Story by Brandon Widder, via our partner site, Digital Trends /
Some believe the recent vinyl sales spike is ushering in a new renaissance of sorts, breathing life into a seasoned format that barely survived the ’90s and the early aughts, as more convenient digital music formats appeared. Others say vinyl owes its renewed vitality to new-age audiophiles with a penchant for superior sound — or maybe it’s simply a hipster fad, like double-rimmed glasses, mustaches, and fixie bikes. Whatever it is, vinyl is back.
Unfortunately, not all record labels pre-package their vinyl with digital download coupons or CD copies of their latest release. It’s a new methodology, stemming from our desire to sync our tunes with our home audio system and mobile devices. However, though many analog recordings still rely strictly on the drop of a needle, that doesn’t mean you can’t convert them into a more accessible digital format. Doing so will not only preserve the record for future listeners and allow you to take entire albums with you on the go, but it will also give you a convenient means for cleaning up noisy records using a bevy of simple software applications.
The only question: How do you do it without running out of patience and money?
Sadly, there is no catch-all method for digitizing your vinyl collection. The exact process depends on what kind of equipment you’ve got. Some turntables come with built-in pre-amps; others don’t, and rely on a receiver with a built-in phono pre-amp or a stand alone phono pre-amp. These days, modern turntables tend to feature both a built-in pre-amp and USB output, allowing you to quickly and efficiently convert that musty copy of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill with little effort. That’s not to say you can’t convert your vinyl to a digital format without an integrated USB output, but opting for a turntable built with said output makes the process far easier. Below are two such offerings we recommend; if these don’t work for you, check out our rundown of the best turntables.
Sony PS-HX500 ($598)
Okay, we realize that $600 might seem steep for a record player; that’s because $600 is pretty steep for a record player (though they get much pricier). If you’ve deeply invested into a large collection of vinyl records, though, it might be worth your money. The player is outfitted with a high-quality Texas Instruments digital audio converter (DAC) that transfers at a minimum of 16-bit resolution (that’s CD quality). That’s just the minimum, though — this bad boy can transfer files up to 5.6MHz DSD, which no other record player can do. If you’re an audiophile, this is simply the best choice.
Audio Technica AT-LP120 USB ($249)
Audio Technica’s AT-LP120 USB isn’t stylish, but it’s a mainstay as far as budget turntables go. It comes equipped with selectable integrated pre-amp (so outboard phono pre-amps are unnecessary) and a USB output that’s compatible with both PC and Mac systems, not to mention three speeds (33⅓, 45, and 78 rpm) and the ability to rip at 44.1kHz/16-bit and 48/16 sample rates. Best of all, it offers admirable sound for the price.
Aside from your turntable, you’ll also need a few cables in order to make the necessary connections. If your turntable lacks a USB output, for instance, you will need a stereo RCA cable and an RCA-to-3.5mm cord. Both cables are relatively affordable — typically under $10 — at your local electronics store or online sites like Amazon. You’ll also need a computer with a “Line-in” port and enough space to save the resulting files, as well as a little patience, given you must play an album in real-time in order to properly record and convert it.
Furthermore, you can always purchase a dedicated phono pre-amp if neither your A/V receiver nor your turntable have one. There’s a wealth of pre-amps on the market, ranging anywhere from $20 to upward of $1,500, but opting for a nicer device will nearly always result in heightened clarity and a more natural soundscape. In the unlikely case that you’ve gotten this far but don’t actually have a record collection, we can help there too.
Getting the signal from your turntable to your computer is only the first step. The second part of the process is finding the right software application to record the audio. Although there are several premium applications designed to help you rip audio from your turntable — like Pure Vinyl and Vinyl Studio — the open-source Audacity will suffice for most users. This freemium application may not offer dedicated tools for converting vinyl into more accessible formats, but it can still record at sampling rates up to 192kHz, and export the resulting audio files as either MP3, AIFF, FLAC, or WAV for playback on a slew of popular platforms. The interface may not be polished, either, but the software works with Windows, Mac, and Linux-based machines.
Regardless of which software you use, we recommend that you record at a minimum of 16 bits sampled at 4.4.1kHz. You can always create a compressed copy from a lossless one, but you can’t improve the quality of audio files without going through the recording process again. If you’ve got a large library of vinyl — which seems likely, given that you’re looking to digitize your collection — that’s a serious time commitment.
Once you have the necessary gear and software in order, it’s time to start the digitization process. Although you’re more than welcome to digitize your vinyl wherever you see fit, we recommend choosing a space that’s relatively quiet and devoid of outside vibrations — i.e. passing trains, stomping children — that may cause rumbling or an unwanted needle skip.
Step #1: Clean your vinyl. Vinyl has a knack for getting dirty. Dust accumulates over time, even if you keep records in their sleeves, and fingers leave behind oils and other muck, so it’s best to clean your albums. Any imperfection, whether it stems from scratches or mere dust, will be recorded when digitizing. Consider buying at least a simple bristle or micro-fiber brush and some cleaning solution if you haven’t already.
Step #2: Connect your devices. Next, connect your devices in the appropriate manner. If using a turntable with an integrated USB output, plug the USB cable into the corresponding port on your computer. If using a turntable without a USB output, connect your record player to a standalone pre-amp or A/V receiver before relaying the RCA connection (via monitor output) to the “Line in” port on your computer using the RCA-to-3.5mm cable.
Step #3: Launch Audacity. Open Audacity, or your preferred audio-recording software of choice, on your Mac or PC. Afterward, select the appropriate input source from the system preferences pane or a similar settings panel. If using Audacity, click Edit and select System Preferences before selecting “Line in” from the drop-down menu within the Recording section of the Devices pane. Keep in mind you may have to additionally select the input source from within your computer’s main sound panel.
Step #4: Record. Click the Record button and start your record to begin capturing audio from your selected source, adjusting the input levels to reduce clipping and subsequent distortion when needed. In Audacity, the record button is represented by a red circle in the topmost navigational toolbar.
Step #5: Wait. Allow your desired section or the entirety side of the record to play through before clicking the Stop button, represented by a yellow square in Audacity and typically resting beside the Record button in most audio suites.
Step #6: Split the tracks. If you’re like most people, chances are you’d rather split the entirety of the record into individual tracks. If using Audacity, click and drag your cursor to highlight the duration of a particular track. Afterward, click the Tracks option within the toolbar, select Add Label At Selection from the resulting drop-down menu, and name the track appropriately. There are better tools for this process than Audacity (see: Perfect Tunes) but it’s free, which is nice.
Step #7: Export the album. Once you’ve split and named each track, click File within the toolbar and select Export Multiple from within the drop-down menu. Afterward, choose your desired file format, save location, and enter any missing metadata in the resulting pop-up menu before clicking the Export button in the bottom-right corner.
Step #8: Enjoy. Once finished converting, enjoy your newly-digitized music in the media player of your choice!
Updated 4-17-2017 by Nick Hastings: Updated for accuracy and to include updated hardware.