Digital music forum: 10/20/06 Converting old vinyl records and tapes to digital

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) October 19, 2006 2:17 PM PDT

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10/20/06 Converting old vinyl records and tapes to digital

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 10/19/06 2:17 PM

Question:

Hello, I have a project that's been brewing for a long time and am wondering if someone out there might have a similar one. I have tons of old vinyl records and tapes that I would like to convert into digital music--DVDs, CDs, and so on. I'd like to know if someone can give me pointers as to how to do it with the least cost. Please include choice of hardware, software, and other alternatives or options. My PC consists of a Intel P4 2.4GHZ, 1GB of RAM, and 80GB of disk space. I recently purchased an external DVD/CD burner to complement my system; my OS is Windows XP Pro. If anyone can give me helpful and constructive suggestions, it would be most appreciated. Thank you very much.

Submitted by: Ferdi W.

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Answer:


Ferdi, converting vinyl records or tape to digital music is straightforward and doesnt require anything particularly exotic in terms of hardware (details below), but it is time-consuming; you can easily find yourself spending 20 minutes per song doing a high-quality conversion from vinyl. Because of this, I usually recommend that if the music that you want is already available in digital format, that you just acquire it already converted rather than do a new conversion. In the long run, you will save a lot of time and possibly get much better quality as well. That said, many of us have songs on vinyl or tape that are not available in digital format, even if paying for them is not an issue, so at times, manual conversion is the only way to get an old audio track into a digital format.

Lets cover the hardware first. On the computer side, you need one with a sound system and line-in jacks. That excludes most laptops (most dont have such jacks) unless you use an add-on PC Card or USB sound card, but almost every desktop computer meets these requirements. However, if quality is important, you might want to use a computer with a high-quality sound card rather than the integrated motherboard audio systems that many PCs have these days. Dont get me wrong, audio on the motherboard will work and can do the job, but it often doesnt have the frequency response and freedom from electrical noise found in a more premium audio system.

The other thing that you need is a stereo system that can play the source material (Vinyl, cassette, open reel tape, 8-track, whatever) and that has line out jacks. Virtually any stereo system will meet this requirement. But do note that you cant just connect a bare turntable directly to a computer. While the level of a turntable cartridge output might be compatible with a computers Microphone jack (if the computer supports dynamic microphones), when recordings are made on vinyl the frequency response is intentionally screwed up (called pre-emphasis) to counteract physical limitations of the vinyl recording process, and then the playback audio preamplifier is expected to compensate for this by feeding the sound through a de-emphasis network. All tuners, receivers and amplifiers with a phono input handle this internally, but there is no input on a computer that directly supports it. So you need to connect the turntable to a stereo system or at least a preamplifier with a phono input and line level outputs for proper sound reproduction.

Connect the Line-out of the audio playback system to the Line-in jacks of your computers sound system with common stereo cables (normally having a pair of red and white RCA phono plugs) and your hardware configuration is done.

[If you want convenience and dont mind spending some money, another solution to vinyl conversion is a USB Turntable made just for vinyl to digital conversions. There is one made by Ion that is sold by Amazon (as well as other electronics outlets), and you can see information about at: http://www.amazon.com/Ion-iTTUSB-Turntable-USB-Record/dp/B000BUEMOO. This one is about $130; there may be other such products on the market as well.]

With the turntable connected to the computer, the next step is to convert the analog audio to a digital file. Basically, you play the record and record the line-in signal on the computer. Its possible to do direct conversion to MP3 or WMA, but a more conventional approach is to do the initial capture as a wave (.WAV) file, because this is more easily captured and edited. You need some software that will record the Line In input of the sound card to the desired file format (whatever it is). For wave files, such software comes with virtually all computers and sound cards, and can also be bought separately if necessary. If you need a program that can do this (and a lot more), a free one that is very good is Audiograbber. It is available at http://www.audiograbber.com-us.net/. This program can also perform some of the other steps about to be described. Alternatively, the full retail versions of both of the major CD recording software packages (Nero and Roxio) have software that can perform all of the steps required and described in this paragraph and below (the OEM versions of Nero and Roxio that come with computers and optical drives are stripped down and do not necessarily include these components in all cases).

When you do your first recording, you need to do some experimenting to set the level (record volume) on the recording correctly so that the captured wave file is as loud as possible without being too loud [technically, we want to use the full dynamic range of the sound card without clipping]. Hopefully your sound recording software has some kind of level indicator to show you what the level is and when the music is clipping. You want to turn the level up as far as you can without getting any clipping anywhere in the song (given a choice, a bit low is probably better than any setting which clips (and thereby distorts) the highest-volume passages of the material). Unfortunately, the ideal setting will vary from song to song and record to record, so some experimentation may be necessary, which may require playing or even recording the song several times. This is one of the ways in which the process can become time-consuming.

After the song is captured digitally, you may want to do some editing and cleanup. I usually trim the beginning and end and if necessary adjust the fade in and fade out. I also usually normalize the song to get maximum dynamic range. I prefer to do this with an audio editor that has an oscilloscope-like display of the audio waveform, but exactly what you do and how you do it will depend on your skill level and on the software that you are using.

Another thing that you can do at this point (to varying degrees depending on the capabilities of the available software) is to fix the recording to remove noise, clicks, pops, wow, flutter, hum, tape hiss and rumble. The details of this vary with the available software, and significant cleanup may require using purchased (and potentially expensive) cleanup software. If you get too aggressive with this, also, you can ruin the material, but in some cases you can achieve dramatic results turning an old, scratchy vinyl record into something which sounds a lot more like it was originally recorded on CD. Again, this depends on your skill level, and on how much time and money (for software) you want to put into this aspect of the conversion. But even if you do no cleanup at all, you will still have a digital version that will sound no worse than the original source material.

Finally, once you have the wave file the way that you want it, you can use any number of software programs (including Audiograbber, Nero, Roxio, MusicMatch, Windows Media Player and probably software that came with your sound card) to convert the wave file to an MP3 or WMA file. Note that if you use Audiograbber to do the MP3 encoding, it requires separate installation of an MP3 codec. If you dont have one (the full retail versions of the Nero and Roxio packages usually install one), the Lame MP3 codec is well regarded and is available without cost at http://lame.sourceforge.net/.

Its possible to capture and encode directly to MP3 or WMA in a single operation with some software products, but personally I find that Im not happy with the results unless I can trim the start and end and normalize the file prior to encoding. Also, I recommend that you tag each song so that the song information (title, artist, etc.) is actually in the MP3 or WMA file and will be displayed when the song is played (on most MP3 players). For tagging, I find Winamp and MusicMatch Jukebox to be the best available tools (both are available online for free download, although both have paid (but still low-cost) premium versions that can do a lot more. See http://www.winamp.com and http://www.musicmatch.com for additional information on these programs.

This should get you well on your way towards completing your conversion project.

Submitted by: Barry W. of North Canton, Ohio

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