Convert Vinyl Records to CD or MP3
For seasoned audio purists, nothing compares to good old-fashioned analog recordings on vinyl LP records. But those old records are fragile... here's a step-by-step guide to help you convert vinyl to CD disc or MP3 files so you can enjoy them for years to come...
Going Digital: How to Convert Your Old Records to CD or MP3 Format
Ahhh... the warm tonal attributes, those faint pops and crackles, the life-sized artwork, just the act of setting needle to groove, they all bring to mind an immersive experience of days gone by. Although advances in audio technology may bring about improved sound quality, they also result in a new set of difficulties that music enthusiasts must overcome.
With the appearance of compact discs (CD's) in the early 1980's, the production of vinyl records began its decline. Compact discs were not nearly as susceptible to degradation from repeated playback, dust and scratches. And as digital audio reproduction improved, the CD with its greater storage capacity, physical durability, and general portability, quickly became the preferred format, leaving vinyl records to slowly fade away. (See Lifetime of a CDROM.) And how that digital downloads have become the preferred way to buy music, the MP3 file format is another alternative for converting the contents of your vinyl record collection.
The number of recordings that ceased to exist with the declining popularity of vinyl is huge. For some audiophiles, this presents a very real problem; because of the inherently fragile form of vinyl records, as well as the slight degeneration of sound quality that comes with every listen, not to mention the fact that many simply can not be replaced, owners of these relics often leave them unplayed for years at a time, collecting dust, and relying on nostalgia to fill the void.
But just as the compact disc was largely responsible for the demise of vinyl, it is this same medium that can help resurrect and preserve these analog veterans from deterioration and obscurity. And for some, MP3 files may be even more convenient, since they allow for completely digital music collections that can be enjoyed on a computer, portable music player, smartphone or tablet. Let's look at several techniques for copying vinyl records to digital format.
There are a few all-in-one or combination systems that make it relatively easy to transfer your vinyl recordings to compact disc or MP3 format. DAK's LP to CD System (US$69.90) is a complete package of hardware and software that will copy your treasured vinyl records to CD discs or MP3 files. It includes a Preamp Mixer, RCA to stereo cable, and software to help you optimize the audio, then burn the CD. The DAK software will remove scratches, hum, hiss and pops, and more importantly, it automatically separates the audio stream into separate tracks. If you need a high-quality turntable, you can add that for $169 extra.
The Teac LP-R450 Turntable with Cassette and CD Recorder (about US$350) is a simple all-in-one unit that lets you record both vinyl and cassettes to CD. There's no need to connect it to your computer, and no software to install. Just pop in a CD, hit the Record button, and your record or cassette will be transferred to the CD while it plays. The LP-450 is discontinued by Teac, but you can still find it for sale at many online outlets. The replacement, the LP-550 USB, sells for about $550.
Roll Your Own: Required Audio Components
Chances are, though, you already have the necessary hardware to breathe new life into your old records. Most computers have a writable CD drive (CD burner) that will accept CD-R (record-once) or CD-RW (rewritable) media. If you don't have a CD burner, external CD-R/RW drives that connect with USB cables are readily available, priced at US$30 and up.
Of course, a record player (turntable) is also required. Thanks to the popularity of hip-hop and electronic music DJ cultures, there still remains a niche market for the production of turntables with both consumer and professional use in mind. Most lack built-in amplification, so a stereo amp or receiver is required to boost the signal from the player to the computer. If you need a turntable or receiver, you can find them at most large electronics stores, starting at around US $100. And of course there's always eBay.
Most turntables have a pair of red and white RCA output jacks, often accompanied by a grounding terminal. Connect the color-coded outputs from the turntable to the corresponding inputs on the stereo receiver using a stereo RCA cable, ideally one that includes a third wire with U-shaped connectors that can be secured to grounding terminal screws on each component.
Your stereo receiver should include a pair of main or auxiliary outputs, which need to be connected to your computer via either a stereo RCA or RCA to 1/8-inch cable, depending upon the inputs of your computer's audio card.
For a simpler solution, the Retro USB Turntable from Magpix (about US$99) lets you play your treasured vinyls on the briefcase-style machine, but also comes with audio software, and a USB cable to connect it to your computer. It may not be the highest quality turntable, but it does eliminate the need for an amplifier, and USB connection replaces the RCA cables.
For the best quality, and to minimize wear on your records, I recommend that you avoid turntables with a ceramic stylus. The Technics SL-1200 is a good example of a turntable that uses a elliptical diamond stylus, and you can probably find a used one on eBay or Craigslist for a couple hundred dollars.
NOTE: All of the techniques above apply equally well for transferring cassette tapes to CDs. Just substitute your cassette player for the turntable. If your cassette player does not have RCA-style audio outputs, use a 1/8-inch to RCA cable shown above.
In terms of software, the only real prerequisite is a simple two-track audio editor. Of course, investing $1000 in a ProTools system will certainly do the trick, but that's almost certainly more complex and expensive than you need. Instead, many shareware and freeware audio editors are available that will allow you to record, edit, and export your newly digitized audio to be burned to disc. A quick search online will produce hundreds of audio editors for both Windows and Macintosh platforms. Audacity is free audio software that comes highly recommended. See my companion article Free Audio Software for other options.
Most audio editors function in a similar manner. Consult the manual or help screens of your preferred application for capabilities and specifics. Be sure that your audio software is set to record the incoming signal as a 16-bit stereo .WAV or .AIF audio file with a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz, so that additional file manipulation will not be necessary prior to burning the audio onto a CD. It's also a good idea to clean the record that you are about to capture, removing as much dust and residue as possible in order to minimize noise.
Plug and Play!
Once all the wires are connected and you've fired up your audio software, just press the Record in your editing program, drop the needle in the groove, then sit back to enjoy your seldom-heard recordings. When playback is complete, stop the audio editor, at which point you will see a waveform display, serving as a visual representation of the audio signal. From here, you can keep the audio completely intact, perfectly mimicking the record itself, or you may choose to divide the recording into its constituent songs. The free Audacity can do track splitting, but it can be a bit tricky, and will require a lot of typing to enter the album, artist and song titles. But the Spin It Again software, ($35) makes converting, separating and tagging the tracks almost effortless, by integrating with online music databases. If you have a sizeable collection to convert, this will save you many hours of tedious labor.
Either way, the audio can now be burned to a CD with the aid of Windows Media Player, iTunes or the Mac OS X burning software. Commercial CD burning software such as Nero or Roxio will do the job as well. It's important to make the selection to create an Audio CD (rather than MP3, data or video). Some software also requires that you "finalize" the disc. This will ensure that your CD's are compatible with the majority of CD players. In addition, when choosing blank CD media, opt for high-quality, name brand discs; it would hardly be worth the energy if the entire process had to be repeated in just a few short years.
Got comments about converting vinyl records to CD? Post your thoughts below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 27 Dec 2012
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