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CD ripping, digital music, music streaming, iPod / iTunes / Sonos - various thoughts, suggestions, ideas, odd ramblings ….

Honestly Craig?

Recently enjoyed a brilliant trip to New York, the end of a great long holiday driving up from Atlanta, Georgia to enjoy Thanksgiving in NYC. As we're sitting in the reception, I mean "lobby" of our hotel in Brooklyn, waiting for a cab to JFK and our flight home I received an email.

Apparently from one Craig Malin via here it is:-

Im looking to set up something similar but around my location, would I be able to ask you a few questions and get some friendly feedback ? Thankyou, Craig.

My response was "Where?". I got this reply.


Sent from my iPhone

Over the last 15 years of CD ripping I've helped many people get into this business. Indeed I produced a how-to-do-it manual that went out to people in Singapore, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada and Germany. Originally I thought I might make a fortune selling this, or even operating on a franchise basis. After careful thought I decided not to try to capitalise on that idea but I've tried to help people - if it wasn't going to damage my business.

I have worked with hardware and software companies to solve CD ripping problems and to make the whole business of digital music better for everyone. Sure, I've benefitted from that but so to have other people and companies.

I wasn't sure how to handle this, Craig might have just phoned me, instead he emailed me. Was this something that would help his business and dame mine? While cogitating the cab arrived and off we went into the monsoonal rain and the freeway system.

Still thinking about this one when I got past JFK security I checked my phone the answer was there. My fear that this was just a fishing expedition that would help Craig at my expense was confirmed. This arrived:

I take that as a no?

Sent from my iPhone

Quickly followed by:

We're gonna start in London Too , give you some competition

Sent from my iPhone

It seems my suspicions were justified, this was simply an attempt to get some free business advice at the expense of a competitor. Now I'm relieved I didn't fall for this scam.

So, if at some point in the future you're thinking of asking me for help please bear in mind that Craig Malin's ham fisted attempt to pull the wool over my eyes has left me rather more jaded than I was before. You'll need to start from and establish a position of honesty.

Mac - Flac? Flac - Mac? Max? Muck? F.....

I follow other people in and around the digital music arena and most of them are pretty good. Know what they're talking about, good peeps.

So when I read something patently daft it really stuck out, and it came from someone I (previously) respected. It relates to Mac computers and the FLAC music format.

What is it with FLAC? Over the last few years it seems to have gained some kind of cult status. I've had clients contact me asking for their music to be ripped to FLAC "because the guy in the desk next to me says it's the best". OK, we're a service business and the customer is always right .. We can rip to FLAC just as easily as we can rip to Apple Lossless or AAC or MP3. If you want it - FLAC - you can have it. But you have to be warned, and this is where I part ways with the blog post I read.

The gist of the argument was this. Lossless music is the best quality and given how cheap hard drives are, how powerful home networks are, there's no reason why every music lover shouldn't opt for the best. In his view the best being FLAC. So play your FLAC files on your computer in all their glory and if someday you want to move to another music file format simply use music management software to make the conversion.

I have two problems with this. First, FLAC isn't unquestionably the best file format. Recently a BBC radio program talked about "CD quality music" and made it clear that Apple Lossless (ALAC) and MP3 320kbps along with FLAC can be regarded as top sound files. If you look at the various online listening tests you'll find very few people can hear the difference between ALAC, MP3 / 320 and FLAC.

Second, enjoying digital music isn't simply a matter of accessing and playing a file. To get the best from your music you'll want to do many other things - create playlists, edit the metadata, change the album art, load tracks onto a portable player. This is where the blog's position collapses if you're a Mac owner.

The suggested strategy was to use a program called Max, and the implication is that you can play FLAC files, edit FLAC and if need be convert them to another format using Max. here's the problem.

Max doesn't work.

We've been using Macs for over 25 years, and the Mac platform has been at the heart of CD ripping for 14 years. We need to be able to do a raft of music handling tasks, including editing and converting FLAC. We've been running Max since the earliest days. I bet we've tried to handle more music with Max that anyone else in digital music. So when we say this we mean it - Max doesn't work. It crashes, it fails, it just drops away. Why? Well take a look at this, which is taken from the Max download site.

Max Download Page

The last version was released on 29th August, 2009 - seven years ago. In Mac terms that's light years ago, practically everything that underlies the Mac OS has changed in that time. Notice too "not all output formats are tagged with metadata". Just fills you with confidence.

If you're a Mac user and you want high quality lossless music the answer is simple - Apple Lossless. You can play your music, create playlists, edit metadata / album art, sync with iPhones, iPods, iPads to your hearts content. All with iTunes which is free, robust, reliable and supported by Apple. Of course it's current software not something created in computing dark ages.

Should Mac users avoid FLAC at all costs? No, I'm not saying that. There are a few high end audio systems that come with their own music management software that will handle FLAC on Macs and other Apple devices. Your hi-fi supplier can advise you on that and you'll have a great solution. If you own a Sonos system that will happily stream FLAC files from Macs and NAS drives just as happily as with Windows boxes. But you can't use the Sonos Controller to manage more detailed, lower level aspects of your music files.

OK, done. Rant over.

Box Sets, CD Ripping and Feedback

Let’s not call it a complaint, it’s really feedback. When dealing with boxed sets, how do we convert those CDs into a digital music library?

