this is not a guide for ashen thirtysomething Atkins zombies to feel a decade younger. Nor is it for the twentysomethings they envy, all frantically creating playlists on their miserable modern-day Fisher Price Walkmen. This is about practicality, and a fact so basic, so self-evident, it’s just stupefying that nobody seems to get it. Compact discs are digital audio files. They always have been.

Acres of forest and gigs of bandwidth are sacrificed for middling articles on “The Death of the CD” and “The Future of On-demand Content Delivery,” pieces so far behind the times, you’d think you were reading an old issue of Omni. The 16-bit, 44.1 KHz standard agreed upon by Sony and Philips in 1978 hasn’t changed as of 2005, though an array of largely worthless fads like Sony’s Super Bit Mapping and the “audiophile” 96 KHz DVD-Audio disc have promised life-affirming advances in sound quality. 5-channel SACD/DVD-Audio presentation is a remarkable technical achievement (it’s the only feature keeping media a worthwhile proposition, though not for the stereophonic delights it boasts: the file-sizes and soundcards necessary to duplicate this content are simply prohibitive—for now), and although media conglomerates are desperate to convince you 5-channel is a must, quadraphonic sound has been around since the �60s. Get real: most people listen to music on headphones—you’ve only got two ears, after all.

You’ll have to decide which format sounds “best”—Ogg Vorbis, MP3, MPC, FLAC or Apple’s AAC—but done right, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the files you’ll end up with and the CD you got them from. A recent gotcha pitted hi-line speaker manufacturer Wilson against a hundred or so tweaker audio enthusiasts who thought they were listening to a breakthrough in compact disc oversampling technology via the finest horns on earth. It was an MP3. Let it go, guys. We’re there. Look around, enjoy the view.

Personally I err on the side of variable bit-rate MP3 encoding, because as it stands in 2005, it’s the only format sure to be supported by every portable player, and it returns the smallest file size. My ears—though they often lie—have told me that Ogg Vorbis files often pack better bass and there’s certainly a difference—good or bad, I can’t say—between the “shape” of MP3s and Apple’s M4A AAC files. If you spend enough time comparing VBR MP3 and AAC files, it’s like glass and wood.

In brief, in my totally non-technical and utterly subjective opinion: CD-quality VBR MP3s sound the brightest, Ogg files the warmest, and AAC files the punchiest. But M4As are also the most notably “wrong” as far as accuracy in sound goes—they’re very “hot” and “lossy,” a word anti-digital folks live and die by—the amount of sonic clarity and/or actual data sacrificed in optimization for smaller file size.

If your budget’s unlimited, you can buy a dozen hard drives and go lossless, though to my ears this is a waste of time, space, and money. FLAC is a very popular encoder with the bootleg set, and if you venture into this territory you’ll find some of the most amazing recordings you never knew existed. It was initially a pretty closed-door scene, but bands are starting to offer FLAC downloads (from the Grateful Dead to They Might Be Giants). Apple’s lossless codec is pretty much just an AIFF rip—the Mac equivalent of .wav—and if you’re planning on using iTunes and an iPod to organize and play with a collection of this size, you’re in for a world of corruption, data loss, reformatting, and heartbreak. [My aside on the iPod: all midrange and dead-tech pose, the iZod is just the latest example of Bang and Olufsen syndrome, sans the quality. #1, folks: you look like you have jump-rope wrapped around your head. 2, it sounds atrocious. Side by side, there is no comparison with the sound quality of an iRiver. iPods look better, but they announce to the world that a) you’re a shameless consumer whore, and b) you don’t really listen to music.]



To maximize your return in terms of quality and space, high-quality variable bit-rate MP3 encoding is the way to go. Chris Myden has provided the perfect guide to this process at bestmp3guide.com, an evolving guide I’ve been referring people to for over two years. This process is for PCs only, and uses a small piece of “ripping” software called Exact Audio Copy. Exact Audio Copy secures access to the data stream coming from your computer’s CD drive, to ensure the source file (the .wav file, the actual 16-bit 44.1KHz track on your CD) is, in a word, exactly the same, ready for accurate encoding.

