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Summary:

Music CDs take up space, break easily, get lost and aren’t nearly as easy to organize and manage as a hard drive-based iTunes collection. But backing up your discs isn’t as easy as you might think. Luckily, we’ve got three great ways to do it.

XLDDiscView

Music CDs take up space, break easily, get lost and aren’t nearly as easy to organize and manage as a hard drive-based iTunes collection. But if you want to back up your existing CD collection on your computer, it’s not as simple as just sticking the CD in your computer and hitting “Import,” especially if you’re concerned about audio quality.

You’d be mistaken for assuming that copying a music CD couldn’t be more complicated than copying a data disc. Well, it is, especially on a Mac. While Windows solutions like Exact Audio Copy (EAC) have long been cited as the gold standard for audio backups, a Mac version doesn’t exist. But I’ve come to find the abilities of the awesome, free X Lossless Decoder (XLD) on the Mac to be on par with those of EAC on the PC. XLD is the star of the first two methods below, while iTunes rounds out the list.

XLD: Best for Audiophile Digital Packrats

The big difference between using XLD and just using iTunes to rip a CD lies in the implementation of what is called Secure Ripping. Put simply, all optical discs (CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays) can become damaged.  Inherent in the design of a disc is the ability to rebuild lost data segments due to physical damage.  This built-in error correction capability can be exploited to make extremely accurate reproductions of the original audio stored on the disc.  The technique employed to securely rip a CD typically involves reading each segment of the disk multiple times, comparing the results of each read over and over until the ripping software is satisfied that it has an accurate representation of the original audio data.  When there’s an error, the ripping software attempts to rebuild the missing data segment. These results can be further analyzed against a database of other ripped tracks such as AccurateRip. Both EAC and XLD employ these secure ripping techniques and verify their results via AccurateRip for the best possible audio fidelity.

To decode a disk using XLD on the Mac you need to:

  1. Download, install and launch XLD.
  2. Open XLD Preferences (From the menu bar, XLD > Preferences).
  3. On the General tab, select the output format you want the disc ripped to. Choose a format like Apple Lossless to retain the full quality of the original music.
  4. On the CD Rip tab, select the ripping options you want to rip the disk with. Here you have the choice between CD Paranoia III 10.2 and XLD’s own Secure Ripper implementation. Either should be fine. Be sure to check the “Use C2 error pointers” option if your drive supports it.
  5. Insert your album and select Open Audio CD from the File menu, you should see the name of the CD in a sub menu. Select it.
  6. From the CDDB menu, click on Get CD Track Names to retrieve the album information from freedb.org.
  7. Select “Include pre-gap for all tracks” and click on Decode. You’ll be prompted for a location to save your ripped music to.

Note that in order to add album art, you’ll need to download the image file separately and add it manually. Ripping in this secure manner will take a little longer than other ripping methods.  This is, again, due to how the information is being read, verified and corrected before decoding.

Now you have backups of your music on your hard drive, ready to add to your iTunes collection. But Unlike EAC, XLD can’t take your backed-up music files and perfectly recreate a disc-based copy complete with the same file structure and sound quality. But just because XLD can’t do it doesn’t make it impossible.

XLD + Toast: Best for Audiophiles Who Want It All

Enter Roxio Toast, a program that allows you to make copies of audio CDs or back them up as image files. You have several copy options available to you with Toast.  You can copy the CD directly, save the album as a Sound Designer II image file, or save the CD as a binary copy with a cue sheet (BIN/CUE).  If you choose to create a BIN/CUE copy of the music CD on your hard drive, you can then use XLD later to decode the image and create individual music files for each track, or use your BIN/CUE version to create an exact replica using a CD-R. That way, you’ll have a burnable perfect copy of your disc, and files for your iTunes library. To do this, you need to:

  1. Download, install and launch Toast.
  2. Select the Copy tab in Toast and choose Disc Copy.
  3. In Toast’s Options box in the bottom left hand corner of the window, check “Use Disc Recovery”.
  4. From Toast’s File Menu, choose Save as Bin/Cue…
  5. Choose the save location for the resulting image files.
  6. Once this process is complete, launch XLD and open Preferences from the XLD menu.
  7. On XLD’s General tab, select the output format you want the disc ripped as.
  8. From XLD’s File menu, choose Open Raw PCM (bin+cue)…
  9. Navigate to the image file you saved from Toast in step 5 above.
  10. From the CDDB menu, click on Get CD Track Names to retrieve the album information from freedb.org.
  11. Select “Exclude pre-gap (incompatible with AccurateRip)” and click on Decode, you will be prompted for a location to save your ripped music to.

Again, in order to add album art, you will need to download the image file separately and add it manually.

iTunes: Best for the Casual Music Fan

The final, and simplest option, is to use iTunes and simply encode a music CD using Apple’s Lossless encoder directly from within iTunes itself.  iTunes can be configured to export many of the same audio formats as XLD.  iTunes also has the option to use error correction when reading Audio CDs. This is all relatively easy to configure via the Import Settings of the General tab within iTunes Preferences.  You can even burn a high-quality Music CD from within iTunes.

While it may all sound very good, this method likely won’t result in an exact copy of the original music CD.  Any time you decode an album and then take the decoded files in some other audio format and burn it back onto a CD-R, you jeopardize the integrity of the disc’s structure as well as the audio quality itself. Which method you end up choosing really boils down to how exact you want your copies to be.

  1. What about Max: http://sbooth.org/Max/
    That’s what I use when I feel like being paranoid about audio quality…

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    1. Is Max still being maintained? XLD has recently been updated, and has worked just fine in most cases I use to use EAC for. I typically shy away from software that has not been updated in over a year, especially when equally as good alternatives exist.

