Creating Digital Music Files The Old-Fashioned Way
by Adam Vaughn

Back in the days before home computers could play music without the assistance of a CD-ROM drive or cassette recorder (I'm not kidding), before CD ripping programs could turn an entire collection of music into easily-playable MP3s in minutes, people personalized their portable music collections by manually recording their LPs and CDs onto cassette tapes using a stereo. For most, those days might be gone, but for some, we've simply entered the 21st century: as of this writing, I have turned 71 of my vinyl albums into MP3s suitable for playback on my iPod (yes, I do own one). Here are some tips on how to make MP3s that still exhibit analog characteristics:

1. Use good equipment: The sound quality will only be as good as your stereo equipment can muster. For best results, I suggest using a stereo system which is made up of discrete components, though a high-quality receiver or integrated amplifier with a phono stage should work. As far as turntables go, I suggest using a mid- or high-end turntable from the 1970s or early '80s, though modern turntables made by companies like Rega and Music-Hall are also good choices. Also make sure to use a good quality cartridge (available from companies such as Shure and Ortofon, among others). Proper setup is paramount to sound quality; tools for making sure your turntable is set up correctly are available from NeedleDoctor, among others.

2. Consider the source: This may seem like a no-brainer to most, but I'll repeat it anyway: best results are achieved when the source recordings are in good shape. Perfection is not a must, but it helps to have something which doesn't sound like it's been gone over with a piece of rough sandpaper. Be sure to clean your records before transcribing them to MP3: one way to clean your records is with a Discwasher brush. Most records will have a small amount of noise to them, but modern software tools can detect and remove most mild vinyl imperfections. If the sound recording program you choose doesn't employ a click removal algorithm, external ones are available, such as ClickRepair, which works quite well.

3. Use an external sound device: Some computers have built-in line-level inputs, and you may find that sufficient for your purposes, but they're not always of very good quality, and most laptops lack a true line-level input (once tried doing a vinyl transfer using the microphone jack on my Sony Vaio laptop; the results were not pretty!), so a USB-based sound device is a good thing to have. For PC users, Creative makes useful external sound devices, such as this one. For Mac users, Griffin Technology's iMic is an excellent choice (apparently, it works with Windows, too, but I haven't tried it on one of my PCs).

4. Choose sound recording software which works for you: I have gone through many different sound recording programs. By and far, the best I've used was the now-defunct Cool Edit Pro (now available from Adobe as Audition, but it's quite expensive, at $349). There are several inexpensive options out there. For the PC user, one example is Goldwave, for $50. For the Mac, there are programs such as SoundStudio. There are even some free recording programs, such as Audacity, which is available for both Mac and Windows. Note that click removal algorithms, if at all present, vary from program to program. For example, I tried SoundStudio 3, which listed a click/pop removal feature, but it proved to be poorly-implemented (attempting to remove a large pop from a test recording using their interpolation function resulted in a flat line where the pop had been, which made things worse). If this is the case with the software you try, external pop/click reduction programs, such as ClickRepair listed above, are available.

5. Choose a sound recording format: One thing to tinker with is the format and bitrate of your recordings. When it comes to digital audio, the quality depends on the amount of compression used, deleting parts of the audio spectrum in the recording to save space. Some people prefer to use 'lossless' formats such as FLAC, which keeps the audio signal intact, and sounds better than a 'lossy' format like MP3; keep in mind that files recorded in this format tend to take up lots of hard drive space. For most people, the MP3 format is sufficient; I suggest using a bitrate setting of at least 192kbps for best results (the higher the bitrate setting, the better the sound, but also, the larger the file). Another determiner in what format you can use has to do with the sort of formats the program you're using supports; sometimes, an external encoder, such as LAME, is needed. Trial and error is the rule, not the exception, but once you find a sound format which is sufficient to your tastes, things should work out nicely.

6. Perform test recordings with any new hardware/software: manual ripping of vinyl or other sources is not always straightforward. Whenever you change a component in your hardware/software chain (such as trying a new preamplifier, or new sound recording program), perform a test recording to make sure that everything still works. In addition, when performing a vinyl transcription, do not assume that every record is the same. Some recordings were made using a stronger input signal than others. Listen to a loud portion with normal settings, and watch the input level indicators to make sure that the signal is not overloading the hardware. Typically, the 60% volume setting works for softer records, and 40% does the trick for louder records, with 50% coming in handy for ones somewhere in the middle. Once again, trial and error is the rule here, but once you get past it, the sky's the limit (typically, settings don't need to be changed when switching from one side of a record to another, but there are exceptions; the main one which comes to mind is Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick, where side 2 is much louder than side 1, for some reason...).

Once you get all the kinks worked out, things should be a breeze. Happy recording!

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