This is going to be a fairly brief article about encoding music, sound quality and how to get the most useful results.
There are three ‘main’ formats for encoding music in popular use today.
MP3 is available in nearly every gadget that can play digitised music. There are _many_ ways of encoding to MP3. Results can be awful to fantastic both in file size and sound quality depending on what is used to do the encoding. iTunes has it’s own built in MP3 encoder which is really bad. Do not use.
AAC is actually a type of MPEG4, that it is commonly wrapped up in a DRM technology. This is how music on the iTunes store is delivered. Sound quality can be very good. The AAC encoder used by iTunes is not the same as the AAC encoder used by iTunes store.
WMA is the Microsoft & Windows Media Player format. I don’t really know much about this to be honest. I have been told the sound quality can be good, probably comparable to AAC music from iTunes store. This has all sorts of DRM on it allowing you to ‘rent’ your music, which they can, disable if you stop paying your subscription fee.
There are many other formats such as Ogg Vorbis, FLAC etc. They all have there good points, but are not as widespread as the 3 mentioned above.
I strongly feel that of these 3 main formats, the only format worth ripping too is MP3. MP3 is the universal format used by Mac, PC, Linux, most modern phones, digital hi-fi, cheap DVD players and probably in a few years your car, washing machine and fridge. ANother reason is that DRM is an added obstacle to enjoying your music when and where you want.
The reason iTunes has such a terrible MP3 encoder, I believe, is so that people will use Apple’s AAC format in prefernece to MP3. Once you have ripped all your CDs you realise that just about the only gadget that will play these is the iPod. The quality loss when re-encoding a digital file to an alternative format makes the quality considerably worse. MP3 is a lossy format, like JPEG is for images. Repeated saving reduces the quality.
What’s a boy to do ?
– You want to have the flexibility to play your music on a variety of gadgets, from your iPod, to your Casio Watch, without having to pay a fee.
– You want a decent file size
– You want sound quality which is good enough to crank up loud and still sound good.
– You want something simple to use that integrates with your Mac or PC, regardless of what sort of machine you buy next.
LAME (http://lame.sourceforge.net/) is a fantastic, free encoder that can achieve all the above. This program is normally run from the command line, which can be a problem for many Mac users who normally prefer something a bit slicker.
There are now two good solutions for the Mac.
– Max (http://sbooth.org/Max/)
– iTunes-LAME (http://www.blacktree.com/apps/iTunes-LAME/)
Max is a standalone app that can lookup the track names from FreeDB, and then rip and encode to your own prefered settings. In it’s latest version it can encode to a multitude of formats. The only feature that seems to be missing is the ability to add the tracks to iTunes library.
iTunes-LAME is an Applescript program that integrates with iTunes. It is essentially a wrapper around the command line program. It uses iTunes to lookup track names from Gracenote. Sound encoding options are essentially passed using the same format as the command line. It is a little more involved, and probably requires a few minutes background reading for best results.
iTunes-LAME ships with a slightly older version of LAME however it is easy to download the sourcecode and recompile a newer version.
Are there any problems with LAME ? The only one I can think of is that it is slower than iTunes to encode a CD. Recent versions have been quicker, and you can improve the speed by tweaking settings at compile time to optimize for G4 or G5 processors. I tweaked LAME for my G4 Powerbook and got a 10% improvement.
If any one is interested I can supply my G4 compiled version of Lame, otherwise you need the Developer Tools installed to compile this.
There are probably some inaccuracies in this article. I realise there probably are ways to remove the DRM from iTunes store songs. However every time a crack is found, Apple realeases a new version of iTunes which fixes that particular weakness. This is normally under the guise of a new ‘improved’ iTunes.
As a followup article I will discuss what settings to use with LAME to get the best all round compromise of size and sound quality.