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February 12, 2008

Adventures in CD Ripping, Part 1

Like many music fans, I've long been wrestling with the best way to rip and manage my large 2500+ CD library. Sure, I’ve gradually accumulated a bunch of music on my hard drive that I use for portable playback, but it's a tiny fraction of my collection. (That's not even mentioning the 900 LPs...a story for another time!). A few years back I tried to organize things with a couple 400-disc CD changers and PC-based jukebox software. But keeping track of which discs were in which slot and controlling the changers was a royal pain. And definitely not random access...Who wants to wait while CDs get switched out between every song??

So that experiment got abandoned and since then I've just been muddling along with most of my discs sitting on shelves collecting dust and cluttering up the living room. In my digital fantasy world, everything would be stored on a network media server, from which I could stream different music to every room in the house, all using a convenient remote control interface with instant search capabilities. I could do things like find all 12 versions of Hey Jude and play them back-to-back comparing differences. Or if I'm on a Van Morrison kick, play every album in chronological order. And all in pristine full CD quality over excellent speakers, no compression or tiny ear buds involved! While the second half of that fantasy may still be a little ways off (at least budget-wise), the first half is completely doable at a reasonable cost, thanks to free-falling hard disk prices.

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The logistics, however, are daunting. As a quick test, I ripped two representative CDs in my laptop drive. It took almost 15 minutes, including time to pop the discs in and out. Multiply 2500 by 7.5, and that's 312 hours of ripping...So I've been working on ways to streamline the process, and thought I'd share some tips with others embarking (or re-embarking) on the same quest. As I move forward, I'll share my experiences and tips on the organization and streaming aspects. Meanwhile, if any of you have advice on this topic, please comment! I'll round up the best suggestions in future posts.

1) Get a RAID drive to store your collection, and back it up again, if possible. I've already reached the 500-discs ripped mark twice, only to experience file system corruption and loss of weeks of work both times. This is a job you don’t want to repeat, believe me. Get a RAID 1 or 5 drive that protects you if one drive fails, and use Creator or Toast to back up the final collection when you finish. (In case a hurricane, flood, fire, earthquake or other disaster comes along and wipes out your entire drive...)

2) Rip in Lossless quality. Again, this is a job you only want to do once. You can always convert part of it to MP3 or AAC for your portable player, but if you want to be able to put your CDs away in the basement for good, rip at full quality. Disk storage is now cheap enough that this is practical. My entire 2500+ collection should fit on a 1TB drive (at about .45GB per disc in Apple Lossless format). A 2TB RAID array can be had for under $700, or 28 cents per CD for fully backed-up accessible storage. Note that I'm using Apple Lossless since I use iTunes. Other popular lossless formats include FLAC and Monkey’s Audio. Easy Media Creator 10 has native FLAC ripping support, and can convert FLAC to almost any other audio format. There's an excellent discussion of lossless formats here.

3) Use a fast CD Recorder for ripping. I'm using iTunes to rip to Apple Lossless, as well as the automatic feature that starts ripping as soon as you pop in a disc, and ejects the disc when it's done. But the drive itself also needs to be fast, and most combo CD/DVD recorders are much slower at ripping that dedicated CD drives. So I bought a 64X CD reader off eBay for $40, and can now rip at an average speed of about 2.25 minutes per disc, including insertion/ejection times, a vast improvement.

4) Rip one artist at a time. After ripping, you'll want to correct the artist/track names and album titles retrieved from CDDB, so that all the artist names appear exactly the same, and album titles are consistent. It's easiest to do this one artist at a time. At this point, you should also correct the genre (rock, R&B, jazz etc.) to what you want it to be, again consistently for each artist. I also change album dates to the dates the music was actually recorded, rather than the date issued, and add a custom comment if the album is live (so I can search for all Live tracks by an artist, for example). You may have other priorities in your CD organization, but now is the time to make the data changes, before you put away the CDs. I also add album cover art at the same time, making sure it matches the actual cover. All this organizational work is much less cumbersome when you do it as you go, with CD jackets in hand, and not all at once at the end. I find both ripping and organizing to be great activities to do while I watch TV.

February 14, 2008

WANTED: Thicker Skin Please

One thing I’ve realized recently is that posting personal projects on YouTube (videos, songs, photo slideshows, or otherwise) can be a very humbling experience. I say this because for those of you keeping up with my blog, you know that I’ve become fairly entrenched in the contest submission side of things. I now have perfect strangers leaving questionable feedback for me (note: friends and family can only say nice things or I disown them) and I’m feeling a bit like I did in high school when someone made fun of my outfit, or worse, criticized my essay in English class for being “lame.”

