So, there I was, ripping the new Steven Wilson album Insurgentes in all it’s 2 disc super deluxe size-of-a-house glory, and then I listened back to my rip in Winamp, my player of choice. At this point I thought to myself: “Hmm, this sounds a little duller than it did on the CD.” Then several seconds later this realisation created mass panic and hysteria, riots in the street, bricks and Molotovs crashing through shop windows… Why? In an epic and utterly boring retread of history, here’s why:
Way back, when I first got Windows XP, I was amazed by the new Windows Media Player and its Rip CD function. So I proceeded to rip my collection to the family computer in WMA 64Kbps. Why? Because Microsoft claimed this was about CD-quality. I was using crappy £10 beige computer speakers at the time, so I couldn’t tell one way or the other.
This coincided with a sudden and vast upsurge in my CD purchasing from maybe one or two a year to one or two a month (and then eventually one or two a week, a rate which I have sustained ever since). So every time I added a CD to my growing collection, part of the ritual was the WMA rip. After a while, I realised that 64kbps sounded a bit crap, so I re-ripped everything at 96kbps, which was, at the time, a huge increase.
As a side note, aside from the early Napster days where, downloading a full mp3 intact was a miracle, I was never a big music pirate. Indeed, once I really started getting into music properly around late 2001, I stopped downloading altogether. Now I seem to be amongst the few in my generation who actually, shock horror, pay for music, and shock horror, buy the actual physical CDs and not iTunes downloads. Not only that, but my attitude to illegal downloading of music is one of disgust and revulsion.
As for my preference of WMA over MP3, that was initially just a matter of being able to rip the discs in Windows Media Player, which at the time had no MP3 option. I’ve stubbornly stuck to it since.
Also, of note is the fact that I’ve never really used these library options all the media player programs have that make organisation so much easier. Instead I keep all my music in a single Winamp playlist (the current version of which you can see here if you care). Each artist’s section is in chronological order by release, and they flow roughly from artist to artist by association (ie. same label, or personnel et cetera). Just force of habit really, it’s all because of the Winamp function “generate HTML playlist” which I used to compare mine to my cousin’s and Murray’s in a kind of a race to have the lengthiest total playtime.
Anyway, as my physical collection grew, so did my digital one, disc by disc. As I became more interested in music, I also became obsessed with the album format, of listening to CDs from start to finish, not just a few select singles from each. For me there was never any such thing as filler, it was all a part of a greater whole. This was one of the reasons I was so reluctant to get an MP3 player – I had this stigma that having access to all my music would stop me from listening to albums in full and encourage a random playlist.
As late as 2005 I was still using a portable CD Player. Then I got my Creative Zen, and I dumped my music library onto it and received a shock when the sound quality was diabolical. Luckily I was at home for the summer, so I had access to all the physical CDs, so I went through them, one by one, doing two things: firstly increasing the bitrate to 192Kbps, and secondly correcting all the tags for consistency (like labelling all live tracks with a (live) suffix). The improvement was vast, and it offered an acceptable file size to quality trade-off.
That is, until I discovered the wonders of VBR in 2006.
For those who don’t know, Variable Bitrate Recording basically means that the bitrate changes throughout the file, allowing sections of silence, or very simple sounds to use a lower bitrate and, more demanding sections to use a greater bitrate. In layman’s terms it allows for increased quality over Constant Bitrate Recording at similar file-sizes.
I don’t know why I bothered trying to explain that, nobody really cares.
So, I went through everything for the third time over the Christmas of 2006. Of course, each time I went through this process, my collection had increased in size. This time, it took several days of painstaking effort, and this time I took the opportunity to re-build my Winamp playlist file by file as I went. Making sure absolutely everything was in order, encoded at 135-215Kbps VBR WMA.
And so we come to now. When I discover that 135-215 is simply not good enough for my ears any more. I can now tell the difference between this and the CD. Perhaps as a result of attending the SAE, perhaps the combo of my new expensive multimedia speakers and monitoring headphones. Whatever the reason, I have just spent a couple of hours re-ripping all the CDs I have purchased since moving back to Glasgow in August (a measly nineteen I am ashamed to admit) at maximum VBR WMA quality, 240-355Kbps, and I now face both a lengthy re-encoding process, and the horrifying problems that my music partition might not be able to fit all my music at this quality and my mp3 player will only hold about two thirds as many albums.
For comparison, the Ulver album Shadows of the Sun went from 45.8MB to 77.7MB, while average bitrate went from around 200 to around 330Kbps. I must say, it does sound pretty great over my new Altec Lansing speakers. I just dread having to go through this process for 500 or so CDs.