Terabyte Blues

“A Terabyte Ain’t Enough! Notes from the Sidelines of Digitization Hell”

There is still life in these old bones and while they were plunked down in front of a shiny new 1 terabyte PC, they regularly reached over to the keyboard to keep the digitizing of their CD collection alive while trying – at the same time – to keep their day job running as well.

Fact is, I have to spend a shitload of time in front of my PC or next to it and although I have already transferred a sizable number of CDs to my PC, I’ve started in earnest to make sure that while I can’t listen to my music as much on my stereo in the living room as I’d like, I can do so in my office … or elsewhere.

I’ve often stated that we collectors are plain nuts, and we are, but sometimes I get the feeling that I’m an extreme case of that rather rare subspecies. If you add to that the fact that we Germans are often considered to be anally retentive in regard to keeping order in our stuff and arranging things at right angles on our desks, what we have here is the worst case scenario: A German digitizing his CD collection.

It’s ages ago that I got with the program and when my particular illness(es) hit me a few years back, I decided to impose a strict order on what I had amassed on my various hard disks. I downloaded a few programs and soon after settled on MP3tag to tag the thousands of files I already had, I learned from a ton of mistakes I made which forced me to start over again (and again), I screamed and I yelled (not the most fortunate impact on my health) and – altogether – I forced my chaotic collection into submission.

The Past

Before you start screaming at me after having read what is to be found below, let me explain some basic considerations that went into what is about to unfold. I’m not like you, so try to get where I’m coming from.

(01) I couldn’t give a flying leap about archiving my collection. My entire experience in the IT field (and I have a lot more than I’ve let on here) is summed up in one single sentence: Any digital format is doomed to become obsolete at least 50 years before my CDs in my livingroom kick the bucket. Hell, I don’t have a single CD that has gone bad and I bought my first one before they became commercially available in Europe. On the other hand, just about every digital format I tried and that proved to be worthwhile either started dying a slow death right away or was knocked stone-cold dead by hard disk failures, light rays hitting sensitive CD/DVD/whatnot surfaces, fell prey to uncontrollable children/animal paws, baked in the heat of my apartment in the summers or, to make matters worse, just died a much faster death for no darn reason whatsoever. The media that I had chosen just sucked and – let’s be honest here – if we start talking terabytes of music, just about any backup medium sucks.

(02) I’m absolutely convinced of the fact that the so-called lossless formats, FLAC being the granddaddy and most worthwhile of them all, are only used by two groups of users (three at the most), collectors or freaks: The ones that are stealing music right and left and want the best possible version to archive/burn their bagged items or the ones who have the weird notion that archiving their (entire) collection is a sensible thing to do. Both groups are, to put it mildly, err, special. Yes, there is a third group, but I know exactly two people who belong to that group and altogether, seen statistically, they are a negligible bunch. They are the people who do their very best to de-click and de-noise old and very rare LP-rips and offer them up in the best possible format for preservation, FLAC. I cannot emphasize enough how much their work is appreciated by many music fans who otherwise would never (ever) be able to get a hold of those rare gems in such excellent quality and I do think that they are putting the FLAC format to its only legitimate use. Thanks, J.! and C. 🙂 Yes, the fourth group (I can hear you yelling) are the people rich enough to set up an in-house streaming system, whistles and all, but according to my HiFi dealer of choice, they are about as rare as a quiet Sunday morning in a village surrounded by churches.

(03) There is only one single reason why I’m digitizing my collection and amassing files on my PC: I like to take my music along, to my PC next door or on the road to wherever I’m headed whenever I manage to leave this place here for longer than three minutes at a time.

After having fought it for many years, I find myself adhering to that new way civilization works: If you use any means of public transportation to get from point A to point B (in Germany, with “Deutsche Bahn”, usually via points F, I, Z and Y), which I need to do frequently because my knowledge of cars and driving is limited to handling Matchbox replicas, you simply need to drown out the crap and white noise surrounding you. If you live in Germany, which I do, you also need to drown out just about any communication happening around you … if you don’t want to throw up or have yourself committed to a closed institution. Obviously, the people who use public transportation are not the ones you want to be forced listening to. Yeah, label me an elitist swine. I am.

