While doing research for this article on converting music from vinyl records to mp3’s, I viewed on the Internet numerous YouTube videos, and read a lot of “How To’s” on the subject . A good number of well meaning people spent a lot of time explaining this conversion process, and if one followed the instructions as given, the results one might achieve would range from poor to satisfactory. This disparity comes from these three variables:
- How the conversion from vinyl to mp3 was done
- The quality of equipment the person performing the conversion was using to play back the end product
- A clear definition of what a good quality mp3 should sound like
There are a number of variables in the actual conversion process that range from techniques, equipment, and software. Any of these variables could affect the mp3 conversion. Once the mp3 is converted, if it is played back on inexpensive hardware, the imperfections may totally or partially “blend in”. In this instance, the converted mp3 sounds almost or just as good as those purchased from Amazon, Itunes, etc. On the other hand, playing that same mp3 on a more expensive receiver and speaker combination will produce entirely different results. As higher end amplifiers in receivers reproduce sounds equal to or greater than those of human hearing (from 20 to 20,000 Hz), the sound becomes less blended and more discrete, or simply, clearer. So, as the sound quality improves so does the ability to hear imperfections. In most of the articles on transferring music from vinyl to mp3, it seems like the tail is wagging the dog; i.e., the converted mp3 sounds OK, so the conversion process must be OK too. It becomes a frame of reference. Say in two years, for example, a person has a number of mp3s converted from phonograph records, and they sound good on his $300 stereo. He then upgrades to a $3000 Bose home theater system. How well will those converted mp3s sound on the Bose?
All that being said, the goal is to produce mp3s that are that are at least CD quality on a high end (say……$3000) sound system, or put another way, mp3s that will sound very good when played on most audio equipment. What follows is a way to do it:
What You Will Need
- The legal right to copy recorded media (even if you purchased the media). Don’t get yourself in any trouble with the authorities. Do a little homework and make sure you are granted the right to copy the media by the copyright holders, and that copying the media is legal.
- Some vinyl records from which to record. Duh!
- A way to clean your records. I recommend RCA RD-1006 Discwasher Vinyl Record Care System. (Amazon.com)
- A small soft bristled hobbyist brush, like those used to paint models or for water colors. Use the brush to keep the stylus clean.
- A phonograph. There are a number of phonographs that are designed to convert records to mp3s, I just have not seen any reasonably priced that would be able to create a product that would meet our goal. Take a look at the ads for these all-in-one turntables. Often the drive system is not mentioned, or if it is, it is a belt drive. This is the typical type of system that drives the turntable on cheap phonographs. As the belt ages, it no longer stays tight on the pulley and platter, and the turntable begins to turn slower or slip. Not the best way to ensure sound quality. In these all-in-one turntables, there are a lot of necessary features missing. For our purposes, you need a decent turntable. It should have the following:
- A replaceable magnetic cartridge, and a diamond needle designed for the type of records you own (there is a different needle for 33 1/3 RPM records and 78 RPM records). Though one can get a reasonably good sound from a ceramic cartridge, magnetic cartridges can provide an even better sound (most LP’s are engineered for use with magnetic cartridges). Magnetic cartridges require a diamond stylus which lasts longer than the sapphire ones required on the ceramic cartridge. In addition, the magnetic cartridge has less weight on the stylus, making your records last longer. If you already have an old turntable and you are thinking of upgrading the cartridge, you might want to consider a Shure m97xE.
- You should be able to adjust the mass weight of the tone arm, and it should have an anti-skate mechanism as well. Most audiophile cartridges track at 1.0 to 1.5 grams (think “down force” on the needle). A spinning record places a centripetal force on the stylus, causing the tone arm to want to fly towards the “inside” of the record, – the anti-skate mechanism adjusts for this, and keeps the stylus in the center of the record’s groove.
- A direct drive motor for the platter (no belts). With a direct drive turntable, you can hold the running platter still with your left hand, place the needle where you want it on the record, then release the drive. This allows for greater accuracy in starting your music. By increasing or decreasing the speed of the turntable, you can also adjust the pitch of the music being played.
- The turntable should not have a USB connection to your computer. It should have the standard “old school” RCA cables instead.
- One 3 1/2 mm stereo adapter (RCA female fittings on one side and small male fitting on the other). See Figure 1.
- Your turntable will need a phono-pre-amp. Receivers of today no longer have phono-pre-amps, and even if you own an old receiver that has the pre-amp, it will not be up to the quality you need to meet our goal. The problem lies in the amount of volume or “gain” you are able to input into your recording software. Prices run $50 and up for one with a gain control (this control is a must). I found a Gemini PS-626 Pro2 stereo pre-amp mixer at a thrift store ($7.50). This is a small mixer designed to be used by DJs. For my purposes it is perfect. There are some good deals out there. Ebay???