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  2. While I prefer to use itunes (simplicity – and I am not a major audiophile), I would love to know how to move my itunes library to an external HDD. I use a macbook pro, but other than my immediately and close to heart tunes, I could do with just having it on my 2.5″ external HDD, in order to save space on the macbooks internal hard drive. If anyone could direct me in the right direction – it would be very much appreciated.

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    1. A simple google search and viola! Here ya go: http://support.apple.com/kb/ht1449

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  3. “Any time you decode an album and then take the decoded files in some other audio format and burn it back onto a CD-R…”

    Wasn’t the point to get rid of your physical discs? Why would you burn it back to a CD-R? Besides, who uses CDs these days? :)

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    1. Many audiophiles still use CD’s as their source for High End reproduction.

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    2. If you get rid of the disc, you no longer have a right to listen to the digital files you ripped from it.

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      1. Galley,

        That’s a broad brush you’re stroking there. Your comment as it stands is a lie.

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      2. Where in the hell did you hear that trash? Are you a lawyer or something? Total and utter BS!

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    3. Uhm…oh I don’t know….how about to SHARE? Give as GIFTS? C’mon dude, open your eyes…

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      1. Guys, read the first five words of the article: “Music CDs take up space…” To me that implies (rightly or wrongly) the author’s suggestion is to convert all physical CDs to a digital format and then get rid of the physical discs.

        @DL: If you’re a true audiophile, why would you convert the music and then burn it again to a CD-R? Why not just keep the original disc and play that? That was the point of my question.

        @Jeff: for gifting you can give gift certificates on iTunes, which I don’t think would be a problem as pretty much everybody uses a digital device for music playback these days. Also, sharing your music is illegal, which I doubt was part of the scope of this article.

        Also, I don’t know about you but if I cared enough about somebody to give them a gift I certainly wouldn’t be so cheap as to burn a CD on a $0.10 disc. I’d at least buy them the CD, and wrap it too. :P

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    4. I tend not to carry around a case of CDs to/from work, in the car, around the house, etc. For day to day use, Apple Lossless on my army of digital playing options has served me well.

      It is not so much about disposal of the original media, as it is about providing an opportunity to store them away. Having a archive on a detachable hard drive can be useful as well. There is a bigger picture here about strategies involving long term preservation and arhiving techniques involving disaster recovery situations. This was more about the means of preservation, not the ends.

      The only sharing involved has been within the household via home sharing, but that was not the point of this article.

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  4. Is there any audible difference between Apple Lossless rips produced by using iTunes vs XLD or other perfect copy software? If you can’t hear the difference why bother? I do not use MP3 files because there is an audible difference.

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    1. There is a greater opportunity of there being an audible difference when the disc has a defect on it. The technique of secure ripping has a much higher probability of reproducing as exact a copy as technically possible. What I am not sure of is what iTunes does when you select error correction in the preferences when importing CDs.

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  5. Geoffrey,

    I’m curious as to why you wouldn’t have suggested WAV or AIFF encoding for the last option (iTunes with error correction). Your only listed drawback was the transcoding to Apple Lossless, which is was a choice you made.

    Presumably AIFF/WAV would be an exact copy, and a much simpler way of achieving the best of all worlds – CDDB, album art, searchable library, etc, for the true archivist.

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    1. There are two goals, one is that of preservation of the original source media and the second is preservation of the sound quality for playback on modern digital music players.

      For the first, it is all about re-rpoducing as exact a copy of the original Music CD as possible. And as far as I can tell, that is not possible with XLD on a Mac. That is only possible via Toast (as outlined above). With EAC on a PC, I would secure rip to a single WAV+CUE file, and use EAC’s CD-R capabilities to burn as true of a reproduction as possible. I have not yet found a reliable means of burning the same WAV+CUE file back onto a CD-R natively on a Mac.

      Keeping the second goal in mind, I will want to play back the music in a modern player. iTunes from my Mac, an Apple TV, an iOS device or an iPod. For connivence sake, I will also be tagging the decode files and adding album art. At which time I have altered the original format already. I might as well choose a Lossless format that offers compression and supports tagging. I can still maintain the original sound quality. Since all of my players are Apple products, I choose Apple Lossless over FLAC and WavPac.

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  6. If one were a *true* audiophile, they would be using a HIGH end turntable and really good vinyl. I’ve heard the differences myself years ago and there is nothing that can beat this combination except a live performance.

    What I think the issue here is what is considered “good enough”? For most people it is going to be iTunes and some form of Apple device. If they don’t like Apple, they will use a different device and method for ripping and playing music.

    As far as ripping and then disposing of the media, it is an issue of license. As long as you maintain the original media, vinyl or CD, you maintain your license to listen to it. Get rid of the original and you also lose that license. There is no fair use here, keep it or lose it.

    We maintain a large cabinet of CDs which are all transferred to iTunes for our listening pleasure. iTunes makes it easy to find and play the music. The cabinet ensures we maintain our license to play the music.

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    1. Oh no, not the turntable line again! You can have your snap, crackle and pop. I’ll take clarity.

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      1. Vinyl has Disc beat hands down on clarity. It is a question of digital vs analog. And with audio, analog reigns supreme. Digital recordings take a sampling of the analog at a particular rate, say 44K times per second (44.1kHz). And the sampling is only capable of recording within a certain number of values (size), say 64K different values (16-bit). The slower the frequency (8kHz) and the less the number of possible values (8-bit), and you start to get garbled computer noise.

        Putting the theory and science aside for the moment, I’ll take the mobility offered by 160GBs of a lossless encoded HDCD music library on my iPod with a nice set of earbuds over vinyl any day.

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