A guide to MP3 tools

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Here’s a step-by-step tutorial to managing and growing an MP3 collection, based on software suggestions and tips. Your mileage may vary, and I’m still learning, but this should help newbies get started, and teach a thing or two to more advanced users. More related information can be found at sites such as CD-RW.org and CD Freaks.
Most of these programs are often updated, so I removed version numbers to prevent rapid obsolescence of this post. Generally speaking, just use the latest (non beta) releases.

  • CD ripping and encoding: you’ll get good results with Exact Audio Copy and LAME set to Variable Bitrate encoding (VBR.) Lots of settings to play with (the topic of endless controversies, and not knowing what you’re doing can turn 3-minute tracks into 30Mb files, so this introduction and tutorial might help.) Some people use MP3Pro, Ogg Vorbis or even wma but mp3 is still the most popular format by far. Litex Media has several related tools. If lossless codecs is what you’re after, check out this guide.
  • Stream ripping: StreamRipper (Winamp dockable plugin for mp3 streams), Total Recorder (records about anything), Streambox Ripper (RealAudio to mp3).
  • Bulk file-renaming: Flash Renamer will let you rename bunches of files to your preferred format, and is much more powerful than Namewiz, the previous tool I used for that purpose. My recommended file syntax for easy sharing and management is "Artist/Band – Album – Track – Title". This will ease the generation of metatags from file names too, and let you build easy-to-browse lists. Keep it mind that if your files don’t include this information, it will make it a lot harder for other people to know what they are. If you typically download several albums from several sources at once in a single "Downloads" directory, you want it to be easy to figure out what’s what.
  • Sharing and downloading: mIRC with Omen Serve, Autoget and KeepTrack scripts, for automated sharing, downloading, and send/get tracking respectively. There are lots of mp3 channels on Undernet, e.g. #mp3jazzcentral, #mp3jazzworld, #mp3passion, #mp3servers, #mp3metal, … Don’t know what I’m talking about? Try this tutorial. See also: How not to flood IRC channels.
  • Tagging and managing: Helium2 AE is probably the most powerful all-in-one metatag editor and database manager. Well worth the $35 if you have a collection weighting in the dozens of GB. There’s another program named Tag & Rename that does just that (I don’t think it comes with a database.)
  • Listening: Winamp + EAR plugin (shows ID3 tags in the minibrowser.) There’s also BlogAmp, a Winamp plugin that ftps to your blog the titles of the songs you listen to, and moodLogic, an id3tag tool focused on mood and tempo. Be aware that Winamp 2.x plugins don’t work with Winamp 3 unless you use a specific plugin to enable backwards compatibility.
  • CD burning: NERO does the job. Here’s a trick to easily restore full file names when you get your files back from CD to hard drive (since the CD filesystem doesn’t allow very long path names, some will be truncated.) Don’t ask me about converting mp3s back to CDs/wav, I almost never do that.
  • CD-cover making: I used to cut and paste from Print Directory to Word, but I created a little Word VBA macro to get names from the CD file structure and format the list the way I want. Alternatively, some programs will help you do that if you like their templates.
    Now a couple of Q&A:
  • Why use metatags? Tagged files are easier to manage and search. They won’t matter if you have a few files, but after the first 1,000 albums / 10,000 tracks, believe me, you’ll need all the tools you can use to ease the process. Unless you can keep all this information in your head, it’s quite useful to calculate stats on your collection, or query it in order to avoid duplicate downloads.
  • Why IRC? Believe me, I tried a lot of P2P programs, and compared to what you’ll find on IRC, it’s really the unwashed masses (see this explanation.) Some semi-private communities might enforce quality even more, but IRC is the way to go if you stick to public spaces. Now, if you go on IRC, you’ll have to behave and give some of what you’re coming to get. Share a well-formated list made of full albums and checked tracks, don’t flood channels with requests, listen to what others say (esp. channel ops), and generally be a good guy and use your common sense.
  • A 100GB mp3 collection? Ain’t that a bit much? Some people have 3 or 4 times that much. The biggest online list I’ve seen shared on IRC so far was 180,000 songs long! Check out how many albums are listed at Allmusic and Allmusic Classical. Yep, a lifetime will only let you scratch the surface, so stop listening to the same few records again and again, and start educating your ears already.
    Also, try to expand your horizons beyond a single genre and sample music in a variety of styles, regions and eras. This advice is mainly directed to younger people who think metal or goth or rap or whatever is the *single* musical genre worthy of their attention, because it’s just "superior." If you’re convinced of that, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re just trying to impress your friends. Besides, no, old music is not the one dating from two years ago.
    Most people don’t begin to imagine the number of essential artists they never even heard of, let alone listened to. Just building a decent Jazz collection takes a lot of work. OK, I’ll stop the lecture, enjoy music and be happy.
    Last updated on 02/09/03.
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