Digital Music Superguide

Thanks to iTunes and the iPod, music has become an integral part of the Mac life. Those two products have helped displace the stacks of CDs most of us have been amassing for the past 15 years.

The benefits are clear. Digital music files take up very little storage space on your Mac; allow you to search, categorize, and play your music in new and exciting ways; and are portable. And if you're ready to go beyond prerecorded music, Apple's GarageBand app puts you in the studio to make your own tunes.

To help you get the most from your music, we've put together a package with insights on ripping and organizing your music collection. We'll also show you how to pump the sound all around the house, beyond the limitations of your Mac's tinny speakers or your iPod's headphones. And you'll discover how to create your own songs with GarageBand.

Ripping

iTunes couldn't be much easier to operate, but there's much more to it than click, play, and enjoy. Peer beneath the hood and you'll find that you can customize -- and even improve -- the audio files that iTunes generates. Dig a bit deeper, and you'll discover that iTunes offers a wealth of ways to organize your music collection.

Mac the Ripper Anyone who has ripped an audio CD (that is, converted and imported its contents) in iTunes knows what a simple process it can be. Insert the CD, wait for iTunes to download track information from the Internet, click on the Import button, and go about your business while iTunes does its business. What you may not know is that you have a choice when it comes to the format in which iTunes imports that CD.

iTunes and the iPod support four audio formats -- AIFF, WAV, MP3, and AAC. AIFF and WAV files are uncompressed and consume about 10MB of hard- drive space for each minute of stereo audio. MP3 files are compressed (stripped of audio data considered to be less detectable to the human ear). With iTunes 4, Apple added a new audio-compression format -- Dolby Laboratories' Advanced Audio Coding (AAC).

By default, iTunes 4 rips CD audio files at 128 Kbps to about 7 percent of the original file size. But if you're willing to trade hard-drive space for better sound quality, you may want to change iTunes' default import settings. To do so, select Preferences from the iTunes menu and click on the Importing tab. Selecting AIFF Encoder or WAV Encoder from the Import Using pop-up menu provides you with full-quality, uncompressed music tracks -- useful for purists -- but these files will take up a load of space on your Mac or iPod. A better compromise is to leave AAC Encoder selected and bump up the resolution. To do this, select Custom from the Setting pop-up menu beneath AAC Encoder, and choose a higher bit rate from the Stereo Bit Rate pop-up menu.

Sound quality is subjective -- some people can't tell the difference between a 128-Kbps AAC file and the original CD, whereas others may shrink from AAC files encoded at anything less than 256 Kbps. The best way to determine which settings please you is to rip music you know well at a variety of bit rates (including one version in an uncompressed state), and then perform a blind listening test on the equipment you normally use to play music. The encoding setting that produces a file you can't distinguish from the original (or that you can best tolerate) is the setting for you.

Alternative Encoders Although iTunes provides a wealth of encoding choices, many people think files produced by the LAME (LAME Ain't an MP3 Encoder) and Ogg-Vorbis encoders sound better than files encoded by iTunes.

LAME generates MP3 files, but because of its improved psycho-acoustic modeling and noise shaping, many people prefer its encoding to iTunes'. Although you can play LAME-encoded files in iTunes and on your iPod, iTunes doesn't allow you to encode LAME files without a little work. To encode your files in LAME format, you must turn to a utility such as Funkatron Production's free LameBrain (www.funkatron.com) or Blacktree's free iTunes-LAME Encoder (www.blacktree.com).

Ogg-Vorbis, an open-source encoder used widely in the Linux world, finds even less support than LAME in iTunes. iTunes doesn't encode Ogg-Vorbis files. Rather, you must use a utility such as No U-Turn's beta Ogg Drop X (www.nouturn.com), which includes a QuickTime component for playback. Or you can play them in Panic's $30 Audion 3 (www.panic.com) or VideoLAN's free VLC Media Player (www.videolan.org).

Audiophiles prefer the sound quality of LAME and Ogg-Vorbis files, which use different methods of choosing how to compress sound data than most common encoders, including iTunes. Both formats also use variable-bit-rate (VBR) encoding, which allows them to vary compression based on the complexity of various passages. Even if you use iTunes' MP3 encoder, you can take advantage of VBR encoding to improve sound quality. From iTunes' Importing preference pane, select MP3 Encode from the Import Using pull-down menu; then choose Custom from the Setting pull-down menu and select Use Variable Bit Rate Encoding (VBR).

The trade-off for the improved sound quality these encoders offer is longer encoding times. For example, encoding a 4-minute, 40.8MB AIFF file as an MP3 file within iTunes took 20 seconds on a 1.25GHz PowerBook G4. Encoding the same file with Ogg Drop's Best Quality VBR setting took 54 seconds. LameBrain's standard VBR setting eventually trotted in at 1 minute and 30 seconds.

Better Bits For better sound quality, increase the resolution of your audio files.
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