Stuck in proprietary-land

Many years ago, I made the fateful decision to standardize my home music collection on WMA.  The bundled software in Windows XP, Windows Media Player, ripped my CDs to the WMA format, for free.

At the time, MP3 ripping utilities cost money, or came with a boatload of spyware or malware attached.  Windows Media Player also had a nice service where it automatically found media info from a central database and tagged your music files accordingly.  This was nice as it can be a huge pain to manually edit each MP3 file’s ID3 information.

Looking back, I chose wrong.  Why am I wrong?  The number one portable music player on the planet, the iPod, doesn’t play WMA files.  When I first started creating my music library back in 2001, the iPod wasn’t supported on Windows.

To date, WMA players have been pretty lame.  I haven’t seen one yet that approaches the usability of an iPod, and buying WMA files from official channels has been a lesson in bad DRM policies.

So I’m now stuck converting my WMA files to some other format, which I’m still trying to decide what to go with.  Although MP3 is a licensed technology, it’s so ubiquitous it seems like a good bet.

I absolutely refuse to purchase music with DRM, as recent debacles (Google Video and PlaysForSure) have shown DRM is a losing proposition, for both content providers and content purchasers.

I’ll be very, very careful in the future when deciding how to persist media I care about.  If a music format can disappear at the whim of its creator, I don’t want to be stuck with useless bits and bytes.

About Jimmy Bogard

I'm a technical architect with Headspring in Austin, TX. I focus on DDD, distributed systems, and any other acronym-centric design/architecture/methodology. I created AutoMapper and am a co-author of the ASP.NET MVC in Action books.
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  • I made the same mistake a few years ago because in order for music to “play nice” with MCE 2004/2005 it had to be in WMA format. Embedding album art inside MP3s just doesn’t work on MCE (not sure about the Vista version). So I too have had to switch everything back to MP3.

    Up until now I have used iTunes for most of my music purposes and have just converted them to DRM-free MP3s using the “DRM ripper of the day” (i.e. JHymn, etc.). But there does seem to be some good things happening over at Amazon’s DRM-free MP3 store which I’ll probably try to use in the future.

    How are you buying your music now?

  • I wrote this a few years ago when I made the switch from a purely open lossless format (FLAC) to iTunes with ALC (Apple Lossless).

    Some of the talk is dated, but a lot of the concepts for media management with iTunes still hold true.

    I keep a master library on a NAS drive where everything is Apple Lossless. This library is owned by the iMac that stays in the house all the time.

    When I add music to my laptop, I have it set to copy to my local library so I keep a local copy. I use HQ AAC on my laptop to cut the size down to about half of the ALC files, since my laptop isn’t really a reference source. It’s all about keeping the original CD preserved so I don’t have to rip it again.

    Then I sync to my iPhone from the laptop with the smaller AAC files. I also sync to my old HDD based iPod with the iMac so I get the full lossless files for playing in the car. Not that it really matters there either with all the road noise and such.

    I never banked on WMA (or any MS format for that matter) simply because nothing else supported it. I went straight to FLAC (after an affair with MP3 for several years.

    I now buy most of my music as iTunes Plus or Amazon MP3, depending upon availability. For many things, we’ll still buy the CD (usually on eBay or used) and rip it to the library so we can enjoy it around the house.

  • @Joey

    Well I was using AllOfMP3 until it shut down. It’s legal (in Russia), and it let me choose my encoding (MP3, WMA, Ogg, etc). Now it’s back to buying CDs and ripping them. Current online prices are still a huge rip-off. Paying $10 for a lossy, DRM-laden album doesn’t make a lot of sense.


    So what I didn’t want to do is swap one proprietary format for another. Isn’t ALC just another Apple-only format?

  • Josh

    Buy a Zune. Just because the iPod has huge market penetration doesn’t mean you need to have one. Going forward, just rip your CDs in mp3 format.

    Or go pay a few bucks for something like this:

  • Brad Mead

    If you’re starting over, I suggest spending some time investigating EAC (Exact Audio Copy) and then related encoders (LAME, etc). There is plenty of info out there. It’s a time sink but the single best way (IMHO) to get the master, loseless, one-step-removed-from-redbook audio archive.

    Then it’s just a matter of prepping and intermediating for the device at hand. For me, the lesser amount of time I spend in I tunes the better (still no good third-party support for the 3g nano).

  • I did a test (not sure if it was in the post or not) to see how lossless lossless actually was.

    I ripped in WAV using EAC (Exact Audio Copy). Then I converted:

    WAV -> FLAC
    FLAC -> WMA
    WMA -> ALC
    ALC -> WAV

    Then ran FC /B original.wav converted.wav and the files were 100% identical.

    Then I ripped the same CD with iTunes, converted to WAV and the files were identical.

    At that point, given the much easier to use iTunes, I started ripping using iTunes from that day forward and retired the burden-laden workflow of EAC->FLAC->ALC.

    Since all of the content is lossless and there are open source converters for all the formats, I figured pick one that worked with all my players and go with it. Considering the penetration of the iPod, I didn’t figure I would be doing any wrong.

    Another benefit is that since everything is in ALC, when I use GarageBand (or many other authoring programs like iMovie) I can easily pick any of my lossless track to use in those applications without any issues. Very nice.

    And now — getting into pure wife-acceptance-factor here — within a day of my wife having her iPhone she had made 20+ ringtones using GarageBand and our music library without me doing anything to help her. For me, that’s a major bonus considering how long it took me to show her how to make a ringtone for her BlackBerry using windows-based tools.

  • I 2nd the suggestion to buy a Zune. I owned an original Zune and it was pretty cool but it had it’s drawbacks:

    -too thick
    -no podcast support
    -clicky noise when scrolling through library (not simulated, an actual button click sound)

    My zune was stolen out of my car and I now have a Zune 2.0 80GB. It’s much thinner, has a bigger screen, supports podcasts (all zune’s now do), and has an awesome touch pad / D-Pad that actually works. I can’t imagine how anyone could prefer the awkward ipod thumb motion when scrolling when you could just flick and watch it scroll.

    Of course, iPod Touch isn’t really a comparison (too little storage, but excellent usability)… but Zune 2.0 vs. iPod classic? Zune wins hands down.

    Oh and the new Zune PC software doesn’t suck as bad as v1 did. I actually enjoy it :)

    As for the format, I rip all my music to mp3 using MediaMonkey. I used to use, but yeah… not anymore! Amazon’s store looks promising but they don’t have enough music on it. Buying CD’s for $10 is so much better for consumers than paying the same price (or more) for lower quality files and no album-art.

    There is definitely a market for “The DRM-Free Music store to rule-them-all”

  • @all

    So to summarize:

    - Always rip to lossless, hard drives are cheap
    - Never buy with DRM
    - Check out the Zune 2.0 80GB, though isn’t that the one that’s impossible to find?