Are CD ripping services a rip-off?

Each time I look at a new MP3 player, I feel this urge to reboot my music collection--to sacrifice a weekend or two and re-rip all my CDs onto one system so I have everything in a consistent format. But usually, one look at my rack of over 400 CDs banishes that thought from my head. I sigh and stick with my disjointed collection, which consists of a third of my music on my work PC, another third on the home machine, and the rest still residing in good old reflective plastic.

Judging from the e-mail I've been getting, I'm not the only one in this situation. Many of you have written to ask about services like IRip, MusicRip, and Riptopia, all of which offer to rip your entire CD collection for you, usually for a fee of around US$1 per CD. Once you start thinking about how long it would take to rip 400 CDs, it's natural to wonder if it might be better to pay someone to do it for you.

But are these services legit? And are they a good deal? Before I'd even think about loading my entire CD collection onto spindles and shipping it off to some company I found on the Web, I'd want those questions answered. That's what I'm doing this month.

First off, though, I have to apologise: This is going to be a bit of a math column. Thankfully, it's the good kind of math--the kind where I do it, so you don't have to.

How Do Ripping Services Work?

Many of these music ripping services offer an impressive full-service approach. Send them your CD collection, and they'll give you your music in almost any compressed format you want. You can opt to receive your music on a hard drive, or on an Apple IPod or other portable player that you purchase from the service. Many services even provide custom-burnt DVDs for backup.

When you sign up with a music ripping service, you'll receive a bunch of CD spindles and other packing materials that you use to ship your CDs to the company. Shipping costs, including insurance for your CDs, is usually included with the cost of the service.

At home, you remove your CDs from their jewel cases, place them on the included spindles, and mail them to the ripping service. Then the folks there do their work--usually in two to five days--and send your CDs back to you along with compressed digital copies of your music. Since the service doesn't keep copies of the music, the entire transaction falls within your fair-use rights, which allow you to copy your CDs for personal use.

If you decide to go with a service, pay careful attention to the default bit rates it uses to rip your music. For example, by default MusicRip produces MP3s compressed at 224 kilobits per second, while Riptopia's default is a 160-kbps compression rate. Remember, you can always transcode files to a lower bit rate if you want to save disk space, but you can't increase the quality of a file without ripping the disc again.

Music Ripping Math

So is all that a good deal? For most people, I don't think it is. Riptopia, for example, charges $200 to rip a collection of 200 CDs. A collection of 400 discs will run you about $400. Most of the other services I've seen charge similar rates. Whether that's a good value depends on the size of your music collection and how long it takes to rip a CD.

To get a conservative estimate, I ripped several long CDs of 70 minutes or more using my work and home PCs--fairly standard machines that are one year and three years old, respectively. These long CDs each took a little under 4 minutes to encode in high-quality, variable-bit-rate MP3 format that averaged around 180 kbps. Since the average CD in my library runs about 45 minutes, I think it's reasonable to assume that you'll be able to rip most CDs in around 2.5 minutes. Add half a minute to change CDs, and we're left with a ripping rate of around 20 discs per hour.

That's not too bad, really. Spend 5 hours a day ripping CDs, and I'd get through 200 CDs in one fairly boring weekend. And hey, if I really bit the bullet, I could slog through my entire library in a couple of deathly boring 10-hour marathon ripping sessions.

For most people, the question boils down to this: Would you sacrifice one weekend to save yourself a few hundred bucks? I probably would.

Bulk Ripping Tips

Before you embark upon your bulk ripping session, here are a few tips to get you started.

Don't Use ITunes. While it's a great music manager, its ripping speed leaves a lot to be desired. I've found that CDex, the full version of Winamp, and Yahoo Music Engine are all substantially faster. Once you're done ripping you can import your tracks into ITunes if you'd like.

Choose Your Settings Carefully. You'll only want to do this once, so take a few minutes before you begin to review the settings you'll use to rip your CDs. Make sure you're ripping in a format that's compatible with your portable player--when in doubt, choose MP3--and choose a bit rate that's perhaps a little higher than you think is necessary. I prefer variable-bit-rate MP3s that average around 200 kbps.

Use Error Correction. This may slow things down, but it can eliminate the skips and pops you'd otherwise get if you're ripping CDs that are scratched or smudged.

A Word on File Naming. Most MP3 rippers give you some control over the file names and folder structure your MP3s will have. An artist/album-type structure is standard. For file names, I recommend putting the track number in front of the track name ("01 - Intro.mp3," for example) so you'll get the best results with a wide range of portable players.

Bring a Book. Your PC won't require a lot of hand-holding while it's ripping CDs, so there's no reason you can't have some fun while you build your library. If you want to stick with the music theme, I'd recommend reading Nick Hornby's Songbook, a beautiful little essay collection about some of Hornby's favorite songs. It even comes with its own CD.

In Heavy Rotation

Pop Goes Scandinavia: I'm not sure when it happened or why, but suddenly I'm all about Scandinavian pop bands. It probably has something to do with the Swedish side of my family, but no matter where your ancestors are from, you should check out the Shout Out Louds and the Kings of Convenience. The former is a frenetic little indie pop band that works some amusing little eighties touches into their songs. The latter is a more laid-back affair fond of great album titles like "Quiet Is the New Loud."

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