EAC also sets some cosmetic parameters, automatically generating “tags” for your files (the metadata that displays artist name and track title in your preferred player); it’s smartly tied into the free, public-supported CDDB, Gracenote’s catalog of album information. Try finding something that’s not in there.

Once EAC rips your .wav file, your PC launches a thread for the LAME encoder, which will analyze your .wav source and determine how much information can be stripped out without compromising sound quality. CDs contain more data than you or anyone else can hear, and though it’s mathematically correct that LAME (and all encoders) remove data from the source, sonically, you will be hard-pressed to notice the difference. [FYI, LAME stands for LAME Ain’t an Mp3 Encoder; there was a lot of legal hot potato going on around the time Mike Cheng developed LAME, and he positioned the code as an inert patch, though anyone could see the threshold he was approaching. The history of the LAME project is nicely detailed here: LAME History/Change Log].

So that’s EAC/LAME, the preferred format for encoding high-quality variable bit-rate MP3s (if you refer to bestmp3guide.com, the preferred switch is --alt-preset extreme, though some new switches have emerged in the last few months that I haven’t had time to play with). The process for Ogg Vorbis encoding is almost exactly the same, though instead of LAME you’ll use the Ogg encoder. Ogg is comparable to Linux—an open, patent-free encoder that its users swear by, though the rest of the world is largely indifferent. As I said before, I find Ogg files have a bit of junk in the trunk, sonically, though in terms of file size they’re right up there with VBR MP3. To set yourself up for EAC/Ogg encoding, check out this handy guide.



Now even if you’re on the practical side of the line—conceding that music’s been software for decades, that we can replicate CD sound while keeping file sizes small—the one hitch holding up total conversion is, naturally, the most crucial component in this setup: your hard drive. Jabs at the mono-aural Betamax and analog Laserdisc are standup comedy fodder, yet the mind-boggling impracticality and instability of the hard drive—a technology dating from the 1950s—is grudgingly accepted by the masses (excepting a relative handful of neurotics whining impotently online). Just as we started to see a change for the better, with RAID technology trickling down to consumers over the last two years, and hard drive sizes hitting 500GB (you don’t want to buy anything over 160GB—more on that in a bit), “Go digital!” pragmatists were hit with two more confidence-busters: storage capacity is mathematically topping out, and speed equals death.

Look at an LP, spinning lazily on your turntable, and try to imagine it going around 7200 rather than 33 times a minute. Then imagine the arm flying from the center groove to the perimeter 50 times a second. That’s what your hard drive is doing, and that prehistoric arm-media relationship is the primary barrier to computers becoming catchall media hubs (though the hard drive arm doesn’t actually touch the aluminum in your drive—it hovers over it). Researchers, manufacturers and corporations are all lobbying to develop a stable next generation hard drive, but sci-fi ideas—quartz crystals read by Infrared lasers, digital holographs—are still white room fantasies, and a more sensible recent proposition focusing on isolating and heat-shielding magnetic particles (the “Patterned Media” drive) is five years out at the most optimistic estimate (and doesn’t look to improve speeds, only storage limits). For the foreseeable—at least the affordable—future, we’re stuck with a 1970s archetype: point-to-point magnetic storage.

Hard drives are actually stacks of polished, magnetized glass-ceramic platters; there are between two and four of them in most drives (platters used to be aluminum, but composite drives handle both heat and magnetic factors better). As manufacturers sought to pile more and more bits onto these plates – storage capacity has grown by an astonishing 1000 percent over the last six years, pushing us to the limits of what’s called “areal” or more commonly “bit” density—they’ve run into a disastrous see-saw problem, a property in physics called the superparamagnetic effect. When highly compressed magnetic materials in close proximity to each other heat up, they destabilize, and can switch their charge. In the case of a hard drive, this means bits your computer wrote—and remembers—as 1-over-0 (North-South) can switch their charge to 0-over-1 (South-North) thanks to electromagnetic conditions. This Ben Franklin effect is not only costing hard drive manufacturers stacks of paper bearing his image, it’s destroying their reputations.

