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The March 25, 2004 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Get Digital Part 2: It's The Metadata, Stupid!

In an article last month we described Get Digital's service converting CD collections to compressed digital audio formats. As we went to press, we sent them our entire CD collection (about 200 disks).

CDs that were processed by Get Digital --> Click for larger pictureA week later, we received our disks back, along with three DVD-ROMS containing our entire collection in MP3 format. Now we have loaded all the tracks on our server, and can listen to any of our music--selected by artist, track, album or genre--on our AudioTron, our TiVo or any of the other digital media adapters we're testing.

It didn't surprise us that the audio sounded fine, even in MP3 at 128 kbps. Purists might hear the difference from the original CDs, but we can't. Had we been concerned about audio quality, we could have selected a higher bit rate. But we made a tradeoff of compression rate versus disk space -- our entire collection takes about 9 gigabytes on one of our PCs.

What surprised us was the discovery of how important the "metadata" is, how involved we became in getting it right, and how helpful Get Digital was.


In general, "metadata" is data about data. In the case of audio tracks, the metadata identifies the album title, the name of the specific track, the artist, and the genre (Rock, Folk, etc). It also includes the track number, and can include much more including the album art.

Most PC programs for playing and "ripping" CDs use metadata from an online database called CDDB, which we wrote about several years ago. CDDB is a very broad database, but since it depends on individual users to create the metadata for each CD, there are inconsistencies between disks. Some users are more careful than others in typing in album titles and tracks, and different users may characterize the genre differently.

We have a rather eclectic collection of CDs--it's mostly traditional folk music from North America, England and Ireland, with some classical music. When we started ripping CDs ourselves several years ago, we found that many were not in CDDB. So we expected Get Digital to have a lot of problems with the metadata, especially track data and album art.

A page from our Get Digital catalog --> Click for larger pictureA few days after we shipped our collection to Get Digital, we received a PDF file by email showing all of our albums: covers, titles and tracks. To our delight, it was in very good shape--much better than we had seen with CDDB. Nearly all the tracks were correct. Only 10 covers were missing -- Get Digital had somehow found album art for most of our obscure English CDs. In a few cases, there was some inconsistency in the artist names; on albums with more than one artist, different albums sometimes had different variations of the names.

After a phone conversation with Doug Strachota, we exchanged email to correct the artist names and track titles. We also mailed the cover art for the 10 CDs that were missing.

When we received the DVD-ROMs with our MP3 tracks from Get Digital, we also received a notebook with high-quality color pages cataloging our entire collection - each album with its cover art and tracks. Because we had worked with Get Digital to correct the metadata, it's in excellent shape. And the same metadata is associated with each track, so any networked digital media player will display it the same way.

We recently asked Doug whether our experience with Get Digital was exceptional - we observed that we felt rather like a newspaper food critic eating at a restaurant for a review. He said Get Digital's customers vary, but they are often dealing "with early adopters who understand the value of getting the metadata correct." It's easy to get it right for customers whose CDs "don't go beyond the Tower Records catalog" and harder for those with collections as eclectic as ours. Get Digital works with customers to get the metadata right -- that way they have the correct metadata in their database the next time they receive the same CD.

Get Digital has positioned itself to create the best metadata for CDs "It's all about the data--which is our focus!" Unlike CDDB and other online databases, Get Digital handles the physical disks and works with its customers to get the metadata right. The first version of the metadata was excellent, and it was even better after we worked with them to correct the few errors we found. When Dave apologized for being picky, Doug replied "you are being picky, but so are we."

We're looking forward to playing our entire collection on our AudioTron and the other digital media adapters we're evaluating.

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