The OCD MP3 Library

I am an Old, and as an Old, I like to have my own copy of the music I listen to. I own a lot of vinyl, but I probably play digital music over 95% of the time. I’m lazy and cheap, and like the convenience and portability of digital and how it doesn’t wear out or need cleaning. Nowadays, my turntable is connected to my computer instead of my living room audio system so I can rip my vinyl to digital. The vinyl is more like a stamp collection, something I enjoy, but don’t often use.

I use MP3s instead of lossless formats to save space. That way I can carry more music with me, and I can store and back up my music library without having to invest in an expensive disk farm. Some people say they notice a slight drop in audio quality, but unless they have an exceptional audio system and young, yet discerning, ears, they’re mostly full of it. A good MP3 is good enough for me.

My MP3s come from many sources, some more legit than others. The standards these sources use for tagging files with metadata, adding cover images, and setting volume are wildly inconsistent, so I have a process I follow to get all my MP3s up to MY standards before I add them to my library.

I’ve chosen to go with the Apple ecosystem for now, which means I use iTunes to manage my music library, AirPlay to stream music from my computer to my living room, and iPhones and iPods to carry music with me as I go.

Step one is to get the MP3s. Some I buy or get for free when I buy vinyl. Others I download from music bloggers or via bittorrent (only music I’ve already bought on vinyl, of course <wink>). I use the free, open source qBittorrent app to download torrents.

If the download isn’t a MP3, I use the free Audio Converter from MediaHuman to convert them to MP3s.

I don’t often get new CDs these days, but when I do, I rip them to MP3s using the free MusicBee app.  I could rip them in iTunes, but then I’d have to remove them from my library, edit them (see below), and re-add them, so it’s more straightforward just to rip them outside of iTunes.

If all else fails, I rip the music from a stream or my vinyl. I use the free, open source Audacity app to rip streams, as it can capture audio right from the sound card. Many people also use Audacity to rip vinyl and edit the resulting sound files, but I find it easier to Roxio’s tools to rip vinyl, split the sound files into tracks, and export the result to MP3s. Roxio is especially good at making it easy to filter noise from vinyl rips.

My turntable is an Audio-Technica AT LP120-USB that connects directly to my computer via the included USB cable. I’ve upgraded the stock AT95E cartridge with a CF-N95SE stylus from LP Gear, which makes a discernable difference. (The AT LP120-USB has been replaced by the AT-LP120XUSB.)

Make sure your software is ripping to a lossless format like WAV. Re-encoding lossy files like MP3s can often result in audible artifacts that detract from the music. If I’m encoding the MP3 myself, I make 320 Kbps CBR (constant bit rate) normal stereo MP3s. VBR (variable bit rate) joint stereo files are smaller, but not supported by all devices. If the file is an MP3 when I get it, I leave it alone, whatever it might be.

Step two is to get the metadata (data about the music data) up to snuff. It’s important to do this with a tool that edits the actual MP3 file. Music library managers like iTunes or Windows Media Player will let you edit metadata, but they often store the information in their proprietary library files, not the MP3. If you ever want to use your MP3s with another application, that proprietary data is lost.

I use the free MP3tag app. It lets me get at everything, even non-standard extended tags, to add data and clean up mistakes. It supports importing tags from Discogs, saving an enormous amount of typing. It also lets me manage files in bulk, which is great for things like searching my older MP3s for missing or oversized cover images.

I use Adobe Photoshop Elements’ “Save for web…” feature to reduce the size of my cover images before adding them to my MP3s (or replacing the existing images) with MP3tag. That strips unnecessary metadata from the images and lets me shrink larger files to the 600×600 pixel size I usually use. This usually results in good quality images well under 100KB in size, which can save a lot of space in a large collection.

Step three is to scan the tagged files for errors with MP3Diags. MP3Diags can find and fix most of the inconsistencies and corruption in MP3s. It can be a little overwhelming to use at first, but it gives me more control than other tools that blindly automate checking and repairing MP3s, which makes the process safer.

Step four is leveling the volume. If you don’t do sound leveling, you’ll have to constantly fiddle with the volume control when you’re playing your music. I use the free MP3Gain app, which uses the ReplayGain algorithm for sound leveling. MP3Gain differs from some other ReplyGain implementations because it doesn’t re-encode the files, and because the changes it makes are fully reversible if necessary.

MP3Gain can do sound leveling on a song-by-song basis, or by analyzing an entire album and adjusting all the songs the same amount, which retains the relative volume level differences between the songs. I prefer the album-level analysis.

iTunes’ also does sound leveling. “Sound Check” uses ‘peak normalization’, which isn’t as good as ReplayGain, and the current version of iTunes only does song-by-song leveling. Also, iTunes stores the Sound Check data in its library, not the MP3 file. As mentioned, that creates a portability issue. I’ve also seen corrupted Sound Check data cause dangerously high playback levels.

Unfortunately, I have a number of older MP3s that weren’t leveled before adding them to my library, so I need to keep Sound Check enabled until I get around to updating my entire library, which so far seems like more effort than it’s worth*. I’ve changed the default sound level in MP3Gain from 89dB to 92dB to minimize the amount of leveling iTunes does.

Step five is to import the MP3s into iTunes. I have iTunes set to copy files into its media folder when I add them, and to keep that media folder organized, which places the files in folders by artist and album name.

All this might seem like a lot of work. You can certainly get by with less effort if you want, but for me part of the fun is fiddling with everything to get things just so. Of course there are many other tools you can use to do what I do, and you may have different priorities, especially if you don’t run Windows.

But if you follow my process, the result is a well-organized library that can be (relatively) easily moved to a new computer or restored from a backup if needed. And most importantly, my music sounds good and I can organize and play my songs however I want

*One final note: If you have an existing library, you can use these tools to clean it up. But be careful. Changing existing files can have unintended consequences. For example, if you use iTunes with Sound Check for volume leveling and you run MP3Gain against your existing library to level songs for non-Apple players, you’ll have to turn off Sound Check or delete the files from iTunes and re-add them so Sound Check can re-scan them.

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