Western Digital is most respected in corporate circles, for their benchmark drive: the 10,000RPM Raptor SCSI (Small Computer System Interface, a higher-bandwidth standard dating from 1986 that one-upped EIDE, the original hard drive interface; the grey cables inside most computers are EIDE. Most consumers have never seen SCSI, as it’s overpriced and the drives are smaller. Corporations rely on them for servers, as their stability and performance in high-demand situations—application and web servers—was until very recently unmatched). But Western Digital slaughtered their standing in the consumer sector with the worst line of hard drives since the widely-dissed IBM “Deathstar” [IBM DeskStar drives from the mid-to-late-�90s still boast the worst failure rates on record]. Western Digital’s Caviar drives have been—depending on whom you believe—failing at rates between 20-30% since 2002, and tellingly, they are losing retail support for the line. Why?

After determining that the speed benefits of 7200RPM drives outweighed the obvious increase in failure rates over their stable if slower 5400RPM predecessors, hard drive manufacturers cut their warranties to one year across the board. In their view, prices have come down and performance has increased to the point where it’s acceptable if consumers have to buy a new hard drive every year or two. And for my money, this is a fair shift in practices, but for the “brick and mortar” retail industry, in which extended warranties are the sweetest plum, it’s a disaster. Extended warranties—insurance, really—are free money for retail stores, but only if the equipment doesn’t fail. Retailers watched the hard drive world closely as 7200RPM became a standard in 2003, and as these $200 electromagnetic bombs started to cost them major overhead in returned/replaced drives, alliances were drawn.

CompUSA paired with Seagate, whose only real competition—as far as quality goes—is a new player in this market (Samsung). Seagate drives are reliable if somewhat overpriced; they are the quietest on the market, and it’s an audible difference people are willing to pay for. But CompUSA is hardly ubiquitous, and the key for digital converts (though you’re sticking it to retail) is to get that in-store warranty. BestBuy, the WalMart of electronics, got into bed with Western Digital, and is definitely paying the price in stock rotation.

As far as your wallet goes, Staples leads the pack, aligning with retail-end giant Maxtor; Staples offers ridiculous mail-in rebates on their Maxtor drives, and as the 2-year Staples warranty is only $25, you can chuck your drive down the stairs every 11 months, and save yourself almost $500 while maintaining the reliability of your data. Maxtor’s performance is in the C+/B- area, but with the arrival of SATA (Serial AT Attachment—a new standard in board-to-hard drive communication that’s all but replaced EIDE and in many cases SCSI), their reliability is much improved.

Treating hard drives like the removable media they are is a prerequisite, and something a lot of people are going to have to get more comfortable with if you’re going to go for mass-storage of your record collection. DVD, as a storage medium, is worthless. Forget optics, they’re slow as sin—the latest news from the front, Sony et al’s Blu-Ray (literally a blue ray) is only upping disc media storage to 25GB/disc. That’s nonsense when you consider that, after rebate, you can buy a 120GB SATA hard drive for about $80.

The key purchase for safety and security is a USB2/Firewire/SATA hard drive enclosure. These are not complicated devices, so cheap is actually the way to go. No budget? Shop pretty. Most PC users won’t need a combination drive, and as all Macs include USB2 ports, there’s really no need for Firewire or Firewire 800 compatibility unless you do a lot of Avid Nitris work on the sly. [I’ll be the first to concede Firewire is a speedier conduit for moving data, but it’s atrociously flaky on PCs and, besides, USB2 proved faster than Firewire and Firewire 800 is hugely valuable to people in the digital video field, but extraneous to everyone else.]

Armed with your USB2 and/or SATA enclosure, you can buy a store of drives to act as your rolling backup. You’ll drop let’s say $150 to get two superfluous drives, added to the $40 or so you spent on the enclosure. You back up your files to these drives, just drag-n-copy, then store them in a relatively safe place in the event your operant hard drive(s) fail. You’ve now got yourself the same setup corporations use: off-site rotation. Every few months, you pull your backup drives out and update/overwrite with your new acquisitions, and that’s the process (of course there’s other things you can do, you can get into ghosting your drives, so that if anything goes wrong with your system, you have a byte-by-byte copy you can just drop in to get back up and running; Norton Ghost is the killer app here, but it’ll cost you another $50 and Symantec’s usual annual fee BS—try the freeware XXCopy if you’re tech savvy). With your enclosure and drives acquired, a rolling backup process in place, and that handy warranty from CompUSA or Staples (or wherever, really—just stick with Seagate, Samsung, or Maxtor drives), you’re protected in case any of your drives ever dies. You are a locked-in digital librarian with the bases covered. Your entire record collection fits in your pocket.

