Over fifteen years ago I had an idea - that people would be prepared to outsource the tedious task of ripping CDs. The Apple iPod had recently been announced and was selling briskly. Although I'd had some insight into portable music players as a former colleague had gone to work for manufacturer of MP3 players. I was given one and it amazed me that it was such a bother getting music onto the device.

The iPod in comparison was a game changer. Yet it was still a time consuming task getting multiple CDs onto the device. In the early days there was an iPod but no iTunes, it was clearly a gap in the market. A portable unit that could hold many, many CDs playable only after hours of work. There had to be a better way.

In researching what we could do I researched the CD collections of everybody I came across. In the light of that an outline offering evolved. So, once we'd done some tests and was sure we could deliver digital music for clients our first service was launched. Yes, over fifteen years ago.

podServe - the web site was launched and just as every hopeful business does, we waited for the phones to start ringing. The site went up on Friday and the weekend picked up over 2,000 visits. I'd emailed a press release and a couple of the computer / tech sites had picked it up. We got feedback, boy did we get feedback. None positive. People with higher levels of technical ability just couldn't conceive that there's be any justification for hiring us to do this. "Ripped 1,000,000 CDs on my PC over just 6 months" they all said, why should anyone else object to doing that? And just to ram home the point they emailed me to say so. Phenomenal.

Much correspondence but no orders. Having done my research among a small group I'd got the size of people's CD collections wrong. Today I know why but on the basis of that sample size I'd gone with a business model of people mailing CDs to us. We'd rip them and mail the music collection back. Sadly, lots of feedback but no takers. We went on holiday for a couple of weeks and I must admit as we flew out of Heathrow I thought CD ripping was destined to be "miss" rather than "hit". When we got back our messages were overflowing. Some of the negatives had taken to phoning their comments in, but there were a few who wanted to know how we could make this work for them. Bless you Dr Harrison, you put me straight.

If I could arrange to collect them there was a batch of 200+ CDs he'd like collected. Luckily I had another client not far from these CDs so I arranged to collect those in person a few days later. I rang the other interested parties and it became clear that if I could collect their CDs in person we had a business. A couple of weeks later we had sorted out the first batch, had our first happy customer so I contacted the people who'd asked and offered those within the M25 the option of personal collection. Bingo.

I revisited the podServe website and changed the focus from the whole of the UK and post, to within the M25 and personal collection. In the following weeks we got a steady stream of clients. Their collections were bigger than I'd expected and with just two PCs it was a major struggle. To be honest I never expected this to be a long term operation and I was very pleased that CD ripping was a great supplemental income through to that first Christmas. Apple did well with iPods as Christmas gifts that year and so did we. All of a sudden January was over and we had a backlog of clients wanting us to call to collect CDs. Two computers became three and I had to add an Apple Mac to be sure what we'd trialled in the Windows / PC environment would work on Macs.

Business never dried up. We had to keep adding capacity. Working from a small bedroom we got to four PCs and a laptop. From using CDs as a transfer medium we went to DVDs but still we were struggling to keep up. It was only when we built a small office in the garden that we could move to six PCs, a network for sharing files and accessing the internet. Then we stripped down the PCs / Macs to create systems optimise to ripping music files, finally we were getting on top of the volumes. However it was obvious we'd reached a ceiling. By the time you'd put the last CD into the tray of system six the disc from system one was done and popped out. We were spinning like tops around six systems. Volumes were supporting two of us, myself and my daughter (who popped back from Leeds to help with one 1,000+ CD batch and stayed with me for three years) but it was plain that hand crafting music conversion was unsustainable. Many times we'd spoken about how we could automate this. My son was convinced somewhere in the world there was a giant funnel, lob CDs into the top and loaded iPods dropped out the bottom. We never found that out we did discover the Taiwanese robot we invested in. Nice idea.

From my background in the IT industry, including designing hardware configurations, I'd taken the view that CD ripping was better suited to multiple small / medium systems in parallel rather than a single giant system. In my minds eye I envisaged buying six small robots, each with a capacity of 100 CDs and smooth flow of 600 CDs per day, while we sat with our feet up. Sadly the robot let us down. When it worked it was great but in the last five years I don't think we ever processed a batch of 100 CDs. It sticks, it jams, it just decides to stop and often the PC loses contact with the unit. Getting any throughput involves three programs working in unison. Nice try Taiwan but no home run.

The phone has rung regularly. As we focused podServe as the CD ripping "white glove" service for London we nevertheless got cals from people outside asking if we could help. Not just outside London but in Europe and beyond. We reverted to our original game plan and decided to offer a service for people who were prepared to mail us their CDs. At the same time I wanted to communicate that what we did was applicable to any music playing system, not simple Apple and iPods. Hence MP3 by Mail, joining the idea of MP3 as a digital music format above and beyond iPods and stressing mail.

MP3byMail has really taken off, we've serviced huge volumes of CDs across the UK and in Europe - France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Spain. We've even done a couple of huge projects for people in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

As we've continued and expanded the attraction of robotic CD ripping have grown. The first plastic robot failed and was replaced (under warranty) along with several CD drive units. It was so tantalising, when it works it's great; it just fails too often. So we embarked on a trail to find a reliable robotic system. We'd become aware of several and spoken to many users of these devices. Despite being better made none of them seemed to be the answer. More reliable for sure but not as good as I'd hoped, and I wasn't going to invest several thousand pounds into machines not massively better than we could get from Taiwan. Thankfully I found Germany and ADR. Something of a cinderella device in the ripping world their units are built to a high standard (BMW, Audi, Merc rather than Trabant) but lacking in software. After a couple of weeks of head scratching we decided to take the plunge and buy a small, single CD tray unit. One reason for doing this was that I'd found someone who'd claimed expertise in interfacing this unit to some brilliant automated CD ripping software - better than iTunes. Unfortunately days after the robot arriving (on the back of a huge German truck) my coding guru disappeared off the face of the earth. It was down to me to get the thing to work. I'd love to say it was a huge task but nonetheless thanks to my massive skills I got it to work, actually it was pretty easy. I tell people it took a week but that was only because I thought it was more complicated that it actually was. Anyway, the following Friday I loaded it was 110 CDs, switched off the lights for the night and was amazed to find next morning we had a batch of accurately ripped discs complete with full track, artist, composer, album data and cover art.

We were sold on automated CD ripping. We pretty much gave up on Taiwan's finest and stayed with Germany. As those early batches chugged through it seemed we were "there", problem solved. But computers aren't like that and the other side of the coin is what could we do if we had a system with greater capacity …… I resisted the urge for a while but early in 2015 we bit the bullet and bought our second system from Germany. Much, much bigger - four stacked CD trays and multiple input hoppers. It works very well and brings us to where we are today, able to handle several hundred CDs per day.

As I write - May, 2017 - we're running two CD services alongside each other. If you're in the London and you need your CDs ripped we can collect them from you via our premium service podServe. For people based further afield, for people who are happy to mail in their music and get a digital music library at lower cost we have MP3 by Mail. That will change in due course, the mail based model is the future for us.

If you'd like your CDs transferred to a digital library for Apple, Sonos, Brennan or another system we're here and happy to undertake the project for you.

Jeff Underwood
Brentwood
May, 2017

From CDs to Digital Music Library