Formats

The problem with digital files is choosing the right format for them. Now, all of us freaks are unique when it comes to our convoluted ways of thinking (ways which seem, more often than not, confusing and irrational to the outside world), but below you will find the rather peculiar path I followed when I started, continued and then rebooted my attempts to get a grip on a positively huge (existing and potential) collection of digital files.

(01) As everyone else did, I started with the MP3 format. The problem was that I thought that a low bitrate would be more than good enough for the next one hundred years. Boy, was I wrong. If I listen to any files I converted pre-1996, they sound like dead and bloated Swedish fish in a can.

(02) Because I had hard drives which were limited in size, I jumped onto the MPC bandwagon for years … until I was forced to acknowledge that it was a format relegated to the sidelines. It is a fantastic format which comes extremely (meaning: 99,9%) close to lossless audibly, but it’s just being shunned by the general populace (and most manufacturers of portable players). What the hell, 5 years down the drain. Who cares.

(03) FLAC. “Honda Gives More Head!” I have no idea if any of you are old enough to remember that slogan which came (AFAIK) from Japan, describing the virile “rise” attained by buying into Honda motorcycles, but I can’t shake the feelings that it’s mostly a format used by people who don’t feel like buying music anymore. They rip it off, burn it, play it, whatever. I know people who have 5-digit collections and not a single CD they bought. To be quite honest, I think it’s the FLAC followers who are killing the music business. But, I’m sure, they would disagree and come up with a myriad of reasons why they use that format. Sure, there are those who do legitimate things with it, but I have yet to meet a statistically sound sample to prove that point. Sorry guys (and the three girls). Still, err, …

(04) Apple shit. Don’t get me started on anything that starts with A. It’s crap. And that’s with a capital “C”! If I should ever want white earphones to blend in with the stylistically apt, I’ll paint my earbuds. Until then I’ll just continue to shake my head vigorously whenever I see one of those Apple apogees spinning out of orbit.

(05) OGG, … a myriad of other formats. My question would be, “Why?”. I’ve tried them all, but their advantages are debatable. In an age in which hard disk space is becoming cheaper than sexual stimulation in shadier parts of the US (ask Hugh Grant), formats which offer excellent sound at a reduced file size or at one which is two bytes less than the original are just not the way to go. I do know that people are religiously defending their choice of format(s) but, in the end, they are trying to convince themselves that they made the right decision seven years ago before they started ripping (or stealing) a trillion CDs and started filling up the available space on their PC (and sixteen external drives) with them.

And? What are you trying to say?

I went with FLAC.
And I went with MP3.

Before you start spewing your ale all over me and your screen, hear me out on the MP3 part. If you are not a) a member of the thievery corporation, b) you are not a member of the delusional crowd that believes that archiving your CDs is a good thing to do, c) you are not a member of the tiny group of people trying to preserve rare items (LPs) and d) you are not a member of the people who invest more money into a pair of in-ear headphones than into your real life, you are wasting disk space, your time … and you are fighting a lost battle. I don’t know how many forums I am a member of in which users spend endless years debating the pros and cons of various formats, but it always comes down to two things: a) They bought themselves a player which can only reproduce sound in an acceptable way if the headphones carry a four-figure price tag (Apple, anyone?), they b) stole all the music they have or c) they are anally retentive. I mean, come one, I spent a decade trying to find a stereo that could reproduce some of the shitty recordings I have in an acceptable way and I’m not about to invest 4000 Euro on a portable player and a pair of headphones that can drown out the noises of salami sandwiches being unwrapped on German trains. Believe me, the people defending an Apple iPod Cassic are usually the ones who invested at least four-digit sum on headphones and a headphone amp to make things work. Delusional at best..

