Operation FLAC

This equinox I had a profound revelation. MP3 sucks! I know others have stated this, but the full realization has really hit me. Now I feel obsessed with preserving my audio in a lossless format. Why won’t Apple play along?

At the start of each season I like to take a few days off and watch the Lord of the Rings. Since I don’t need the video, and since I use AirPlay, I figured I would just play it on my computer and enjoy it throughout the condo. I had a high quality MP3 rip of the DVD’s made at 320 KBPS. It sounded good when listening casually, but I had never done a while viewing this way.

It started out fine. I thought everything sounded fine. As things went on, however, I realized they didn’t. The levels sounded all wrong. The spacial component of the audio sounded less defined. The warm organic sounds of the movie sounded too electrical, too digitized, and not at all in the spirit of Middle Earth. The ringing of swords sounded muted, the firing of an arrow sounded like a phaser, and something just felt off.

As time went on I realized that last point more and more. Something just felt off. By the Return of the King I knew something had gone wrong when I didn’t feel impressed. Normally that movie transfixes me from beginning to end, but now I just didn’t feel it. SOmething had to change.

I did some quick hacking and whipped up a way to play FLAC on the Mac. I had a FLAC version of the movies. This would offer a perfect reproduction of the DVD’s audio. The next day I put my setup to the test and it worked.

I noticed the difference right away. The analog warmth returned. Sting sounded spectacular. The arrows sounded like arrows. The level of the music seemed proper. Everything felt right again. And most importantly my emotions had returned to expected levels. I had discovered something important, something others before me had also discovered, and now I understood. MP3 sucks!

Once you go FLAC you can never go back! Now that I knew, I also knew that I had to begin re-ripping my CD’s. I started ripping CD’s a long time ago, and still had many of my favorites in horrible 128K mp3 versions. This had to change.

I set up a temporary directory on my Linux machine and started using the excellent ABCDE. It does take some configuring and some shell scripting knowledge doesn’t hurt either, but once you get it working it works like a champ. Now I sit here feeding CD after CD into a Plextor CD/DVD burner and just let it go to town. I have tons of CD’s, and my recent move has made this even more apparent. It feels like the right time to do this. I call it Operation FLAC.

As I continued, I noticed that a pattern had evolved. I wondered if I should keep the old MP3 versions for any reason. Then I realized that I had copied all of my favorites to my iTunes library to put on my iPhone and iPad. This pattern has become undeniable: rip the FLAC, if I want the crappy MP3 copy move it to my Mac, then delete the MP3 and no going back!

While ripping CD’s, I enjoy comparing the MP3 version to the FLAC version. On some things it really shines, for instance with the works of Terry Riley. No matter what, FLAC preserves something lost to MP3. It preserves the feeling of the music.

We entered a dark age of audio about ten or so years ago when the MP3 standard became popular. All lossy compression sucks, but MP3 really sucks. If you must use a lossy compression, use OGG/Vorbis. Unfortunately, many devices do not support either OGG/VORBIS or FLAC. This includes all of Apple’s products if used with out of the box software.

Apple loves music! It says so in the Steve Jobs biography. He totally redefined the way we listen to music. Portability has come at a price. You could only have a thousand songs in your pocket if you compress the music, removing elements of the audio to shrink its size.

Apple has helped the AAC standard become mainstream, which does offer superior sound to MP3. They have also introduced their own lossless audio format and made it open source. In the lossy compression war, MP3 dominates, AAC contends, but many still feel that OGG/Vorbis sounds best. In the world of lossless compression however, FLAC has become the dominant standard. Would it really hurt Apple that much to include these standards natively? If they love music and they love open source standards so much, then why don’t they love open source standards for better sounding music?

You can already get OGG and FLAC working in some circumstances. A XIPH QUickTime component and a program called Fluke have brought support to the Mac in the past, but Apple keeps breaking them and they do not work with my current setup. VLC also includes these formats, but the program only has a small group of maintainers and it has bugs. I have also recently begun playing with AirFoil. It runs under Mac and Windows, and pipes any program’s audio through AirPlay. It also lets you select which audio output you want to use. iTunes does not have this essential feature. To play these formats on the iPhone or iPod Touch you can try oPlayer. No doubt jailbreaking also offers plenty of ways. Those who don’t feel an allegiance to APple should also investigate RockBox

What have we lost by using lossless compression? I can’t believe I’ve spent the last ten years listen to muted lifeless versions of my favorite CD’s. When I play a FLAC version, I can almost hear the CD saying: “Hi. Remember me? I’m a CD. This is how I should sound. Remember? You used to play me all the time.” Perhaps I anthropomorphize, but it has happened over and over again. Nietzsche said that without music life would be a mistake, and lossy compression removes that intangible thing that makes the statement true.

If this article strikes a cord, then you should start an Operation FLAC of your own. Just get into a rhythm and you can rip a surprising number of CD’s. Think of it as preserving the beautiful music which has changed your life in a lossless format. Hard drives have become cheap enough, and you can even rig up a system which automatically backs up your perfect priceless collection. Don’t you owe it to your music? It feels so good to replace an old lossy rip with a shiny new lossless version of a great CD. Don’t worry, you can always move the crappy MP3 version to your iTunes library.