At 35 I see that I’m nearly as sensitive as I was 20 years ago when it comes to my work, especially projects as intimate as a video or song that I’ve written. (I once dabbled in stand up comedy and ditched that pretty quickly). Easy Media Creator has helped me churn these puppies out a dime a dozen, but sadly hasn’t changed the emotional part of the process for me. And, despite the time that goes into each project (fast turn or lengthy), each end result is still a very unique and intimate window into my world. Thus, when the “not-so-glowing-reviews” come in it kinda stings! I can only imagine how celebs deal with it every day. ;)

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An interesting case study for you readers: I recently entered a 1800Flowers contest in which the proposition was to create a video valentine that illustrated a first date, first love, etc. in honor of Valentine’s Day. I wrote a song that I felt very confident about and created an accompanying video of my actual boyfriend (his appearance wasn’t altered to spare his identity) and threw it to the masses. Everything that came in by way of feedback was very positive initially. People saying that the song had been stuck in their head all day, and that it was so cute they hoped I’d win, etc. Then, just as the close of the contest drew nearer and I thought I might actually have this one in the bag, a dark horse came up outta nowhere! Some young “punk” (yes I can use this word now that I’m in my thirties) threw his hat in with – admittedly – a fairly well-made video and fun song about how he “scored his girl.” He has a beefy subscriber base and as such, was able to get immediate traction/click thru on this new vid. Now, instead of using his powers of fan base for good, he used them for evil. He instructed his legions of lemmings to vote for his submission (makes sense) but then to also go through and trash all the other submitters’ work! This is the part of the process that can feel terribly “unfair.” I love using that word even as an adult. My mom always said “life isn’t fair” but I keep thinking maybe one day it will be! One day hard work and kindness will win out! Won’t it? Nah, probably not.

Soooo, long story short, here are my tips on how to “possibly” win a YouTube contest (though it hasn’t yet worked for me):

1. Get as many subscribers as you can PRIOR to the contest start date (that way, when you upload your contest video your subscribers will be notified and will watch your submission right away and give you a solid rating).

2. Stick to the contest guidelines. If the rules say to limit your work to 30 seconds, make sure your vid is 30 seconds. (Hint: If you have a 30 second audio track, Creator can sync your video to your audio and ensure you don’t exceed the time limit).

3. Stay on topic. I wrote a “feel good” song with positive and fun imagery because I imagine 1800Flowers' target audience is your typical 25 to 55 year old, working person (i.e. has some disposable income) who enjoys a little mush when they are thinking of buying flowers. (I mean, who wants to listen to rap when they are in the mood for love anyway?! My bitterness is emerging…).

A winner is going to be announced on YouTube’s homepage ON Valentines Day so you can check to see who wins. I think at this point I’d be happy for any one of the finalists OTHER than the kid who trashed everyone else. Karma please work this time! Please?

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Had to update you all with the coolest friggin' technology! I just figured out how to SELL my original music (as an unsigned artist of course), using a service called Snocap! Check this out!!! (And the cart featured here even works!) ;)

February 26, 2008

Learning to Play Music the Easy Way

I am an American guitarist living in Germany, and I try to practice and learn new things every day. When I was younger, I used to try to copy licks from LPs. It was a major pain to continuously pick up the tone arm, move it back to the correct spot, set the needle down, and listen to the guitar phrase over and over, but that is how we all did it back in the day. Then cassette tapes came along, and I could rewind. That was very cool, though rewinding to the exact spot was tricky and annoying. When CDs came out, I started ripping them to my hard disk and using the Roxio Sound Editor to trim to just the parts I wanted to learn, and using repeat play to listen over and over. That was the best method yet.

However, in the past few years, more and more music instruction is available on DVD. DVDs are great because I can actually watch the hands of my favorite music teachers, and learn not just the notes, but the correct finger positions. The good news is that I can order instructional DVDs from the US watch them on my German PAL TV (it does not work the other way – European PAL DVDs will not play on US NTSC television). However, DVDs have one major disadvantage – I can’t watch them while I am driving my car or jogging in the park. But, RecordNow Music Lab Premier has a neat trick that allows me to convert my instructional DVDs into MP3s or audio CDs so I can listen to the teacher even if I can’t see him or her.