These past months I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to find an adequate portable player for myself and the posts I read on a myriad of forums debating the pros and cons of said players are dramatically numb … almost everyone seems to try to defend his/her purchase simply because he/she made a mistake. I’m sorry, but any iPod worth getting (meaning a Classic which offers a minimum of 120 GB …after they canned their 160GB model) needs a multiple amount of cash to make it sound good. I know what I’m talking about. Because Apple is virtually the only company left to offer these kinds of virile players for freaks and geeks, I tried my best to like them, but the sound is so crappy that it hurts. If you start a sound-related discussion on any forum in regard to Apple players, you always get these kinds of Paris Hilton geeks that paid $200 for the player and then proceeded to invest $2000 into headphone amps and headphones. Ridiculous.

I was offered an Apple iPod (160GB) for $150 … I declined. The software sucks (iTunes is the biblical plague of the 21st century), the sound sucks and the whole business concept sucks. Apple sucks. iTunes sucks. And transferring any sensibly tagged music archive to an iPod sucks even more.

I entertained the notion of getting a Sony player … until I found out that 64bit systems are not (in my case) supported. Yes, the Sony players sound excellent, but a lot of darn good that is going to do me if I can’t access the player … at all. Sony sucks as well … as usual. They are known for never (ever) offering any updates for any players they have thrown at an unsuspecting audience, and the term “firmware update” is apparently on their blacklist.

I considered a Cowon (D2) player … only to find out that filling it up with more than a folder at a time makes it choke occasionally. Great, if you have two TB of files.

And on it goes.

In short, right now there is no player available for us freaks that offers any sensible and time-saving way of transferring and carrying along huge chunks of our collection. Not a single one. In this case I do believe I know what I’m talking about.

They don’t want our money.

They are satisfied with cashing in from those users that have a chaotic collection of (stolen) Britney Spears and “High School Musical” tunes on their drives, unorganized, half-tagged, all in one folder. 2GB are enough. Make it small. Make it cheap.

Hey, that would be most of the population.

Did you know that 99.9% of all Apple iPod users are still using those headphones that came with the player, molded from soaked cardboard and beautified by a glamorous combination of white and gray? No? Have a look around you. If I wanted to hear music the way it sounded when eight completely wasted jazz musicians recorded it and two hearing-impaired (=deaf, dumb AND blind) remastered it, I would have tried to be present at the recording and remastering sessions. But I don’t.

Today

Now that I’ve pissed everyone off, let me outline what I did (and bare my chest to paintball salvos):

(01) I went with FLAC and either a VBR (=variable bitrate) or a 320 MP3 (=because I can) format, I kept my files organized and tagged in folders whose names are far too long and I (that’s the real kicker) went with Windows Media Player (you may groan now) and Foobar after I gave a trillion other players a whirl. They all sucked in the end just because they either couldn’t handle what I had or choked on it all, which would come out to be the same, really.

(02) I use Exact Audio Copy (EAC) after I figured out that CDEx and whatever else is out there too often mangled what I was ripping. Mind you, EAC is a bitch to set up, but there’s enough help out there on the Innerweb to make the time invested worthwhile. Once I have ripped a CD with EAC, I just KNOW I have a correct copy of the original..

(03) I use MP3Tag to supply my files with the most basic info, I also used it to trash any extraneous info in older files I had.

(04) I nuked any MP3 file below 191 kbps, just because.

So , where are you at?

I’m at 2.6TB of music.
Tagged into submission until they squealed.

Give Us an Outline

(01) I first rip every CD I have to a FLAC file and then convert it to MP3. I could get into a million details, but I’ve found some sort of truce by forcing any FLAC file into a VBR 224 to 320 kbps at a VBR 0 setting. The file size is acceptable, the result is indistinguishable from other much more space-consuming formats and, if needed, I download old pre-50s files in 320 kbps. Again, because I can. 🙂 If needed, I commit the ultimate crime and transcode other formats.

