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First look: Digital Media Core, Audio Format: MP3

I wanted to throw this by readers before posting a final version to the SuperSite.It's an early version of what will likely be the first article in the "Digital Media Core" series, which will eventually cover various digital music, photo, and video topics, as well as backup and media sharing. I've got an outline of sorts that I can post if you think that's valuable, but the intention is to keep the articles in this series up to date over time so that they make sense and are relevant no matter when they're read (unlike, say, a review, which is by nature a slice of time). Anyway. Not everyone will agree with all of the advice here. And there's some additional material I'm trying to figure out how to incorporate (mostly tips) that aren't here yet. Any links within the article aren't "there" yet either. Anyway, let me know what you think. 

Digital Media Core
Audio Format: MP3

Back around 2002 or so, I was convinced that Windows Media Audio (WMA) was the future of digital audio: It offered better compression, better fidelity, and smaller file sizes than the industry standard but ancient MP3 (MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3) audio format and Microsoft was pushing it hard with increasingly impressive releases of Windows Media Player, Media Center, and what seemed like a rich partner ecosystem for devices and services.

But then Apple happened. The company released its first iPod in 2001 and followed that up a year later with a Windows compatible version and then. Then, about a year after that, Apple released the first Windows version of iTunes, its iPod and digital music management system and, of course, front-end to the iTunes Store. Apple wanted nothing to do with WMA, for what I assume are obvious reasons, and was instead foisting yet another audio format on consumers. This format, AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), is the successor to MP3 from a marketing perspective but is, like WMA, really completely different technology.

The success of Apple’s iTunes Store--which, until recently, sold songs only in a proprietary version of AAC called Protected AAC--suggested that maybe Apple, and not Microsoft, would define the next generation of digital audio formats. And its iTunes software, not coincidentally defaulted to plain vanilla AAC for CD ripping whereas Windows Media Player defaulted to WMA.

Technologically, AAC and WMA are very similar. They use completely different lossy compression schemes but achieve very similar quality and file sizes at identical bit rates. WMA has the edge in compatibility when it comes to the variety of devices and software that work with either format. AAC, however, has the edge in sheer numbers, but only because the AAC-compatible iPod has sold so fantastically well.

The problem for Windows users--i.e. "the world"--is that AAC doesn't play nice with products made by Microsoft and its partners. AAC isn't compatible with Windows Media Player or Media Center, though you're welcome to buy expensive and balky third party codec packages if you really want that functionality. But even if you do that, you won't be able to access AAC content via a Media Center Extender. (Curiously, AAC is compatible with two recent Microsoft products, the Zune product line and the Xbox 360, but on the latter only through the comparatively primitive blade user interface.) AAC doesn't work with most third party media players, set-top boxes, or portable audio devices either.

WMA actually met these requirements before the iPod rocketed to success. And that's where today's technological stalemate begins. Both AAC and WMA are excellent. But neither is fully compatible across all the products you're going to want to use now or in the future. They're both non-starters. In my opinion, you, as a Windows usres, would crazy to back either format at this point.

Enter MP3
Fortunately, we have that age-old standby, MP3, waiting in the wings. MP3 is everything that AAC and WMA are not: It's compatible with every single software product, service, set-top box, portable media player, or other device you'd care to use. It is PC and Mac agnostic, works equally well in iTunes or Windows Media Player, and can even be configured as the default CD ripping option in both products. Heck, it works great with Linux too, if you should ever move in that direction, you rebel.

MP3 isn't perfect, but its biggest problems are very much offset by some recent developments. For example, MP3 doesn't offer the same sophisticated compression schemes found in AAC or WMA, so you'll need to rip songs in a higher bit-rate with MP3 than you would with either of the other formats in order to achieve the same quality. This results in bigger files, naturally, but thanks to the ever-expanding size of today's hard drives, the file size of individual songs is rarely an issue. Only the most Scrooge-like user would complain about the difference between a 3 MB and 4 MB song file.