It’s easy to convert my DVDs. I put the DVD in my drive (this only works with non copy protected DVDs), and launch RecordNow. Under the Audio tab, I launch the Batch Audio Converter. I then select ‘Add tracks’ which opens the Media Selector dialog. I click on the Folders tab (if not already selected) and select the drive that includes my instructional DVD. On the right side of the Media Selector, I can click on either the entire movie or, with CTRL-click or Shift-click, specific chapters. I can preview my selection by clicking the Play button towards the bottom of Media Selector. Once I have made my selection, I click the Add button and follow the steps to import them into the Converter. After they have been added to my project, I can click the Convert button to convert them to MP3, WMA or other file formats for playback on hard disk; or I can click on Send to Portable to copy them to my iPod, MP3 player, etc.; or use RecordNow Audio CD to convert the MP3s to audio discs. (By the way, this feature is only available in RecordNow Music Lab 10 Premier and in Easy Media Creator 10, and not in the standard version or RecordNow Music Lab.)

I’ve found that it is most effective to watch and study the DVDs with guitar in hand, and then to reinforce the lessons by listening to them when I am on the go using my MP3 player.

As a result of my diligent practice routine, I have started to get more gigs in the area where I live, which is near Aachen on the western border of Germany. One night I was playing in a “Kneipe” (pub), and someone in the audience yelled, ‘Herr Griffith, you are a blues man… but a good man!’ I am even getting coverage in the local newspapers!

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Apart from fame, glory and schlepping equipment late at night, playing good music provides pure joy, and a couple of musician friends told me that my guitar picking has noticeably improved recently, so I guess this new practice technique is working.

March 25, 2008

Earbuds, Schmearbuds

I'm betraying my age by saying that during my college days, the coolness of your stereo was judged by the wattage of your power amp and the size of your (stereo) speakers. But headphones were what we used for studying in the dorm at night, and there Koss reigned supreme with its PRO4AAs -- originally introduced in 1970, and amazingly still made and much in demand today.

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We also spent hours debating the merits of turntable cartridges, adjusting our tone arms for the best pickup, and carefully making mix tapes for the car using the then-revolutionary Dolby noise reduction system. We knew all about dynamic range and "clipping," and normalized our tapes manually by watching the signal meters and cueing and recueing each song to get the perfect gaps on tape. Making a cassette mix tape was easily a weekend job, and making the even higher-quality reel-to-reel tapes we used for parties was a group effort of the entire floor. We rearranged song lists ad nauseam, and delivered the requisite vinyl to the guy with the best system, who then spent a week making the tape under the watchful eyes of the rest of us constantly dropping by his room to listen and critique.

Our never-ending quest for sonic superiority seems light-years removed from today's "good-enough" culture of $20 earbuds and highly compressed music formats. Price and convenience seem to have dulled our sense of music appreciation. You rarely see a portable music player actually evaluated for its sonic fidelity, rather than its capacity and user interface.

But I'm here to tell you that your musical experience can and will be greatly enhanced by paying attention to reproduction quality. Really, there's nothing more mind-blowing that listening to great music through an equally great sound system. Fortunately, you don't have to compromise or spend a lot of money to enjoy both convenience and brilliant sonics. You can rip music from CDs in lossless quality in several formats: Apple lossless, FLAC and Monkey's Audio and Windows Media Audio lossless are some of the most common. The best one to choose depends on what is supported by your ripping tool and player of choice. (Easy Media Creator and Toast support most of these.) The basic point is that they preserve CD quality (hence the term "lossless") while reducing the space needed by about half. Thanks to freefalling hard disk prices, you can store a 3000-disc CD collection in lossless format on a single $250 terabyte hard drive.

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Once you've ripped in lossless format (and note that I'm not buying a digital download until they come in lossless -- the local used CD shop is cheaper anyway), all you need to do is listen through a top pair of headphones, like those from Koss, Sennheiser, Grado, Shure, Bose and others. (Head-Fi.org has recommendations.) You'll hear a big difference even on a portable player, but for true audiophile action, run the optical audio output from your computer to a good receiver, and thence to your headphones. The quality of the digital-to-analog conversion circuitry matters a lot, and it will be much better in the receiver.

Have some other tips for getting the best sound out of your music player? Or think your MP3s sound just fine the way they are? Tell us in the Comments!

