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Audio Archiving Guide: Part 2 – CD Ripping

Date: January 6, 2009
Author(s): Matt Serrano

In the first part to this series, we took a deep look at the various music formats available, while here, we’ll tackle the actual ripping process. Believe it or not, some methods are better than others, and we’ll explain why. We’ll also discuss specific rippers for Windows, Mac and Linux, so no matter your OS choice, we have you covered.



Introduction

Many listeners consider CD ripping to be a rather simple process, and for the most part, it is. The discs go in, your software performs a little magic, and your songs are copied to the hard drive. Of course, most people don’t put a lot of effort into ripping, and as a consequence, some of your music may transfer poorly.

Just because the music on a CD is in digital form doesn’t necessarily mean your rips are perfect. Chances are, if you have ever tried to rip a scratched or dirty CD, you’ve encountered skips or pops that generally characterize a bad rip, which means either living with the imperfections, or taking time out to look for the right album and have another go.

In other cases, if you’re trying to copy an album you’ve abused for a few years, you have probably noticed that your software has trouble reading the disc correctly, but there is a way to avoid paying for music you already own or taking the morally questionable route. If you use the programs and follow the steps outlined in this article, hopefully, you will have your cherished music perfectly captured in digital form.

Secure Ripping

Most ripping programs and music jukeboxes, like iTunes, Zune, Songbird, and Winamp, just to name a few, use the same technique for ripping audio CDs by default, usually referred to as “fast ripping” (or burst). This procedure simply reads the disc once, and copies the information to your hard drive, without bothering to check for any hidden errors. This is sometimes the required choice for copy protected audio discs.

Secure rippers do just as the name suggests. Programs like Exact Audio Copy, dBpoweramp, CDex, Max and Rubyripper all use some form of validation that tests to make sure the data copied is relatively accurate. However, there are some factors to be aware of.

Although it may sound as if it’s the best option for everyone, secure ripping does have its own hindrances that may or may not affect you. The obvious prerequisite is the software: if you are not already using a secure ripper, you will have to adjust your workflow accordingly. If you’re using iTunes, for example, an album would have to be ripped with dBpoweramp, and imported into your library manually, which may be tiresome if you have many discs to sort through.

The second hurdle is the time required. The time necessary to rip a CD will dramatically increase depending on the software, how fast your computer can process the information, and the condition of the CD. What could take a few seconds to a handful of minutes with a regular program may take upwards of 10 minutes or longer if your drive has trouble reading the disc.

Finally, your success is dependent on the hardware utilized. Some drives, for example, have better luck reading C2 data that some programs, such as EAC, use. Other drives may provide inaccurate results or not support the feature at all, which could result in more work down the line if your hardware isn’t checked to work before hand.

How Secure Ripping Works

Secure rippers tend to come in two flavors, with each having their own subsets and interpretations, but all of them ultimately serve to achieve the same purpose. There is a debate about which method works best, but ultimately, it is your decision to make depending primarily on what drive you use, and whether or not you’re willing to pay.

The first category is error detection. Programs utilize various technologies, including C2 error pointers which will tell the software when an error has been read, if the drive properly supports it. Accurate Stream, which is supported by most modern drives, provides a constant value for drive offsets, allowing the drive to precisely locate a specific section of a CD.

To put it simply, if the application detects a scratch on the disc, which would be assumed by a hash mismatch, then it will continue to re-rip the same bits over and over until it’s able to deliver a confident result. If errors still exist after ripping, the application will usually let you know, and from there, the only way to judge whether or not you need to proceed further would be to perform a listening test.

The other category is a technology dBpoweramp primarily employed (but recent upgrades have added the capability in another popular program), which Illustrate calls “AccurateRip.” This feature keeps a database of all CDs ripped. When you use the the ripper to copy the music to your hard drive, information about your computer’s drive and the results from the rip are uploaded to Illustrate’s servers, which they then use to compare to other people’s.

If your results match, your rip is deemed accurate, thus avoiding the need to involve the slower secure mechanisms, but if your rip is deemed inaccurate, you still have the option to go back and try again, using a combination of the above methods. AccurateRip isn’t perfect, but it’s a fantastic addition to two already great rippers.

Windows and Mac Rippers

We’ve briefly mentioned a few different programs so far in the article, but now we’ll go into more detail about what they offer, and how to get them.

First up is Exact Audio Copy. EAC is what many audiophiles consider to be the best free ripper available, supporting C2 error correction, Accurate Stream and AccurateRip, and a last-ditch effort called “Burst Mode.” The program supports encoding to a variety of formats, and the command line can be used for specific encoders not presented in the GUI.

However, the program is not for the feint of heart; It requires a bit of setup, and the interface may take some getting used to. If you only have a handful of CDs that have been ripped without success, or you’re willing to invest a good 15 minutes toward reading a setup guide and downloading a few codecs, like LAME or FLAC, it’s worth trying out.

