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From CD to MP3, and Vice Versa

Josh McDaniel scrawled this, oh yeah

Have no illusions: I burned my first CD about a year ago, and encoded my first mp3 file six months ago. I can lay no real claim to expertise - if you were feeling somehow inferior for not knowing how to handle assorted digital audio formats, cease now. In fact, I feel a little presumptuous in offering this tutorial to you. But I know there's nothing but good will between us, we've already reached an understanding, for we are rookies, in the rookie boat together. We bash against the rocks, and get hung up on reefs, but eh, we know there's more to life that 44.1 KHz and sixteen bits - we know the battle cry of the rookie. And in our ascent to whatever mastery we might choose to have of digital audio, there most assuredly will come a day when you and I will laugh reflecting on the sheer naivete of this tutorial I offer to you, but, as they say, you have to start somewhere. So let's do that.

The itinerary:

By no means is it necessary to complete this circle of steps - it's simply a way for me to organize this for you, and to give you a basic framework from which you may begin to undertake more sophisticated operations. Skip to any step by clicking on it (but get NexEncode first, else you might be a little lost - explanation directly below).

All the ripping (i.e., extracting audio files from CDs) and encoding procedures I describe below use NexEncode. NexEncode doesn't boast the utter ease of use and functionality of MusicMatch JukeBox (worth checking out once you've mastered the procedures of this tutorial); nonetheless, it's very cool, it's very free, and it's good, I'm guessing, for us to be working with the same piece of equipment. Click here to download it.

The final section of this tutorial assumes that you own a CD-R drive - there's no way record decoded mp3s to a stereo-ready CD without one. The price of CD-R technology has come down substantially over the last few years, so it's no longer out of reach for you and me, and I'm telling you, it's well worth having one - its uses are limitless. If you're interested in purchasing one, we've got an exhaustive list of drives and their manufacturers on our CD-R/RW Hardware page. Peruse at your leisure.

As for CD recording software, you're kind of on your own: I'll be using Hot Burn from Asimware, but you'll probably use whatever software came with your CD-R/RW drive. If you have no CD recording software, I'm afraid you'll have to buy it. It is rumored in CD-R circles that Prassi's CD Right! is the way to go (you can't have it, though; there's an injunction against its release at the time of this writing), but there are many fine pieces of software out there - Adaptec's Easy CD Creator or Spin Doctor, CDRWIN from Goldenhawk, Nero Burning ROM from Ahead Software (which you should buy for the name alone, I think), and Asimware's Hot Burn are all excellent and friendly programs. There are others, besides. Have a look at our CD-R/RW Software page if you're having trouble deciding.

One more thing: every procedure I outline in this tutorial is one-hundred percent legal, contrary to what the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) would have you believe. However, I do reproduce copyrighted material and must consequently exercise discretion in doing so. It's not against the law to reproduce copyrighted material for your own personal use, but it is illegal in some cases to redistribute copyrighted material - do whatever you like in your home, but don't sell unlicensed copies of The Ring of the Nibelung to high-school students. For a more thorough discussion of the legal issues surrounding duplication, see our "Home Recording Issues" page, particularly the article "Copying Music to CD: The Right, the Wrong, and the Law" written by Bob Starrett.

As the small red man says, let's rock. And let me stress, once again, that there is nothing illegal about ripping a track for your personal use, and nothing illegal about the mp3 format. I promise.


"Ripping," or "Digital Audio Extraction" as it's known among the old guard, is very basically the process of taking a track from an Audio CD and turning it into a file (a file with the extension "wav" in the instance of a PC) that's stored on your hard drive. In this format, songs are very easy to work with: you can listen to them with the Windows Media Player, edit them with assorted software programs, and, most importantly for our purposes here, burn them onto CD-R discs, or turn them into mp3 files. The drawback of the wav file is its ponderousness - you need about 10MB hard disk space per minute of song (don't fret: in a moment, you'll learn to transform 10MB of digital audio into 1.8MB without sacrificing any sound quality).

