A mouse ate my CD collection

Imagine a radio station solely dedicated to playing all of your favourites songs, at your convenience and without any interruptions... Well, with MP3s it's possible to create just such a station - on your hard drive. And it's just a couple of clicks away.
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The Independent Online

How many music CDs do you own? If you're like me, then probably a few hundred. Now how many of those have you listened to in the past month? Again, if you're like me and most people, then only a handful of the most recently purchased ones - representing a small percentage of all the songs you have spent money buying.

How many music CDs do you own? If you're like me, then probably a few hundred. Now how many of those have you listened to in the past month? Again, if you're like me and most people, then only a handful of the most recently purchased ones - representing a small percentage of all the songs you have spent money buying.

Why is that? Probably because it's too much trouble digging out those old CDs, or it's boring having to change them all the time. And also that you tend not to like a whole CD at once (except when it's new); you like particular tracks.

So this suggestion will either be utterly familiar to you or change your life. It is this: take those unlistened-to CDs, turn them into MP3s and put them on a computer. Set it to play at random and bingo: the computer has become your personal DJ, or radio station, playing just the songs you like. No adverts, either.

I've tried it and the effect is amazing. It revives your collection: songs you once loved but have forgotten pop up and bring back old memories. Sometimes the conjunction is remarkable (from Jimi Hendrix to Tracy Chapman in one leap isn't how you would normally program things, but that's the beauty of this).

What do you need to do this? First, you have to encode the CDs to MP3s, a procedure known as "ripping". Encoding programs are available over the Web, though not usually free (the Fraunhofer Institute owns the patent on encoding sound to MP3, and charges for its use; decoding, by contrast, is free).

Depending on the power of your computer and the speed of your CD-Rom drive, ripping a CD can take only half as long as the playing time of the whole album (or it can be done in real time).

You then have a set of files comprising that album as separately encoded tracks. A four-minute track will need about 4Mb. If you encode at 128kbyte/sec, you won't be able to tell the difference between the original and the MP3; it may even sound crisper, as the MP3 algorithm concentrates on frequencies to which the ear is sensitive.

You also need an MP3 player: these can be downloaded from the Web from sites such as MP3.com, and are widely available for both Windows PCs and Macs. I won't make recommendations because, as with encoders, it's a question of taste and more importantly how much money you have to spare. I would, though, recommend getting one with a graphic equaliser, unless you plan to play through your hi-fi (which should be easy: just connect the PC's sound card output to the AUX IN socket of your hi-fi).

The difficult question is: where to store all those MP3 files? With an album eating up 40Mb, a 200-CD collection will rapidly consume your computer's hard drive, leaving no room for operating systems or MP3 players or other necessities.

So I tested two remote options: an external hard disk from LaCie, able to store 8Gb, and a Iomega Jaz disk drive, capable of storing 2Gb on each removable disk.

If you have an older computer (like mine) you will have SCSI rather than USB connectors. This isn't a problem, as MP3 actually demands a very low data-transfer rate - just 16kb/sec, easily within the capacity of any drive.

Setting up the LaCie disk was easy once I had sorted out the right connectors (always a problem with SCSI devices). Soon I had a production line system going to encode CDs and add them to my MP3 program's "playlist".

With 8Gb, there's room for 200 CDs - that's about 2,000 tracks. Believe me, you're not going to get bored with your collection in a hurry. I did, however, notice one thing about the LaCie SCSI drive: noise. When you're working on a computer, hard drive noise isn't usually a bother, but when you're listening to music it can be. I use a laptop with a quiet hard drive, and so the extra noise generated by the SCSI drive was noticeable. (If you have a standard PC, you may already have plenty of hard drive noise so that any extra noise makes no difference.) Even though I hid the hard drive among some telephone directories under my desk (it was the right size), at low music volumes the noise of the disk spinning at 7,200rpm could be a pain. With the volume cranked up, or on headphones, that didn't matter, but if you're sharing a room with someone who isn't listening, this might be a problem. By contrast, the Iomega Jaz drive was much quieter, and smaller. I put that below my desk as well, but the noise level was much lower. There are, however, two problems with Jaz drives: first, they only hold 2Gb - about 50 CDs' worth. Now, that's 500 tracks, and equates literally to many days' worth of continuous music. Still, it isn't the whole shebang. Second, the Jaz discs are expensive - £80 each. Add in the cost of the drive and you could afford a larger external drive instead.

In the end, the decision comes down to your personal balance of convenience, price and noise. If you already have a Jaz drive, it'll be simple. If you have a PC with a huge hard disk (say, 10Gb), you might simply dedicate a big chunk (5Gb or more) to MP3 music files.

And then, as the Doobie Brothers would say, listen to the music. You can even create playlists for different moods, or parties; those hours of making special "party tapes" are gone (replaced by the hours of encoding CDs - though you only have to do that once). You just pick the tracks and add them to your party playlist. Easy, really.

One last note. You shouldn't do any of the above or you will be breaking the law. So says the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI): in Britain you are not allowed to transfer a copyrighted work from one format to another. Amazing, but true. "The basic rule is that you can't copy or distribute a work without the permission of the copyright holder," explains Allen Dixon, counsel for the IFPI, which represents the music industry in Europe. "But we aren't going to break anybody's door down and prosecute them for taping music."

Phew! But just be careful who you invite to those MP3 parties, that's all.

LaCie 8Gb SCSI drive

£316 inc VAT

(USB versions also available)

Cost per megabyte: 3.8p

Pluses: cheap, easy to set up, vast capacity

Minuses: noise could be distracting

Iomega Jaz 2Gb SCSI drive

£252 inc VAT

Jaz 2 Gb disc

£79.95 inc VAT

Cost per megabyte: 16.2p

Pluses: very quiet, easy to set up

Minuses: limited capacity, high cost per Mb (though this falls as you buy more discs)