CDs are fine things for listening to and archiving, but they're bulky. Think of all the shelf space you could free up if that digital music resided on one little hard drive rather than hundreds of boxed-up plastic discs. It's a commitment, but putting all your music on a computer has advantages besides space savings.

First and foremost, building a media server gives you access to all of your tunes from anywhere in your house. You'll be able to search for songs and play them back whether you're in your kitchen, living room or your home office, regardless of where in your home your media server sits. If you're extra savvy, you can also set up your server to be accessible over the internet.

What You'll Need

  • A computer with lots of hard drive space
  • A local area network, preferrably wireless
  • A Squeezebox or similar music player, like a Roku (optional)

How To Proceed

1. Allocate space

The first step is to set aside a big chunk of storage space for your music files. You may want to dedicate an entire hard drive to this purpose. If it's an external hard drive, it can travel with you; but with the right server software, that's unnecessary. Because the file formats we'll be using are standard, you can make decisions about the software later.

Tip: Go big. Set up a system you can keep filling for years to come. Dedicate 500GB or more. Or, if you want to spend a little more, get a storage system that's easy to use and to upgrade like a Drobo.

2. Choose an encoding format

MP3 is the most famous format for encoding music, and as such its advantage is that it can be played on pretty much every player in the universe. But it's neither the best-sounding nor the most compact. FLAC files are losslessly compressed, meaning they sound exactly as good as the CDs they come from (and indeed CDs can be reconstructed exactly from FLAC files), but they take up much more storage space than MP3s do.

Which you choose depends on your needs. If you choose MP3 (or Ogg, or another lossy encoding format) you also need to decide on a bitrate. The bitrate determines the amount of music information that gets captured when you rip your music to a digital file (in the next step). The higher the bitrate, the better the sound, but the bigger the file. Make these important decisions before you commit your entire music library to a format you don't like.

Tip: Again, think as big as possible. Better to rip at a higher bitrate now while sacrificing some hard drive space than be stuck with lower-quality music files down the road.

3. Rip the music

Exact Audio Copy on Windows

This is the time-consuming part. The most convenient tools are the hands-off ones that allow you to just put in a CD, wait for it to be ripped, encoded, and tagged, then just take it out and put in another.

On Linux, abcde is very good. On Windows, Exact Audio Copy is highly recommended. On Macs, you can use iTunes if you fine-tune its encoding preferences, but xACT is much better.

Each CD takes several minutes to rip. Afterward, you may need to correct the tags with a tool like Picard. The easiest approach may be to pay a neighborhood teenager to feed the discs into your computer one by one.

4. Serve it

Armed with a ton of digital music on your hard drive, serve that music on up.

Install the free SqueezeCenter software on your music server and stream away. You can stream to any computer on your network either through the browser or using software like iTunes or Winamp.

For serving music elsewhere in your home, a Squeezebox is a great tool -- it hooks up to any stereo, where it's controllable by a computer or by a remote. It's a financial investment, but the sound is great, and it can do lots of very cool things, from smart analysis and mixing, to on-the-fly correction for the acoustic quirks of your listening room.

You can also serve your music around your network using iTunes. The application, a free download from Apple, has local library sharing built in. Just set up iTunes on your server and enable sharing in the application's Preferences. Your library will show up wherever else iTunes is running on your LAN -- look under the "Shared" menu in your sources list.

One of Jinzora's many available skins
Serving your music over the internet is a bit more complicated, since it will require you to tweak your broadband router a little bit. There are many ways to do it, none of them too difficult. You can serve music over the web if your computer is set up to run as a web server. If it's not, install Apache and PHP (all-in-one installers exist for Windows and Mac OS X) then download and install Jinzora, a free application that indexes all your music and makes it available through a web browser.