How do I decide what format for digital music?
Some people are purists and want the max quality - I believe they go for FLAC,
a compressed but lossless format. Ogg is the best lossy, compressed format by all accounts,
used by Spotify for streaming. But it's not widely supported. I first went for wma, an
efficient but lossy Microsoft format, and later regretted it. Others stick with Apple
(AAC) format, the default in iTunes and similar to wma in terms of size vs
quality. If you want to burn to a CD it's got to be WAV format (Apple has an equivalent, AIFF).
I saw the light, saw that disk capacity was soaring fast so efficiency
does not matter any longer and went for high quality mp3 for all my stored digital
music. It's lossy and you have to create larger files for the same quality compared
with wma or AAC. But so what. Mp3 works pretty much everwhere on anything.
Similarly in the car it's very happy with mp3s on memory pens but will not touch
wma or AAC. So a lot of people have a lot of work to do, getting all their digital
music into mp3 format.
Sure, mp3 file sizes are bigger but if you choose the VBR (Variable Bit
Rate) option it's not that bad and phones and hard disks get
bigger every year. I've settled for high quality VBR MP3 from now on -
the files are around 60% bigger than decent quality wma or AAC but if
anything sound better. And I don't care too much about the size - it's
flexibility I want. My stored music has to work on my next music
player, my next mobile phone, my wifi radio, my next car stereo,
our Sonos system and so on. There are patents attracting mp3 royalties
but only for commercial implementations.
Nowadays I mostly buy music as a download, not as a CD, and we also
subscribe to Deezer (35 million tracks!) There are plenty of options
for ripping CDs to high quality mp3, including Windows Media Player,
iTunes and VLC. I use the superb, free AudioGrabber with the equally
free Lame encoder.
Set to MP3 VBR 1 (its second highest quality setting) the music files
are still compact enough (around 1.5Mb per minute) and sound excellent.
Played on a big hi-fi and speakers and flicking between the MP3 and
the original CD track the only difference I could detect was a slightly
clearer stereo sound stage from the CD.
How do I get music onto my phone or music player?
First get the music, eg by ripping CDs you own or buying tracks online.
Then the world divides in two. If your music player is an iPod, iTouch,
iPhone or iPad you really have to do everything via iTunes synchronisations.
I believe this can be quite slick if you put together playlists for
different purposes but I find the approach really confusing and it
seems complicated trying to synchronise your iTunes library across
multiple computers and devices, especially if some can't cope with the
full library. If you have a different music player (we have
Sansa Clip ones) or an Android phone or tablet then it's absurdly easy.
You just connect the device to your computer and drag music folders
across to it.
If you use iTunes, before you rip your first CD go to Edit,
Preferences and find the setting to switch from AAC to mp3 with VBR.
Experiment to get the best balance between file size and
sound quality (probably erring on the high quality side).
Once you've ripped your entire CD collection and added more
tracks you bought online (try to get high quality mp3 for flexibility)
you can start creating playlists and experimenting with different ways
of synchronising your iPod/iPhone (assuming it will not take all your
music at once).
Do I need a music player?
Up to you. Music is consumed in so many ways now, eg increasingly on mobile phones
or even tablets. I've got similar music collections on my Android phone and tablet and
music player. But it's my Sansa Clip music player I much prefer. It's very small and
unlike a touch device I can control it easily by touch in a pocket as I know where all
the controls are. With my phone I can change the volume OK by feel but have to get it out and
fire up the screen to pause it or change track - very crude!
My main aim is to be future proofed, eg by storing music as mp3 rather than wma or AAC.
I also far prefer being in charge, simply dragging folders across to a music player rather
than being in the hands of some program that attempts to synchronise across multiple devices.
We have all our digital music synchronised between desktop and laptop then
varying subset collections on two music players, two phones, two tablets and memory pens for
the car. When playing music on one of our computers we use VLC or Media Player Classic as
our music player and WinAmp or whatever on Android devices. When at home we mostly play through
Sonos, often with Deezer playlists as the source.
The diagram below shows the flow of our digital music. It starts with obtaining the music from
the internet or a CD (and I converted quite a few of our LPs to CD). Then it's synchronised
across our PC and laptop then either of those is used to copy selected tracks/albums to our
music players, phones, tablets as well as memory pens to play in the car. We also have access
to 35 million Deezer tracks and can download playlists to a phone to play offline.
How do I listen to internet radio?
You can listen through a browser, or iTunes (free to download) has an excellent internet radio mode - make a
new playlist and drag favourite stations into it. Then shrink it to a little on-screen radio.
