ends correctly. (Analog audio recordings, unlike CDs, don't contain "tracks." Therefore, you'll need to manually splice your recording into tracks, as you might have done with audio cassettes or reel-to-reel recordings of LP albums a few decades ago.)

You can connect an analog audio source to a PC or Mac in two basic ways: You can use your sound card's Line-In port (if it has one), or you can purchase a USB device. On the PC, I simply use an RCA-to-MIC adapter to connect analog sources directly to my sound card. On the Mac, I use a handy little tool called the Griffin iMic (which costs about $40 and is available at, a USB device with Line-In and MIC inputs. On Windows, you can use the built-in Sound Recorder, but I recommend a better tool: I use Microsoft's excellent Plus! Analog Recorder, which is part of the Plus! Digital Media Edition ($20) for Windows XP.

For more information about copying analog audio to a PC or Mac, please review the following Connected Home Media articles:
- Importing Analog Audio to the PC the Easy Way, Part 1
- Importing Analog Audio to the PC the Easy Way, Part 2

Another handy way to acquire music is to use one of the many new online music stores. These stores typically offer songs for 88 cents to 99 cents and entire albums for about $10, and most require no subscription fees. The best of the lot remains Apple's iTunes Music Store, which uses the free iTunes application. One caveat: Because Apple uses the Protected AAC format to digitally protect the songs you purchase from piracy, those songs aren't compatible with the majority of available digital devices, so you'll need to burn them to CD (see below) and re-record them in a friendlier format, such as MP3, if you don't own an iPod. If you'd prefer your downloaded songs to be more compatible than Apple's offering permits, check out Napster 2.0 or MusicMatch Downloads, both of which offer songs in the superior and more compatible WMA format. (These services are PC-only, however.)

For more information about online music stores, please review the following Connected Home Media article:
- Digital Music Downloads Come to the PC

Step 2: Creation
After you have a collection of digital music on your PC, the fun begins. You can now listen to your music on your PC, of course, but that's only the beginning. Whether you have a single standalone PC or a networked wunderkind PC, you can now use that PC to create your own custom mix CDs, which you can play on your stereo's CD player, in the car, or with any portable CD player. The process of creating a custom mix CD is called "burning a CD." Like ripping, the terminology isn't as violent as it sounds. And blank recordable CDs (for best compatibility, you'll want CD-R, not CD-RW) are so cheap that you can find a huge package of them (called a spindle) for next to nothing. Windows Media Player (WMP) and Apple iTunes (both free) include integrated CD-burning capabilities out of the box, as do several third-party utilities.

For more information about burning CDs on a PC or Mac, please review the following Connected Home Media articles:
- Do You Have Digital Rights?
- Digital Strategies, Part 2: Digital Music

You can also copy your music to one of many portable digital audio devices. These devices currently fall into two categories. The first category uses flash memory, typically 64MB to 1GB, which lets you store a dozen or even several hundred songs at a time--perfect for a half hour on the treadmill, a commute, or a walk to the park. The second category incorporates a hard disk, which lets you store 10,000 to 40,000 songs, meaning you can walk around with your entire music collection at your disposal--a must for music enthusiasts. (You can also plug any of these devices into your car stereo for on-the-road music consumption, although you might need an adapter of some sort.) The best of these devices is Apple's iPod, again with one caveat: Because Apple supports only the MP3 and AAC formats, you can't play back songs recorded in Microsoft's WMA format. Also, iPods are expensive ($300 to $500) and might be out of the question for many pocketbooks. If WMA compatibility and price are factors, consider Dell's excellent Digital Jukebox ($200 to $300), which supports WMA, is cheaper than the iPod, and offers far better battery life.

For more information about portable audio devices, please review the following Connected Home Media articles:
- Portable Audio: Creative Falters as Apple Surges
- Apple iPod Review

Step 3: Have Fun and Share
Mix CD and portable audio devices aren't the only way to take your digital music collection beyond your PC. If you have a wired or wireless home network, you can also share your collection with other PCs and devices in your home. You can follow one of several typical scenarios for accomplishing such sharing.

To simply access your music collection remotely, you can set up your My Music folder in Windows as a share and connect to that share from another PC in the house. Then, tell WMP to search that location for files and add them to that machine's music library. As long as the original computer is online, you can reach those songs remotely, at any time.

A slightly more elegant--albeit more expensive and technical--solution is to relegate an older, otherwise unused, computer as a digital music server. (You could also use this server to store photos and movies.) That way, you'll always have a dedicated machine that contains all your digital media, and you won't have to worry about the processing overhead of other machines on the network hitting your PC for content.

PCs aren't the only devices that can remotely access your digital music collection. A new generation of Digital Audio Receivers (DARs), such as the excellent Turtle Beach Audiotron ($300 to $350), lets you pump your music collection to your home stereo system over the network and use a standard remote control to access it. Numerous DARs and Media Access Points (which also work with photos and videos) are available for pushing your digital content into the living room.

Another living-room solution is a new Media Center PC ($1000 to $2000), based on Windows XP Media Center Edition, which adds a friendly, remote-capable interface on top of Windows and lets it work natively with your TV. You can therefore record TV shows and access your digital music, video, and photos from the easy chair. Because it's a full PC, a Media Center PC can share content remotely and access content on other PCs.

Finally, iTunes users (both PC and Mac) can take advantage of the application's excellent remote-sharing capability: Any copy of iTunes running in your home can access any shared iTunes music library on a PC or Mac elsewhere in the home. Apple iTunes can share over wired and wireless connections, and it's great for laptops. You can bring your laptop into the bathroom while you shower or into the cellar when you're getting work done, and still have access to your music.

For more information about sharing your music collection over your home network, please review the following Connected Home Media articles:
- Take the Wires Out of Your Home Office
- Home Networking: Less Expensive, Simpler, and Faster Than Ever, Part 1
- Home Networking: Less Expensive, Simpler, and Faster Than Ever, Part 2
- Tunes to Go
- Digital Music Player Might Be Music to Your Ears

However you enjoy music, digitally recording and sharing it can only enhance the experience. Have fun with it, and happy holidays!

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