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Digitizing a music library: lessons learned

By January 27, 2015January 4th, 2017Industry News

Many community radio stations have music libraries that are the envy of others in town. Aisles of CDs, for the audiophile, are dazzling. However, as radio heads are well aware, these libraries are often more a headache. There are the problems of access to your library, stolen and damaged CDs, cataloging systems and appropriate handling of explicit tracks. Some issues can cost you a lot, while others are the basis for simmering conflicts.

Then there’s the issue of the music industry’s shift to digital. CDs may be around for awhile yet, but their time is likely coming. How do we keep up with that?

One solution is to convert old-school music libraries from CD to digital. Converting libraries can be an enormous task. Some stations have collected tens of thousands of CDs. Daunting? Yes. Impossible? Not at all, especially if you plan well.

How does it work?

Many radio stations often opt to utilize volunteers over paying per CD to a digital conversion service. It’s not a bad idea, but bear in mind it’s going to take many months, even years, to take 10,000 CDs and rip them. A computer or two, scheduling volunteer shifts and a little direction (as well as written tutorials for new volunteers who join) and you’re set. However, If you think it’s affordable, a premium service might be the way to go.

Your radio station must discuss this issue with your legal counsel and get a green light. Do note that every attorney will warn you that you can’t make the digital files freely available to programmers or DJs once they’re ripped. Distributing or permitting the same is highly illegal, and you should take precautions to prevent copying music.

File format is of much debate, and there are many resources to consult that can help you choose. Some opt for MP3, FLAC or WAV. Do what works best with your chosen playback system, your hard drive space and ear. A few people have spirited arguments over quality perceptions. Most won’t notice.

Playback systems are plentiful and range in price from free to quite expensive. You may already use an automation system or other tools; consider talking to your vendor, if you have one, about modifying your existing system. If you are getting a new one, your considerations should include compatibility (does it conflict with web browsers, other tools, etc.), the station’s ability to maintain it, and scalability.

Here are a few rules of thumb our team at KPFT used as we digitized our library:

1. Start small. We zeroed in on a small, relatively unused genre in our library to begin with, and ascertained problems (e.g. which PCs are too slow, does a CD drive need to be replaced with a faster one, etc.). This gave us a sampling to work with, without affecting our broadcast.

2. Choose a software package that does metadata comparisons. Most software will ‘tag’ audio tracks with information it pulls from one of a few Internet-based music databases. Sometimes that information is wrong, however. Without product endorsement, we chose ripping software that gave us a chance to compare the metadata from several databases. This gave us a chance to compare for the most accurate data.

3. Come up with a system for separating clean rips from dirty ones. Most CDs will rip without issue, but a few may return errors. We had bins for CDs that were completed without incident from those that returned errors and needed to be checked.

4. Think through syntax. Do you want titles smart capitalized or every word capitalized? Do you have a standard way you want artist features tagged (feat. or ft.)? What’s the right way you want genres spelled and referenced? Electronic or electronica? Triple A or AAA? These all sound minor until you have 13,000 tracks ‘feat’ an artist, but your DJ needs to find a Little Feat song, or 900 “Electronic” and 200 “Electronica” but they’re all the same thing.

5. Decide most of your genres early. Within the rock/pop CD library category, we housed folk, rock, pop, metal and a few other genres, while our CD-based world music section was broken down into countries of origin. How many genres do you want to collect in your digital library? Alternative, Americana and Indie are emergent genres, but are they descriptive enough for what you need? Again, seems minor until you have hundreds of files.

6. Make it clear how to handle explicit tracks. If you use most ripping software, you may have to metatag explicit tracks manually. You may also want to leave them out altogether from your library, or only include clean versions of songs.

At some 50,000 CDs, we’re still at it and will be for some time. However, it’s an initiative years in the making for us, and we are excited about its potential. My best advice is simply: don’t wait, do it!

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