Converting Your Audio to FLACFLAC hasn't hit the mainstream yet, so you'll need to use a few underground apps for the best results.
Tom Mainelli, PC World
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In last month's column I talked about my decision to encode a large portion of my music collection into FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files. To take on such a task, you need the right software, as most mainstream audio apps do not yet support ripping to FLAC, or even playing the format. My favorite two apps for these tasks are Exact Audio Copy and Foobar 2000.
I should point out up front that neither of these apps is as slick looking or as easy to use as Apple's excellent iTunes software. You should expect to spend a little more time learning how to best customize (and optimize) each app to your taste. Trust me, it's worth it.
Exact Audio Copy configures your optical drives for optimal performance.For high-quality, error-free audio rips, try Exact Audio Copy. Computer science and mathematics student Andre Wiethioff said he created the free app because he was tired of being forced to listen to every new audio file he ripped to make sure that that errors didn't slip in during the process. These errors can produce the audible pops and clicks that drive audio purists mad. What EAC does better than most other audio rippers is to check, doublecheck, and even reread a track if it encounters errors. It doesn't just blow through a troubled spot on a scratched CD, creating a potentially garbled audio file as a result. Instead, it slowly works its way through to ensure a good quality rip. And should it encounter an error that it can't surmount, it tells you as much. Yes, it can take longer than your average ripper to complete the job, but you want to do this right, right?
Installing EAC is a pretty straightforward process, but configuration can be a bit tricky. The app walks you through the setup process, which includes identifying your specific optical drive or drives, either by using its database or through testing (if you have two drives, EAC will even tell you which it prefers).
EAC is an audio ripper, which means it pulls the audio off the disc in its native .wav file format. After that, EAC hands off the file to the encoder of your choice. Wiethioff favors the LAME MP3 encoder (somewhat confusingly, LAME stands for LAME Ain't an MP3 Encoder, because it didn't start life as an encoder, but is one now). While Wiethioff doesn't provide LAME itself, he does make it the easiest encoder to install.
EAC doesn't support FLAC natively, so to use FLAC, you'll need to uncheck the box that offers to install the LAME encoder and install the FLAC encoder yourself. Before you can do that, however, you must finish the initial installation process, which includes typing in an e-mail address to gain access to the Freedb online music database (for grabbing song titles) and choosing your interface preference (beginner or experienced).
To get FLAC to work with EAC you'll need the latest FLAC encoder. The download will include a handful of files, including a basic front end, but what you need to install is the codec itself. The installer will place the FLAC executable (FLAC.exe) in its own folder within your program folder. Copy the file into the EAC folder for simplicity's sake.
(Note: I gleaned the following instructions from several EAC/FLAC online guides, including this one.)
From within EAC, click the EAC File menu and select Compression Options and then the External Compression tab. Check Use external program for compression box, change the Parameter passing scheme to Use Defined Encoder, and type in the .flac file extension.
In the next window the software asks for the program, including the path, used for compression. Point toward the flac.exe file you've just dropped into the EAC folder. Finally, uncheck the Use CRC Check and Add ID3 Tag boxes, and then paste this string into the command-line option box:
-T "artist=%a" -T "title=%t" -T "album=%g" -T "date=%y" -T "tracknumber=%n" -T "genre=%m" -5 %s
Hit OK, and you're ready to get started.
To rip a CD, you place it in your drive and launch EAC. Once the app sees your disc, you can click the CD icon to grab the disc information from the online database. Then you click the MP3 icon (yes, that's confusing, but most people are using it that way). A Save Waveform dialog box appears. Don't type in a file name, but be sure you save the files to a location you'll remember, and then click Save. The program will now start its work.
It's pretty interesting to watch EAC rip a file, deal with error corrections when necessary, and then feed the file to the external compressor. Once it completes a full rip, you have the option of creating a log of the process, which details the success (or failure) of each track.
For those who would like to get even more out of EAC and FLAC, an EAC fan named Jared Breland has created a great little add-on program called AutoFLAC. In addition to automating some of the EAC process, the program restores a few features that break when you use FLAC instead of MP3 with EAC.
The most important of these features is cue-sheet generation. A cue sheet is a text file containing track details about a CD; with a cue sheet you can create an exact duplicate of the original .wav-encoded CD using your FLAC file. You can read more about AutoFLAC, and download the free app, here.
Now that you've begun ripping your CDs to FLAC, you're going to need an app that lets you listen to them, too. Apple's iTunes doesn't yet support FLAC, and to get FLAC to work with Microsoft's Media Player you have to jump through some hoops.
Foobar2000's spartan interface won't win any beauty contests, but the app sounds great.Instead, I prefer to use the lean-and mean Foobar2000, from Peter Pawlowski. Foobar2000 is a free app, and at first glance it's far from impressive looking. But while its bare-bones interface may be a turnoff to some, I grew to like its streamlined design.
The app's real strengths, however, lie in its capabilities, not its looks. Along with many solid features, Foobar2000 first and foremost offers extremely good audio quality playback. It is also a small and efficient application, with native FLAC support. Finally, its open-architecture platform means that other people are constantly creating new and useful plug-ins for the player.
For more instructions on how to use Foobar2000, and to find cool add-on features and see what other Foobar2000 fans are talking about, visit the Foobar2000 forums.
If the Foobar2000 experience just isn't for you, you can also turn to an old favorite of many early adopters of digital music for your FLAC fix. Winamp is now on version 5.33, and the free Full version offers native support of FLAC. It will also rip your CDs to FLAC, so it makes for a great one-stop FLAC shop. Just be prepared to deal with its overly busy interface.