Digital Music Project

I embarked upon a fairly ambitious project about three weeks ago and have just completed. I’ve ripped – or encoded – all of our audio CDs to MP3 format files. In all, our music collection of around 350 CDs ended up being about 7200 files using about 26GB of hard drive space. And I’ve still got a few hundred loose MP3 files scattered across a dozen or so backup disks that have yet to be imported.

Having all of our music available in MP3 format offers several advantages but primarily this was to make use of our TiVo’s ability to pull MP3 music from my PC thru our wireless network to the nice surround sound system in the living room. And this also makes it easy to scoop up fresh tunes for my old reliable NexII MP3 player that I take on walks or onto Dede’s Dell Axim PocketPC that’s always with her.

So, why MP3 format? There are other formats, like Windows Media Player’s WMA or the iPod’s AAC, that feature better compression (resulting in slightly smaller files with no decrease in audio quality) but they suffer from compatability issues. MP3 files can be played on nearly any kind of PC or handheld device (and even some cell phones!) whereas these other formats are far more limiting and selective. Those are the formats, by the way, that you’ll get if you join one of the digital music services that allow you to purchase music downloads, like Napster, MSN Music, Wal-Mart, or iTunes. I urge you to avoid those services due to one major drawback: DRM.

DRM, or “Digital Rights Management,” is a form of copy protection from the record labels. DRM-enabled music files feature restrictions that allow record companies to securely and legally sell you music without having to worry that you might freely share that music with others. DRM is designed to assure compensation for the copyright holders (writers, musicians, record labels, etc.) but really only straightjackets you, a well-meaning, law-abiding music fan by placing tight limits on how many times you can make a copy of a song (between different computers, mobile devices, or MP3 players) or burn music you’ve purchased to CD. This is important so let me state that again…

     You don’t buy music with those services – you rent it.

Given that, it starts to make sense why lots of people use illegal file sharing programs like KaZaa or LimeWire for downloading music files because these programs provide music in the convenient and ever-compatible MP3 format that contain none of the tight restrictions of purchased music downloads. So, why not just turn to file sharing sites to get all of your music? The biggest reason not to do so is the tremendous security risks – crippling spyware and malicious virus attacks – that are all too common side-effects of using these services on your PC. These security nightmares can grind your PC to a halt in a matter of minutes, causing problems typically only fully remedied by scrubbing and rebuilding the entire thing. Ugh!

Also, with these illegal music downloads, you have no assurances of the quality of the music or that the file even contains the song that the filename suggests. Often, downloading from file sharing sites is like Forrest Gump’s box of choc’lates – “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Lastly, downloading from these sites is essentially stealing music. Though it may be unlikely, there’s a certainly very real potential for legal fallout when engaging in this sort of shady stuff. Legally purchasing music avoids potential legal pitfalls and, perhaps most importantly, it helps to support your favorite musicians so they can keep making tunes that you enjoy.

With that in mind, I urge you to continue buying your music on traditional CDs. Then you can make backup copies of those CDs for the car or rip ’em to MP3 format to use on your PC and mobile gadgets. This way, you’re protecting your music investment while “doing the right thing.”

By the way, you can head over to CNet’s Music Center Glossary to learn more. Relax, the confusing tangle of digital music terminology can confound even the best of us.

So what are your thoughts on the whole digital music thing? Leave us a comment!