vinyl record

How do I Transfer Vinyl Records to MP3?

Getting the Right Set Up

Getting Started

There is a large amount of choice when it comes to transferring vinyl to PC - this is a basic guide to introduce some of the things that need to be taken into account.

A good turntable is a precision engineered item with a unique aesthetic appeal, which is a pleasure to use and which produces a kind of sound that is different - rather than inferior - from that you get with a digital music.

A collection of vinyl records - especially rare, older recordings in good condition - can in some cases be worth many times more than a high-end turntable. And even with not so valuable collections, there may be rare items which do not exists on CD or in MP3 format.

For many people the question of which record player to get should take into account a lot more factors than which is the best setup for transferring vinyl to PC.

Your main purpose in transferring records to your PC should also be taken into account: the man with a huge record collection who wants to archive it for safekeeping may consider the amount of time it will take to accomplish everything as his main concern; a man who has very fine, rare recordings, will focus on quality and reject any shortcuts or compromises; and a guy who has just a few LPs that he loves but that are in none too good condition may focus on finding a cheap solution and rely software to clean up the sound of his recordings.

As there are so many different needs, this article will focus on the basic practicalities. It will not cover dedicated vinyl to PC turntables which come with all the software you need and a special USB connection. Nor is there scope here to discuss the many options that are available for DJs who may want expensive specialized equipment.

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Choosing the Right Turntable

Preamp - External or Built-in

The basic requirement in connnecting a turntable to a PC is to get the very weak audio signal from the turntable amplified to line level and then to connect that signal to the line-in socket on the soundcard. (Strictly speaking when I refer to line level I am referring to consumer line level which operates at a much lower voltage than professional line level.)

The line-in jack on a computer soundcard and on home stereo systems accepts signals at line level, but turntables produce outputs at different levels. The signal from a turntable is amplified by a preamp (preamplifier) which increases the signal strength and allows the sound to be recorded on a PC (or played through the speakers of a home stereo).

It used to be usual for home stereo systems to have a built-in preamp and for this to be used especially for connecting a turntable. Today, home stereos frequently do not have a built-in preamp, so turntable manufacturers nowadays often include a built-in preamp. This basically means that the phono (or RCA) connectors from the turntable can be connected into the line-in on a PC and the signal will be powerful enough to record with ease.

The connection would simply require an RCA to TRS cable - discussed elsewhere on this site.

Turntable manufacturers do not always make it perfectly clear whether or not their units have a built-in preamp. Sometimes the only way to be certain is to check the specs and look for "built-in preamp", or "built-in phono stage". You can often download the turntable manual from the manufacturer website and this will usually provide a clear statement on the matter.

If there is not a built-in preamp, then you will need to obtain a phono preamp to be able to convert your vinyl to MP3. Phono preamps come in many varieties and the cost range is huge.

Phono Preamps - Moving Magnet or Moving Coil

To make things a little more complicated phono preamps can be tailored to handle different types of turntable input depending on the cartridge used on the turntable.

Today, the most common form of cartridge is the moving magnet type. To make things just a little more complicated moving magnet cartriges are sometimes referred to as MM or simply magnetic cartridges. Frequently manufacturers of preamps will describe them as being suited for magnetic cartridges.

Moving coil cartridges (sometimes referred to as MC) are typically much more expensive than magnetic cartriges. Very often preamps that can work with moving coil cartridges will also work with magnetic cartridges and will be described as 'MM and MC compatible' or something similar.

Some preamps will have jacks for guitar connection or microphone connection. In which case they will have a switch that allows them to function as guitar or mic preamps.

Another consideration that may influence your choice of preamp is whether you need your preamp primarily for connecting to a PC - rather than connecting to a home stereo. If this is the case then you may consider getting an external soundcard which will allow you to connect via the line-in socket on your computer or perhaps even via USB. But make sure that the external soundcard has a phono input and does indeed act as a preamp. (Some external analogue to digital soundcards work only with tape cassettes, mini discs or other sources which do not need a preamp.)

Needless to say the best preamps will provide a better quality signal than inferior preamps. But also the quality of the cable from the turntable to the preamp and from the preamp to the PC will affect the quality of the final recording. Good quality, shielded OFC cables should be preferred over standard cables.

Other Considerations on Getting the Right Record Players

To avoid unnecessarily scratching your vinyl use record players with automatic controls. The needle should drop mechanically and it should rise automatically when the record finishes playing. There should also be a lift button that allows you to lift the needle (or stylus) mechanically if you need to stop the turntable in the middle of play. Turntables which require the stylus to be raised and dropped manually offer a sure fire, guaranteed method of scratching your vinyl.

Ensure that you do not use a worn stylus. A worn needle will damage records whilst a new stylus or a stylus in good condition will result in less wear for your records and produce a better sound to boot.

PC Soundcards and Microphone Preamps

If you don't have a preamp and your turntable doesn't have a built-in preamp, it is possible to convert your vinyl to MP3 format and to CD quite easily by using the microphone jack or mic socket on your computer's soundcard.

