6 Free Software Every Audiophile Should Download
How often is it that you can get something for your system for nothing? Almost never. Below are six of our favorite free pieces of software that we think every audio enthusiast should download and try out. From CD ripping to improving your ability to critically listen, this list has something for everyone. Enjoy, and let us know if you have any other suggestions by posting in the comments below.
1. Exact Audio Copy
Exact Audio Copy, or EAC as the cool kids say, is the Swiss Army Knife of CD ripping, copying, and burning. The goal of this program, as the name suggests, is to rip audio from a CD without adulterating the file. It does this through jitter correction and read error detection. When ripping in “secure mode”, EAC reads every audio section at least twice, or relies on extended error information that some drives are able to return with the audio data. Let’s say there is an error while reading a disc, the program will re-read up to 82 times, compare the results, and give you the best copy possible. If the program is less than 99.5% sure the audio stream is correct, it will alert you with a read error. Beyond accuracy, the program is endlessly customizable while still managing to be easy enough to use for the less-technical user.
Exact Audio Copy
EAC can save the ripped files in uncompressed WAV format, and supports external MP3, WMA, flac and OggVorbis encoders. It can also decompress some files back to WAV. There are a host of other features, like CD writing, pre-track gap detection, and metadata editing. If you are looking to take your CD collection and turn it into a digital library, EAC is the way to do it.
2. TT Dynamic Range Meter
We’ve written about compression and the loudness war for years (see: Current Trend in the Recording Format Arena and CD Compression Depression for two examples), and we’re not alone in our frustration. The Pleasurize Music Foundation created TT Dynamic Range Meter with the goal of fighting the over-compression of music. The program tells you the dynamic range of songs, so you can find out if you have just purchased a quality recording or not. One fun use of DR Meter is to compare different releases of the same song or album. The program is incredibly easy to use, simply select the track or folder you want analyzed ... and that’s it. It takes a few seconds for the program to spit out a number telling you the dynamic range of the album or track. It can also create a log file telling you the dynamic range of each individual track if you scan an entire folder. According to their website, a DR of 7 “is low for rock music or very low for Jazz, [but] it is quite acceptable for electronic club music which has nowadays often values below DR4. All values above DR12 have generally a high dynamic quality.”
DR Meter Offline DR Meter Log Sheet
DR meter comes in two flavors, what they call an offline version (pictured above) and as a foobar2000 component. For those of you who are wondering what foobar2000 is, checkout our Music Playback Software Comparison. If you do decide to download DT meter, we encourage you to sign up and support their campaign to end the loudness war.
3. Room EQ Wizard
Room EQ Wizard, or REW, was one of the original room and loudspeaker measurement systems available to the home theater enthusiast. Once setup properly, it’s a joy to use. Actually, I find it much more intuitive than Omnimic, a costly alternative. REW is packed with useful features, the most prominent being an SPL meter, RTA, waterfall plot, and spectrogram. REW can help you figure out the best placement for speakers, listening position, and acoustic treatments. Figuring out how to use all of the functionality packed into REW can be a little tough at first, but there is a large online community to provide support.
Room EQ Wizard
Like we said, once up and running, REW is a powerful piece of software. However, getting it up and running can be difficult, and results can be inaccurate depending on the quality of measurement equipment you are using. You will need to invest in a microphone, cables, tripod, and external soundcard (external soundcard is optional). You may also need something like the Nady SMPS-1X phantom power supply for the mic, depending on the functionality of the soundcard you purchase. If you are willing to spend some extra time during setup and invest in decent quality measurement gear, you will be rewarded. For people who want a more seamless experience, kits from Omnimic or XTZ (review in progress) come with everything you need and work right out of the box with little to no setup.
4. Harman How to Listen
This is the only program we know of that is designed to improve your critical listening abilities. Originally created to train Harman employees, it has been made available, for free, to the public. It’s technically still beta, but it has been that way for a number of years, so don’t expect an update anytime soon.
2 Band Test 24 Band Insane Test
The program works by asking listeners to identify how a track has been manipulated. For example, the image above-left shows a very basic Band ID exercise. The user can switch be an unaltered “flat” version of the song, and the modified “EQ” version. The goal is to identify which of the two Eqs shown is being applied, number 1 or 2. The tests become increasingly difficult. Above-right is an image of the most difficult Band ID test the program has to offer. As you can tell, the tests become very difficult. There are a number of different training exercises, including reverb, coloration, and noise. If you become tired of the tracks that come with the software, you can even upload your own to demo.
5. Audio DiffMaker
Have you ever made a change to your system and wondered if there was any actual change in the sound? Let’s say you just spent $3,800 per foot on a Audioquest WEL Signature power cable , and you want to know if that made any difference, audible or not. That’s the purpose of Audio DiffMaker. You record a reference track. This can be done with a mic to capture the actual sound output from your speakers, or using various other methods to capture the audio output from a device. Next, make the change in the system, and then record a compared track. The software compares the two tracks and extracts the difference.
The designers (Liberty Instruments) went through a lot of trouble to ensure accuracy. For example, it automatically accounts for sample rate drift and level differences, so the difference recording is only what has actually changed between the two recordings. Anyway, that’s what they claim, and they seem to have taken all of the necessary steps to achieve that goal. Note that this system does not require your equipment be completely linear or of the highest quality, by its very design all of the characteristics of your system are part of the reference and comparison recordings. Even though the concept of Audio DiffMaker is simple, be warned that its actual implementation can be difficult and time consuming. The two recordings need to be very carefully taken so as to isolate only a single variable. Still, if you are really into small system tweaks and DIY projects, this is a fun program to see if each change makes a difference or not.
Audacity has been around for a long time, and like some of the other software on this list, is opensource. Unlike the other software on this list, which serve specific purposes, Audacity has a wide range of uses. Essentially, it’s a sound recording and editing program. It can record live audio or computer audio, and then be used to edit the recording. One of the common uses of Audacity is to record and edit podcasts, and is employed by AVrant podcast for that very purpose. Quality is also key with Audacity. It can import and export WAV, AIFF, AU, FLAC and Ogg Vorbis files, and record at 24-bit depth and 192,000 Hz sampling rate (384,000Hz on OS X and Linux).
One of the reasons it made this list is because of a cool “show clipping” feature. The program will highlight red any portion of the audio waveform that clips. Like DifMaker, this can be used to compare the quality of different tracks. The above screenshot shows a song from HDtracks’ free sampler. The image below shows Dire Straits “Walk of Life” downloaded from iTunes … notice any clipping?
Image Courtesy of AVrant Podcast and their loyal listener John
We thoroughly enjoy using the software on this list, and hope you will too. We didn’t cover everything out there, so let us know what your favorite software is. Finally, we want to say a quick thanks to all of the individuals who invest their time and effort into creating software that the rest of us can use for free. Richard Stallman would be proud.
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