The tech helper: Digital audio files made easy (Feature)
By Jay Dougherty Jan 10, 2011, 2:06 GMT
Washington - In the early days of digital audio, the world was fairly simple. There was MP3, and then there were a handful of uncompressed audio formats, such as WAV, that people rarely used because disks were not large enough to store them.
Digital audio is more complicated today. MP3 is still around, but it's looking dated. Hard drives are huge, allowing other file formats to compete for the crown that MP3 once had to itself. How can you hope to keep up with the changing landscape of digital audio? And which file format should you use to digitise your audio CDs? Read on for some answers.
Q: What's the difference between MP3 and MP4?
A: MP3, as you probably know, is the ubiquitous audio file format that's used by millions of people to listen to songs on their portable digital media players and on their home computers. Virtually every audio 'ripping' program that converts standard audio CDs into digital files will provide the option to encode those files into the MP3 file format. MP3 is strictly an audio file format.
MP4, on the other hand, was originally conceived as a video file format. It is based on Apple's QuickTime format and is widely used to distribute videos on the internet. MP4, however, can contain both video and audio data, and some believe that, because of its versatility, the format is destined to replace the audio-only MP3 format. There are even manufacturers now advertising 'MP4 players,' but these are generally simply portable digital devices that can handle video and audio. They may or may not even play actual MP4 video files.
Q: If I want to convert all of my audio CDs to digital files, which file format should I choose?
A: The answer to this question will depend on a number of factors. How much hard drive space do you have or are you willing to devote to your digital audio collection? How portable do you need the files to be - that is, must they be playable on your tiny digital audio player as well as from your computer?
If disk space is no issue and you want archival-quality copies of your CDs, then a lossless file format makes the most sense. WAV is a universal lossless audio standard and can be played without issue by virtually every digital audio player, including Windows Media Player, Winamp, and the open-source VLC Media Player.
Q: What's the difference between WAV and FLAC?
A: Both WAV and FLAC are lossless audio file formats, meaning that your music is encoded in such a way that no discernible degradation in audio quality occurs. These days, FLAC, APE, WMA Lossless, Vorbis, and others are all lossless formats competing for users' attention. Most of these formats have been around for many years but were seldom used because hard disk space was at a premium, and the file sizes produced by these formats were large, especially compared with the compressed MP3 format, which still offered audio quality good enough for most.
WAV file sizes tend to be the largest of any lossless file format. WAV files generally requiring about 10 megabytes per minute of audio. FLAC files, while also lossless, tend to be smaller than WAV files, so the format has gained traction among audio enthusiasts. FLAC files, however, are not as universally supported among digital audio players as are WAV files.
Q: Which file format should I use to rip an audio CD so that there are no spaces in-between tracks?
A: What you're requesting has less to do with an audio format than it does with a method of 'ripping,' or converting, your audio CDs into digital files.
As you've discovered, most audio ripping programs insert spaces in-between tracks. Occasionally there is an option in these programs to remove the spaces in-between songs, but on some audio CDs, you won't want to apply this option universally, since only certain songs 'fade' into each other.
What you need, therefore, is a program that will create an exact copy of an audio CD, essentially ripping certain tracks or the entire CD into one single file rather than splitting it up into individual files that correspond to the individual tracks.
The open-source CDex (http://cdexos.sourceforge.net) provides what you need. Like all other audio CD conversion tools, this free application can rip an entire CD into a bunch of individual files. But by using the application's 'Extract a section of the CD' command, located in the Convert menu, you can rip some or all of the tracks on a CD into a single file, preserving any musical transitions that occur between tracks. This is an essential tool to have in your audio toolbox for those times when you have an audio CD - like Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon' - in which one track blends into another.
Q: Can you name some good, free CD ripping programs?
A: Sure. Look at AudioGrabber (http://www.audiograbber.org), Exact Audio Copy (http://www.exactaudiocopy.de), CDex (http://cdexos.sourceforge.net), and Monkey Audio (http://www.monkeysaudio.com).
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