Catching FLAC

Last weekend, I began the slow, arduous process of re-ripping my entire CD collection into files easily playable on my computer. This time, instead of ripping into 192kbit MP3 with the LAME codec (like I did last time), I’m ripping them into FLAC. This has important implications.

First and foremost is that FLAC is lossless, meaning no data is thrown away between the transition from CD to the final sound file. MP3 is a lossy codec, and uses tons of statistical mojo to analyze the sound data of the CD and throw away the bits that your ears can’t hear, crunching the file size tremendously. The problem with this method is that you’re losing the quieter nuances of your music. FLAC’s strength is that it’s able to take the input waveforms and chop them up into similar, easy-to-compress chunks, making the file smaller than the original uncompressed form but on playback the audio is a perfect, exact copy of its original form.

Secondly, since FLAC doesn’t compress the file sizes as well as MP3 (with the obvious quality tradeoffs), the overall space needed to store my music collection has grown tremendously. Instead of storing an entire album in roughly 80 megabytes of space, it now takes an average of 350 megabytes. That’s a large bite to swallow, but with the falling prices of high-capacity hard drives, it’s nothing nowadays. Considering the audio CD format stores around 700 megabytes, that’s not so bad.

I’ve been meaning to do this, because even with my bad ears I can still sometimes hear the strange audio artifacts of the MP3 compression — called “sizzle” in the industry — when I’m listening to my stuff. After I ripped my first disc and gave a listen, I was shocked at the quality difference. There were little pieces of the sound, stuff from the studio, or the audience, or quiet stuff put into the mix, that I never knew was there after listening to the MP3-encoded form for years. The sound came out of my speakers; FLAC saves the exact same stereo phasing that’s mixed into the CD in the final file, and no amount of MP3 bitrate is going to capture that level of nuance. I’m shocked.

So last weekend, I bought a 1 Terabyte hard disk (that’s roughly 1,000,000 Megabytes), installed it, and started ripping the CDs on my shelf. Within two days, I had the shelf of CDs I’ve acquired since 2007; about 60 discs total. And then I cracked open the 120-pound crate of CDs that I’ve collected since my first disc in 1991. These were packed up at my last place, and I’ve just now gotten around to digging them out. I’m about 1/8th of the way through my entire collection, so I expect this to take a while.

When it’s all said and done, my hope is that I will never have to break out a CD again to get quality audio. The end FLAC files can be used as perfect copies to produce any sort of MP3, OGG, or next-generation compressed audio file for ease of portability. Any other use (like for listening at home), I can rely on the FLAC.

Published by Shawn

He's just this guy, you know?