Tuning in

I originally used AudioCatalyst from Xing.com (www.xingtech.com) to encode each CD into MP3 format, but soon moved over to MusicMatch Jukebox for the simple reason that it offered a higher encoding rate. (You can download a trial version of each of these programs.)

Using a program like AudioCatalyst or MusicMatch Jukebox to encode a CD is quite straightforward. Simply place the music CD in the CD-ROM drive and let the ripper program examine it. It will do an automatic query to an online music database known as CDDB (www.cddb.com), which bills itself as the world’s largest online CD database. From this query, the ripper figures out the artist name, album title, and the title of each song. It then uses this information when it creates the MP3 file of each song.

This is where a full-time cable modem or other type of always-on connection to the Internet is important — otherwise, you’ll have to dial into the Internet to make sure the album lookup will work.

The CDDB is critical to the way you manage your MP3s and how you create your playlists, because it helps you organize your music by artist/album/song. For example, if you “rip” (or encode) Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Music-Match Jukebox will create a directory called Pink Floyd (or use that directory if it already exists). It then creates a subdirectory under Pink Floyd called Dark Side of the Moon, with each song saved by its name. This makes it really easy to locate songs, and to organize your music according to type.

I’ve learned quite a few things along the way.

First and foremost, you’ve got to have a good high-end processor to get the best-sounding music from your MP3 files. For a time, I was using a 233 MHz Celeron to play the tunes, and the sound wasn’t too bad. Then I downgraded the player machine to a 166 MHz machine, and the sound was dismal. I’ve finally settled on a 366 MHz Celeron processor, and things have never sounded better.

I also ended up placing all the music on one central computer rather than spreading the tunes around a number of different computers in the house. I chose Linux to act as this server. Right now, all of the songs are stored on a Pentium 166 PC running Linux Mandrake 6.1. Originally, I had them on a Windows machine that was accessible on the network, but the darn thing crashed far too often. I would go to the home office in the morning and load up my morning music list, only to find the server inaccessible. I haven’t had a single crash since I moved it all over to Linux.

I’ve found that some CDs didn’t encode very well, but I’m not sure why. I’ve got about five or 10 that skip or jump or simply sound odd, but I’ll re-encode them and I expect them to be fine.

Encoding rates are also important. I finally settled on encoding at 160 Kbps, rather than 128 Kbps, since it seemed to offer better quality. It takes up a bit more storage, which helped fuel my gigabyte habit.

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