Okay, pop an audio CD into your computer (CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs are standard issue now, I think - put a CD in there). Odds are, the Windows CD Player program launched itself, and you're listening to your CD. The dreaded auto-insert notification claims another victim. Now, you don't have to do this, but I strongly recommend turning auto-insert notification off - in the words of a CD-R expert I know, "auto-insert notification screws everything up." Turn it off by going into Control Panel-->System-->Device Manager. There you'll see a plus sign next to an icon designated "CD-ROM." Click on the "+" and you'll see your CD-ROM, CD-R, and/or DVD-ROM devices listed. Select one and right click on it; select "Properties." A dialog will pop up, and you should see tabs like "Drivers" and such. Click on "Settings," and remove the check from the box next to "Auto-insert notification." Repeat with each drive. Re-boot.

You can skip that whole business and simply close the CD Player program, but you might be sorry later. Now open NexEncode, and take a minute to familiarize yourself with it. I'll be right-clicking a lot, as I'm a big fan of the right click, but you may find you want to use the buttons along the sinews and on the discs, whatever you like.

Either by way of right-clicking on NexEncode someplace (not on the transparent parts, though), or by way of clicking the tiny buttons on the sinews, get into the "Options Dialog." You'll see a series of buttons, "downsample," "delete wavs," etc., and a couple of field boxes, "Bitrate" and "CD Drive." Make sure none of the buttons are depressed (click on them to move from active to inactive positions - for our purposes here, we want all of them "up"). As for the "CD Drive" field, drive D: will correspond to "1," drive E: to "2," and so on - designate whatever drive contains your audio CD in this field. Close the Options Dialog.

Hit the big button on the "CD Ripper" disc. Designate a name for your wav file and a directory to store it in. You're done when the progress meter runs its course. That's it. You can now do what you will with your wav file.

If you feel like it, examine the attributes of your wav file (right-click on the wav file, hit "properties"). Notice first and foremost the cool "Preview" option - you'll never have to wait for the song to load into the Media Player ever again. Here's where I like to check the quality of what I've ripped (if you're getting consistently poor quality wav files, it probably means you've got a cruddy drive). Secondly, notice, under the "General" tab, that your file is huge, sucking much precious memory. Thirdly, under "Details" you'll see this: "PCM,44,100 Hz, 16 Bit, Stereo." This universally characterizes all files ripped from audio CDs - sez Dana Parker, "Compact disc was be nothing more or less than a universal delivery medium for one type of content only, namely music digitized at 44,100 samples per second (44.1KHz) and in a range of 65,536 possible values (16 bits)." PCM stands for "Pulse Code Modulation," of which I know nothing at all. But I do know, and I will tell you, that all of our current CD technologies derive in some fashion from the digital audio standard. Care if you will.

Encoding to mp3

Mp3 stands for something that stands for something that stands for something. In a nutshell, there exist standards in the audio/visual community for encoding and compressing digital things - movies, soundtracks, songs, etc. - and mp3 is one of them. If you've ever watched a movie on DVD, you're looking at images that are encoded and compressed in a format called MPEG-2, the "MPEG" of which stands for "Motion Picture Experts Group." In order to watch a DVD, you have to have a machine that understands MPEG-2, and is able to translate it for you, decompress it according to its own structure - this is why now and again you'll hear MPEG-2 or mp3 called a "codec," a portmanteau of "compression" and "decompression." Mp3 is also an MPEG codec; mp3 actually stands for "MPEG 1 Layer 3" (a mouthful - hence "mp3"). The reason these MPEG formats are so popular and useful is that they're very small, and sacrifice little to none of the quality evinced in bloated digitized material, like wav files. In fact, some people swear mp3 sounds even better than standard CD music.

The mp3 codec itself is a very intricate thing, beyond the scope of any writing I'm capable of at the moment, but when you learn just how easy it is to encode to mp3, you may want to pop a cap in my ass. Please don't, for I am already frail and wan - pasty, fat, heavy smoker, single at the moment, you better come get me real quick 'cause I'm a real catch, baby.

Right-click on NexEncode someplace. Click "Open Wav File." Select whatever wav file you wish to encode. Hit the big button on the "Encoder" disc. Choose a file name and directory. Hit save. The progress meter tells you when it's done encoding. Now you've got an mp3 file. That's it.

