How to Take Your Music Library On the Road

Phone plugged into car for music
Kohei Hara/Getty Images

The days of lugging around suitcases full of cassette tapes, or even binders of CDs, are behind us. Sure, you can still take your music library on the road like that if you want to, but why would you want to? Even if the bulk of your collection is still locked in the shackles of physical media, those shackles have never been easier to break, and the relatively small effort involved is well worth the reward. If you have a computer with a CD/DVD drive and an Internet connection, you’re most of the way there already. And if your head unit came with a USB connection, SD card slot, or even auxiliary inputs, then the process of digitizing your music library and taking it on the road will be even easier. Don’t fret if your head unit is lacking, or you aren’t comfortable with digitizing your library, though. There’s always another way, and you may end up liking the results even more.

Breaking Free From Physical Media

Whether your personal music library is limited to CDs, or you’ve collected a variety of other formats over the years, the easiest way to take it on the road is to convert everything to your digital format of choice. This is easiest with CDs, and a lot of programs, including Apple’s proverbial 800-pound gorilla iTunes, will automate the entire process for you. If you want more control over the process, there are a variety of other programs that you can use to rip and encode entire CDs or individual tracks.

Unlike CDs, which are already digital, and benefit from most computers having built-in CD drives, the process of digitizing other media formats like cassette tapes is a little more complicated, time-consuming, and somewhat more prone to error and quality issues. The easiest way to get it done is to hook a cassette player, record player, or whatever else player to your computer’s audio input and then record each track individually. You can then convert each audio track, individually or in batches, into your digital format of choice. Some level of automation is possible with specialty programs, but whichever route you choose, you can take solace in the fact that you’ll only ever have to do it once.

If you have more money than time or patience, you can always just re-buy whatever portions of your library you want to take on the road with you, or even subscribe to an on-demand music service like Google Play Music All Access or Spotify, which will allow you to listen to whatever you want, hassle free, with a few exceptions.

Taking Your Digital Music On the Road

Once you’ve converted your physical library into easily portable MP3 files, a whole new world of listening options opens up. If your head unit can play MP3s—or whatever format you chose to encode in—you can burn enormous playlists to physical discs. Instead of one album with a dozen or so songs, you can grab one CD with hundreds of songs on it. If your head unit has a USB port or SD card slot, on the other hand, you may take your entire library on a single USB thumb drive or SD card.​

If your head unit doesn’t have a USB port or SD card slot, but you have a modern smartphone, then that opens another door. Virtually every modern smartphone doubles as an MP3 player, so if you have spare storage space on your phone—or it has a micro SD card slot—then that’s also a great way to take your digital music library on the road. Depending on your car audio system, you may be able to connect your phone to your head unit via Bluetooth, an auxiliary input, or, if all else fails, an FM modulator or FM transmitter. Of course, traditional MP3 players, like iPods, also fit the bill here.

Cloud storage is another option you can check into if your phone doesn’t have enough storage space, and it doesn’t have a micro-SD card slot, but it does have an Internet connection. Cloud storage services, like Google Music and Amazon MP3, allow you to upload your music library and access it from anywhere. Of course, accessing music that way does require Internet bandwidth, so it isn’t a good idea if you’re on a limited plan.