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DIGITAL AUDIO ENCODING:

CREATING YOUR MUSIC LIBRARY

JAMES POOLE
MAY 2007

Summary
This short report is primarily aimed at people who use the power of digital audio
encoding to store and play their music. It explores different audio formats, looking
specifically at the difference between lossy and lossless codecs. It finds that creating a
music library out of lossy codecs isn't a particularly wise thing to do, due to the
vulnerability of each format over time. Once obsolete, an lossy audio codec will leave
the user with an imperfect music source. Instead, it recommends a different system,
utilising the lossless codec system to generate a music library, and looks at a specific
case where this is possible.
1 – An introduction

If you ask someone what file format they mainly use for their digital music, 9 times out
of 10 the answer will be 'MP3' or 'AAC'. They fulfil the task these people require by
allowing them to fit literally thousands of songs onto their portable music player. There
are a horde of similar but less well known formats that will fulfil this task. Whichever
one you choose, though, there is a common denominator – all of these formats are
known as “lossy”, due to the way that they compress the music. When creating an MP3,
you are essentially forfeiting musical information in order to reach smaller file sizes.
This is good for some applications, as we will see below, but not so good for others. I am
looking to make you aware of an alternative solution to creating your music library
completely in MP3 – or any other lossy codec that you choose – and reasons why you
should do this.

2 - Looking closer at MP3

Once again, I am looking at MP3, since this is the lossy codec that most people are
familiar with, however what I say here will apply to most lossy codecs that you will
come across.
As a lossy codec, MP3 is great. It achieves astounding audio quality when you consider
that it compresses music to about a tenth of its original size. However, by virtue of the
lossy system, what you have on your Hard Disk Drive, or your MP3 player, is not exactly
the music that you have on the CD or vinyl record that you obtained it from. The lossy
audio system is irreversible; once you have created a lossy file, you can not get it back
to being a perfect audio source. Although it achieves nearly CD quality, it can sometimes
be noticeably different from CD quality music – especially at lower bitrates and with
certain music genres.
There are also other possible problems with MP3. Sure, everyone uses it now – it is
ubiquitous within portable music players, and most media software on computers will
play it with no problems at all. However, as a format, it is quite old. MP3 was created in
1991[1], an astounding 16 years ago! Remarkable in its day, MP3 music is now being
challenged by rivals who say they can produce better quality lossy audio and have better
compression rates. We cannot be sure that MP3 will be the format of the future. If we
do find that it isn't, and you have created your music library in MP3 format, what have
you got? A large job insofar that you will have to get out all your CDs again to re-rip
them into the new popular audio format. Sure, you could just convert your MP3 library
to the newer format, but there are weaknesses associated with this approach. Since you
are working with a lossy format, you will be working from an imperfect source and will
not be able to utilise the better quality of the newer format – in fact, the quality of your
music can only be the same or get worse the more times that you convert it.

3 – A solution

If only there was a way of storing all your CDs on the computer in a form that is
equivalent to actually having the CDs! Well, by now you have probably guessed (or
already know – I'm not trying to be supremely patronising but I apologise if this is the
case!), there is such a method, and the codecs that do this are originally described as
“lossless”. In fact, you have probably come across lossless audio in the form of WAV
files. Lossless encoding is the case where the quality of the produced file is equal to the
quality of the source in the “same or less” inequality. Therefore, a lossless copy of a
song on a computer will sound identical, through the same speaker system, as playing
the song from the CD. This means that in the future, if you wished to have lossy formats
for portability, you can work once more from a perfect source.
There are some downsides to lossless compression though, and is shown by their lower
popularity in digital music history: the main reason is that they do take up more space,
since it is not the primary aim of a lossless codec to compress the music. Certain
formats, however, are able to compress the music while still retaining perfect audio
fidelity. I'm not going to pretend that I am an expert on this, but there are many ways to
prove this, as shown on many websites[2]. Their greater size makes them less 'portable'
than their lossy counterparts. With portable music players probably being one of the
main catalyst in digital music file proliferation, we can see how they are less popular.

4 – Why should I use lossless codecs for my music then?

