Consumer Tech Sidebar: Turning your vinyl records into CDs or MP3s

We don’t normally do consumer issues here, but, in a recording forum I frequent, someone asked for the best way to get their vinyl record collection converted into digital format so they could burn CDs and make MP3s for a few hundred dollars. Here’s my advice…

A USB turntable is probably the simplest, most direct way of doing what you want to do — assuming you don’t already have a decent phonograph with a LINE or TAPE OUT and a computer with a LINE IN.

The USB turntable is going to be almost self-explanatory (and one of my technophobe pals got one and loves it) so let’s look at the exception above.

First, your computer or sound card (or other interface) would have to have a LINE IN. (MIC IN won’t work right, causing bigtime distortion.) If not, the USB ‘table route is easiest.

But, if the computer has a LINE IN, proceed…

Now, if, say, you’re as old as me (or just a hipster), you may well have a component system, separate turntable, amp or receiver, speakers, etc.

In that case, your amp or receiver will almost certainly have a LINE OUT or TAPE OUT and your turntable should be plugged into the receiver or amp’s PHONO IN. Hi fi phono cartridges — the thing that holds the needle — have very low output and all phonos have what is called an equalization curve — typically the RIAA curve. For that reason you can’t just plug a regular turntable’s output leads into a LINE IN — it requires a phono preamp to apply extra amplification and the RIAA EQ curve.

(Essentially the RIAA curve reduced the bass and increases the treble going onto a record and your preamp must apply a complementary curve to ‘decode’ that, in effect reducing the treble and increasing the bass. The RIAA and other EQ curves were used to reduce the size of grooves required and to increase the level of the signal on the record above surface noise, scratches, etc. When the playback curve is applied, the bass and treble are restored to proper balance [you hope] and the high frequency noise from the disk is reduced.)

Anyhow, you don’t really have to know all the whys — just the hows.

Bottom line, you can treat your PC (assuming, again, it has that LINE IN) like a tape recorder. Plug the LINE or TAPE OUT from the receiver/amp into the LINE IN on your computer.

From there, you’ll use some sort of recording software. (Audacity is a free, open source software that should be adequate to the job.) Once you’ve recorded the signal from your stereo as a WAV file, you can turn it into an MP3 or burn it to a CD.

(Or turn it into an MP3 and put it on a CD-R data disk with a bunch of other MP3s and you can get up to around 10 times as much music on a single CD — assuming you have a CD player that will play back an “MP3 CD,” which many modern players — but not all — will do.)

Since you’ll be going to a fair amount of work, you may want to give some thought to finding a ‘happy medium’ if you go the mp3 route.

iTunes started out selling 128kbps AAC. AAC is Apple’s ‘version’ of MP3-type ‘lossy compression,’ which many folks felt sounded marginally better at a given file size than a ‘standard’ MP3.

Microsoft have their own entry in that derby, the WMA file, and it’s arguably about the same quality/size ratio as an AAC file, but they perversely abandoned it when developing the Zune. Of course, now they’ve abandoned that.

While an MP3 file may be a little larger (at a given quality level) than an AAC or WMA, many people prefer them because they are almost universally supported by phones and, of course, Mp3 players (even the iPod will play an Mp3). Also, Mp3s don’t have copy protection, so they’re not as big a pain to deal with, archive, move to players, etc.

For that reason, even Apple relented and, after Amazon made a splash selling 256kbps MP3s (twice the size of iTunes’ 128kbps AACs but considerably higher quality), Apple began selling 256kbps MP3s at a premium price through the iTunes store.

For your purposes, I would recommend using at least 192 kbps Mp3s if not 256. Audiophile oriented types might well want to go up to 320kbps — still less than 1/3 the size of a ‘full quality’ WAV file but almost certainly indistinguishable by most people on most playback systems from the WAV. (But make sure your mp3 player or phone, etc, will support the higher rate before you ‘rip’ your whole collection. Or — buy a new mp3 player or phone.)

Hope that helps!