How to Preserve Your Music CD Collection on a Mac

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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.

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