And aside from the inherent portability of this setup, there’s a malleability advantage: your songs, once freed from their restrictive, damage-prone optical prisons, can be run through post-effect processors that in the virtual sphere can replicate multi-thousand dollar stereo setups for less than $500, as low as $100 if you’re not one of those consumer whores masquerading as an “audiophile.” Cheap shot, sorry.



In all likelihood, your PC soundcard is a piece of shit, and though it’s an added expense, a good soundcard will outlive your desktop; if it does what you want it to, you won’t need to upgrade (e.g. think about how long most people own their stereo receivers). Power doesn’t mean anything anymore—a $2000 500-watt amplifier is great if your living room doubles as a concert hall, but I’m betting you live in an apartment with paper walls and angry neighbors.

Terratec offers far and away the best combination of quality, price, and availability if you want theater-quality sound. Their vaunted DMX6 Fire series from late 2002 retails for about $200 online these days. The DMX6 offers 24-bit sound, which is better than your CD player, built-in Dolby decoders for any conceivable configuration, THX certification for DVD playback, and an unreal 100 decibel signal to noise ratio (even reference receivers rarely top 105db). The signal traveling from this device to your speakers and/or headphones is more sonically exact than you could hope for outside of a recording studio: the only difference is it’s not designed to power those slick Cerwin-Vega speakers you just spent a month’s pay to buy, and an entire afternoon positioning. They will, however, nicely drive a pair of headphones, which, unless you live in an acoustically treated box with no windows, sound better.

At less than $100, Grado’s SR80 headphones are an outrageous opportunity if you don’t have someone constantly trying to study or watch TV in the same room as you’ll listen (they’re open-air headphones, which means everyone around you can probably guess from the bleeding treble what you’re listening to. They will throw things at you.) But for budget price, you’re getting loudspeaker quality sound with no conceivable top-out in volume or clarity as far as your PC output goes; you’ll go deaf before you dent these cans. Closed, isolation “cans” are generally more expensive; a good option is the $200 Audio Technica A900, which consistently wows both casual and audiophile listeners. The A500 will do as well, at $100. Adjust according to your wallet size. (And hey if budget’s no object, the holy grail of headphones is just $5000 away: Japan’s Stax SR-007 headphone and amp package, which will bring tears to your eyes. But frankly, this is overkill. I don’t want to know anyone that takes the concept of “microdynamics” seriously).

For pure gutter dynamics, consider a DSP post-effect processor, like OctiMax for WinAmp. This thing is taking PC listening by storm, and driving audio purists absolutely mental by ignoring every rule. OctiMax is a dynamic compressor/limiter that adds all the punch of a quality pre-amp by completely obliterating true sound. It adds a kind of FM-radio quality to your listening, brightening up the high and mid frequencies in stunning and deceptively pleasant ways; manufacturer Octiv is charging just $50 for this plugin, and since that application’s free, you’re talking about a $50 investment for a software application that, with a decent soundcard and headphones, is going to blow your head off.

With everything recommended here, you’ll spend roughly $700 on top of the cost of your computer to outfit yourself for the rest of your life. The digital audio file is the only format that will never skip, fade, or fall behind the couch, and as long as you protect yourself with hard drive backups and redundancy, you have nothing to fear. I made the leap in 2002, boxing up over 3000 CDs and records my parents are politely eager for me to move to my own cellar (when I have one). Clearly I’m advocating a demystification of art, insofar as cover art is even more a thing of the past in this construct, but I can’t say I got much from the covers of cassettes I owned as a kid, or really even many CDs. The LP was a different and more beautiful age, but practicality will always reign. And there’s a joy in music listening becoming so much easier, if it limits my visual interaction with the medium to staring through the branches of my massive directory tree. A few more years of this and I won’t even know what a guitar looks like anymore.


By: Chris Ott
Published on: 2005-04-18
Comments (16)
 

 
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