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.
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).