By Stephen H. Wildstrom For teenagers and twentysomethings, downloads -- legal or otherwise -- have become the natural way to acquire recorded music. But there are lots of graybeards like me who still prefer to buy CDs and who have acquired hundreds of them over the past couple of decades. How do we get ourselves and our music into the era of iPods and digital music archives?
Ripping CDs to computer files isn't difficult. But it is time-consuming -- around 10 to 15 minutes per disk depending on the speed of your computer, the digital format, and the length of the CDs. That's more than 16 hours of boring work for every 100 disks. If you're like me, it's a task you would cheerfully pay someone else to do.
I tried two different services, RipDigital and ReadyToPlay, that do the job. They are alike in most respects. Both charge around $130 (plus shipping) for the first 100 CDs, with prices dropping as low as $1 per disk for large quantities. And both work in a similar fashion: You order a kit that includes a box, a CD storage spindle, and a shipping label. Then you load your CDs onto the spindle, pack them up, and ship them.
FORMAT CHOICES. In a week or so your CDs come back, along with several data DVDs containing music that's formatted and ready to load onto your computer. RipDigital includes a program that automates the process of copying the files from the DVD to your computer and loading the music into your library of iTunes or a Musicmatch jukebox, but it really isn't needed.
The hardest part of the job was getting the CDs back into their jewel cases. Both services shipped the disks back in a slightly jumbled order, which forced me to do more searching than I would have liked to get each disk into the right case.
The ripping services offer a variety of digital formats, including mp3, Windows Media, and AAC (used by iPod and iTunes). For the best sound quality you can leave the music uncompressed, but the resulting huge files can't be used in portable music players. I chose the best-quality mp3 -- 320 kilobits per second for ReadyToPlay, and 224 kbs for RipDigital. (I couldn't detect much difference between the two.) In addition to supplying DVDs, the services will load your music onto a portable player if you send them one or copy the music to an external hard drive you send in or buy from them.
TAG MADNESS. I now have more than 25 gigabytes of music stored on a networked PC at home. I download it to an iPod and play it through my stereo using a wireless Roku SoundBridge. I have also used the collection with the multiroom Sonos Digital Music System (see BW Online, 04/11/05, "Beaming Your Music From Basement to Attic").
The only problem I have is finding the album I want to play, especially on the limited displays of the iPod and Roku. The system of tags used to identify music is a mess for pop and rock and hopeless for classical and jazz. Furthermore, the databases the services and music players use to supply the tags are full of errors and inconsistencies.
Care to guess what's on albums titled 20 Essential Tracks from the Boxed Set or Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3? (The Byrds and Charles Ives.) Not to mention the fact that every album title beginning with "The" gets filed under "T." The services try to clean the tags up a bit, but a lot more needs to be done.
HELPFUL JUMP-START. Fortunately, music players such as iTunes make it easy to edit the data. My next project is to change the tags so they make sense. I'll start each title with the name of the performer or, for classical music, the composer. If I get really ambitious, I'll fix the "genre" tags, which are whatever the person who made the database entry felt like and which divide music into dozens of meaningless categories (Brian Wilson's SMiLE is "Surf Rock," but The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is "Rock/Pop.")
From now on, every CD I buy goes to the computer immediately to keep the digital library up-to-date. But the ripping services have done the heavy lifting, so now I get to sit back and enjoy the music. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at email@example.com