UPDATE: The Behringer UFO202 audio interface, has a phono pre-amp, and is designed for recording from a turntable to your computer. Going price from Amazon (as of 9/30/2014) is $25.00).
UPDATE, 01/15/2015: Just replaced my aging Gemini PS-626 mixer with a Behringer VMX200USB DJ Mixer. I am no DJ, but I do have three of my computers and a turntable hooked up to this new mixer. Rather than using RCA cables and an adapter, audio is now transferred via USB. The VMX200USB has a very good phono pre-amp and DAC. The recordings the device helps me create have been very clean. Playback has surpassed my expectations. Current price on Amazon, $80.00 (US).
- If your pre-amp has a head phone jack, then you will need some head phones, and if no jack is available, hopefully there are some output jacks allowing you to connect to a receiver and speakers. Either option will allow you to hear the “input sound” that is being recorded.
- Two pair of standard audio cables with male RCA connectors on each end.
- Audacity, a free audio editor and recorder: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/download/mac
Putting It All Together
- Download and Install Audacity on your computer (there are both Mac and Windows versions).
- Attach the ground wire from you turntable to your pre-amp. This is important to eliminate any unwanted sounds (hums) in your recording.
- Attach the RCA cables from your phono to your pre-amp input jacks. Note: Be sure to match the white cable to the white input, and the red cable to the red input.
- These attachments depend on the type of pre-amp you have: If your pre-amp only has only one output, attach one pair of the stereo cables with the male RCA jacks to the OUTPUT connector on the pre-amp; or, your pre-amp may have output jacks labeled RECORD, then attach the cables there. In either case, be sure to keep the colors matching on the connections.
- Now, take the unused end of the cable from the OUTPUT OR RECORD jacks, and install the 3 1/2 mm stereo “Y” adapter (Figure 1.) , once again, match the plug colors.
- This next step really depends on your computer. For a Mac, you insert the plug from the “Y” adapter into the microphone input. This input port is usually located adjacent to the audio “output” port. On Window’s based machines, the input could be a microphone input port like the Mac’s (dual use for microphone or sound), or it could be an additional port located on the sound-card at the rear of the computer. When all else fails, refer to your instructions that came with your PC for the location of the sound input port. Note: On some non-Mac machines, the microphone input port is solely used for the purpose of supporting a microphone, and if no other sound input port is available, this is a deal breaker, as this port will probably be monophonic, and not provide the frequency response you need for your mp3s; in addition, using this port for sound input for recording might damage the port, and your motherboard.
- Now that you have your input port cabled, you need to verify that the port is set up in your operating systems “Settings” menu. For the Mac, go to System Preferences > Sound > Input. Where it says “Choose a device for sound input”, under “Name”, choose Line In, and under “Type” choose (Depending on your version of OS X) Built In Audio or Audio Line-IN Port. There is a slide for input volume, make sure it is all the way to the right. For Windows XP, these settings should be found in the Control Panel. Be sure to maximize input volume too for you Windows’ machine.
- Depending on your computer’s built in audio card, when you start recording, you might be able to hear what is being recorded through your computer’s connected speakers. If this doesn’t work, you can use this setup depending again on the type of pre-amp you have. If see an output called MASTER on your pre-amp, you can connect a pair of audio cables to this output, and an available input on a stereo receiver, for example, for the CD Player. With this setup, with the receiver turned on, (assuming speakers are attached) and the CD button on the front of the depressed, you can hear the sound being recording on your computer. If your pre-amp has a head-phone jack, you can use it to hear the input from your turntable being recorded. If all else fails, you can watch the tone arm position on the record, and the sound input gauges in the Audacity program to tell when your recorded song starts and ends.
Your First Recording
Audacity will do a great deal more than just record; for example, you can use it to edit music for videos you create, or you can create sound loops, and even add special effects. In the interest of brevity, for the remaining portion of this article, I will go step by step on how to set up your pre-amp and Audacity to record from your turntable, and how to convert that recording to a mp3.
- Open Audacity. Once the program has opened click on Audacity in menu bar, then go to click Preferences. Now, verify the following: Devices tab: Playback: Device (the adjacent drop down box should show for Mac “Built-in Audio” or “Audio Line-IN Port“. These comments should be the same as those you entered in System Preferences > Sound (mentioned above). For Windows, you should see a similar response. For “Recording: Device”, should show same comments as “Playback: Device”, with the exception that Line In is added. Directly below under Channels, it should say “2 (stereo).” Make any necessary adjustments, and click OK.
- Now go back into Audacity > Preferences and go to the Quality tab. Here, verify the “Default Sample Rate” is 44100 hz, and the “Default Sample Format” is 32-bit float.
