The first article in this series discussed the main equipment needed to bring high quality streamed audio and video into your living room, to take advantage of the increasing number of internet feeds of live opera and concerts. The second article discussed some of the more tedious technical details involved.

But you're not just going to be playing music from streaming services. If you have a serious collection of several hundred CDs, it's almost certainly too big to fit attractively into your living room, and you almost certainly struggle to find things. Having taken the step of putting a computer in the living room with decent sound equipment attached to it, you can now put all your music on a hard disk drive. Your collection will be neatly catalogued where you can easily find whatever music you want: no more searching through piles of CDs for the one that turns out to be in your spouse's car. You can even take a copy of most or all of it to go on your iPod when you're travelling (I don't suppose too many people listen to classical at the gym).

There's good news and bad news here. The good news is that it's possible to get excellent results, a hard disk drive costing under £100 can now store a huge CD collection at very high quality, and the software to do it is free. If you use a Mac, you will use Apple's iTunes software. If you have a PC and you want to use an iPod (which is overwhelmingly the most popular portable music player), you will be doing the same. Otherwise, you have a choice between iTunes and Windows Media Player. (There are lesser known alternatives available, mainly used by the tech community).

The bad news is that neither iTunes nor Windows Media Player was designed with classical music in mind. If you just use them out of the box, you're likely to be disappointed by the results: your audio quality won't be as good as you might like, and you will have a messy library where it's hard to find music. With a reasonable amount of effort, however, you can make iTunes or WMP work better in a classical environment, and this article gives a number of suggestions. The instructions given are for iTunes: these all have their equivalent for Windows Media Player.

Compression and compressionPeople get confused about compression, which has two separate meanings when applied to audio. When applied to MP3 encoding or any other form of ripping, compression is about squeezing a given amount of audio into a smaller amount of disk space and/or transmission bandwidth while losing as little of the detail as possible: a better word might be "bit rate reduction". For the highest quality, "lossless" compression achieves modest bit rate reduction at zero cost in quality.The other compression is "dynamic" compression, which is the process of evening out the volume level of an audio track so that the soft bits get louder or the loud bits get softer. This is used by radio stations in their quest to be "the loudest station on the dial", and is the reason a track on Radio 3 sounds better than the same track on Classic FM in the living room, but Classic FM sounds better than Radio 3 in the car. It's also extensively used in recording studios on an instrument-by-instrument basis.First the obvious...

If you've bought a large external hard drive specially to store all your music, you need to make sure that iTunes actually uses it. On the Mac, you do this by starting iTunes, going to “Preferences” in the Apple menu, clicking on the “Advanced” tab and changing the “iTunes Music Folder Location”. (On the PC, it's on Edit-Preferences).

Set the quality level

To set up your library, the main process will be to import music from your CDs onto your hard disk drive, otherwise known as "ripping". Ripping uses a process called "compression" to reduce the amount of disk space used by the music, a process which loses some of the detail in the recordings. If you're playing popular music through a pair of iPod headphones, the resulting loss of quality is usually quite tolerable - indeed, many listeners won't hear the difference. If you're playing highly textured orchestral music through good loudspeakers, it's very noticeable indeed.

It's important to set up the options before you start ripping, because you're going to spend many hours on the ripping process, and you don't want to do it all over again.

Your main choice is the trade-off of quality against disk space. For best quality, you should set your encoder to "Apple Lossless Encoder": this achieves the maximum possible compression without any degradation of signal whatsoever. It is also the costliest in disk space: my classical library is encoded in this way, and runs at about 4 hours per Gbyte of hard drive.

Since you can buy a 1,000 Gbyte hard disk for under £100 these days, I'm not unduly bothered by this: it's going to be a long time before I want to rip 4,000 albums. However, if you want to economise, don't be fooled by the iTunes description of 160 kbps as "high quality": it isn't. You need to pick a "custom quality" from their menu, and I strongly suggest that you go no lower than 256 kbps.

Roughly speaking, you'll run at around 7 hours per Gbyte at 320 kbps, and 9 hours per Gbyte at 256 kbps. The exact number will vary with the music.

You get to the settings for importing music to your iTunes library by going to iTunes Preferences, hitting the "General" tab and then hitting the "Import settings" button.Are you Apple-only?

