Converting a music CD collection to digital MP3 files

About a year or so ago, I decided that it was time to move my collection of music CDs to digital files. Over the years I gained quite a collection (735 CDs). Having that many CDs makes it difficult to rotate them out and listen to what you want to while driving as much as you’d want to. I’ve also moved a few times with them and that isn’t very fun to do either.

Now, with the popularity of MP3 players, digital music files have provided a lot of new possibilities and opportunities. I spent a good amount of time investigating some of the different choices because having to convert over 700 CDs was not something I wanted to do more than once. So now I’ll share with you some of what I learned, both from research and experience…


The first thing I wanted to do was decide where I was going to store the files. With the cost of external USB hard drives as inexpensive as as it is lately, I decided to go with that option. Now, how big does the hard drive have to be? I could have waited until I converted everything to find out, but I decided to go a different approach.

I decided that I would go with a simplistic method which may not work in all cases, but gave me a rough estimate, which is all I was looking for. I converted a few CDs to MP3 files at a higher quality bit rate (we’ll talk about that later) just to see how big the files would be. Most of the song files were about 7 to 10 Megabytes (MB) each. Here’s where the real rough estimate comes into play. I decided to ballpark high that each song would be about 10 MB and a generally high estimate of 15 songs on each CD. So let’s do the math:

735 CDs x 15 songs x 10 MB = 110,250 MB

Now, we divide our answer by 1,024 (the number of Megabytes in 1 Gigabyte):
110, 250 MB / 1,024 = 107.67 GB

So my rough estimate was that I would need an external drive that with a capacity of at least 108 Gigabytes (GB) to hold all my music. Of course, keep in mind that you always want to allow room for growth as well, so shoot higher.

I did a little shopping and came across the Western Digital My Book™ Essential Edition 250GB External Hard Drive. I found it at Circuit City for about $120 (remember that was also over a year ago at the time from before this posting). I ordered two of them. Why two? Because my plan is to get rid of most of my CDs and I’d be a little nervous about having everything on one hard drive. Hard drives do go bad and I’d hate to lose all my hard work and music because of it. So, after all is said and done, I copied everything from the one hard drive to another. I keep the one hard drive at my house and the other at my parents’ house. That way, if a fire would happen or some other disaster, I wouldn’t lose both hard drives.

As a side note, as the price goes down, I will likely be getting external hard drives with the option to setup RAID-1 or RAID-5 as replacements for the ones I have. RAID is a whole topic in itself, but it provides some additional protection and I would feel even safer having that. You can read more about RAID if you’re interested at

Music Format

Alright, so now I have the drives and need to figure out what format to save the music into. You hear the phrase “MP3 player” all the time and may have just assumed that all digital music is in the MP3 format. You might be surprised to know that there are several formats out there. A few of the most common are MP3, AAC, and WMA. And with each format, there are different levels of quality you can choose from. This is usually known as the bit rate and the higher the bit rate, the higher the quality, but also the bigger the actual file is. So a slightly lower bit rate file might be a little less on the quality side (assuming you can hear the difference), but it will give you more room on your MP3 player to store more songs.

There’s a number of sites out there that can help you compare the formats (go to Google and search for “mp3 aac wma” without the quotes for a few), but here’s some info you will want to know:

  • MP3 is a universally accepted format and probably the most popular. However, many record companies tend to frown on it because MP3’s don’t support Digital Rights Management (DRM) which provides the ability to say how the songs are used (like that the song can be played only on X number of devices, X number of times, etc.).
  • AAC is used widely by Apple and is the default format in iTunes when buying and downloading songs or saving out songs from your CDs. It does support DRM.
  • WMA is the format Microsoft created. It provides a lot of enticing options for quality and offers DRM, but it is currently not supported on iPods.

Looking at the different options, I decided that I wanted to use the MP3 format. I’m not a fan of DRM – if I own music, I don’t want someone telling me where I can use it. I also want something that is the norm, so I know it will be supported for years down the line.

Ripping Software and Quality

The process of taking a CD and pulling the songs off into a digital music format is called ripping. There are tons of different software programs out there that will help you to rip your CDs. I use a PC running the Windows operating system and need software for that. I looked around at plenty of programs and decided that iTunes offered me the most bang for my buck – the buck being nothing – iTunes is a free download from apple (

I don’t have an iPod, but you don’t need one to use iTunes to manage your music. Although iTunes has a default format of AAC, you can change it to be MP3, which is what I needed. It also offers something important that I wanted… VBR (we’ll come back to VBR shortly).

The idea behind MP3 files and other similar formats is that they are compressed – sounds that are out of the range of what humans can hear are eliminated which saves on space. Next, there is something called bit rate. The bit rate is the number of Kilobytes that may be used in each second of audio. The higher the bit rate, the higher the quality – and the larger the file becomes. The bit rate can be from 24 kbps up to 320 kbps, but generally the most common seems to be 128 kbps.

I wasn’t happy with the idea of giving up my CDs and having just average quality music files – it just didn’t sit real well with me. But I also didn’t want unnecessarily large MP3 files either. Now back to VBR… Variable Bit Rate (VBR) is very interesting and a smart technology. I decided to rip my CDs at a 192 kbps bit rate. Using VBR, instead of the encoder going through and ripping the whole song at 192 kbps, it will realize that some parts of the song don’t need that high of a bit rate (like silence of a song or parts where there might only be a couple instruments playing).

So by setting iTunes to encode at 192 kbps VBR, it will then rip at the necessary bit rate with a maximum of the 192 kbps bit rate… this gives me the best of both worlds. I get the ripped songs at a higher bit rate and if they don’t need to be that high, they get a lower bit rate to save space.

In my next blog I discuss the MP3 player decision and the software used to manage all the music. Check out The Big Decision: An iPod or “The Other Guy” MP3 Player.

— Jim