(02) I’m the only person on this planet – I think – who tags his files “family namefirst name [year(s)] title (bitrate)”. Simple example? “Pepper, Art [1952-1954] Straight Life – The Savoy Sessions (320)“. I simply don’t feel like searching for “Art”, Arthur” or whatever to get to “Art Pepper”. I just go for “Pepper” instead. It is beyond me – other than exchanging your files with other imbeciles who adhere to a stupid naming scheme – why anyone would want to tag their files “first name” first. I just don’t get it. Because, for many years, I used a directory player (1by1), I was not forced to remember some musicians’ (negligible) first names (Beyonce? Bounce? Beyoncee? Beyondce?). Just because the whole planet is doing it, I do not need or want to follow suit. And because I don’t share with nobody (hey, double negation … for free), I do not need to follow asinine conventions.

(03) On my PC, I have 900 GB set aside for my collection. They are divided into categories that mirror my (eclectic) setup in the living room and everything that does not fit into my “Pop/Rock”, “ECM Sound”, “Jazz”, “Danish Pop” or “Classical” categories gets thrown into my “Fusion and Stuff” category. Even if it doesn’t belong there. I couldn’t care less because I’m the only person who needs to find it … and I can.

(04) I have an 80cm shelf that is filled with external (USB) drives to store the rest, plus what’s on my PC … at least three times. I use a “three-for-all” backup system. As drives started to become cheaper, I bought them, one by one. I have at least three copies of my entire MP3 collection plus three of my FLAC and MPC files (the latter are going to be nuked this year). There’s also a disk with all those other formats that abound and I was reluctant to delete. Although I have been unlucky in the past, the chance that three backup drives will fail at once is rather slim (a fire or terrorist attack not withstanding).

(05) I use a simple program to synchronize my backups. It’s called AllwaySync and it’s the best thing since sliced bread (yep, I paid for it). If you set it up properly and understand its way of doing things, it’s all you’ll ever need. Get it! I used to only use Windows Media Player to check where my tagging had gone wrong … until I figured out that it is actually quite nifty if you did tag your files to perfection. That thing is so flaky that it throws a tantrum with any file that has an error or is tagged insufficiently … so, at the end, I switched over to it. I kept Foobar (really an all-in-one player that I recommend to anyone having to handle a huge collection and a ton of transcoding jobs) and trashed about ten other players plus any managing software I had on my disk(s). Besides 1by1 (a player I heart to the max) and MP3tag, I’ve relegated everything else to the bits and bytes that are digital nirvana.

(06) I embed cover art into each file (also FLAC … shoot me) and keep a “cover.jpg” in each folder. I used to name those cover art scans … until I discovered that each player handles art differently. I use a unique naming scheme (each cover image = “cover.jpg”. How’s that for uniqueness?) for one reason only: If needed, I can rename just about anything in one fell swoop.

(07) *Gasp*! If I have multiple disk collections, I don’t keep them  separated into folders. For example: I tag the whole set with a consecutive track number (always two or three digits) and … bingo … I have all of Dinah Washinton’s “Mercury” tracks spanning tracks one to four hundred and fourty-seven. One folder, one collection.Why? I’ve had too many players that choked on a 21-disk set spanning multiple folders. That’s why.

(08) Each CD that warrants it is accompanied by a “_scans and info” folder which holds cover and CD scans as well as one single PDF file loaded to the brim with track info, cover scans, reviews … just about anything I could find or scan in. Why? Because I do listen to my music rather than having it dilute my audible background, there are often moments when I want to check what’s what … and why. If ever needed (not bloody likely), I can reconstruct the original order of things by running a script or two.

(09) I never use replay gain. Never. Until I have to, of course. 🙂

(10) I have a rigid folder structure which divides each genre into simple A-Z folders. My PCs are usually smart enough to find what I’m looking for without sub-foldering the drives to hell.

(11) I keep a load of folders for different activities. Retagging, transcoding, etc. Each activity has its own folder … simply because I have the space and therefore do not need to do the required work straight away.