Nowadays there is a growing choice of radios that will access
internet radio stations via your wifi router. The Roberts on the right
will connect wirelessly to your router and thence to lots of internet
radio stations. It will also play music from your computer (mp3 or wma
but not AAC). I've got a little Q2 cube internet radio in a bathroom and
we have loads of internet radio stations set up as Sonos Favourites.
My favourite source of music on the internet is Deezer (similar to Spotify but with a
great selection of classical music). Some people like rdio best. Once signed up
you can listen to it like an internet radio (but with lots of choice
over genre etc and you can skip to the next track anytime). It's also great for
checking out someone you've heard recommended. We've gone ad-free with a subscription
and there also options for storing music offline, eg on your phone.
How to I pipe music round the house?
There are some very fancy and expensive wireless systems out there, eg from Sonos, but
until recently I did something much simpler - I just used a little old laptop as a portable music source,
with access to all our CDs in mp3 format plus Spotify etc from the internet. I'd plug it into our main
stereo or just add a portable speaker if on holiday.
But now we've gone Sonos, starting with just a Play:3 unit (which can be stereo on its own
or one of a stereo pair). We've also got the Bridge for extra stability. And it came with a one
year Deezer subscription. Now we've got the Sonos Amp with two biggish floorstander speakers
and three Play:3s that are easy to move around.
We control Sonos from any of our computers, tablets or phones. On the left you decide which devices to
play through, in the middle (on the Windows version) is your queue of tracks to play and on the right
your sources of music. The main ones are Music Library (our entire CD collection in mp3 format plus tracks
bought online, on a PC) and Deezer (35 million tracks online). There's also internet radio and I mainly use
favourites for internet radio stations. We're also making lots of playlists, mainly of tracks online via
Deezer. Obviously it helps to have fast, unlimited broadband - ours is both.
How do I capture plays, music etc off the internet?
Podcasts are intended to be downloaded and listened to later, perhaps
on a music player. Streamed internet radio, plays etc are more intended
for current listening but the streamed audio can also be stored with the
right software to capture it to an mp3 or WAV (CD) file. You can load
mp3 files onto a music player to listen to on the way to work or burn a
radio play to a CD to play in the car.
There are a few free recorders around but this is one area where it's
probably better to go for paid software such as Total Recorder (v8.5
works beautifully on Win 7, 8.1 or 10).
Making such recordings is a bit of a grey area legally but if
it's just time shifting and for personal use there shouldn't be any
problems. The only theoretical problem is that copyright holders can sometimes
be paranoid and their terms and conditions may try to ban routine time shifting
for personal use. Even the BBC, totally owned/funded by us UK
BBC licence fee payers, tries to restrict us to listening again to
plays etc tethered to a computer rather than motoring along the
Radiotracker is another interesting way of getting music off the net,
supposedly completely legally - you tell it what to look for and it
scours internet radio stations worldwide and downloads matching tracks
it finds to mp3, trying to fade out the disc jockeys talking over the
beginning and end of tracks.
But buying tracks online is so cheap that that's how I get them (mp3
format) if I don't want the whole album. If we buy a CD I rip it to mp3
at once and the CD is relegated to data backup status. And now we have
35 million tracks available via Deezer, so if I hear something new that
I like my first reaction is to just add it to a Deezer playlist..
How do I edit audio tracks?
You may need to do this because you want to make a quiet track louder on a compilation,
to split a huge sound file sucked in off an old vinyl LP into separate
tracks or just to fade out the self indulgent last four minutes on a golden oldie track
(sorry, Bob - a friend/fan was scandalised).
For these sorts of jobs I use the wonderful and totally free Audacity editor:
Note that it edits mp3 and wav (CD format) and ogg but not wma or AAC.
Its help says "Audacity cannot import or export files in WMA, AAC, ...or most
other proprietary formats, or any kind of Digital Rights Management
(DRM) protected file, including many purchased online such as on
iTunes... Because of licensing and patent restrictions, we are not
allowed to add these formats to Audacity." That reinforces my policy of
having all digital audio in CD or mp3 format. I'm no longer so short of
disc or music player capacity that I'd want to go proprietary ever
again. I much prefer to be future proofed and not tied in to any
How do I edit the hidden track information?
Mp3, AAC and wma tracks have hidden information in them
showing artist, genre, album etc. That helps your music player offer
various navigation options. On my Sansa Clip+ music player it works
well with the ID3 tags in MP3 tracks but not with wma tracks, another
reason I re-ripped all our CDs to mp3.
What if you want to edit the hidden information? I've needed
to do this when I've converted vinyl LPs to CD and also when I've
wanted to change the genre for a whole album (I tend to stick to Rock
or Classical as genres rather than Rock, Folk-Rock, Indie, Alt-Country
etc). My favourite ID3 editor is the free Media Monkey program shown
below. It makes editing ID3 tags very easy, by track or album.