Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Digitizing Your Old Vinyl Records (and Tapes)

(UPDATE 2011-07-11 - Versio française de ce billet http://itywltmt.blogspot.com/2011/07/convertir-ses-disques-et-rubans-de.html)

When I began collecting music in the late 70’s and early 80’s, vinyl was the “technology du jour”. Everything was available on 33 RPM records. You got one “pristine” playback, and then dust and micro-scratches meant pops and assorted surface noise (what we liked to refer to back in the day as “bacon”). As a collector, you learned to keep your vinyl clean, and would invariably “upgrade” your collection by buying another version of the same piece (by a different artist, on a different label).

In the early 80’s, “digital recordings” began popping up, and there would be vinyl releases (dubbed “DDA” for Digitally recorded, Digitally mastered, Analog playback) as the new technology, the Compact Disc, was not affordable (CD players were expensive and the CD’s themselves were double the price of vinyl back then). Also, nobody thought that the vinyl albums would disappear, as there had been a good 30-40 years invested in the technology.

Were we wrong, or what?

As digital media took its place in the market, we all were faced with the dilemma: what to do with all that vinyl? Today, some 25+ years later, mainstream computer technology allows us to affordably transfer our vinyl (and cassette tape) favourites to digital format through several different means. Let me give you an overview of the strategy that I have adopted in addressing this.

Find digital copies
The simplest way of digitizing vinyl is to not digitize it at all. There is a multitude of sources where your vinyl favourites can be found in digital form. This means buying digital media, ripping media from CDs at your local library, or downloading digital media off the Internet. In my mind, there is no ethical dilemma: if I bought the vinyl, I feel entitled to digital copies of that same track, as I already paid the artist. I have no shame in using every/any means possible to secure the media.

Computer-Based digitization
Your computer comes standard with a sound card and a “Line In” jack. There are free tools on the Internet (as well as commercially available tools) that allow you to acquire, and convert analog signals and render them digitally. One such tool is AUDACITY – it is a mainstay on my machines as it provides the ability to capture, edit, and render the files (as WAV or MP3).

The trick is coming up with the right “strategy” to bring in the audio signal (either using the standard baseband “OUT” from your amplifier or the standard baseband “OUT” from your cassette player.) At a reasonable price, there are several RCA jack to headphone jack or USB connector cables that will make the connection possible. (Note that connecting your turntable directly to the PC is unlikely to work, as the signal strength coming out of the turntable needs amplification to register on most sound cards. There are USB-based turntables that are available, however – see below)

I obtained my best results by transferring the vinyl to cassette first (and using the native noise reduction of my cassette player) and then feeding the cassette output to my PC. Yes, it is more time consuming, but the results are surprisingly good. This approach also allowed me to “revive” some vinyl I backed up through the years – as a collector, I loathe not keeping copies of material as I “rotate out” the albums from my collection. This meant that I backed up “older” vinyl as I replaced it. I also have a number of music cassettes that I bought and have transferred this way. Same goes for some “radio airplay” captures of concerts I made in the early days of my music collection.

Vinyl to CD appliances
I made the purchase of an all-in-one turntable/CD recorder a couple of years back, and have been using that to do my vinyl transfers.

As I take stock of the results, I feel that using a tape recording worked better – as I find that the analog filtering of the cassette recordings is far superior to the digital filtering provided by the editing software I use. On the positive side, this means that I do not need to tether my PC to my stereo equipment and can do the transfer while I listen to the vinyl.

I would caution that using this approach to create a “clean” CD of the vinyl is hit and miss (mostly miss). You have to view the CD as a “disposable” transfer medium, as the final digital tracks need post-processing to yield the best listening experience. Also, with the unit I own, I have found some quirks with the digitizing to CD, introducing spontaneous bursts of silence, or sometimes “failing” to do the transfer, costing me a blank CD.

USB-connected turntable
This is an approach I have not used personally, but intuitively it is a variation on the tape deck approach, using the PC sound card to digitize the vinyl. Without having tried it, I can’t provide a first-hand opinion. However, based on my experience with direct vinyl transfers, I expect the need to use “digital filtering” to clean up the files, with the mixed results I encountered with my CD recorder. The benefit here is that there is no “transfer CD”, as the raw file is save directly to your PC without the need to rip it off your transfer medium.

All approaches hinge on one thing: for best results, your vinyl needs to be clean. I personally use a 50% isopropyl alcohol/water combination to do the cleaning, and wipe the dry vinyl with a household “duster sheet”.

UPDATE 2011-06-27: Here's a more aggressive cleaning approach, which seems to be gathering acceptance:

My next montage and post are dedicated to "digital vinyl". This will allow you to see for yourself what a "decent amateur" can do with his old analog turntable...

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