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What's the best way to save my digital music?

There are basically two ways - 'lossy' and 'lossless'. And each has its own purpose.

In a lossless format such as WAVE, the audio is saved raw and as is - like a TIFF file in digital photography. This is the best way to archive your most important music, though the digital file size can be roughly 10 times what its MP3 equivalent might be. The songs on your original audio CDs are essentially raw stereo audio files, so it's a good idea to keep your original audio CDs as archives.

In a 'lossy' format such as MP3, the original raw audio is encoded (digitally processed) to permanently remove some data which your ears typically won't hear, in order to lower the overall file size. An analogy here is a photograph scanned and saved as a JPG file. You can fit a lot more MP3s on a CD or in an MP3 player than you can WAVE files.

Not all MP3s are alike, either. Some MP3 encoders are better than others.

Note that there are other methods (called codecs) available for saving audio files, like AAC (lossy, used in iPods) and AIFF (lossless). Some new codecs are also coming out, but need some gains in popularity before you can trust your music to them.

What is MP3 and AAC?
These two file formats are popular ways of compressing songs from your CD into a smaller digital file to make them easier to store and faster to transfer over the Internet, and to play in portable devices.

A higher compression results in a smaller file size, but lowers the sound quality. The sound quality of MP3s and AACs varies depending on the encoding method; in most cases we use a process which produces a high quality but large audio file, but we can adjust the compression technique to match the bandwidth you want.

Why do some song clips I listen to on music websites sound so bad?
On the big commercial sites, musicians' song clips are purposely made to be more easily played over the web and to save disk space on their servers. The songs have been downsampled or encoded to a critically low digital resolution, and so the sound quality needlessly suffers. Many times, the MP3 encoders are simply inferior or incorrect settings are used.

Our conversions to MP3 are high quality (even the web clips we do) and sound great!

What resolution should I choose for my MP3s or iPod songs?
It depends on your listening tastes. Most people listen to these songs encoded at 128 Kbps (kilobytes per second), which is high quality and ideal for playing in cars and portables. At this resolution, one minute of stereo audio = approximately 1 megabyte of disc space, so just one data CD can contain nearly 12 hours of music!

On our older Blues Jam web pages, the MP3s from these live performances were encoded at only 64 Kbps yet still sound clean and crisp (click here for an example of an MP3 encoded at 64 Kbs).

For more discriminating listening we can encode up to 320 Kbps; at that rate your MP3s or iPod files will be huge but a CD (for example) will still hold 5 to 6 hours of the highest quality MP3s available. Most people can't really hear a difference at the higher rates, but for those who can - this option is available at BluEarthArts.

What is hiss/hum & noise reduction?
Analog tapes often have a noticeable hiss as background noise, exacerbated by a variety of factors (the quality of the magnetic tape, the speed of the tape machine, a low recording level). Much of the hiss can be reduced without diminishing the higher frequency range of your recording.

Noise reduction processes the audio in a track, then determines which frequencies tend to comprise the noise background over a given length of time; a special filter is then compiled and applied to weed those background noises out. For optimal results, BluEarthArts derives a special noise filter from each recording.

Hum often occurs when using recording equipment too close to electrical wires, or from grounding problems around the equipment. Hum can also be substantially reduced in recordings by careful filtering.

Another type of noise sometimes found in recordings - distortion - is more troublesome. Poor recording equipment and techniques can introduce harmonic distortion into the sound and, unfortunately, there's not much we can do with it. 

If your audio is clipped, though, (recorded at too high a level) we can usually restore the lost peaks.

What is Compression?
Compression is a form of audio processing used to scrunch down audio peaks so that the overall energy level of the audio can be raised. Compression has long been a staple in radio broadcasting, but it is often drastically overused in popular music, making recorded audio sound louder at the expense of dynamic range. This is not a good thing. Dynamic range is basically the difference between the softest part of a recording and its loudest part, and is an important element of music. 

The video at right clearly demonstrates the problem with overusing compression; listen to the difference as the original 1986 recording 'Money for Nothing' is alternated with the overly compressed remastered version released in 2006. Many modern recordings and remasters are compressed much worse than this.  

BluEarthArts is very conservative with the use of compression, and frankly, we rarely use it. Compression has its uses but we generally recommend that when you want it loud, use the volume knob - not compression.

"I hate compression with a vengeance. I avoid it. I'm a great believer in the dynamic range being preserved." - Alan Parsons, recording engineer on Pink Floyd's classic 'Dark Side of the Moon.'

What is Normalization?
Normalization essentially means making the audio louder so that you don't have to turn your player up so much to hear it. This is a different process than compression because it raises the overall volume without artificially scrunching down audio peaks. Normalization helps if a tape has been recorded so softly that you can hardly hear the music or the people talking, or if one track is a lot louder, unintentionally, than the other. Using normalization, the overall sound can be boosted in volume, and/or better balanced for stereo. Here, the entire audio recording is made louder, but only to the point where it can be accomplished without altering the waveform or inducing distortion, where the highest peak in the digital audio reaches its maximum value (0dB). The dynamic range remains totally intact.

What is EQ?
Sound, like a rainbow of light, can be divided into a spectrum. A bass guitar, for example, emits sound waves of low frequencies, a cymbal produces sound waves at high frequencies. By using EQ, frequencies can be boosted or reduced so that certain sounds can be made to seem louder or softer. 

Most people don't know that the playing head on their tape players gets magnetized over time. This magnetization actually begins to slowly but surely erase high frequencies from their tapes every time they're played. In repeated playings, the audio begins to sound muffled, but it happens so slowly that you probably won't even notice the degradation at first. The end result is a tape which sounds muffled and lifeless (click here for an after/before example from an old mono recording). EQ can help improve the sound of audio which has been damaged this way.

Human speech can be made to sound brighter by boosting the sound frequencies which speech is made of. In many instances, the recording microphone may have been of a poor quality and may have actually boosted certain lower midrange frequencies which can make the speech sound "boomy". That can be reduced by using EQ to remove the offending lower frequencies.

Why do my CDs skip or act up?
CDs and DVDs, those aluminum coated polycarbonate plastic discs where we now store digital information like files, video, and audio, will probably be found by archaeologists thousands of years from now. However, the data stored on CDs is - believe it or not - quite fragile.

All it takes is a scratch or a greasy thumbprint to interfere with the laser beam's ability to read the information on the disc. Take care when handling CDs and DVDs, and protect the data side (that's the side opposite the label). Handle it only at the edges, never set a disc down on anything, and don't affix a paper label to it.