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Learn how to make MP3s that represent the best compromise between file size and music quality.

MP3 is the greatest way to take music on the road with you. Here's what you need to know to be able to convert your tapes and CDs to MP3 format.

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Making MP3 Sound Recordings

They can be very small in size, but looks can be deceiving.

These tiny devices can hold many hundreds - even thousands of hours of music.

This article tells you how to create the music files that such units need.



Making MP3 recordings from your CDs and tapes might seem more complicated than simply copying them onto a cassette, but once you understand the basic settings, it becomes very easy indeed.

And these days you no longer even need to buy special software to convert ('rip') your CDs to digital format.

Update - 2020

These days MP3 is no longer a preferred medium for storing digital copies of your music.  There are no longer the constraints in terms of storage and bandwidth that applied when this article was written in 2002.

If you still encode in MP3, do so at the highest bandwidth setting (320kb).  Otherwise, you should now use FLAC format, which can also be created through the dbPowerAmp program recommended below.  Please also refer to our new series on high quality music - here's one possible entry point into the ongoing series.

MP3 explained

MP3 is a way of compressing sound files into smaller sizes. Just like jpg compression makes picture files smaller, so too can MP3 compression make sound files smaller (than, for example, they are on a regular CD).

MP3 files contain music. MP3 files can also hold considerable information about the piece of music such as the name of the artist, the song title, and various other information as well.

MP3 files have become an industry standard format that most computer music playing programs can play.

How to Make an MP3 File from a CD (or other source)

You need a program to convert the music from the CD or tape or whatever into MP3 format.  There are plenty to choose from, and most are quite inexpensive.  Perhaps the best known, and the one I use myself, is dbPowerAmp.  Another popular program is Easy CD-DA. Microsoft's Windows Media Player can also do this if you buy a small add-on to the program.

Simply put a CD in your CDrom, start up your program (sometimes it will even start automatically, change a few settings, then hit the record button.  Easy!

UPDATE :  Microsoft have upgraded the capabilities of their free Windows Media Player so that it can rip your CDs for you.  Although free, it does an excellent job, and so you no longer need to buy any extra software at all.

Compression - Something for Nothing?

The most distinctive thing about an MP3 file is that it is very much smaller than a regular CD file - typically only one tenth the size of a CD file. In other words, the music data has been compressed.

You have a choice of many different levels of compression. But you don't get something for nothing - the more compressed the file, the poorer the sound quality. Choosing the right amount of compression involves a trade-off between sound quality and file size.

The type of sound quality that is 'best' for you depends on how discerning a listener you are, and how you will be listening to the music. If you are listening to it through a car stereo system, then you don't need as good a quality as if you are listening to the music through a set of high end headphones. If you are playing the music back through a small set of cheap speakers, you again don't need the same quality as if you are playing it through a $10,000 hi-fi system.

The Best Compression Compromise

If you are short of file space and do not care about the music quality too much, compress at a sampling rate of 128 kb/sec. If you have more space and want audibly better sounding music, then increase to 160 kb/sec. If you want to have excellent quality music, almost as good as on a CD, then use a 192 kb/sec rate.

It is possible to compress at rates as high as 320kb/sec, but you're really starting to get into diminishing returns when climbing over 192kb/sec.

This is what is known as 'constant bit rate' (CBR) compression. There is also a different form of compression called 'variable bit rate' (VBR) compression. This works on the basis that sometimes music can be compressed a lot, and sometimes it needs to be much less compressed to preserve its quality. If you choose VBR, start with a setting around 50% - the higher the percentage, the better the quality (and the larger the file size).

You can hear samples of a short musical clip recorded at six different sampling rates in the article on different music file types.

Other Recording Settings

There are several other important settings that you need to optimize in your program.

The first of these is to set your program to take digital audio from the CDrom drive, not analog audio. Look for a setting somewhere in your recording settings - it might say 'DAE' or 'Digital recording mode'. If there is an 'error correcting' option, take this, too.

Maybe there is a bandwidth option - to choose how high the maximum frequency you will encode is. The human ear, in theory, can hear up to about 20kHz, but this ability drops off with age. Most speakers do not play sounds this high in any case. The lower the bandwidth, the better the quality of the remaining music. I'd suggest setting somewhere between 15kHz and 18kHz as optimum, and if you have poor quality speakers, you could even go down as low as 12kHz. Changing the bandwidth setting does not change the file size.

Maybe your program also has an option to specify how carefully it compresses the music. This might be referred to as 'encoding' or 'processing'. The higher you set this, the better the sound quality will be - without causing the file size to grow. For that reason, I always set the processing to 'maximum'. The only trade-off here is that it really slows down the speed at which a CD is converted to MP3.

How Long Does it Take

The time it takes to convert a CD to an MP3 depends on your settings - the higher the processing and the broader the bandwidth, the more computing your computer has to do.

The time it takes also depends on your computer speed. For example, I use two computers to convert CDs - one is a P3-450MHz and the other is a P4-1.7GHz. The faster computer is about five times faster than the slower computer at converting files.

With moderately high quality settings, my fast computer will record at up to eight times the CD play back speed (in other words, 80 minutes of music take ten minutes to record and convert). With very high quality settings, it runs at about 1.9 times play back speed (the 80 minutes now takes 57 minutes. And, with the same very high quality settings, my slow computer runs at about 0.3 times playback speed (80 minutes takes 265 minutes to record!).

There might be a way to speed up your recording time - by updating your CDrom driver. Usually the CDrom drive uses a generic driver. I used the latest free version of Real Audio's Real One player and within that there is an option to download and install a better Adaptec ASPI driver. Doing this increased my CDrom's speed by about 30%!

Update - 2007 :  Faster computers mean that these days I can rip CDs (convert them) into digital files at almost 20 times playback speed.  A one hour CD can be converted in three minutes.  Amazing!

Naming Files - CDDB

It is very important that your music files have helpful names that tell you what the music actually is that you have recorded.

The good news is that this process can be automated, most of the time, with most recording programs. The recording program will recognise a unique identifier for the CD and then will, over the internet, query a massive database (usually the CDDB database) to find out details of what the CD is, who the artists are, what the track names are, etc. This information isn't always 100% accurate, but most of the time it is nearly 99% accurate. The recording program can then automatically add this information to the files you create so that you don't need to type in anything yourself.


Maybe you have two or three CDs that you have recorded. One track is duplicated on a couple of the CDs, and there are a couple of other tracks that you don't like, and you would like to change the order of the music, with a mix of tracks from first one CD then a different CD, and so on.

This is all easily possible by creating a playlist. The playlist simply tells the playback program which files (tracks) to play, and in what order. A playlist can combine tracks (files) from as many different CDs as you wish, and in any order you like.

Creating playlists can give you tremendous flexibility in how you finally play back your music.

Special Situation - Voice Only Recordings

If you are recording 'talking books' or other types of voice only conversation, you can use much more compression. And if the sound source is mono, not stereo, you can use even more compression. For voice, set your bandwidth down to maybe 8kHz and use a compression rate of 96kb or even 64kb (if mono).

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Originally published 3 May 2002, last update 20 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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