(12) Last, but not least, just to make sure that I’m not being a total imbecile, I keep some important CDs in various formats . Like I said, I have the space for it. I’m not going to pay a trillion dollars for an out-of-print CD I own. If I find out that I would have to pay a multiple amount of my monthly income to replace a CD I have, I save three versions of it: a disc image, FLAC and usually an MP§ 320 copy. I have one single Danish CD that has gone for over 1000 Euro on a forum and I’ll be damned if I’m ever going to pay that amount of money to replace it (it’s not THAT good … it’s just rare). I’d rather golf, to be perfectly honest. Any external disk is cheaper than re-buying that CD. So I have seven copies of it. 🙂

(13) Real life not withstanding, I rip three CDs each day, tag them, upload cover images, add extra info when needed, sort and resort, tag and re-tag several files, …. in short, I try to impose that Germanic order on things that try their best to evade organization.

(14) Last but not least, I trash entire CDs that have one single faulty byte in them. Why? I can simply re-rip them if necessary.

One Last Thought: What Goes in Doesn’t Necessarily Come out that Way

The funniest thing about all of these FLAC people out there is that most of them listen to their music on absolutely crummy systems (or, worse, burn their files to CDs and demo them on their car stereos). Yes, I know, I’m generalizing, but do you have any idea how many geeks out there are at each others’ throats from morning until evening discussing the pros and cons of various lossless formats … and then listen to it all on $30 speakers? Imagine: It’s like going to a five-star restaurant and ordering your fine French wine … laced with ice cubes. You know, the people who put Ketchup on their medium-rare roast beef.

Without kick-starting one of those useless discussions on here, I do think that most built-in chips on current mainboards offer good enough sound quality, but you need to hook up at least half-decent speakers to actually reproduce the sound. Again, I don’t care too much because my stereo is 25 meters away from here, but I’ve had it with my share of buzzing, clanging and feeping 5.1 sets that go for the price of a double-Whopper these days. I have a rock-solid midprice 2.1 system. Nix near-field studio monitors. Not enough space with two printers, two monitors, a scanner and all the rest on my desk.

Secondly, if you don’t give your PC some memory power, playing huge FLAC files can be a pain in the neck with those 205 Firefox tabs open, that irritating Vista indexing shite continuously wearing down your hard drive in the background and your e-Mail program pulling in whatever is new every few seconds. You want to hear lossless music? Upgrade your system!

Addendum: Asus EeePC 1000H

After a few weeks of researching portable players, picking fights with the aforementioned Apple geeks, studying a million instruction manuals for well-loved mp3-players and beating my head repeatedly against the white-washed walls of my humble abode, I simply decided to can the notion of ever finding a player that can hold a sizable segment of my collection.

I.
Simply.
Gave.
Up.

Because I often need my music on longer train rides – and because I also like watching a decent film at a size larger than 30 * 28 pixels on a “glossy” screen –  I nearly choked when a colleague of mine showed me the rather recent Asus EeePC 1000H. Yes, it’s difficult to stick into your back pocket, it’s got an irritating black Steinway shine (it does come with a cloth for hourly wipes) and it does weigh a hefty 1.5 kg, but boy, does it deliver. 160 GB of hard disk space (I’m thinking of upgrading to 320), a whopping 5 hours (minimum) when listening to music (and way above 4 when watching films), ready to be setup with just about any Linux or Windows version you can scare it with, plus Bluetooth, a 1.3 megapixel camera, WLan, and whatnot … when I found one for a mere 280 Euro, I snatched it up (a limited teachers discount when I bought mine).

So, on longer trips I can take along my most recent FLAC rips, a larger portion of my MP3 stash … or any of the hundreds of DVDs I ripped to my drives …. and be content.

I hate to admit it, but I also kept my laughable 2GB MP3 player, just because it is good enough to drown out Germany.

Yes, I finally reached digitization heaven and am satisfied.

I think.
😉

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Dear Volkher,

    You are nuts, hopeless and beyond redemption :=)

    I did not have to travel a lot and don’t have to get into all this.

    Three points:

    1. I did have exactly THREE (3) CDs that went bad, all manufactured in the 80s – the silver layer just keep disappearing!!!!!! They are: The Fabulous Fats Navarro Vol 1 and 2 (Blue Note made in Canada) and Larry Carlton: Alone But Never Alone.