Another surprising development has conspired to make both AAC and WMA passé. Now that the recording industry is finally beginning to begrudgingly embrace the sale of unprotected song files (that is, music files that are not protected by Digital Rights Management, or DRM, technology), online music services are dropping the proprietary formats of the past for pure, simple, and compatible MP3. (Well, everyone but Apple: For some reason, the iTunes maker has decided that its non-DRM tracks should cost more than the protected versions and should be encoded in Windows-unfriendly AAC.) As of this writing, Wal-Mart and are both offering millions of DRM-free MP3 audio tracks for sale online. Even Microsoft has gotten into the game: In November, it will relaunch the Zune Marketplace with over 1 million "pure" MP3 tracks (rather than pursue some lame non-DRM version of WMA). Other companies will no doubt offer MP3 options soon as well.

The game's over, folks. MP3 won.

MP3 in the real world
I use MP3 exclusively for any audio tracks I create myself, typically by ripping audio CDs to disk, and I recommend that you do so as well.

That said, there are audiophiles and technology trolls out there who might recommend other courses of action, such as using lossless WMA or AAC formats, which take up dramatically more disk space than MP3 files, but don't lose any audio fidelity when compared to the original source. (Don't be confused by the term "lossless," however: These formats are still compressed as, incidentally, are the CDs from which most digital audio files are ripped.) This is a foolhardy idea, unless you will never use a portable media device or enjoy the thought of storing and managing two copies of your music collection, one in lossless and one in another format that's been transcoded from the lossless masters. I'm not sure about you, but in my opinion life is just too short to bother with that kind of silliness.

Others may recommend bizarre and unpopular formats like FLAC or OGG. These people are also misguided: While these formats may offer some vague technical advantages over other audio formats, they are even less compatible than AAC or WMA. The people who do use (and advocate) these formats are generally more concerned with religious issues surrounding their disliking of proprietary technologies or products made by companies like Apple and Microsoft. My advice here is simple: Avoid these formats.

Media management
As Windows users, your choices for managing MP3 and other audio files are nearly limitless. Honestly, many of these applications are at least good or excellent, so which one(s) you choose should be based on other considerations. For example, if you're going to access your media collection from a Media Center PC or Extender in the den, you should organize your content with Windows Media Player, since those products derive all of their song meta-data from that application. Zune guys, obviously, should use the Zune software. Those with iPods, iPhones, or even Apple TVs (all 6 of you--relax, I'm one too) will want to use iTunes. If your primary access point for music is another type of portable player, you'll want to use whatever software works with the device; typically, that's Windows Media Player, but it could be Real Player too. Either will work fine.

While there are some conceptual differences between these products--I use iTunes and Windows Media Player primarily at the moment, but plan to use the new Zune 2.0 software extensively when it ships next month--I don't believe many people will have issues moving back and forth.

Personally, I use iTunes to manage the "master" copy of my music collection. That is, I allow iTunes to organize my music collection into whatever folder structure it likes, which makes it easier to backup and copy from system to system. I use iTunes to apply album art to my song files (the automated system Apple has works pretty well but I end up having to manually copy many album art images). I rate songs in iTunes and on various iPods, which is handy (if time-consuming) for creating smart playlists. (For example: A greatest hits CD from a particular band is quite easy to make when you've rated all the songs.) It's great for finding song duplicates. It has pleasing visual styles like Cover Flow mode and has recently turned into a first class video player too. (We'll look at that in a different article.)

iTunes isn't perfect, and certainly there are some advantages to other players. Windows Media Player and the first generation Zune software both feature excellent "stacks" views of artists and genres, which are quite nice. And though you can't play DVD movies with iTunes, DVDs works just fine in Windows Media Player.

Frankly, there's no reason you can't use all three. Zune quite nicely copies over the meta data you've already configured in iTunes and Windows Media Player and is thus the friendliest of the three in that regard. (It even picks up iTunes ratings, which is key.) Otherwise, you should look into MusicBridge, which was my software pick of the week in Episode 35 of the Windows Weekly podcast. This wonderful and free utility lets you manage your music collection in either iTunes or Windows Media Player and then manually (but very quickly) apply meta-data like album art and even ratings to the song library in the other app. This is genius and it really solves some of the real world issues that arise when moving between these applications.