April 24, 2008

Ripping CDs Three at a Time

I finally managed to back up my entire CD collection onto my hard disk. Hundreds of CDs, thousands of tracks, have now been converted. When I first started this project, it seemed rather daunting, but it turned out to be less painful than I expected. Easy Media Creator 10 has a wonderful tool called Multi-CD Ripper that helped me to automate the process. Basically, it is a software utility that allowed me to rip CDs from multiple drives at the same time (I have three disc drives), while automatically tagging the files with title, author and artist information. Conveniently, files were named and placed in a folder structure per my preference based on the tag information.

The process is easy enough. I launch Easy Media Creator and select the Audio tab on the left, and then select Multi-ripper. I click the Settings button, check off the drives I want to rip from, and check the box to import from multiple drives simultaneously. Finally, I click the CDDB check box to ensure that my CDs are identified automatically by the online music identification service. The additional MusicID checkbox is for identifying tracks on compilation CDs that are not recognized by the online service – even if the CD is unrecognized, the individual tracks can still be identified.

Under Settings/File Format, I select my preferred format (MP3, though I could just as well have selected from a variety of other audio file formats). Under Filename/Folder Structure, I choose how I want to name my files and where to locate them on my hard disk. Personally, I just like the name of the song to be the title, but I could have added the artist, track number, genre and even the year to the title to the filename. Likewise, I chose genre/artist/album as the directory structure, but there are many other options.

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Now I am ready to rip. I insert an audio CD in each drive, and click the Start button. As each CD is finished, the disc ejects (I can also disable this in the Settings dialog in case I don’t want the drive tray to open), I pop in the next disc and close the drive door, and away we go. When I am done ripping, my tracks are all listed in the right pane of Multi-ripper. In case I want to change some of the tags that were provided by the online service, I can manually change title, author and other information by selecting one or more tracks in the right pane, and then selecting the Edit Audio Tags button just above the track list. I can even send my ripped files directly to a portable device like an iPod or MP3 player if I want by clicking on the "Output to" button.

So now the real problem begins – I ended up with approximately three weeks of continuous music on my hard drive, but when will I ever have time to listen to it all?

June 18, 2008

Dancing with My USB Turntable


I've already written about my ongoing project to rip my 2,500+ CDs onto a network hard drive. But that's actually an easy task compared to that of digitizing the almost 300 vinyl record albums remaining (from my original collection of 1,000 or so) that I have not been able to find and repurchase on CD.

At this point, 25 years after the introduction of the audio CD, it's unlikely that any of those remaining albums are ever going to get released in digital form. So it's time to get them digitized and converted to CD format for posterity. However, my beloved 26-year-old Bang & Olufsen turntable has not been usable since my last move, when the tonearm got literally bent out of shape. And I'm reluctant to buy a new standard turntable when my new AV receiver doesn't even have a phono input. After all, I'm probably only going to be using it long enough to digitize all my records and then retire it.

So I spent a lot of time researching solutions before I found the Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB turntable, a very reasonably-priced USB turntable that you can plug directly into your PC or Mac. While there are a number of USB turntables out there, the Audio-Technica stood out for several reasons: it comes from a manufacturer with a long and illustrious history of producing quality turntables; it includes a very good dual-magnet replaceable diamond cartridge on a damped tonearm and a balanced aluminum belt-drive platter; it's fully automatic so you don't have to lift the tonearm; and it has a built-in Phono pre-amp, so you can plug it into any audio input in your AV system as well as into a USB port in your computer. It even comes with three types of cables so you won't need to run out and buy them.

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I received the Audio-Technica a couple weeks ago, and have since been playing with it using Creator 10 on my Vista PC and Toast 9 Mac with my MacBook Pro. I could not be happier with both the sound quality and ease of use. While the turntable comes with a couple software CDs, if you have Creator or Toast, you don't need to install a thing -- I like to keep a clean system and not having to install software is always a good thing. Quite literally, all you have to do is plug it in, put on your record, and press play to begin digitizing it with Creator or Toast.

In Creator 10, using the LP & Tape Assistant, the turntable shows up as the default "Microphone (USB Audio Codec)" input in the "Capture From" list:

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And in Toast 9, the turntable shows up similarly as USB Audio CODEC in the list of recording devices to choose from:

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I've now digitized about 10 albums, taking it at a leisurely pace to listen (and in a couple cases, dance!) at the same time. After all, I've been unable to enjoy those 300 records for quite a long time now. Creator and Toast can automatically identify tracks digitized from LPs, so I don't even have to type in many song or artist names. I've also been experimenting with the handy noise reduction and sound enhancement filters in both programs, and highly recommend them to maximize your sound quality.

