Converting Flac to Mp3/AAC, Or, How to use all that free live music floating about on the web

In the mid-sixties a small, soon to be doomed band ironically called “The Grateful Dead” began playing in and around San Francisco. They would be forgotten, but in their time of glory they managed to generate a following so loyal and intense that their fans, known only by the unusual monikers of either “Deadhead” or, occasionally, “Homeless”, began to record all of their shows. Even the good ones.

In the years since this tradition has, as all traditions must, matured into a widespread habit which we no longer understand the rationale for. What we are left with however, are thousands of people wandering the country with recording devices capable of capturing what is best about bands who are actually capable of playing instruments: live shows.You might not wish to wander the country following the Oracle know mysteriously as “Ticketmaster”, but you too can enjoy live music if you can get it into a format that a device you might actually own can understand.

Here’s where the “How To” part comes in. You see, the tapers and fans who record shows normally do one of two things: they either tap into the mixing board of the band itself (if they’re either lucky or sleeping with someone), or they use directional microphones to capture the sound on a small, outrageously expensive, recording device such as a DAT, or Digital Audio Tape (I’m sure there are other device types and I’m not up to date on the equipment, but stay with me).So the DAT or other recorder saves the sound to uncompressed audio formats that are a) very large in size and b) completely useless to 99.9% of the listening world. The protectiveness and pride taken in this exclusivity suggests that this is by design. Ok, fine, but just for the sake of argument, let’s look at how all that audio might be useful to others.There are sites on the web where tapers meet to trade their files. They’ve always been here, even before the web was won, trading on bulletin boards and across univeristy networks, such is the obsession.

These days forums and boards where files can be posted are the norm, and the advent of Bittorrent has made it possible for those of us with a lesser degree of obsession to play too.The only difficult part that remains is the file type, which is unsupported by the major audio applications common to PC’s and Macintosh’s, and as such doubly unsupported by portable audio players such as the iPod. The most common of these formats is FLAC, which should you care stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. Cool.

There are thousands of hours of free, legal, and often band encouraged recordings available on the web. If you enjoy live music, it’s a goldmine, simple as that. Boards like Sharingthegroove, Etree, and Jambase have thousands of users, all with aformentioned recording devices, who post their labor of love online out of the sheer joy of sharing. It’s a beautiful thing.So, finally, the how to.What you’ll need:A computer. (haha)

  1. Begin by scouring the boards for your favorite bands who play live music. Don’t bother to look for Pop—Britney don’t play here. Think about bands who tour a lot, have close followings, or who are inheritors of The Grateful Dead legacy: Phish, The Stringcheese Incident, The Dead, etc.You’ll find to a lesser degree bands who don’t fit into the “Jamband” category but whose fans are devoted, such as Wilco. 
  2. Find a show you’re interested in. If there are lots of them and you don’t know what to pick, try your hometown for sentimental value, or the band’s hometown for crowd enthusiasm.
  3. Look for a format that you can download efficiently. Bittorrent is the current best-of-breed for this. Download the Bittorrent client for your platform here. Files that are compatible with Bittorrent will be called Torrents, and will have an extension of .torrent. When you download the .torrent file, double click it and your BT client should open and begin downloading.
  4. Double check the setlist for songs that you want and be sure that the audio format is either MP3/AAC already (in which case you don’t need this how-to), or FLAC. Start the download.
  5. Now run over to Versiontracker, Download.com, or your other favorite software index site. Search for “FLAC”.For Macs, I recommend Flacer for it’s efficiency and ease of use. There is similar software for Windows and Linux computers, but generally what you’re looking for is free software that converts FLAC to .aiff, which is the most common conversion type. If you find one that converts to .mp3, you’re ahead of the game. Just be sure the mp3 quality is ok, because that’s a big loss to go directly from FLAC to MP3. 
  6. When your download is finished and the software installed, run all of the files through it to convert them to .aiff. Your software will vary in method, but usually you’ll select a folder full of .flac files and select ‘convert to aiff’. This downloading and converting is not a fast process, so pick a good show.It is worth it though. 
  7. When you have a folder full of .aiff files of your show, you’ll need to get them into your music software. AHA! That’s right, most music jukebox software like iTunes will convert your .aiff files to either .mp3 or .aac, at which point you’re done. I do recommend iTunes, for this, which is available for Windows, Mac, and through Codeweavers, Linux.

That’s it!

Here are some boards to search for you favorite bands:

Sharingthegroove
Etree
Jambase (This one has lots of mp3’s too)
The Internet Archive
The motherload from Etree and Archive.org

Here are some shows and artists to start you off with:

Wilco at Otto’s 2004
Ben Kweller at Odeon 2004
Acoustic Syndicate
Cowboy Junkies
Damien Rice
Fugazi
Gavin DeGraw
Grateful Dead (who were they again?)
Josh Ritter
Keller Williams
Mekons
Minutemen
Mogwai
Ryan Adams
Southern Culture on the Skids
String Cheese Incident
Tenacious D___

UPDATE: Sharingthegroove is back up now, and the tools have changed. On a Mac, try xACT by the same guy who wrote FLACer—it converts SHN, FLAC etc to AIFF and WAV, both of which can be converted by iTunes to your favorite mobile format.

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