As the most common high-quality digital format for music, CDs are a great medium, but they are not without flaws. Discs can become damaged or (in rare cases, such as rot) become unreadable over time. If you are serious about collecting music, you should take note of how to rip CDs at an archival level, While I will not cover any codecs (besides recommending FLAC or ALAC) or ways to format your rips (one track, multiple tracks, creating a cue sheet, etc.), I will share how I rip my CDs to ensure accurate, archival results. Ripping your CDs to a lossless format, accurately tagging the files, and verifying that your rips are accurate will ensure that your music stands the test of time.
Before I cover how I rip CDs, I want to define three types of damage that could be present on any particular CD. These are listed from best to worst:
The program I use to rip CDs is called Exact Audio Copy. Like the name suggests, the program works to copy a CD's audio exactly how it is on the disc. This includes correcting for the sampling offset of each individual CD drive, offering multiple modes that can be used to rip CDs trading speed for accuracy if needed, and verifying the accuracy of rips via two separate databases. While EAC is a Windows program, it has been known to work well under WINE if you are a Mac or Linux user.
I recommend the EAC options guide on the Hydrogenaudio Knowledgebase with a few changes. This guide was written using an older version of EAC, so if you do not see a certain option in the listed tab, it can be safely ignored. This guide also explains what all of the options do if you wish to change settings on your own. Please open this guide and follow it, but do note my changes below:
Make sure to also set up a compression codec under EAC > Compression Options... and verify that, under EAC > Metadata Options..., CUETools is listed as the metadata provider.
EAC stores settings for each drive you use independently. Again, I recommend the relevant guide from Hydrogenaudio with a few changes:
With EAC set up, you can now begin creating accurate rips of CDs. AccurateRip is the primary database and is integrated into other ripping programs besides EAC. It works on a per-track basis and will verify rips no matter if you rip the whole disc or just specific tracks (this distinction will become important later). CUETools is the other database. While it can only return accuracy results for a whole disc at once, CUETools can repair damaged rips if they have specific errors. These two databases work best together, and both help you to know if your rip is accurate as quickly as possible.
Below, you can read the steps that I take when ripping any particular CD. At each step, any tracks that are accurate are saved, and only those with issues are ripped again. I will also outline when I correct the three types of CD damage and the steps that I use in fixing that. Keep in mind that most CDs will not need to progress beyond one or two passes of burst mode.
Burst mode basically reads the disc being ripped fast and all at once. The drive can slow down if necessary, but burst mode does not put any unnecessary strain on the drive when it rips. I start out ripping all CDs in burst mode, and if either database, AccurateRip or CUETools verifies the tracks, the rip is complete. If the disc being ripped is not in either database, then I test the disc (Action > Test Selected Tracks), which reads the tracks again without saving them. Then, the read and test CRC values (checksums for each track's content) are compared, and the rip is presumed accurate if these match for the whole disc. Any inaccurate tracks can be ripped a few times more in burst mode in a quick attempt to get an accurate copy. Keep in mind that if you used test and copy, one or both of the rips may be inaccurate, so the tracks should be tested and copied again.
If any track is still inaccurate, the next step is to check the CUETools output in the window that EAC shows after the rip has completed. CUETools will state as part of this output where the rip specifically contains errors, and if the rip can be repaired by CUETools, it is worth it to do so. You will need to rip the disc as an image in EAC (click the IMG/CUE button). CUETools can be downloaded here, and within it, you can select the image you just ripped, select "Encode" and then "repair" in the drop-down, set the rest of the options as you would like, and repair the rip. The repair functionality that the CUETools database provides is great, and it has even recovered used CDs that I have purchased with small amounts of label-side damage. Please keep in mind that you can use CUETools to repair a rip at any point, not just now, in case you get a more favorable but inaccurate result later.
At this point, if the disc has any issues, it's time to clean the disc physically to clear off fingerprints and debris. As I sometimes only have access to limited resources, I generally use a wet paper towel to clean the playing side of the disc. Make sure to clean the entire surface from the center outward. The same procedure can be used to dry the disc. The disc can then be ripped again in burst mode as necessary. Even if you can't see imperfections on the disc, cleaning it works often enough that it's worth it. I have personally had discs rip inaccurately and slow down in burst mode only to work perfectly after being cleaned.
At this time, after cleaning the disc, using multiple burst mode passes, and checking outputs from CUETools as necessary, if the disc is still inaccurate, it's time to use secure mode. This mode continually rereads sectors on the CD until it has enough confidence in a specific result to use it or terminates at a read error. "Error recovery quality" in EAC's options is what dictates how long secure mode will attempt to read for before terminating in a read error and selecting the sample from the passes that occurred most often. Secure mode is useful for discs with a small amount of errors, but on highly damaged discs, it will take forever. If it's endlessly reading and encountering errors, lower the error recovery quality, and make sure to compare the results against burst mode. Secure mode will cause more wear on your drive, so it is important to stay mindful of how much the drive is reading if in secure mode.
Different drives behave differently with certain CDs and types of damage. Full-height drives are usually much better than the half-height, slim ones like in laptops. If you are still getting errors, try a different drive if you have access to one. This is the point of no return; future steps require either resurfacing equipment or the willingness to spend money to resurface a CD, and while they may help, they may not. Using multiple drives is the last "easy" step that can be done to get an accurate rip.
With multiple passes failing to produce an accurate result, the disc should now be resurfaced to remove any scratches or imperfections in the disc surface. There are multiple levels of resurfacing machines ranging from approximately $100 to the thousands of dollars. I personally use the JFJ Easy Pro which costs about $130 at the time of writing. I have found this machine to produce great results even on heavily-scratched, damaged CDs, and for the few discs that have still been inaccurate after buffing, the issue was certainly not in the playing side. If you can find a used machine locally that's cheaper, purchase it, as your new JFJ will get dirty anyway after using the provided consumables to resurface a few discs. If you'd rather not purchase a machine, you can find a business locally that can resurface discs for you (sometimes with much better machines), but keep in mind that this probably costs a few dollars per CD and may not be worth it.
After the CD is resurfaced, if the rip is still inaccurate, there is really nothing else that can be done. It's now best to listen to all of the saved rips and keep the ones that sound best or obtain a replacement CD.
Hopefully this page has helped you rip CDs more quickly and accurately than before. If you have questions or want to contact me, my contact information is available on the homepage.
Page written on 10 June 2019 and last updated on 10 June 2019.