As with digital photography, moving to digital music is best done in steps, especially if you have a large music collection. Transferring music from CDs to your PC is fairly straightforward, if monotonous. But copying music from older audio formats, such as cassette tapes, is more complicated.
In either case, the goal is to move your existing audio collection from its current media—such as CDs or cassette tapes—to your PC hard disk so that you can manipulate the music files in any way you want. You can, for example, organize and back up the music, transfer it to portable devices, and create custom CDs. The beauty of acquiring digital music is that after you transfer the music to your hard disk, you can easily use the music elsewhere, such as in your car, in your living room, or on a portable device.
But first things first. If you want to move an audio CD collection to the computer, you need to plan: The software and media formats you choose matter.
For Macintosh users, I strongly recommend Apple iTunes, which is free for all Mac users, works in Mac OS X, and offers tremendous integration with iPod, Apple's stellar hard disk based, portable audio player. iTunes can copy (or "rip") audio CDs to the hard disk and offers excellent media management, including a simple music library, playlist support, per-song equalizer customization, and a cool between-song fading feature. iTunes also lets you create custom-mix CDs on systems with recordable CD or DVD drives.
Windows users will want to use Windows Media Player (WMP) 7.1 (for Windows Me, Windows 2000, or Windows 9x), Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP—for XP), or RealNetworks' RealOne. Each product is free and falls into the all-in-one player category; each plays various audio and video formats, can rip audio CDs, play Internet radio stations, manage media libraries, and access online content. All of these players offer every feature you'd ever want for audio and video playback. If you're interested in a more traditional media player with audio CD-ripping capabilities, investigate MUSICMATCH's MUSICMATCH Jukebox (for information about the MUSICMATCH Jukebox, see the Resources section following this commentary).
You also need to choose a media format to use when you rip audio files to your computer. On the Mac, iTunes supports only the MP3 format, not the technically superior Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. However, MP3 format is more popular and more cross-platform friendly than WMA, meaning that MP3 applications exist for UNIX, Mac, and Linux as well as Windows. But WMA files take up less space and offer identical or better quality than MP3 files do. After a year of working with WMA format, I've returned to MP3 because of its compatibility with Apple's excellent iPod, which is my favorite portable player. But dozens of devices are available that work just fine with the WMA format, and you can easily copy WMA songs to a standard audio CD that will play in any home, portable, or car-based CD player. In short, if you're a Windows user you should seriously consider using the WMA format, but first ensure that it's compatible with any portable players you might want to use.
If you do choose the MP3 format, I recommend copying audio files at 128Kbps or better (I use 160Kbps) for the best-sounding results. WMA files copied at 128Kbps are roughly equivalent in quality to 160Kbps MP3 files, but take up less space.
After you've settled on the software and format, you can begin the copying process. To copy music from audio CDs, simply load your software, insert your CDs one at a time, select the songs you want to copy, and transfer that music to your hard disk. As a time-saver, you might consider copying only the songs you'll listen to. There's no reason to copy an entire CD unless you think you'll listen to all the music.
To copy music from sources other than CDs, you will probably need to invest in a hardware interface. Most PCs and some Macs include audio-in ports, usually on a sound card, but these built-in interfaces are often low quality and prone to interference. Instead, I recommend a USB-based product such as the excellent Belkin Components' Belkin USB VideoBus II, which features standard RCA-style audio connectors (as well as S-video and composite video connectors) that will interface with virtually any stereo component, including turntables, cassette players, and, of course, stereo receivers. You can buy the Belkin device online for about $50.
Recording non-CD audio won't be as automated as the CD audio-ripping process, and you won't be able to use the software I recommended above. However, both the Mac and PC come with software that lets you copy audio files from other sources, including the Belkin device. On the PC, you can use Microsoft Windows Sound Recorder in XP Pro to copy audio files and perform simple editing tasks, although you might want to invest in a third-party editing application such as Syntrillium Software's Cool Edit Pro or Cool Edit 2000. On the Mac, you'll need a third-party application such as Black Cat Systems' Audiocorder: You can find a complete list of OS X-compatible audio applications on the Apple Web site ( http://www.apple.com/downloads/macosx/audio ). Note also that when you record from a non-CD source, you'll need to apply some audio-editing skills: You'll have to fade the sound in and out on each recording and manually edit so that individual songs are contained in individual files.
After the music is on your PC, you can begin sharing it with other users on your home network, create your own audio mix CDs, play the music on a portable device such as a Pocket PC or MP3 player, or even pump music into another room in your house by using a device such as Voyetra Turtle Beach's AudioTron. But the first—and potentially lengthy—step is to get the music on your PC. Take your time to do it right, and you'll reap the benefits for years to come.