So you have a ton of digital music on your computer, or maybe you’re looking to build up a collection. We’ve already covered the best ways to back up your music files, and gone over the best music streaming services, but how about managing you music? Rather than merely plunking down $.99 in iTunes to download and forget, there is a lot to consider.
Beyond MP3: Choosing Between Music File Types
Everybody’s heard of MP3 files, but not all music lovers are aware that MP3s aren’t the only way to go when amassing your library of sounds. They’re just the most well known. Other viable formats include WAV, FLAC, OGG, WMA, AIFF, APE, and AAC. So what’s the difference? Here’s a quick breakdown.
- MP3 – The most common digital audio file format used, MP3s are considered a “lossy” format. This means that when you rip a CD to MP3, the high audio quality of the original source can be lost due to file compression that happens in the conversion process. This is done to minimize file size. Some people claim to not hear any difference, but if an audio file is encoded at a low bit rate, the quality can be highly noticeable. The best advice to maintain quality is to create MP3 files at the highest bit rate possible (320kbps).
- WAV – Considered one of the most high quality digital audio formats, WAV files are “lossless.” As you probably already gathered, this means that when you rip a song to WAV, there’s no loss in quality from the original source. Audiophiles love WAV, but there are drawbacks. For example, WAV files are much bigger in size and take up a lot of hard drive space. They’re also not compatible with every kind of portable media player.
- AIFF – Similar to WAV files, AIFFs are non-compressed and therefore offer the highest possible audio quality for ripped music files. They also take up a huge amount of space, like WAV files. AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) was created by Apple, therefore it’s not a format as widely used as WAV.
- FLAC – Another favorite among those who require their audio data to be pristine, FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. It’s sort of a “happy medium” between MP3 and WAV in that it slightly compresses audio files to lower their size, but does so without compromising any quality. In order to play FLAC files, you’ll have to install additional software since the majority of media players (both mobile and desktop) don’t support it.
- OGG – OGG (sometimes referred to as Ogg Vorbis) is the second most popular lossy audio format next to MP3. The biggest difference between the two is compression rate – OGG files tend to be smaller, because compression can’t be set at a constant rate. Therefore if you rip a CD to OGG, you might get lower quality audio than if you were to opt for MP3. Also, OGG isn’t as widely used and so you’re less likely to find media players that support the format.
- WMA – Windows Media Audio is proprietary to Microsoft and works great if you’re planning on only listening to music on a computer running Windows. But the reality is, most people want a format that can travel with them easily. WMA is another “lossy” file type, and its quality doesn’t quite live up to the original sound source.
- APE – This lossless audio file type seems tailor made for the audiophile who’s interested in conserving as much hard drive space as possible. APE can achieve high levels of compression without sacrificing any audio quality, but the fact that few actual players support it is a drawback. Also, APE files are so highly compressed that the process of playback can put your computer’s processor through the paces.
- AAC – AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is the native format for audio files played and sold through iTunes. It’s one of the better quality sounding of the lossy file types, and is comparable to high bit rate MP3s. AAC files are also more efficient as saving space, which basically means you can have more songs on your hard drive than you can with MP3. The good news is that, even though they’re not as popular as MP3, AAC files are compatible with many portable media players.
Compression Rates and Bit Rates, Explained
If you’re not a seasoned audio coding ninja, you’re probably wondering what all this talk about compression rates and bit rates really means. While choosing a particular compression or bit rate won’t impact your ability to listen to an audio file, it might just cause a decidedly enormous impact in your ability to enjoy that file to the fullest. As we mentioned earlier when discussing WAV, FLAC and APE files, uncompressed audio files sound great but they take up a lot of space. When you convert high quality audio files to MP3 or WMA, the file is compressed in order to make it smaller, thus taking up a lot less disk space and enabling you to share files via email. When an audio file gets compressed, certain bits of data from the source file are deleted.
Compression algorithms are quite advanced. They reduce the file size by eliminating sounds humans can’t hear. So, that could be on the really high or low end of the audio spectrum, or maybe its a soft sound masked by a louder. Now, even though a normal person can’t hear these sounds, they do affect sound quality, and provide a “fullness” to the sound that is eliminated with many digital music files.
Encoding settings can also be tweaked when converting audio files to “lossy” formats that result in shrinking the file size even further. This is what’s commonly referred to as the converted file’s bit rate. For example, you can convert a CD-quality WAV file to a high or low bit rate MP3. The higher the bit rate, the better the sound quality. The lower the bit rate, the lower the sound quality.
Digital Liner Notes to Satisfy the Completionists
Believe it or not, there are people out there who still value the “package” that music used to represent in the dinosaur era of vinyl records and CDs. If this sounds a lot like you, then you probably can’t fully enjoy the music listening experience unless your digital player also has access to the proper album artwork and, even better, the liner notes that came with the original release. But in the era of digital music downloads, what can you do to ensure you’ve got all missing jigsaw pieces?
While most officially purchased downloads will contain original cover art, liner notes aren’t as easy to come by. The good news is that a growing number of albums available on iTunes are starting to offer this bonus information. Some purchases come with digital booklets in PDF format, but other options are coming to fruition.
Available only for iTunes versions 9 and newer, the aptly named iTunes LP is working toward creating a more interactive experience for the astute music fan, including everything from lyrics to band photos to who played what on which track. iTunes LP is even set up to offer the kind of bonus data you could never get from a traditional LP, such as band performance videos and informational documentaries.
If you already have a treasure trove of music files on your hard drive and you don’t have to repurchase them from iTunes, you don’t have to. Simply signing up for iTunes Match will do the trick, but bear in mind this is a subscription service with a yearly fee.
Spotify, Rhapsody, and some other subscription services also offer liner note information, but that’s no solution. Fortunately, there are a handful of websites out there that catalog liner notes details, making it possible for you to literally cut and paste the notes into a Word or text file that you can throw into your album’s folder. Check out AllMusic, Discogs and Wikipedia. Needless to say, these sites aren’t automated – but between the three, there’s a wealth of information to be collected.
Managing Your Digital Music Files
Step one in being able to manage your digital music files is keeping them all in a central location. This way, no matter what program you use to listen to music, be it Windows Media Player, iTunes or something a little more rebellious like Winamp, you’ll never be more than a few moments away from the next moment of musical inspiration. By default, most operating systems placed ripped CD files into a dedicated folder, but if you’re downloading from various sources like iTunes and Amazon, those locations can vary.
Typically, each platform you use to purchase downloaded music creates a folder on your drive where the music is stored. As a rule of thumb, always pay attention where your files are being stored. This makes later retrieval easier and prevents you from winding up with a half dozen (or more) “lost” albums that are taking up space on your drive. If you use an external hard drive to store music, you can do a couple of things: drag and copy/move those files to your external drive after they’ve been downloaded; or route files to be downloaded directly into a specific folder of your external drive.
Finding Music Files After the Fact
Finding music you’ve already downloaded or synced to your computer can be a tricky thing to do, especially if you use a variety of different players like Windows Media Player and iTunes. Both of the aforementioned can automatically scan your computer to locate files so they can be played, but if you’re a more hands-on type this may not be enough for you.
If you don’t remember precisely where you’ve stored all of your music files, you don’t have to spend hours hunting through various drives and folders performing a manual search. Rooting out the location of music files is easily accomplished by performing a system search. A simple shortcut is to enter “*.mp3” into your computer’s search field, then press enter. This will run a scan of the selected drive and pull up all files ending with the MP3 extension. To perform the most exhaustive search, repeat the above process with all the various music file types you may have stored away: WAV, OGG, WMA, and on down the list. As always, type the asterisk first, then the desired file type.