If you have ever accidently tried to record using a desktop microphone through the line-in socket you'll know that you get a flat line - no signal or barely any signal. Equally if a turntable without a built-in preamp is connected directly to the line-in jack you'll similarly get no signal. However if the microphone is plugged in to the microphone socket, then - no matter how cheap and nasty the microphone - you'll get some kind of recording out of it. This effect relies on the simple fact that the microphone socket has a built in preamp.

It is possible to piggy back the microphone socket's preamp and to use this to boost the signal from a turntable to a level suitable for audio capture. This is however something of a Batman-and-Robin solution. Principally because the microphone jack mixes everything down to mono.

Mono vs Stereo and Equalization

A phono preamp will not only amplify a signal, but it also applies RIAA equalization which is to say that it alters the audio signal in a specific and predetermined way. In layman's language what happens is that vinyl records are produced so as to provide a thin, tinny sound (with good reason), and the preamp corrects this by introducing a bit of bass back. Actually it chucks in quite a lot of bass into the signal. The phono preamp also puts out a stereo signal with the two channels - left and right - still separate.

The microphone preamp on the other hand applies a different equalization to the audio signal - emphasizing the normal human vocal range.

If you do use the microphone socket for recording vinyl and like the results then that's fine, but for serious archiving, rather than casual listening, it's worthwhile getting a phono preamp as this is the way to get a faithful recording.

Another benefit of having a phono preamp is it allows you to connect the turntable to wide range of modern stereo systems - many of which do not have a built in preamp.

If you like the mono mix that is produced via the microphone socket (and I find some otherwise excellent 1960s recordings sound unbearable when listened to in full stereo through headphones) then you can reproduce the mono mix using software. (In Audacity the command is Track - Stereo Track to Mono.)

On the other hand the equalizer filter in Audacity has a built-in RIAA equalization curve which is actually quite handy as a quick fix for all sorts of inadequate, tinny sounding recordings. (You will need to first normalize to say -10dB otherwise clipping is likely.)

Software - other considerations.

It is possible to talk of a Quality Chain when discussing Vinyl to PC to CD conversion. This is because with vinyl records, especially, there are lots of points where the quality of the recording can be affected. This starts with quality of the turntable generally, the stylus, the cartridge, the preamp and the cable connecting to the computer. Then once at the computer, the quality of the soundcard has an impact, and the quality of the software too.

It is tempting to try to use software to fix a range of problems with vinyl recordings - pops, clicks and hiss. The reality is that some of that noise is a natural part of the feel of analogue productions and there is in fact software which is used to introduce such noise to give digital recordings a more 'natural' feel.

If you do want to use software to reduce such noise it is important to remember that it is impossible to perfectly isolate and remove noise from a recording. And software solutions vary quite a fair bit in terms of the quality of the job they do. Audacity has an okay noise reduction and a reasonable click removal filter, but there are better, paid for solutions out there.

Never use noise reduction filters arbitrarily - always check that the results you're getting are actually improving the quality of the sound and not introducing too many unwanted side-effects.

Burning to CD

When archiving your recordings to CD, there are further quality issues to consider. Firstly, if burning an audio CD then it is possible to skip the stage of compressing your recording to MP3 and instead to save your recording as a WAV file and to use that to transfer to CD.

Audio CD's vs Data CDs

Audio CD's can store about to 74 minutes of music, and the audio does not require compression.

It is possible to fit five or more times that amount of music on a CD-Rom when using compressed audio files such as MP3s. When storing MP3s on to a CD, the amount of data - rather than the amount of playing time - determines how much can be stored on a CD.

The other benefits of MP3s is that it is possible to store the tag data which includes album name, artist name, song-titles etc, whilst when burning an Audio CD, this information is lost.

Analogue vs Digital Storage

It is incorrect to think that CDs last forever - they don't. And vinyl records may in fact be a better bet for long term storage.

If you are burning a CD for casual use in a CD player then you won't need to worry too much about the quality of the CD you use, but if you are looking to create a long term archive and backup of your vinyl records, then some care is needed. First and most importantly - use trusted, quality brands of CD-Roms, like Verbatim and Taiyo Yuden. Steer well clear of unbranded CD-Roms and do not use a brand you do not trust.

If are old enough to have bought a CD of say, a Dire Straits recording in the 1980s and you still have it and it plays perfectly, then you may think that CD technology has improved and today's CDs will last as long or longer. Do not make this mistake.

For a start, data CDs are more likely to fail completely than audio CDs. If you store your recordings as MP3s on a data disc, then it may take a simple fault to appear on the CD to cause a catastrophic failure and for all your recordings to be lost.

Audio CDs can also fail and the playback may start to skip - even as would occur with a scratched vinyl record - eventhough the CD may have been stored in perfect condition. Using good quality CD-Roms can reduce the likelihood of this, but there is no guarantee that a fault will never occur.

A useful rule of thumb is that you should prefer to use lower drive speeds when burning a CD, as this reduces the changes of errors during the burning process, as does closing any other programmes that may be open during the process of burning.

Finally, if a severe fault does seem to have emerged on a valued CD backup, don't panic, do clean it, check it on a different machine, and if still no luck (and if it is really that important) then a data recovery specialist may still be able to rescue your recordings from the disc.

When you copy material which you didn't produce yourself, there may be copyright issues to take into account. Please respect others' copyright... and have fun!!