Monday 29 April 2013

Ripping your CD Collection – IV. Ripping

By now I have laid the groundwork for the things you have had to be thinking about before you start ripping your CDs.  Now its time to look at the ripping process itself.  This is where we remove the audio data from the CD and replace it with a collection of files on your computer.  And the first thing you might be wondering is why that should be any sort of a problem.

The answer is that the music data on a CD is not stored as a nice neat collection of files.  Instead, the data is arranged more like a cassette tape, or an LP record.  It is designed to come off the CD in a continuous stream, and to be more or less played on the fly.  In the same way an LP has visible “gaps” between the tracks to guide you to drop the needle in the right place, so a CD has pointers in a “Table of Contents” to enable the CD player to find places in the stream where one track ends and the next one begins.

When the CD format was first established, the method of reading data off the disc – using a laser to detect the presence of microscopic pits embedded just below the disc’s surface – was truly revolutionary.  I was working in the laser industry at the time, and when the commitment was made to move forward with CD technology, laser technology had not yet produced a laser design that lived nearly long enough to last for the desired lifetime of the player!  That aside, there were two problems that the project’s design goals sought to overcome.  The first was that since the disc was to be read on-the-fly, there was no possibility to go back and read a section again if you got a bad reading first time.  The second was that the discs were going into an uncontrolled consumer environment, and were likely to be subjected to physical damage and deterioration.  Taken together, this meant that the discs had to have – to as great a degree as was practical – the ability to survive a significant loss of data, or significant faults in the accuracy of the data.  It is a tribute to the success of the technologies put in place to address these problems that CD technology today is of archival quality, something which the more advanced DVD technology does not quite match.

So when you rip a CD, one thing that is of prime importance is to be assured that you have ripped it accurately.  Since you are going to rip the CD once (we hope), and thereafter only ever play the ripped tracks, you want to be confident that you ripped it right the first time.  Most reputable CD ripping tools have special capabilities that seek to assure you of this, with ever greater degrees of confidence, but we are not going to lose sight of the fact that this is job #1.  I am going to mention three ripping tools which all have the compelling advantage of being free.  The ubiquitous iTunes for either Mac or Windows platforms; XLD for the Mac platform; and EAC for the Windows platform.  Of the three, I personally use EAC.  I have never made a serious attempt to compare XLD with EAC, and have occasionally used iTunes as well, but I have the most personal experience with EAC.  XLD and iTunes both have the advantage that they can rip and import into iTunes in one step.  I will describe each one, and outline the main options that impact the quality of the resultant rips.

Starting with iTunes, it has one option only “Use error correction when reading Audio CDs”.  Apple doesn’t actually tell us what this means, but it does seem to result in more accurate rips than with it turned off.  It probably invokes a number of re-reads if the data it’s getting looks at all dubious.  Checking this setting does slightly slow down the ripping process, so that makes sense.

XLD is the big daddy of ripping tools for the Mac, and it is 100% free.  It provides a plethora of settings to customize the ripping process to just what you want.  It has three ripping modes – in order of speed they are “Burst”, “XLD secure ripper” and “CD Paranoia”.  These trade ripping speed for progressively more thorough assurance of an accurate rip.  XLD can make use of the AccurateRip database, an on-line resource that cloud-sources data to permit XLD to verify the accuracy of the rip.  It also has the option to test the ripped track before committing it to file as a belt-and-braces check of the final rip.  Ripping a disc in CD Paranoia mode can often take well over half an hour.

EAC has an even more bewildering array of options and customizations, but at least it simplifies the ripping quality choices to “High”, “Medium”, and “Low”.  You should just use “High”.  EAC supports AccurateRip.  There is a good set of instructions from Carlton Bale here, although his graphics show a slightly older version of EAC than the most current one.  I don’t like his entry for Naming Convention – I prefer to use “%tracknr1%-%title%”, but you may prefer otherwise.  Once you have EAC set up, you won’t have to fiddle with the settings again.  EAC is the most thorough ripping tool I know, but its complexity may put you off.

You are going to spend many, many, many hours ripping a sizeable CD collection.  Do yourself a favour and don’t skimp on taking however much time is necessary to get your ripping process properly set up and streamlined before you start cranking the handle.

Back to Part III.
Part V can be found here.