Illustrate’s solution, dBpoweramp, will cost you, but many audio enthusiasts agree the price is worth it. Along with C2 and Accurate Stream support, the program also offers multi-core support, allowing each working core on your processor to encode a different song. Additional codecs can be installed and configured simply by downloading a package on Illustrate’s website, although they can sometimes lag behind by a few days after an encoder has been updated.

The list of negatives include a recurring subscription to All Music Guide if you want to use the service instead of freeDB after the year-long trial runs out. The goal of that service is to avail more accurate track names and album covers, and is worthy of the annual subscription fee if you rip CDs often.

Some features, like FLAC cue support, have yet to be added to the program, but all things considered, if you’re looking for a simple solution that you can get up and running with minimal fuss, and if you’re willing to pay the $36 price tag, dBpoweramp is a great option.

There are many other options available, but these are easily two of the most popular, and arguably the best available for Windows. If for some reason neither of the aforementioned programs fit your needs, you’ll still have plenty to choose from. Just make certain that the application you are looking at supports proper secure ripping.

Next, we’ll take a look at rippers available for the other platforms, OS X and Linux.

OS X Rippers

In comparison to more mature programs available on Windows, there is only one real secure ripper available for OS X, which clearly leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s a big step up from simply trusting iTunes with your music. The premier application on the Macintosh side of the fence, Max, is a no-frills CD ripper and audio encoder based off of cdparanoia (the same engine the aptly-named cdparanoia, CDex, and Rubyripper all utilize).

Max simply has the ability to rip music and edit metadata, forgoing much of what makes the more full-featured rippers special. However, since Macs use standard hardware, factors like Accurate Stream support should be less of an issue, unless you wish to add your own drive to the Mac Pro. Of course, unlike EAC and dBpoweramp, the program is open source under the GPL, and someone is more than welcome to add to the project or fork it to better suit their needs.

Another option is to simply use iTunes’ “error correction” feature on scratched CDs. iTunes obviously has the option of encoding to Apple Lossless or AAC, which is more than enough to satisfy most listener’s needs, but the ripping functionality won’t match the level of the more popular Windows programs.

Linux Rippers, Final Thoughts

On Linux, the situation of good CD rippers is similar to the Macintosh. Here, the best native option for secure ripping is the open-source RubyRipper. Unlike some of the more robust programs we looked at already, RubyRipper is rather simple in overall design and feature-set. Like Max for the Mac, RR also uses the cdparanoia library in order to take care of error correction.

Enabling the feature isn’t so common-sense, though. The default option for cdparanoia will be “-Z”, but leaving it as such essentially disables the secure ripping. In order to activate it, simply change the switch to a minuscule z to become “-z”. Based on the input under “Ripping options”, RubyRipper will re-read the disc as many times as is necessary (or specified) in order to achieve a perfect rip.

It should be noted, though, that dBpoweramp is another great option for Linux as well, even though it’s a Windows-native application. TG’s Editor in Chief, Rob Williams, recently used dBpoweramp exclusively through Linux to rip hundreds of CDs and noted that he didn’t run into a single real issue.

So if you are willing to spend a little bit of money, this is another great option, and would allow you much more flexibility over what RubyRipper would provide. To make certain the application will work just as well for you though, it’s recommended to first download a trial before making a purchase.

Final Thoughts

Whether or not you want to spend any money on the software, the options for secure ripping are great, and for the most part, it’s a no-brainer route to take. If you at all care about the shape of your collection, you will want to make sure that your rips are perfect, the first time.

It’s no fun to sit back and listen to some tunes, only to realize that there are subtle skips throughout certain tracks. Taking extra care now can save time down the road, and in addition, it may very well instill a sense of pride, knowing that your collection is well taken care of.

If you run into situation where even error-correction won’t help you, then further action might need to be taken. Generally speaking, it would be a good idea to take a look at the data side of the disc before putting it in the drive, so you can get a quick idea of what to expect. If you see deep scratches, chances are the rip will take awhile.

There are a few common remedies for fixing scratched discs, but not all of them will work in every scenario. The easiest attempt to fix the disc would be by using dish soap and a very soft cloth. Wet the disc with warm water, pour on a little soap, and rub the cloth around the entire disc, making sure you are rotating it clockwise or counter – don’t mix things up, as it might smudge the disc.

Nothing guarantees that solution will work, but if you are desperate, the choices are limited, save for purchasing the disc a second time. Other common suggestions involve toothpaste and dropping the disc in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes, but neither are recommended.

Toothpaste is an abrasive, and can result in the disc coming out in even worse shape. As for boiling water, there’s little evidence that putting the disc through such torture would accomplish anything, unless the inability to secure rip is due to dirt you cannot easily see.

If you have lingering questions regarding audio ripping, please feel free to discuss it in the thread linked to below. If you’re interested in discussing audio in general, from speakers to headphones to audio cards to anything else related, we have a dedicated forum just for you, so post away!

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