- Above is an Audacity window. The first thing you will want to do is to move the input and output sound bars down from the top of the screen to the bottom of the window as I have done in the example. These bars were originally directly under the menu bar titles “Generate” and “Effect” . To move the bars, notice the ladder (E) to the left of the bars. With the mouse, click on the ladder, and drag the bars down to the lower half of the screen. Now click and drag the lower right hand corner of the bars window to make it bigger. You can click and drag somewhere in the center of the bars to center the whole thing. We will use the red portion of the bar graph, (the input section) to help set up the gain on our pre-amp. I moved and enlarged this guage window because one thing that it monitors in the amplitude of the sound being recorded. Recording too loud can distort the recording, and too low will make the mp3 too hard too hear on playback. Ideally, you will want your recorded mp3 to fit in with a similar sound level with other mp3s in your collection.
- Now go back to the top center of the program. There is a slider just to the right of the microphone. The slider is a control for input volume. Make sure it is all the way to the right, as depicted in the photograph.
- With the window now setup, let’s take a look at the some of the pieces. Bars B and A display your record volume for left and right stereo channels respectively. During playback, bars D and C display sound output to either a receiver or your computer speakers for the left and right stereo channels. The bars will be colored green. Letter F points to the Pause Button, and Letter G points to the Record Button. Letters I and H will show the amplitude of sound as it is being recorded.
- We now need to set up the pre-amp so we can record. In Audacity, click on the Pause Button (F) and the Record Button (G). Next, if you are using a receiver, turn it on. Also, power up your pre-amp. Turn on the turntable, place a record on the platter, and clean the record with DiscWasher, or whatever method you choose. Then, start playing the track. Bars A and B should now be moving forward and backward with the sound of the music. Note that at this point, you are not recording anything, you are just sending the audio through the system (the record function is on Pause). Look at the right side of the bars, you will see a vertical red and a blue line in each channel (A and B) at the very right side of the bar. The red line represents the highest volume registered on the channel in the last three seconds, and the blue in the highest sound registered since you started the session. A dark red line at the very right under the “0” marker on the horizontal scale means the sound had too much amplitude, and needs to be reduced. Sound recorded at this level will be “clipped” or distorted. Using the “gain” control on the pre-amp, adjust the output up or down so the thin red and blue lines are at -3 or higher on the horizontal scale, but less the 0. I try to adjust this for just a shade past -3. You may want to place Audacity on Pause and Record before you start each LP, because recording levels on the vinyl varies by studio, artist, or a hundred other reasons.
- To record, place the stylus on the phono arm in a dead space before the track you want to record, and click the Pause Button. This click turns Pause “off”, and as you already had the Record button turned on, recording commences immediately. You will notice blue amplitude lines (looks like a like detector) for the right and left channels on the H and I gauges. As the song ends, the amplitude lines flatten out. Depress the yellow square button between the Pause and Record buttons. This stops the recording. Now, lift the tone arm ( most turn table have a small lever to do this on the right rear of the turntable deck). I just leave the arm suspended above the record until I am ready for the next track.
- To turn your recording into a mp3, go to File > Export. A box will appear, in the top portion, type in the name of the song. Then decide where you want it placed. In the lower portion, export as a mp3. Set the bitrate by clicking the Options button. Adjust the bitrate to 256kps, if it is not already, and close the window (this will give you a larger files size than is typical for most mp3s, but guarantees you are getting the best quality capable from your recording). Now, Hit Enter. As this is the first time you have requested a mp3 recording, Audacity will probably tell you it cannot find a “lame” program and will ask you if you want it downloaded. Say “Yes”. This is the actual software that creates the mp3, and by default it is not installed. Once installed you may have to repeat the Export process again, and this time after you hit Enter on the first window, another window opens allowing you to fill in some metadata on the song. I usually enter in the name of the artist, the song title, and the album title, and hit Enter. At this point the mp3 is being created. You will sell a small window with a little bar graph showing the progress on the file conversion. That’s it, you have recorded you first song.
- To record another song, click File > Close from the top menu bar. A window opens, click Discard on the Save option. The whole window leaves, then click File > New on the Audacity menu bar at the top of the screen. When the window opens, click the Pause button and then the Record button. Place the stylus in the dead space in front of the track you want to record, click the Pause button again, and you are once again recording. When you change records, verify the “gain” is correct, and you are ready to go.
- When you start a recording session, take a moment and verify the settings in Audacity and on your pre-amp, and especially check the slider next to the microphone at the top of the Audacity window, as it resets itself to the lowest audio input position (it will be all the way to the “left” and you want to move it all the way to the “right”) every time you restart the program. Always clean your records before your start recording. Finally, use the small hobbyist brush ever so lightly on the stylus after every 4 or 5 songs.
By using undamaged well recorded vinyl LPs, with a good turntable and cartridge, a good pre-amp, and taking a little time to configure the software and sound inputs, you can create very good mp3s. Note that the recording settings mentioned above minimize the affects of compression from the mp3 process, preserving more of the actual sound from the source vinyl record. All that being said, the best judge is always your ears. Did we meet out goal?