Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My musical journey continues

So as you may know from previous posts, I indulged in a new wireless audio system for my home that allows me to share my digital music collection and play it all over the house, either using a fixed player or a portable one (perfect for the patio or just setting beside your chair). When I discovered that my new system supports the FLAC audio file format, I decided to investigate. First a little background.

When you 'rip' a song from an audio CD, you're basically taking an audio file that is encoded in the native CDA format and storing it on the computer as a WAV file. This file is an exact replica (at least as far as the audio information is concerned) of the original music from the CD. A WAV file is uncompressed, meaning that it's going to use up a lot of space per minute of music (typically around 12MB/min).

FLAC is a relatively new file format that basically takes the uncompressed WAV file and compresses it to remove any redundant information, but (unlike with converting to an MP3) does not discard any audio information at all, preserving the original audio quality while shrinking the file size a little bit. In other words, FLAC is a lossless compression method because none of the original music detail is lost. This is good and makes a song encoded in FLAC format indistinguishable from the raw audio ripped from a CD. I figured that if my new system supports this lossless format, it was time to re-rip my CD collection into FLAC files. This way I could listen to my music in the best quality possible with at least some space saved.

That took care of converting my CD collection to high quality audio files, but what about all of the MP3 files I had collected from other sources over the years? It was time to go in search of FLAC versions of those songs. FLAC is fairly new, so not many people are sharing their music in this format, but some are. I wasn't able to find FLAC versions of every song I have, but the search is never over and ultimately, I can always buy more CDs of the music I really must have in the best quality possible. Even though I get a significant amount of my new music online (sometimes free), I'm not totally abstaining from buying music on CD. I just won't buy a whole album for one good song and 12 pieces of filler.

So with most of my collection converted to the much better sounding FLAC format, my music system is playing my music collection in high quality mode. But I can't play FLAC files on my car stereo, as it only supports MP3 and WMA. Fortunately, once you have a collection of music in FLAC format, you can obtain converter programs that will do batch conversion of your lossless audio to MP3 files of any quality you choose. So, this time I decided that, since space is not an issue on my USB memory stick, I will encode the music in the highest MP3 bit rate (quality) possible. MP3 is a lossy method of compressing an audio file, but the higher of a bit rate you choose for the conversion, the better the sound quality (and as a result - the bigger the file).

Here's the thing. When I started collecting MP3s many years ago, there was definitely a space issue. Hard drive sizes were not what they are today. Most people did not encode their MP3s in a bit rate higher than 128kb/s. This is like taping a song off the radio - the music you get is not of the highest quality. So my original music collection in MP3 format was always an inferior representation of that music. When I converted all of my FLAC files to MP3 this time around, I chose the highest variable bit rate possible (up to 320kb/s), which I knew would make a huge difference in the sound. It's still a lossy form of compression, but there's very little compression being done in the first place. I guess you could say that if on a scale of quality, 0 (zero) being unusable and 10 being as good as the source material, the audio from a CD ripped to WAV would be a 10; a FLAC file would be a 9.99999; a 320kb/s MP3 would be about an 8.5; and a 128kb/s MP3 file would be about a 4 (yes, it's that bad).

So with my collection recreated using the highest quality possible (for MP3), I loaded up a spanking new USB memory stick with the entire collection and tried it out in the car. Wow. If you've ever wondered what your car stereo can produce for sound, this is one way to do it. Amazing quality. I was hearing subtle guitar fret noise that I didn't hear at all with the lower quality files I had been listening to before. So I've breathed new life into my music collection. On the way to work this morning I was grinning from ear to ear.

Addendum: Remember that memory stick I mentioned? It's a big one - 64GB capacity. I needed that much because my bigger, higher quality music collection is now 42GB in size (5900 songs). I loaded the new stick up with the music files and plugged it into my car's USB port. All I got on the stereo's display was "Unsupported". DOH! What the heck? Honda was of no help, but I'm not surprised - this turned out to be a purely IT technical issue. A little research and I discovered that I was not the only person having problems getting a memory stick larger than 32GB to work in the stereo's USB port. Time for some experimentation. A friend lent me their 250GB portable hard drive and it worked no problem. So what was the difference between it and my new memory stick? As it turns out - the file system. The stereo only supports FAT32, a file system from the Windows 95 days (but still in use today). My new memory stick indicated that it was formatted as FAT, but it turns out it was exFAT, a new Microsoft (proprietary) file format that works in Vista and Windows 7 (but not car stereos). I tried reformatting the stick, but Windows 7 will only let me choose exFAT, FAT32 is not an offered option. A little more research and I discovered that Microsoft will not format anything larger than 32GB in the FAT32 file system, even though it is possible to do so. So, I cheated. I downloaded a third party formatting utility, formatted the stick as pure FAT32, loaded up the music and presto! All works as it should.


Anonymous said...

Another thing you can do to reduce the file size when converting your flacs to mp3 is to use a variable bitrate. You are able to choose a minimum bitrate, and a maximum bitrate. The converter will vary the bitrate based on what is happening with the song at any given moment, for example if there is a quiet lull, or if the song is rolling full out with a number of vocals and instrumentals all at once. Try it and compare next to the full 320k encode and see if you find a difference.

Karl Plesz said...

That is exactly what I did. I used a variable bit rate maxed out to 320kb/s.