    2. Artists should ALWAYS be filed under their family names

    3. I have been planning to compile Written (STONE AGE)Indexes of my Jazz CDs which is presently arranged under different Instrument Categories. I will like to have the following information for each CD – Artist’s name/Album’s name/Labels for both original album and the reissue CD together with their respective numbers/Producers for both the original album and the reissue CD/Recording Engineer/Recording Studio/Designor of Artwork & Photographer/supporting artists and their instruments/Remastering Engineer/Date of Reissue CD/Music and Sound Quality Ratings by the author & AMG,Playboy & Penguins.

    I have tried the digital database formats but I am not satisfied with them. Any comments.

    Anyway, good to touch base with you again.

    Cheers,

    Cham Ho

    Reply

  2. You're not the only one21/02/2009 at 8:58 pm

    While I don’t need a portable player to watch videos or even album covers, I do miss a high capacity digital audio player that is capable of playing formats like flac, ogg and mp3 (ape would be nice to have too), have a good audio quality and can be used without installing extra software…a normal file browser like the Windows Explorer and drag & drop should do the job. I don’t need an extra database since I’m also a folder guy who keeps his music organized in folders from A-Z (plus 0-9 for things like 24-Carat Black or 3 Generations Walking) (though without any genres…after all I know my music and really don’t give a damn if someone considers a record jazz, vocal jazz, soul or blues and my tagging’s a mess since I don’t like to tag my music files).
    But, alas and alack, there really isn’t a DAP that would suit me. I do have an (now) old Cowon M3 with 40GB but even with ogg files that’s just too less space for my record collection. Something like that with 160-200 GB would be nice to have. But it looks like this will never happen with the Appleshit (again, you’re not the only one) being the only one offering high capacity stuff in a rather small size…the rest are more PMPs that are too large to take them everytime you leave the flat. And besides why should I need a large screen when I’m walking down the street and have to watch the traffic?

    Oh, and another question…do you look for an heir of your hard drive copies by any chance? 🙂
    I think I’d apply at once.

    Reply

  3. High-capacity players are, surprisingly enough, a no-no for most companies. No idea why, especially because I (and you) know that there are enough nutcases out there who have amassed large digital collections (in various lossless formats) and want to take them along, at least partly.

    I have long ago given up trying to understand the mysteries that are managerial thinking (if that is the appropriate term at all). If I look at the laughingly stupid trial against Pirate Bay, I can see that ineptness abounds in those management circles. I guess we don’t have a financial crisis for nothing … we deserve it with those monkeys running their businesses like they were isolated islands in remote arctic regions.

    What I’m waiting or – and first promising models have appeared on the market – are audiophile players that can be connected to my stereo and allow me to add anywhere between 4 and an infinite number of drives filled to the brim with lossless digital files. The model(s) that has/have appeared are still too expensive, but they will come down in price, I’m sure.

    I’m sorry, but I’m planning to take ALL of my drives along into my grave, despite the incorrect say<ing that “hearses don’t have luggage racks.” Mine will have plenty of them, just so I start my afterlife with that secure and comfy feeling of not having left anything substantial behind. Well, besides life perhaps. 😉

    Reply

  4. @C Ho

    Sorry, I somehow missed your comment almost two months ago.

    I have given up trying to catalog my CDs aside from digitizing the whole lot and keeping it all in nicely tagged folders … which are easily searched on my PC, either via any file manager or any player software that indexes the tags. What I really enjoy is, for example, to look for all interpretations of – say – “Whisper Not” that I have. It turns out I have tons of them. None of that is possible with the old handwritten card system. 😉

    Besides that, every computer-based software I tried was either lacking in some respect or was missing something … or, worst case scenario – it just proved to be too tedious. If you have thousands of CDs, any kind of data entry turns into a life-time job. The older I get, the more precious time becomes and I’m past those years where I had weeks left over to type in musical data.

    Cheers!

    Reply

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