Ripping Audio CDs

In the December 24 edition of Connected Home Express UPDATE, I talked about my experiences copying a friend's CD collection to a hard disk. I also recently wrote an article for the Connected Home Media Web site called "Digital Audio: Step by Step", which walks you through the process of acquiring, manipulating, and sharing digital music. I intended the latter article as a mile-high view of the various digital audio tasks you might undertake, and it links generously to Connected Home articles from the past 2 years.

As I wrote these two articles, I thought we had surely covered all possible digital-audio topics, repeatedly and comprehensively, over the years. However, I was somewhat surprised to find a few lapses in our coverage. This week, therefore, I'd like to revisit a core digital-audio topic: copying, or ripping, audio CDs to your PC or Macintosh. Let's take a look at the process.

I use two primary applications for ripping audio CDs: Microsoft Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 on the PC, and Apple Computer's iTunes 4.2 on the Mac. Because WMP 9 does a good job of providing folder-based album art that integrates graphically with the Windows XP shell, I don't use the available iTunes for Windows application. But if you're using an earlier Windows version, iTunes is a compelling and easy-to-use option. Your use of WMP 9 might be further complicated by the fact that it natively supports copying music only in the Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. WMA is superior to the more widely used MP3 format, and it's compatible with a wide range of portable devices. However, WMA doesn't work with Apple's best-selling iPod (or with iTunes, for that matter). To copy music in MP3 format on a PC with WMP 9, you'll need an inexpensive software add-on. I recommend and use CyberLink's MP3 PowerEncoder for Windows XP which is available for $9.95.

Configuring Your Player

Before you can rip a CD, you'll want to configure how your media player copies music. In XP, launch WMP 9, select Options from the Tools menu, and go to the Copy Music tab. On this tab, you can set the copy format (WMA or MP3), choose to protect your music (this check box is shaded if you select MP3, but you should disable it regardless), and adjust audio quality. If you're using the MP3 format, I recommend 160Kbps or higher for CD-quality sound; the more efficient WMA format can deliver equivalent quality at 128Kbps. In Mac OS X, open iTunes, select Preferences from the iTunes menu, and click the Importing icon. Here, you should select the MP3 Encoder, then select "High Quality (160Kbps)."

Ripping in XP

To rip a CD in XP, simply insert the audio CD in the CD drive. By default, an AutoPlay dialog box should appear and ask you what you'd like to do. However, sometimes this dialog box won't appear, either because you configured the system to react differently to the insertion of an audio CD or because another media-player application has hijacked this autoplay setting. If the dialog box doesn't appear or another application opens, close the offending application and launch WMP 9. When you click the Copy From CD button on the menu's left side, WMP 9 connects to the online All Music Guide (AMG) database and attempts to match CD information with the CD you inserted. WMP will autofill such items as artist, CD name, track titles, genre, and year. If the information is incorrect (or doesn't autofill for some reason), you can click Find Album Info to search for the CD or edit the information. You can also edit tracks one at a time, if you see only a few errors. For example, if the name of one song is incorrect, select that song name once, then click it once again to put the name in edit mode; you can then replace text, add text, or perform other editing tasks.

WMP 9 also offers advanced editing options. If you want to change the genre for every song on a CD, select the entire list of songs, then click track 1's genre to enter editing mode; when you type in a new genre and press Enter, the change will apply to every song, not just track 1. You can perform the same bulk edit for artist name. If you want to change the CD name, however, you must select Find Album Info. Of course, you need to edit track names individually.

When you're ready to copy the CD, click Copy Music. As WMP copies each song, a progress bar details the process for each song. By default, WMP 9 copies music to subfolders under My Documents\My Music. For example, if you copy a CD titled "A Cup of Moonlight" by David Lanz, you'll get a "David Lanz" folder under My Music. Inside that folder will be a subfolder titled "A Cup of Moonlight"; this folder will be decorated with the CD's album art. Inside that folder will be the individual files that make up the music you copied from that disk.

Ripping on the Mac

To rip a CD on the Mac, insert the audio CD in the CD drive. If iTunes isn't running, it will launch automatically and navigate to the CD view so that you can inspect the list of songs on the current CD. Like WMP 9, iTunes gathers CD information from an online database, though Apple uses the more error-prone CDDB database. To edit information for the CD, select the CD in the iTunes Source list and click OPTION + I (Get Info). In the resulting dialog box, you can change information such as artist name, composer, album, genre, and year for the entire CD. If you need to edit individual song information, simply select the applicable song in the song list and click OPTION + I (Get Info). On the Info pane of the resulting dialog box, you can edit virtually any song information. You can also fix spelling mistakes, as with WMP 9, by selecting individual data points (e.g., song titles) and clicking again to edit in-place.

When you're ready to copy the CD, click the Import button. At the top of the window, iTunes will detail the progress of each file copy and indicate how much time remains. By default, Apple copies songs into your Home/Music/iTunes/iTunes Music folder, although this information is less relevant on a Mac because you'll typically use iTunes as your front end for any songs you've recorded. One thing you don't get with iTunes is album art, but the application includes the ability to display it. If you're really dedicated, you can download album art from or another online location and copy it into iTunes. However, this process is time-consuming.

Enjoy Your Tunes

Both Windows and the Mac offer excellent tools for ripping audio CDs to your system, after which time you can use them in a variety of fun and exciting ways. Check out the aforementioned "Digital Audio: Step by Step" article for some ideas. If you'd like to know about this process, don't hesitate to drop me an email message.

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