The other night it suddenly occurred to me that now that I'm running MacOS X, I could finally try out iTunes, Apple's free application for managing MP3 music files (and for making MP3 copies of music from CDs, and for making new CDs out of those files).
So I tried it out, and I love it. You put the CD in the CD drive; iTunes almost immediately goes out to the Internet, looks up the CD in the CDDB, and give you a full set of information about the CD. In particular, it lists each track's name and duration.
I hadn't known about the CDDB before, but it's remarkably comprehensive; so far it's known the details of all but one of my CDs. It even knows about Echo's Children. My only real objection to it is that its idea of genre is sometimes a little weird. The O Brother soundtrack is "Country"? And Talisman (one of Stanford's amazing student a cappella groups) is "Unclassifiable"? I guess they don't have "Bluegrass" and "A Cappella" categories, but they do have "Soundtrack" and "World" categories. Still, this is nothing compared to the online music service (I think it was the late lamented RINGO music-recommendation service) that listed Simon & Garfunkel as Heavy Metal. (And y'all do know about the time when Jethro Tull won the Grammy in the Heavy Metal category? And Jethro Tull took out a full-page ad in the New York Times (so the story goes) that said "Well, the flute is a heavy, metal instrument.")
Anyway, back to iTunes. You uncheck any songs you don't want, and then you click the Import button, and 20-30 minutes later you have MP3 copies of all the songs on the CD. iTunes then lets you sort and filter all your songs by a variety of criteria, and make "playlists" that list whatever songs you want in whatever order you want.
I had heard lots about MP3 before, of course, but had only listened to a few MP3 files. I'd been told they had "near-CD-quality" sound, but was a little scornful of that; figured it wasn't nearly as good as full CD quality. iTunes allows three standard quality settings (Good/128kbps, Better/160kbps, High/192kbps), plus the ability to specify any other bit rate you prefer. I tried some songs at 160, and then noticed that my older MP3 files were at 64 and 96, so I tried doing one at 128 and found I couldn't hear the difference between that and the same song at 160. So even the lowest quality setting is plenty good enough for me (though people with a better ear and/or better headphones may feel otherwise).
You can also record audio CDs from iTunes. I definitely intend eventually to make some mix CDs, but first I'll have to get a CD burner.
And you can transfer files to an MP3 player, but so far I haven't seen one that I'm interested in. The circumstances under which I would use one are fairly few, so it would have to be cheap and hold a lot of data to be worthwhile to me. Apple's new iPod is pretty slick, but too expensive to be worth it for me just now, even though you can also use it as a Firewire portable 5GB hard drive.
I figured that all of my CDs would fit in about 10GB of disk space. I don't have that much space lying around right now, but eventually I'll upgrade to a new computer that'll have that space. The idea of having my entire music library available on my computer's hard drive is an astonishing one.
I need to go find out how to rip files from cassette tapes—saw an FAQ earlier in the week that I think gave instructions on that, but have to go back and re-read it.
I'm amused that the process of encoding a song as an MP3 is called "ripping" and the process of transferring back to CD is called "burning." There obviously ought to be a step in this process called "slash" or "smash" or even "pillage."