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Converting records to CD and MP3

A look at what's involved in recording vinyl to your PC

Like a lot of people, my wife's family has acquired quite a record collection over the years. But as smaller, more portable tapes, CDs, and MP3s became popular, the records they love got played less and less. So this winter, I decided to rescue those albums from their quiet, dusty corner, and transfer that music to audio formats they could more easily enjoy: CDs and MP3s.

Copying music might seem like a simple task — after all, I save music CDs as MP3s on my computer's hard drive all the time. But I found that recording vinyl to my PC wasn't as straightforward. So I've written this article to give you an idea of what's involved, and share some time-saving tips I learned along the way.

Choosing a turntable

The first step is to evaluate your equipment, and figure out how you'll connect it to your PC.

Traditional turntables typically have a set of stereo RCA outputs and a ground wire. If you'd like to use this kind of turntable, make sure you have a phono preamp in the mix — either built into the turntable, or in a separate receiver or amplifier. If you connect those stereo RCA outputs directly to your computer's sound card without a phono preamp, you won't get very good sound. Also, keep in mind that you might need a mini-stereo-to-stereo-RCA adapter to connect your turntable to your computer's sound card (check your sound card to be sure).

If you're in the market for a new turntable, you can choose one that just has the traditional stereo RCA outputs, or opt for a model that offers a USB interface as well. Now, USB doesn't necessarily make the recording process any quicker or easier, but it does provide a simpler, high-quality connection. Plus, these turntables often include a USB cable in the box.

Software is key

Archiving your records isn't quite as easy as just plugging your record player into your computer — you'll also need software that can record the audio tracks. There are quite a few software options out there, and the type you use should depend on how you want to listen to your albums once you've recorded them. Will you mainly listen on your iPod, or will you make compilation CDs of favorite tracks? Do you want to aim for top audio quality with the help of specialized noise filters? Or are you more concerned with getting things done quickly and easily? I tried out three different types of software, and each one had its merits.

By the way, if you buy a USB turntable, chances are it will also include some record archiving software. Even so, it might be worth purchasing more advanced software, depending on what you'd like to do. If you do purchase software, you can expect it to run you between $20-60, depending on the features it includes.

The recording process
First of all, I should tell you a bit about my recording method. Whenever possible, I opted to record each album as one long track, and cut it apart into individual songs afterwards, rather than mark the end of each song as I was recording. Not all of the software I tried let me take this approach, but I preferred it, since I could sit back and really enjoy the music. I didn't have to hover over my mouse, waiting for the end of the track; I could just listen and pay attention to the quality of the track itself.

However I initially recorded the album, all of the software I tried made it relatively easy to divide up or trim my tracks, though some offered greater control than others.

Key features to look for
I tried out three different software applications to archive my records — Audacity (included free with my turntable), MixMeister EZ Vinyl Converter 2, and MixPad — but there are a lot more out there. So below, I've tried to highlight the features I found especially useful so you know what to look for in your own software.

  • Saving your recordings in your preferred audio format. Make sure your software can save your music in your preferred format. MP3 is obviously common, but you can also easily find software that supports other formats, like WAV. Also, make sure you choose software that's compatible with your operating system. (All three software packages I used worked with Windows-based PCs; Mixmeister and Audacity also worked with Mac, and Audacity worked with Linux as well.)
  • Pausing your recordings. Though I generally opted to record my albums as one continuous track, and then divide up the songs at the end, I still liked to be able to pause a recording. It saved me from having to edit out dead time when I flipped over the record. And I could get up to answer the door, for example, without missing a thing, or having to redo a recording. I could pause my recordings with both Audacity and MixPad.
  • Applying noise filters. Frequently played records are known for their characteristic hisses and other white noise. This can add character to a track, but it can also detract from its overall sound. If you'd like to remove those defects, look for software with built-in noise filters. Audacity and MixPad both allowed me to filter out that kind of background noise.
  • Downloading track information. Some software will automatically go online to find artist, album and song information for each track you record. This is a convenience we've all become used to when we rip CDs in programs like iTunes® and Windows Media Player, and it's also a timesaver when archiving your records. This is one feature I really enjoyed when I used EZ Vinyl Converter.
  • Achieving more precise edits. Some software allows you to perform finer edits — removing specific pops or skips, for example, rather than just applying a general filter, or trimming the lead-in and lead-out times of each song. If you want precise control over your recordings, keep an eye out for these features. I found that Audacity and MixPad were both great for this kind of fine-tuning.
  • Streamlining the process with iPod-friendly features. Some software these days is geared towards iPod® users. For example, EZ Vinyl Converter automatically exports your recordings to iTunes, and downloads the track information, so you can add your albums to your iPod and start enjoying them right away.

iPod If you'd like to enjoy your recordings on your iPod, look for software with iPod-friendly features.

Overall, I found EZ Vinyl Converter to be the most user-friendly recording software I tried. It saved me time by automatically downloading the track information, and it was easy to operate. But I had to mark the end of each track as it was recording, and I couldn't pause the recording once I'd started it. So I found that once I'd gotten more comfortable with Audacity and MixPad, I preferred to take advantage of their more advanced editing features, even though archiving each album was a bit more time consuming.

OK, I've got my albums recorded. Now what?

Once I had my records archived, it was time to enjoy them. For my own listening, I added my favorites to my iPod — this was especially easy using the EZ Vinyl Converter software, since it exported my recordings directly to iTunes.

But I also wanted to share some of these recordings with my wife's family at Christmas. In this case, I found it easier to use Audacity and MixPad. I simply transferred the WAV or MP3 files I'd created and burned them to CDs using my computer's software.

Since I'd invested all that time and effort in saving these albums, I wanted to make sure I had backup copies, in case my hard drive crashed or got damaged. So I kept CD copies of each album for myself, and also saved copies on my external hard drive.

Things I wish I'd known when I started

Here are some things I learned throughout this process that would have made me better prepared at the beginning:

  1. Decide early on what your preferences are. How are you going to listen to your music? Do you want precision editing tools, or a more user-friendly approach? Decide before you begin, so you can start off with the best software for your preferences.
  2. Prescreen your records. Listen to each album carefully before you record it to make sure you don't have any skips or other undesirable defects.
  3. Make time for it. Unlike dubbing tapes or burning CDs, you can't just press a button and walk away. You should expect to babysit the computer for the entire recording process — anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the album. You'll want to hear the album as it's recording, and listen closely, to catch any flaws. It's a very hands-on process, but it's worth it for those special albums.
  4. Converting records to CD or MP3 will not make them sound better. The analog recordings you hear with vinyl can provide fuller, richer sound than digital recordings. If sound quality is important to you, use a high bitrate to capture more of the album's detail and nuance, or use a lossless format like WAV. Also, keep in mind that if the record is in bad shape, even filters and editing tools won't be able to improve the sound. If you love the songs, you'll still enjoy them, but don't expect a miracle.

Wrapping it up

My experiences with this process taught me a lot about music and what I thought was important in resurrecting my albums. My goal when I started was to transfer the albums to a more usable medium quickly and easily. But I learned that that process isn't necessarily quick or easy — though it did go more smoothly after I'd recorded my first few albums.

I also learned that it can be worth the time and effort. For me, the effort had special significance when I gave the CDs to my wife's family on Christmas day, and they recounted old times with laughter and tears.

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