Acquiring Digital Music

Maybe you recently got a shiny new Apple iPod that you'd like to fill with content. Or perhaps you've been staring at that pile of audio CDs, wondering how you're going to transfer all that music to your PC. Or perhaps you're confused by all the competing online music services and aren't sure which are the best. Well, it's time to tame the beast. This week, I'll share a few tips and tricks that will help you get ahead of your music collection.

Wrangling Your CD Collection
Your first step is to rip, or copy, your audio CD collection to the portable device's hard drive. There are a variety of excellent (and free) applications for this purpose. I use Apple iTunes, but Microsoft's Windows Media Player (WMP) works just as well. If you're going to be using an iPod or another portable audio player to play your collection, consider adding album art to each track, as well. It's still a bit painful to do so with most ripping applications, but it's worth the effort, as you'll agree when you see the artwork appear on your MP3 player's screen. When ripping audio CDs, avoid proprietary formats such as AAC or Windows Media Audio (WMA); instead, use 160Kbps or 192Kbps MP3 format. MP3 files are essentially future-proof and will work in any of today's music applications and devices.

Obtaining New Music
Going forward, try to avoid CDs whenever possible and instead work completely in the digital realm. You'll face two choices when you move into online services, although there's nothing stopping you from dabbling in both. In the first model, you purchase songs and albums as you did before, but in the digital format. In the second, you subscribe to an online service that lets you listen to music from their collection for as long as you're a member.

If you opt for the first choice, you'll typically purchase music from online music services such as Apple iTunes, MSN Music, Napster, RealPlayer Music Store, Yahoo Music, or similar online stores. Although Apple's offering is all the rage these days, I cannot stress this enough: Don't buy any music from the iTunes Music Store. Apple's music format is low quality (128Kbps) and songs stored in this format can't be played in any competing software applications or non-iPod devices. Instead, purchase music from a competing service, all of which offer much higher quality songs. For example, Napster and RealPlayer Music Store offer 192Kbps songs, in WMA and Real Audio formats, respectively. Regardless of where you get the music, as soon as you purchase it, compress the original files in Zip format and back them up to a network drive or some form of removable storage, just in case. Then, copy the music to a standard audio CD, using your jukebox software, then re-rip it to your PC, in industry-standard MP3 format. I actually use a rewriteable CD for this purpose, and simply erase it and start anew each time I purchase music online. It's a little laborious, but this way you ensure that your music will always be compatible with future computers and other devices.

I hope it's obvious why I can't recommend purchasing music from the iTunes Music Store. Because you'll be converting your purchased (proprietary) music into a free and clear MP3 format, it's best to start with a source file of the highest quality possible, and Apple's files are the absolute lowest quality in the industry. However, songs from competing services such as Napster and RealPlayer Music Store are much higher quality and will result in much better-sounding MP3 files.

If you opt for a subscription service such as Napster or Real Rhapsody, be aware that you can't use the previously described technique to copy the content to MP3 files. However, you can use a host of compatible devices, and this type of service is handy for people who often listen to music via an Internet-connected PC, such as at work. Most subscription services are reasonably priced at $15 to $20 per month—or less, if you pay for a year in advance.

Other Audio Entertainment
Digital music will often represent the bulk of your digital audio collection, but there's a lot of other good content. Audible offers audio books, for example, and the iTunes Music Store offers a wealth of amazing and free podcast content, which is like time-shifted radio content that spans virtually every topic imaginable. I'm a big fan of a few technical and travel podcasts, for example. And unlike music purchased from iTunes, this content is already in MP3 format, so there's no conversion required.

Keep Copies Off-Site
Once your music collection is on your hard drive, it will need to be backed up just like any other collection of files. My advice is to keep a duplicate copy of your music collection—and any other valuable files—in a physically separate location. This location can be a removable hard drive, another PC in your house, or, ideally, a storage device that you can physically store much farther away. I actually perform regular backups to a set of FireWire-based hard drives, one of which is always stored at my parents' house. (They happen to live nearby, which is handy.) The last thing you need is to lose your music collection, and all your hard work, because of a hard drive failure. Backups are key.

Spread the Music
No, I'm not talking about handing out your digital music collection to your friends. But the beauty of storing music digitally is that you can more easily enjoy it regardless of where you are. In addition to listening from your PC, you can copy digital music to MP3 players (including iPods), Media Center PCs, media receivers, and other living room-based set-top boxes. You can create your own audio CDs and listen in your car. Be creative. I create a playlist of music for the gym and load up my iPod before heading out to my workout. But when I'm traveling, I often prefer to listen to instrumental music or podcasts. Your own tastes and music collection will determine your possibilities.

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