The comment was that the client has a box set, yet when he looked at the music library we’d created he couldn’t see those discs where he expected them to be. After a little digging he was happy to see they were all in his library, just not annotated the way he’d thought we’d do it.

Why were we “wrong”?

When we lookup each CD in our online databases the system looks for a digital fingerprint - essentially the total length of the CD, number of tracks, length of each track. These numbers are sufficient in the vast majority of cases to uniquely identify each CD correctly.

Our databases register the first pressing of each CD.

In real life this is what happens. An artist records some music and it’s released under a name - let’s call it Beethoven 1. A little later the same performers release another, perhaps that’s Beethoven 3. Two discs, each uniquely tagged and entered into the databases we use.

Then a bright spark at the label realises if the same people record Beethoven 2 they can realise a small box set called Beethoven 1, 2 & 3. each piece of plastic is repainted to provide a consistent image and off they go to market in a neat little box.

How were we “wrong”?

Without any intervention when we rip those three CDs the client will see in the music library:-

Beethoven 1

Beethoven 3

Beethoven 1, 2 & 3 - (Disc 2)

All the music is there, correctly listed and tagged, with appropriate cover art to the original pressing. What the client expected to see was:-

Beethoven 1, 2 & 3 - (Disc 1)

Beethoven 1, 2 & 3 - (Disc 2)

Beethoven 1, 2 & 3 - (Disc 3)

Why did we do it “wrong”?

When I started ripping CDs I was concerned that people would be able to see what we’d done for them and we could justify our charges. It seemed unfair to me that if people had two copies of the same CD we’d charge them twice for it - after all, you only want one version in your library. I know from experience routing out the duplicate albums can save clients £25 or more on a reasonable sized CD collection.

What is a boxed set anyway?

For me, it’s a construct that makes some sense. The first type of sense is one that relates to the performer or the composer. Going back to Beethoven a collection of his symphonies makes sense, as does a collection of piano or violin compositions, or indeed all the music he composed.

The second sense is essentially for packaging or economic purposes. As an example I present the boxed set of The Smiths CDs. Each is available singly, each released singly, they stand on their own but the label helpfully offers fans the chance to save the bother of buying each on its own.

The Customer is Always Right …..

So this is how we plan to tackle boxed sets going forward. If we pick up the disc on its own, it will be ripped as a single CD. If we find we have the box set (that is, a set which in my terms “makes sense”) then that collection of CDs will be ripped as Disc 1, Disc 2 and so on - even in the case of the Mozart Complete set, all the way up to Disc 170.

Where the set is put together primarily for marketing reasons then each disc will be ripped as a CD on its own.

Any downside to this?

Well, there could be, and it’s simply financial. Some clients may end up being charged once when the first disc is ripped then again when it appears in the boxed set. As clients have said, for them it’s not the end of the world, and for some it is what they would prefer. We do have a way round this so if it’s a huge financial issue for any client we can address that.

Be it a complaint or feedback we want to get your CD ripping right.

Sonos, NTFS USB Drives, Mac = Sad Face

For many years, in fact as long as we've been supplying digital music back on USB hard drives and memory sticks, the standard format for the drives has been NTFS. For the vast majority of our users this hasn't been in any way problematic so for 99%+ this is a non-issue.

However ....

You are in the 1% if ...

  • you own an Apple Mac
  • you want to access your music via Sonos
  • you want your music on an external hard drive only.

If you tick all three boxes we need to take a different approach. We have had two experiences where although iTunes happily accesses and plays music on an NTFS format, when you try to point Sonos Controller at your music folder on the external USB drive, you get an error message. You won't be able to progress beyond this point.

Consequently, if you are in this situation, we need to supply a drive re-formatted to Apple's HFS format. We know that this combination works fine for Sonos and you'll be OK.

There may be people who find themselves in the Mac / Sonos / NTFS situation and are looking for a resolution. We had some success some while ago with Tuxera and Paragon (two programs that allow Macs to both read and write to NTFS drives). Most recently clients who have tried the trial versions of those programs no longer find they work. It may be that there's some feature in the pid-for versions that solve the problem but at the moment we can't recommend this as a way forward.

Headphone Upgrade Without the Headphones

If you use "standard" earbuds for any length of time, particularly if you have a decent audio system at home, you'll find the sound lacking. So, if you want to upgrade where do you go?

The obvious step is to throw a sum of money at a major brand, I suspect many people trot into the Apple store in the faith that the upgraded headphones sold there are necessarily better. But in what way? How will they feel hours, days and weeks ahead?

Here's another approach - fit a device that improves the sound from your current earbuds. A unit that makes all sounds better / more to your taste. Buy this and maybe you'll be happy with the investment you've already made, at least you'll know how comfortable you'll feel. Plus you don't have to worry about having to wear giant ear-cans just so you get decent base notes.

This the Boomstick, probably the first of several, from BoomCloud 360 does just that. Soon to be launched in the US at $99 the website gives an interesting demo of how this will upgrade your sound, along with a video of people being suitably impressed with the Boomstick.

Being positive this is a great idea, take what you know and like with your present system and add an upgrade that transforms sound. Lower cost than some top-grade headphones, and you can avoid carrying and wearing larger units.

Downside? It's another "thing" to connect to your iPod, another battery (I assume) to replace, another connection to worry about. They seem to define better sound as better bass, and that's not what everyone wants. It has various buttons to click and control. But very little negatives.

My main thought is why don't Apple just swallow this and build something similar into their devices?

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