I've posted complete tutorials on digitizing your LPs for both Creator 10 and Toast 9 in the Hot Topics area of MyMoments. Take a look and tell me about your own experiences with digitizing your musical past.

August 9, 2008

Changing the world one video at a time...

If you've been keeping up with my articles, admittedly sporadically posted as of late, you know that despite falling well outside of the established "target audience" I am in fact a digital media enthusiast. Since my last post, I've uncovered a few more neat tips, tricks and apps.

Inspired yet again by a YouTube contest, this time sponsored by Timberland (outdoor gear not the producer/rapper spelled slightly differently in case you were confused), I was urged to create an entry in support of making the world a more sustainable, "green" place to live. It just so happens this is something I've been paying closer and closer attention to lately...in addition to volunteering for a very cool, very forward-thinking "green production" company in the Bay Area, I've also been inspired by our very own CEO here at Sonic who has thrown his hat into the green arena by building electric cars in his spare time! Go Dave!

Blah, blah, blah too much background information and I'm probably losing your attention fast, right? Well, here's where things get interesting. I wanted to create a video using what's known as "green screen" technology (or blue screen but since we're trying to be green here I'll go with that). This is a technique by which one can extract oneself from a setting by using a green backdrop during video capture and then swapping in a background of choice during post-production (mountains, the beach, a busy street, you get the idea). My thought was to illustrate the different ways in which our world is being steadily depleted of its natural resources by inserting myself into those scenarios.

My first attempt to create a green screen failed. I picked up some yellow-green wrapping paper at a local Paper Source and lined my bedroom wall with it. When I took the footage against this paper and reviewed it afterward I realized the color was totally off (too much yellow would make it difficult to extract the background and not the pigmentation from my skin) plus the paper was too shiny. Sigh.

Example of baaaad green screen:

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Then, on a whim, I took this ratty old green blanket that I bought at the Buena Vista several years ago (after one too many Irish coffees) and draped it over my sofa. I planted myself in front of it, took the video footage again and to my amazement was able to use what is known as "keying" to extract myself from the background, ultimately rendering a silhouette that could be placed anywhere!

Example of good (albeit cheap) green screen:

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Here's what it looks like when I swap out the green blanket for a cool background:

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Having never done something like this before I had to quickly teach myself to use Adobe After Affects, a pro product that is not cheap and not easy to use. I was determined however, and I dedicated an entire weekend to learning it well enough to get the video I needed. I had written a "green song" and composed a music bed for it (using an application similar to GarageBand but for the PC). Here's the catch: After Affects does not support audio and the audio app I used does not support video. Hmm. Can you see where I'm going with this? Enter Easy Media Creator stage right.

After much ado getting my keying and backgrounds all lined up in After Affects I was able to output a video file that I could then easily import into Videowave (built into Creator). From there I added my original song to the project, created start and end screens and tightened up the transitions a bit so the track and the video were better aligned.

Let me just interrupt my own technical blather for a moment to say that I generally don't have the patience to do my own laundry, however, faced with this triumverate of digital media challenges I didn't even notice day turning into night then turning into day again. I was a mad scientist in my very own video lab. Waaahaaaahaaaa! (Evil laugh. Did I need to tell you that?)

I was one of only a few who entered this EarthKeeper contest (definitely the only music video). I think most might have been scared off by the prospect of trying to save the world. But on my whiteboard at work there is a two-columned matrix entitled "Carrie v The World." My colleague put that up there as a joke because I am always out to fight the good fight. Interestingly, with this latest venture, I think I'll have to add a column that reads "Carrie Saves The World!"

Check out my efforts below and let me know what you think. I can give you even more information about every painstaking point in the production process but ONLY if you ask.

Helpful hints:
1. Use that nifty tool "Paint" that hides under "Start menu, All Programs, Accessories" to modify, enhance or edit images for your production. It's easy to use and super helpful.
2. Don't forget about Lynda.com - an excellent resource for learning the latest tools and techniques in digital media, design, and development - all at your own pace.
3. Check out a super cool app called CamStudio. It's free and it will capture a video file of anything - other video files, an interesting web page, a cool banner ad you want to show someone else, etc. I used it for another project but I'll save that for my next article!
4. Most importantly, don't forget to have fun!

About Audio

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to MyMoments in the Audio category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Backup is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.