The idea here isn't that you should use lossless codecs, its just another way of doing
things. I personally prefer the idea of not having to re-rip the CDs again, and the greater
music quality is always a bonus. The advent of cheaper digital storage affords us the
possibility to 'splash out' on higher file sizes so we can have these benefits. It isn't hard
to convert the lossless codecs to lossy codecs for your portable music player either. And
if one day you decide that a different lossy codec is the way forward – Ogg Vorbis[3] for
example – then the process is just as easy again. Instead of having to get all your CDs out
again, and rip them one by one, you can just convert the music from your computer all
in one go. Hook your computer up to a good set of speakers and what you effectively
have is a music centre with your whole library available in CD quality!

5 – So are you suggesting a specific way of creating my music library?

Yes. Although no way is 'right', and we all have our own way of doing things, I believe
that the method described in the diagram below is a perfectly valid way of doing things.
It provides future-proofed CD quality music stored on your computer that is easily copied
into the lossy form of your choice.
The lossless compression codec that I have chosen here is one called FLAC, short for
'Free Lossless Audio Codec”. I have made this choice for a few reasons. FLAC:
[3]
● provides a relatively good compression ratio for a lossless format ;
[3]
● encodes reasonably quickly ;
[4]
● is free and open source (unlike MP3!!) ;
● has some hardware support in the form of portable music players, hi-fi systems
and more[5];
● plays natively in many media players and also in ones that don't support it with
relatively easy to find plugins[6];
[7]
● is increasingly being used as a medium of distribution amongst song artists .
There are certain considerations to make when going down the path that this idea
describes to you though. My (very rough) calculations are that each day of music you
have will encode into approximately 10GB of data in 'normal quality' FLAC form –
although there is nothing to stop this being higher, up until the point where the
compression ratio is 1 (i.e the 700MB of music on the CD will encode to 700MB in FLAC,
~12.6GB/day). While this is better than WAV, it is a large amount of data (especially
when you consider that MP3 will, by the same calculations, encode to approximately
2.2GB/day), and will mean higher costs in the name of digital storage media. Also, FLAC
is not universally supported, so it may mean you need to make some software, or even
some hardware changes. These aside, I believe that this is a good course of action to
take when putting your music onto your computer.
1. Get all
“hardware 2. Use computer to
music” convert to FLAC –
save on HDD

3. Convert to required
lossy format for portable
music players when needed

4. FLAC format can be used for CD


quality audio in Hi-Fi systems. Wireless
connection to speakers?
I have used the 'FLAC frontend' program illustratively in this diagram. What I would in
fact recommend you do to rip the music to your computer in FLAC format is to use a
program called EAC along with the FLAC frontend – this is described in the link below.

6 - Conclusions
● Lossy music compression provides good quality audio at impressive sizes and is
ideal for applications where portability is key, e.g in personal MP3 players;
● Creating a music library primarily out of a lossy format is not the best idea, since
it is likely that the present lossy “format of choice” will change, leaving you with
the task of re-ripping your CDs;
● Lossless audio codecs are an identical music source as CDs are, but are stored on
your computer. Therefore they are the good choice for creating a music library,
out of which you can convert copies of the songs to lossy formats for portable
music compression.

Links and other interesting sites mildly relevant to this subject


[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mp3
[2] - http://www.bobulous.org.uk/misc/audioFormats.html
[3] - http://www.vorbis.com/
[4] - http://flac.sourceforge.net/features.html
[5] - http://flac.sourceforge.net/links.html#hardware
[6] - http://flac.sourceforge.net/links.html#software
[7] - http://flac.sourceforge.net/links.html#music

More Information
http://flac.sourceforge.net – a look at FLAC
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mp3 – wiki's take on MP3
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FLAC – wiki's take on FLAC
http://www.bobulous.org.uk/misc/audioFormats.html – another explanation and
comparison of lossy and lossless codecs
http://www.bobulous.org.uk/misc/audio_formats_comparison_2006.html – a newer
version of above, with more explanation
http://www.bobulous.org.uk/misc/openVclosed.html – explanation of open and closed
source software
http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-10163_7-6226087-1.html?tag=nav – converting your vinyl
music to digital form

Software
http://flac.sourceforge.net/download.html – get FLAC!
http://www.exactaudiocopy.de/ - homepage for 'Exact Audio Copy (EAC)' software
described above!
http://wiki.hydrogenaudio.org/index.php?title=EAC_and_Flac – setting up EAC to rip CDs
to the FLAC format
http://www.winamp.com/ - media player that natively supports FLAC, though this is by
no means the only one – look at the 'software' link at point [6] above