NexEncode will also encode straight from CD to mp3. Accomplish this by entering the Options Dialog, and making sure the "one step" and, optionally, "delete wavs" buttons are depressed (make sure, too, that the CD-ROM drive listed in the box is indeed the CD-ROM drive containing your audio CD); then hit the "rip" button on the "CD Ripper" disc. Designate a filename for the mp3 and a directory in which to store the file. Let it cook a minute. Done.

You can now listen to your mp3 file using any of a number of mp3 players - WinAmp, Music Match JukeBox (let me again stress its utter coolness), Nad, to name a few. Or you can listen to it with NexEncode: right-click on NexEncode someplace, hit Player-->Playback-->Play. There it is.

Notice, too, the size of the mp3 file. ABBA's "Dancing Queen," a whopping 38.8MB as a wav file, weighs in at a mere 7.04MB. Hence, as I've mentioned, mp3's popularity: it's light, motile, and eminently downloadable. Man, I don't know why, but I really like ABBA - I think it's because of this girl I used to see. You know how a band can really suck, but you like them because they remind you of someone, or because your spouse likes them or whatever? I learned to like The The that way, too. And Rachmaninoff. And Enya.

Decoding from mp3

When I say "decoding" here, I don't mean the "dec" part of codec - whatever player you listen to mp3s with fulfills the "dec" function (players do your translation for you). What I mean here when I say "decode" is "turn your mp3s into wavs."

Why would you want to make these little things big again? Memory ain't cheap, right? Here's one reason why:

Herds of very, very talented musicians roam the internet via mp3 - they (and I) want you to download and enjoy their music. One place where you may do this is, probably the finest mp3 resource on the internet. On the site, you'll find thousands of mp3 files from every musical genre you can imagine, free, yours for the taking. Why do these musicians do this? Some for music's sake, some to evade the assorted vile machinations of record companies, some for no ostensible reason at all.

So, you've legally downloaded all these great mp3 tunes from the internet, but you can't listen to them when you're away from your computer, unless you own something like a Rio (a tiny portable thing that plays whatever mp3 files you put on its flash memory card - pretty cool, the subject of much contention lately, too). The solution I've found, since I don't own a Rio, is to inflate them back into wav files, and burn them onto CD-R, that is, make a CD out of them that can be played in any car- or home-stereo system.

It's almost as easy to decode mp3s as it is to encode them. Right-click on NexEncode someplace. Select "Open mp3 File;" choose the file you wish to decode. Once again, right-click on NexEncode; select player-->decode. Choose a file name and a directory to store it in. Click "Save". Now, here's the tricky part: NexEncode won't tell you it's decoding the file - in fact, it may look like nothing at all is happening, but it is, so don't mess with anything. Wait a minute or so, and an alert saying "Read Done" will appear. Now you've got a wav file, ready to be edited, messed with, listened to, or burned onto CD-R.

On a side note, you might find that when you click to download an mp3 file from the internet, some player or other launches, no mp3 file is saved to your hard disk, and you're bummed. The fix: in Netscape Navigator (too much Microsoft already, I think), go to Edit-->Preferences. Next to "Navigator," there is a + sign; click to expand. Click on "Applications." Run down that list to find whatever program launches when you try to download an mp3 file; select it, and click "Edit." Check the box next to "Ask me before opening downloaded files of this type." That ought to do it. You'll have the added benefit, too, of listening to the file before downloading it - from now on, when you click to download an mp3 file, a dialog box will pop up to ask you what you want to do with the file, open it or save it to disk. Opening it will launch your player and play the mp3; saving it to disk will, of course, save it to disk.


Some handy tips:

With Hot Burn, all I have to do is hit the "Add Track" Button, add wav (read: former mp3) after wav until the CD-R is theoretically full, then hit record. I can then listen to what I downloaded virtually anywhere.

Another thing I've been known to do now and again is use Adaptec's Direct CD, a program that allows you to both burn stuff onto a disc and read it without making the CD-R disc read-only, to store my mp3 files. I can listen to them as though they were an audio CD, and I can keep adding more and more mp3s until the disc is full (nearly a hundred mp3 songs fit on the last piece of CD-R media I used this way). Theoretically, it's possible to make a multisession CD that will serve this same function, but I haven't experimented with that yet. I'll get back to you.