Ripping CDs in MP3
This is another area that's sure to cause some bickering from the audiophile crowd, even from those that agree that MP3 is the way to go. That's because many people actually have very strong opinions about which applications you should use to rip audio CDs to your hard drive. I have to be honest here: I really couldn't care less. I happen to use iTunes or Windows Media Player, in general, and have never really noticed a difference.

I do have some advice about the bit rate you should use when ripping audio to MP3 format, however. With the understanding that this is forward looking, I don't think it makes sense to rip songs in anything lower than 256 Kbps. Over the years, I've adjusted my thinking on this: Originally, it was 160 Kbps, and then I moved to 192 Kbps because it happens to be a preset in iTunes. And while I can't say I've ever done a serious "taste-test"-style listening comparisons, my argument about hard drive capacities (both on PCs and portable devices) above renders any concerns about file sizes moot. If there is a happy middle ground between supposedly "CD quality" 128 Kbps MP3 files and lossless WMA/AAC tracks, and I believe there is, it's 256 Kbps. Anyway, that's what I do.

The other debate you'll see around MP3 and other audio formats is whether to use Constant Bit Rate (CBR) or Variable Bit Rate (VBR) encoding. CBR files are generally larger in size because VBR files literally use fewer bits to encode less complex passages in songs. So whereas a 256 Kbps CBR MP3 file utilizes a constant 256 Kbps encoding rate, a VBR version of the same file will use a variable bit rate that can reach as high as, but not exceed, 256 Kbps. The end result should sound virtually identical to a CBR version of the song, depending on the sophistication of the encoder you're using, so the primary advantage of VBR files is the disk space savings.

My take on the VBR/CBR debate is one of absolute indifference. As noted previously, the disk space issue doesn't seem like an issue to me unless we're discussing lossless files. So I do use CBR, which is typically the default setting in most media player applications. You may want to experiment with VBR, however, and calculate how much space you can save over the course of ripping your CD collection to the PC.

Converting files from another format
So let's say you've foolishly squandered a lot of time and energy ripping songs to your hard drive in AAC or WMA format. (If I had a dollar for every person whose written me because they accepted the AAC defaults in iTunes by mistake and then were later surprised those songs didn't work anywhere else, I'd be a rich man.) You may be tempted to try and convert, or transcode, those songs from AAC or WMA format to MP3. In general, my advice is to avoid doing so unless the original tracks were encoded at 160 Kbps or higher. The problem is that all three of these formats use completely different compression schemes. And when you transcode a file--or recompress a compressed file, but using a different type of compression--the end result is always substandard. The songs I've transcoded in this fashion are generally tinny sounding and lack depth. They're a mess.

If you absolutely must do this, make sure that your transcoding into a high quality MP3 format: The higher the bitrate, the less information that gets lost in translation. (Likewise, higher quality source songs will result in better transcodes.) The Windows version of iTunes, for example, will transcode imported WMA files into whatever file format you've configured in the application's Importing setting. So choose Custom and shoot for 256 Kbps or above before importing those files.

Another tack to take is to actually create audio CDs of your WMA or AAC songs and then re-rip them back to the hard drive in MP3 format. This admittedly time consuming process will result in the same tininess noted above and is more time consuming. But if you are going to do such a thing, here's one bit of advice: Keep a CD-RW disc handy: You can create an audio disc, re-rip it to the hard drive, and then erase it and start all over again. I keep a single CD-RW around just for this purpose.

Backing up
While I plan to write a separate Digital Media Core article solely about backing up, it bears at least mentioning here: Too often, people don't begin rigorous and regular backups until they suffer a catastrophic hard drive failure and lose something important. With more and more of us storing all kinds of personal and professional data on PCs--years of family photos and home movies, for example--you don't want to be a statistic. Back up early and often.

Windows Vista actually makes this process easier, thanks to a decent backup application, and Windows Home Server is even better. But you don't need the latest and greatest software to perform regular backups. And forget recordable optical disk media: Go with USB, Firewire, or network-attached storage, and make sure you keep a copy offsite in the case of theft or a natural disaster. (My parents happen to live in the same town as I do, so we swap out a 1 TB Firewire drive there every week or so.) Keep multiple copies of data around too; I typically copy my entire photo collection to every PC in the house just in case.

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