CD is one of those audio formats that make me go slightly misty-eyed. I remember very clearly the introduction of compact discs nearly 30 years ago and the arrival of the first players, and I’ll never forget my sheer mental bogglement at the sight of Sony’s first Discman model, the D50.
This gadget required a battery pack that was enormous (and weighed it too, once you’d stuffed it with enough AA batteries to keep it going for a few hours). But even so, the principle of CD was sound in so many meanings of that word. Today I quite understand that the market for CDs has taken a severe battering from which it will never recover, and that most appliance vendors have stopped making CD players altogether. The writing is most definitely on the wall: the future is digital purchase and download.
Actually, while that last line is true, it’s also most certainly true that many of us have huge collections of CDs containing music that we really like and keep returning to, so our incremental rate of music purchases was already at a fairly low ebb anyway. So, like many other people, I decided that it was time to ensure I had all my music transferred to a hard disk, since it’s so much more convenient: I can transfer it from there onto an iPod or equivalent and use it on airline flights or in my car, and I can route it around the house.
Actually, putting your hands on any rotating plastic disc feels vaguely silly now, which is all the more depressing when you consider just how clever the CD format was all those years ago. Take the way its 16-bit sample was split into two 8-bit samples and then encoded using Eight-to-Fourteen modulation because of the limitations of the laser employed – its pits and bumps mustn’t change too quickly because of the upper frequency limit of said laser, and nor must they change too slowly or the laser would simply lose track of them. Or take the way that Reed-Solomon encoding was applied to distribute the signal so that it was far more robust against optical reading errors, dust and scratches. Or again, consider the way you could use an eye-height pattern view to calibrate its optics for best play-back clarity. Sigh, but time moves on.
Going the way of the Dodo?
Clearly I needed an efficient solution to the task of ripping my CD collection.There are many ways of ripping CD audio to hard disc and many formats to choose from, the easiest being to use a software package like iTunes or equivalent, and pop the discs into a PC or Mac one at a time: the software will then rip their contents to the hard-drive in the prescribed format, look up all the artist and track metadata online, and even find an image of the cover art for you. A few minutes later, out pops the disc and you pop another one in. This is absolutely fine in theory but the practical reality is somewhat more awkward. Either it means you are chained to your computer for the whole day, or else you keep a stack of discs on the desk and drop a new one in whenever you’re passing. An experiment using my Windows computer in the office at home soon revealed that the effort of running up and down the stairs again during a typically busy evening resulted in about two discs getting ripped per day, and given that I have some 2500 discs to process this really wasn’t going to be a viable solution.
A web search uncovered a number of businesses that offered to perform this whole process for me, for a fee, but given the number of discs involved that fee was far from being pocket money.
The dBpoweramp ripping engine has a full robotic section that works perfectly with the Primera Disc Publisher Pro Xi2.
The answer became clearer and clearer the more I looked – I was going to have a shopping accident that would severely damage my credit card. A further period of internet browsing followed, during which I ascertained that the very best software to use for CD ripping is a package called dBpoweramp, a flexible and powerful product that permits huge amounts of twiddly adjustments to be made to the music data. It understands that different CD/DVD drives work in slightly different ways and can compensate for these differences.
Better still, it offers a facility whereby your freshly-ripped file can be checksummed and the result compared against those of lots of other users who’ve ripped the same song: if you obtain the same checksum then you’re quite sure your file is just the same as theirs, and logic suggests that this was therefore a good rip and one that can be trusted. If a particular disc is damaged, dBpoweramp can perform the optical equivalent of scouring the disc surface in an attempt to recover as much information as possible. It can automatically hook up to online music metadata databases too, and it supports just about every audio file format under the sun.
I decided that FLAC was the file format I wanted to use, given that it is open-source and so less likely to be vulnerable to the whims of hormonally-challenged lawyers in the future (after all WAV is actually proprietary to Microsoft while Lossless AAC really belongs to Apple). So, going with FLAC format meant that I would be able to create a compressed but bit-perfect master rip of each track and then use the dBpoweramp software to transcode this into any other formats I might require: for example for my iTunes and iPods it would make sense for that to be Apple Lossless.
The Primera DPPro Xi2
But the real treat comes from dBpoweramp’s support for robotic ripping engines: dBpoweramp’s developers recommend the multiple drive devices from Primera. Soon I came staggering away from the predicted shopping accident and a brand-new Primera Disc Publisher Pro Xi2 was sitting on my Tyrolean-style desk. First, it’s important to understand that the Primera is not a ripping engine, but is actually designed for duplication of either CD or DVD discs. It also prints a full-colour label onto the disc if you have filled it with appropriately paper-coated blank discs. However, dBpoweramp can also drive this device in the reverse direction, using it to suck data from its pair of DVD Writer drives back onto the computer via a single USB2 cable. dBpoweramp’s developers have even written their own driver software for the Primera, so I was fairly confident it would work well.
Getting the software up and running wasn’t particularly difficult, though you certainly need to understand how its batch ripper engine is different from its main ripper tool and how one calls the other. In essence you load around 50 CDs into one tray holder in the Primera box, then fire up dBpoweramp’s Batch Ripper for Windows and do a calibration of the drives, which then become available for use. Next, you choose which file formats you want; a few other useful settings are worth tweaking too, including where you want the data to be placed and in what logical folder structures. Finally you press the big Rip button and stand back in awe as its robotic arm trundles across, picks the top disc off the input pile and drops it into an available and waiting DVD drive, which then closes. The disc is then examined, its metadata downloaded from the internet, and the arm goes off and grabs a second disc for the second drive. This rather wonderfully choreographed ballet continues until the data for each disc is happily stored away on the host controlling computer.
A few caveats are in order. First it’s worth setting up the system so that the output pile is kept in the same order as the input pile. If you happen to be ripping a mixture of CD albums and singles, it’s possible for the drive that’s ripping the singles to get ahead of the drive that’s ripping an album, which is not a problem beyond the fact that those discs will then end up in the wrong order on the output spindle.
dBpoweramp includes powerful tools for handling disc errors.
Very occasionally, and usually with an out-of-spec CD, the system can get confused and pick up a couple of CDs at once, which causes the equivalent of an M25 pile-up that requires manual intervention to untangle. There might be a little bug there, but my tech support query was answered within 12 minutes, so I have great confidence in the dedication of these developers.
Using this system I can carry a whole box full of CDs into my office every morning, load up 50 of them and let it run all morning. By lunchtime I can unload this first batch, sort out any rejects, and load up another batch for the afternoon. At this rate I’ll have the whole lot done in around a month or so. The hardware wasn’t cheap and the software is not the easiest to understand, with a certain amount of UI clunkiness to contend with, but it’s fairly straightforward once you get your head around what’s happening. And when the whole system is running it’s a priceless piece of theatrical nonsense that causes people to stand around mesmerised, watching it perform its disc juggling and waiting for each disc to get ripped so they can see it grab another.
Clearly having got everything onto hard disc, and available to be transcoded into whatever formats I want, I can now decide what sort of devices I want to use around my office and my house for playback. Maybe I will use the forthcoming new version of Windows Home Server, which might be an ideal solution, or else go for a more conventional file-sharing NAS (Network Attached Storage) device – that’s a set of decisions still to be made. And then of course I might just look into whether there’s any DVD ripping software that can control a robotic device like the Primera, as it would be useful to rip the main content from all of my DVDs to the hard-drive too. In the meantime, check out dBpoweramp
for the ripping software, and Primera
for the robotic hardware.