Apple's proprietary formats will work fine on Macs, iPods and Windows PCs. However, they generally don't work with other audio playback devices (i.e. mobile phones or competitors to the iPod from other manufacturers). So if you're want to stay uncommitted to Apple, avoid their own formats and stay with an industry standard format such as MP3.

Tagging

When you have imported tracks from your CDs, iTunes lets you "tag" the tracks, labelling each one with a track number, track name, an artist and a composer, and grouping them into albums each with their own name. Assuming that you have an Internet connection, iTunes will attempt to identify the CD and look it up in an online database called "Gracenote CDDB".

CDDB works just fine for popular music. But broadly speaking, it does a terrible job for classical and opera. Its data is provided by a combination of record companies and individual users, and there is little or no consistency in the track names, artist names or composer names, and your resulting library is a mess. In 2007, Gracenote did announce their “Classical Music Initiative” to tidy this up, but it's not clear how long it will take before a high majority of classical albums are tagged according to the new standard.

Fortunately, iTunes lets you change the tags, and it's pretty much essential for you to do so.

A specific problem is that you will probably want to browse your library by composer, whereas both iTunes (as well as FrontRow, and iPods other than the iPod Touch) only provides a browse box by artist. There's a simple (albeit non-intuitive) solution to this: switch around your artist and composer tags, so that you put the composer in the artist field and vice versa. It will cost you a minute or so for each album, but the effect is that you can now browse your library by composer to find your favourite works. This is a controversial piece of advice in that some people really dislike the idea of putting the composer anywhere other than in the field labelled “composer”, but I find it works well.

Update on 13th September 2009: Apple's new release of iTunes, version 9, now lets you browse by columns in any order you want, thus removing the need to swap fields (although you may still have the problem on your iPod or FrontRow.)

Whether or not you do the field swap, you will want to consolidate your composer names. You will find a wonderful mix of "Beethoven", "Ludwig van Beethoven", "Beethoven, Ludwig van", "Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1827)", and you will want to change these so that they're all the same. You will also want to clear the "is part of a compilation" flag if it's set, which will move the album from an artist name labelled "compilations" to the artist name that is now associated with your composer.

If you have an album in which tracks follow each other without a break (this happens in opera and some symphonies), you may need to make sure that the "part of a gapless album" box is checked in the "options" tab for the track.

Finally you will want to pick a genre (again, you'll get a wonderful mixture from CDDB). Personally, I just go for two genres (Classical and Opera), but you may prefer to create genre sets like "Orchestral", "Instrumental", etc. or "Baroque", "Romantic", etc.

Of course, the real cataloguers amongst us can go completely overboard and rationalise the full tag data for every track in their collection, down to every movement of every symphony and every aria of every opera. But the steps above result in a thoroughly workable library for the investment of relatively limited time. Once you've done it, you won't want to go back to the stacks of CDs.

Tagging software

There's a truly bewildering array of software packages out there that offer help with organising the tags on your music library. Many of them are free, and some of them offer their own alternative database to CDDB. You can find them by searching Google for “MP3 tag software” or “ID3 tag software” (ID3 is the name of the standard for attaching so-called “meta-data” to music files).

Thus far, however, I haven't been impressed. I've tried a couple of the packages and didn't like what they did, and I haven't yet identified a package that did significantly more for me than could be done with iTunes anyway, and a quick look around various Internet forums doesn't give me the impression that anyone else has either. If anyone out there has spotted anything that looks like a really good tagging package oriented to classical music, I'd love to hear from you, and I'll get hold of it and review it. But for the moment, my recommendation is that you simply use iTunes to sort out the library.

Sharing

If you're prepared to put up with the occasional irritation, you can build a really wonderful resource. I've now got close to 200 albums on a shared hard drive, all in lossless compression, and I'm still piling through the CD collection.

Apple's sharing protocols (you get to them in the "Sharing" tab of "Preferences" let me use this library from any PC in the house (and there is a scary number of these), including the one in the living room that has seriously good loudspeakers.

So the one system will find most of my CD collection (eventually all of it), properly catalogued and in excellent quality, play live or near-live video from the Berlin Phil, MetPlayer and their ilk, and find a huge amount of music I don't have from Spotify. It's a wonderful resource, and one that's going to keep on improving.

David Karlin 5th May 2009