Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Personal Guide to Ripping CDs with Zune

Over the holidays I ripped about sixty CDs with the Zune software, and it wasn�t as smooth as it should have been. Here is what I learnt, which I hope will save others time and frustration.

It had long been a plan for the holidays for me to manually compare the substantial CD collection my wife and I have accrued over the years with the collection of MP3s we have on our home server. Over the space of many hours I worked my way through the physical collection (only recently did all our CDs migrate to the same room) and compared it to the collection of bits we have. Having determined which discs were missing, I then ripped them using the Zune software to MP3s. Note that these notes were based on software version 3.1 running on Vista Ultimate 64-bit. YMMV.

The bulk of our collection was ripped in the past�using various versions of Music Match. It wasn�t flashy, but it worked at a reasonable speed with good results, so much so I paid some dollars for the Plus version that ripped things faster. However in recent years the software got bought out twice by other companies and messed with, and today it calls itself Yahoo! Music and is remarkably useless to me. That, combined with my recent Zune-love, made me try our own Zune software for the large task ahead of me. Turns out there are some issues with how and when the software works out the metadata for the rips (metadata is the extra information associated with the album such as its name, artist, the track details and the album art) and here is what I learned.

Turn off auto-rip
The most important option turned out to be to disable the "Rip CD automatically when inserted" option. With it enabled, I would stick a CD in, the rip would commence seemingly ok, but I happened to notice a bunch of "01 Unknown Track.mp3" files sitting in multiple "\Unknown Artist\Unknown Album" directories, like this:

Usually it was just the first track, and it happened on about 20% of the CDs I had ripped. Further investigation revealed that the rip appeared to start before the software had actually finished reading all the metadata from the internet. This made the files as described, which had to be manually renamed, moved to the correct location and the MP3 Title tag set correctly (using Explorer�s Property page for the file). What is weird is that usually the rest of the MP3 tags would be correct (Album and Artist), so I could figure out which album it should be to fix it. Anyway, turning off auto-rip allows you to verify that the software has figured out the metadata, before you click the �Rip now� button. Judging by postings on the Zune forums I am not the only one with this problem.

Wait For the Metadata
With this learned, I started to really watch the software after the initial CD insertion, and I noticed that often it would display UNKNOWN ARTIST and yet have the correct album name, track names and album art shown. My solution for this was to eject the disc and re-insert it: this would cause the software to actually get the artist name correct. Again turning off auto-rip ensures all the data is there and correct before you start the rip.

Missing Album Art
Even with this regimen, I was noticing that some album art was failing to show up at all. Ejecting the disc didn�t help and trying the same disc in Windows Media Player would also fail to show the album art, so I guess the database has some inexplicable holes in its album art collection. I even had one album where the art was shown successfully for Disc 2, but not for Disc 1. The fix for this is to wait for the rip to complete, view the album in the collection then right-click it and select "Find Album Info". Try and do this on as large a monitor as you can, as the Find dialog is not movable, and you�ll want to be able to see at least some of the Track list in the main window (or have the CD case to hand) to make sure it matches the choices offered. Although the art might be missing on the initial search, it will often show up in the Find dialog, so look through it to see if you have a "better" match to your album and if you find one with art, select it, click Next then Finish. Be sure the number of tracks is the same and also the names of the tracks match the ones on the CD case.

Compilation Metadata
Compilation CDs require additional care in my experience. In every case for me the initial metadata pull had correct track names, but showed no Artists for the tracks. If I brought up the Edit dialog on the album I would sometimes see data for the Composer (which I could care less about frankly), but the Song Artist would be "Various Artists". This is highly annoying, but the fix is to use the "Find Album Info" as described above, and usually the track data it pulls will contain the correct Song Artists. Sadly the Find dialog does not display the Song Artist info, so the only way to tell if you got some is to try each likely suspect in turn. Be sure to use the Find option before any hand-edits you make to the metadata as any changes you make before pulling new info with Find will be lost.

Random Annoyances
There is another annoyance with the software that I hit with one particular torture-test compilation, a set from the UK in 1993 called "Young At Heart". It is four compilation CDs, so I had the Song Artist troubles described above on every disc, plus there are about a million �Young at Heart� albums in the world so the Find dialog was unwieldy, and the Zune UI appeared to have no way to display titles longer than around 18 characters. It truncates long names with a sexy-looking fade to grey, but offered no way to see the full name short of actually switching to the item. You can see how well this works in the screenshot below:

If I didn�t like this compilation so much I would have saved a frustrating hour of my life and given up trying to get an accurate rip of these particular discs. [In the process of writing this very post I discovered that tooltips do actually appear if you hover over the text itself: hovering over the album art, which is what I was trying in vain for the last few months, gets you nothing].

When a rip finishes the Zune software makes no effort to tell you via a sound effect or anything. This means if you have a busy life and can�t just sit in front of the PC watching it rip, you have to keep coming back to check on progress to see if it�s done yet. A simple sound effect on completion would have been much appreciated.

Frankly I miss the old Music Match as a CD ripper. I could try another program, but many of the programs out there that�I have tried in the past choke on my collection due to its size, so I figured I�d try the Zune software for ripping as it does an acceptable job of tracking my collection (though its performance is poor). In retrospect I guess I was crazy to persevere like I did, but now I have learnt the tricks I�ll stick with it, and maybe others in a similar position will have an easier time in the future.

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