Analog music is awesome, but it sure isn’t very convenient. Yes, putting your favorite album on a turntable and dropping that tonearm at home is a great experience, butyou can’t take a full analog setup with you on the go. Plus, if you have a rare or inherited copy of a record that you love, it will only offer a limited number of plays before you need to find another. The playing life of your vinyl can be improved by properly setting up your turntable and using the best methods to clean your records, but if you truly want to hold onto those sounds forever, you should consider digitizing that analog sound.
Doing so will not only preserve the record for future listeners and allow you to take entire albums with you on the go, but it will also giveyou a convenient means for cleaning up noisy records usinga bevy of simple software applications.
The only question: How do you do it without running out of patience and money?
Sadly, there is no catch-all method for digitizing your vinyl collection. The exact process depends on what kind ofequipment you have. Some turntables come with built-in phono preamps; others don’tand rely on a receiver with a built-in phono preamp or a stand-alone phono preamp. Many modern turntables feature both a built-in preamp and USB output, allowing you to quickly and efficiently convert that musty copy of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill with little effort.
That’s not to say you can’t convert your vinyl to a digital format without an integrated USB output, but opting for a turntable builtwith said output makes the process far easier. Below are two such offerings we recommend; if these don’t work for you, check out our rundown of the best turntables.
If you’re deeply invested in a large collection of vinyl records, a high-quality player like the Sony PS-HX500 might be worth your money. The player is outfitted with a top-notch Texas Instruments digital audio converter (DAC) that transfers at a minimum of 16-bit resolution (that’s CD quality). That’s just the minimum, though — this bad boy can transfer files up to 5.6MHz DSD, whichno other record player can do. If you’re an audiophile, this is simply the best choice.
Audio Technica’s AT-LP120 USB isn’t stylish, but it’s a mainstay as far as budget turntables go. Itcomes equipped with a selectableintegrated preamp (so outboard phono preamps are unnecessary) and a USB output that’s compatible with both PC and Mac systems, not to mention threespeeds (33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm) and the ability to rip at 16-bit/44.1kHz and 16-bit/48kHz sample rates. Best of all, it offers admirable sound for the price.
Aside from your turntable, you will alsoneed a few cables to make the necessary connections. If your turntable lacks a USB output, for instance, you will need a stereo RCA cable and an RCA-to-3.5mm cord. Both cables are relatively affordable — typically under $10 — at your local electronics store or online sites like Amazon. You also need a computer with a “line-in” port and enough space to save the resultingfiles, as well as a little patience, given you must play an album in real time in order to properly record and convert it.
You can always purchase a dedicated phono preamp if neither your A/V receiver nor your turntable hasone. There is a wealth of preamps on the market, ranging anywhere from $20 to upward of $1,500, but opting for a nicer device will nearly always result in heightened clarity and a more natural soundscape. In the unlikely case that you’ve gotten this far but don’t actually have a record collection, we can help there too.
Getting the signal from your turntable to your computer is only the first step. The second partof the process is finding the right software application to record the audio. Although there are severalpremium applicationsdesigned to help you rip audio from your turntable — likePure Vinyl and Vinyl Studio—the open-source Audacity will suffice for most users. This freemium application may not offer dedicated tools for converting vinyl intomore accessible formats, but it can still record at sampling rates up to 192kHz, and export the resulting audio files as either an MP3, AIFF, FLAC, or WAV for playback on a slew of popular platforms. The interface may not be polished, either, but the software works with Windows-, Mac-, and Linux-based machines.
Regardless of which software you use, we recommend that you recordat a minimum of 16 bits sampled at 4.4.1kHz. You can always create a compressed copy from a lossless one, but you can’t improve the quality of audio files without going through the recording process again. If you have a large library of vinyl — whichseems likely, given that you’re looking to digitize your collection — that is a serious time commitment.
Once you have the necessary gear and software in order, it’s time to start the digitization process. Although you’re more than welcome to digitize your vinyl wherever you see fit, we recommend choosing a space that’s relatively quiet and devoid of outside vibrations — i.e. passing trains, stomping children — that may cause rumbling or an unwantedneedle skip.
Step 1: Clean your vinyl.Vinyl has a knack for getting dirty. Dust accumulates over time, even if you keep records in their sleeves, and fingers leave behind oils and other muck, so it’s best toclean your albums. Any imperfection, whether it stems from scratches or mere dust, will be recorded when digitizing. Consider buying at least a simple bristle or micro-fiber brush and some cleaning solution if you haven’t already.
Step 2: Connect your devices.Next, connect your devices in the appropriate manner. If using a turntable with an integrated USB output, plug the USB cable into the corresponding port on your computer. If using a turntable without a USB output, connect your record player to a stand-alone preamp or A/V receiver before relaying the RCA connection (via monitor output) to the “line in” port on your computer using the RCA-to-3.5mm cable.
Step 3: Launch Audacity.Open Audacity, or your preferred audio-recording software of choice, on your Mac or PC. Afterward, select the appropriate input source from the system preferences pane or a similar settings panel. If using Audacity, click Edit and select System Preferences before selecting “Line in” from the drop-down menu within the Recording section of the Devices pane. Keep in mind you may have to additionally select the input source from within your computer’s main sound panel.
Step 4: Record.Click the Record button and start your record to begin capturing audio from your selected source, adjusting the input levels to reduce clipping and subsequent distortion when needed. In Audacity, the record button is represented by a red circle in the topmost navigational toolbar.
Step 5: Wait.Allow your desired section or the entirety side of therecord to play through before clicking the Stop button, represented by a yellow square in Audacity and typically resting beside the Record button in most audio suites.
Step 6: Split the tracks.If you’re like most people, chances are you would rather split the entirety of the record into individual tracks. If using Audacity, click and drag your cursor to highlight the duration of a particular track. Afterward, click the Tracks option within the toolbar, select Add Label At Selection from the resulting drop-down menu, and name the track appropriately. There are better tools for this process than Audacity (see: Perfect Tunes) but it’s free, which is nice.
Step 7: Export the album.Once you have split and named each track, click File within the toolbar and select Export Multiple from within the drop-down menu. Afterward, choose your desired file format, save location, and enter any missing metadata in the resulting pop-up menu before clicking the Export button in the bottom-right corner.
Step 8: Enjoy.Once finished converting, enjoy your newly digitized musicin the media player of your choice!
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