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Holly Jolly X'masu

How to Record and Digitize Vinyl

Jul 31, 2020

One thing my less technologically-inclined friends have asked me is how to rip copies of their own vinyl records. Okay, what they actually ask me is if I can do it for them, but for the more adventurous out there, I thought I’d post some instructions and pointers.

The first thing you need is a decent turntable. That’s something I’m still working on, as ours is a bottom-of-the-line Jensen that I got on sale and, with a coupon, paid less than $30. I still get halfway decent audio files, but the sound from the built-in speakers is pretty bad and the tone arm is extremely light, to the point that I used some dental wax to attach a penny to the tone arm just above the stylus to keep it from continually jumping out of the groove. Also, as I discovered recently, the speed is off. This left me having to re-record everything I’ve ever ripped—a total of 45 records, including LP’s, EP’s, maxi-singles and singles, mostly Christmas, but some non-Christmas stuff as well. Everything sounds better, although I was really surprised by how low everyone’s voices are now.

There are lots of options out there, as far as turntables go. The main thing you need is a way to hook it up to your computer. Lots of them nowadays have a standard USB connector, which makes it easy. We had a turntable several years ago that used a printer connection. It was a hassle to use because we’d have to disconnect the printer. It also didn’t have built-in speakers and wouldn’t let you listen through the computer while you were playing the records. You would have to record them as an audio file (the included software didn’t work), and then play them back via your media app of choice. It was awful. One reason was that you had no way of knowing if you were getting a good recording, or if you had a dirty record, skips, etc. until after you’d recorded it. Even if you had a clean, brand-new album, the files you got from it were terrible. No matter what you chose for the input settings, the audio was always extremely soft, and sounded even worse after amplifying it.

Before that, we had my parents’ old turntable. This was a higher-quality record player than we have now, but I had to get special converters to let me hook it up to the computer and, at the time, the files I got from it were virtually unusable. I gave up after a couple tries.

Once you’ve successfully connected your turntable to your PC, you’ll need a program that records audio. The standard, at least as far as I’m aware, is Audacity. It’s a free program and relatively easy to use. You’ll probably have to play with the input settings a bit until you get them right, but once you do, you’re ready to go.

The first thing I’ll do when I get a new album is put it on the turntable and clean it with my brush. Actually, that’s not true. The first thing I’ll do is take it out and admire it. I’ll give the vinyl a thorough inspection, looking for obvious scratches, warping or defects. Then I’ll take out the sleeve, look at the artwork and any inserts, then read through all the liner notes. I’m not sure why I spend so much time on the liner notes since I can’t read a lick of Japanese, but I like to be thorough. After that, I’ll put it on the turntable and give it a cleaning.

Inspecting the new vinyl

Next, I’ll hit record on Audacity and let the record play. I like to sit back and listen, and watch the sound profile in Audacity. Clicks are pretty easy to see, and skips tend to have a similar appearance, so doing this gives me an idea of how much cleanup will be needed. The main thing, though, is to sit back and enjoy the music, and listen for any big problems.

Playing the record with the penny-added tone arm

Once the record ends (I record both sides as a single file), I’ll export it as a WAV. This is a lossless audio format. What that means is that all the audio your computer picks up is saved in the file. This is opposed to MP3’s, which are compressed files. Depending on your settings, you lose either a little or a lot of the sound when you compress a file into an MP3. However, they’re much smaller than a WAV or other lossless format. This lets you load thousands of songs onto your phone, MP3 player, or digital player of choice. You have to decide whether you want to carry around thousands of songs with a lower fidelity, or fewer songs that sound better.

Getting back to recording, if I have more than one record to record, I’ll record them all at once. Once I’m done, I’ll take them all to the local record store and have them cleaned. They have a high-end, professional cleaner which will get rid of a lot of the clicks and hiss, and will even fix the occasional skip as long as it’s due to dirt or dust and not a scratch or defect in the vinyl. After this, I’ll go home and record them all again. This may sound like unnecessary extra work, but on a couple records, I’ve had bits of songs that recorded better the first time around. Since I had both files, I was able to splice in the parts I needed to from the original recording. I figure it’s a safety net and lets me listen to them at least twice before doing any cleanup work.

After I’ve made both copies, I’ll work on turning them into MP3’s. This is where I do any needed editing and cleanup. Audiophiles out there will point out that I’d get better audio quality from a lossless format as mentioned above, but I invariably load everything onto my phone, and if all I had were WAV’s or FLAC’s, I wouldn’t be able to carry around nearly as much music. Plus, I encode my podcast at 128 KBPS, so MP3’s work out fine for that. If you don’t understand any of what I just wrote, don’t worry about it. A 320 KBPS MP3 will suit your needs.

Editing In Progress

As long as the recording takes, the editing and tagging takes even longer. I’ll open one of the WAV files with Audacity, then cut and paste the first song into a new file. I’ll listen to the song, and as I go, I’ll remove any clicks as best I can. Audacity has a click removal tool that will get rid of most clicks for you. One thing you don’t want to do is apply it to the entire song. This tends to remove too much, and can even wipe out some or all of the percussion in a song. This is particularly dangerous with some of the Japanese music I’ve recorded because of some of the instruments they use. Their sound profile is almost indistinguishable from a click. I had one song that had a lot of hand clapping. I ran click removal on the whole track, played it back and found that all the clapping was gone. That’s why I now go through the entire song, removing just one or two clicks at a time.

If click removal doesn’t work on a particular click, I’ll try to remove it manually. I put my cursor on the click and zoom in 8-12 times. I then highlight the click and delete it. I delete the smallest amount I possibly can in order to have as little an impact on the audio as I can. I’ll then listen to the results. If it’s noticeable or sounds worse than the original, I’ll undo the delete and leave the click in.

One thing I need to mention is noise removal. When you listen to an album and hear a background hiss or static, your first instinct is to want to remove that. Audacity has a tool that will do that for you. You first take a sample of the noise you want to remove, then select some or all of the song and run the tool again. Audacity will go through and remove anything that sounds like your sample. There are pros and cons with this. On the positive side, you can end up with a much cleaner-sounding song. The hiss might be entirely gone. On the negative, you could lose a lot of fidelity. The full, rich sound you started with might now be crisp and tinny. Even worse, depending on your settings, you could end up with something that sounds like how voices always sounded on the radio or the other end of the phone on old television programs. I’ll use it in some cases, especially if a record is in worse shape than I expected, but in general I’ll leave them alone. Almost all the vinyl I’ve recorded has been 30-60 years old. Of those, I think only three of them have been in truly mint condition. Knowing that, I’m not bothered by a small amount of noise, considering the source. A lot of my records have either never been re-released, or are not available to download in the US. The copies I’ve made are all pretty good and are literally the best copies of the songs I can ever hope to get, so if there’s a little bit of hiss leading into and out of them, and possibly in the quieter portions of the songs, I’m perfectly okay with that.

Once you’re satisfied with your editing job, the next step is to export the file as an MP3. In Audacity, you just go to File => Export => Export as MP3. You’ll get a window where you choose the destination folder and enter the file name. If you haven’t set your preferences in advance, there’s a drop-down where you can choose your quality. For stereo, always go with fixed-rate 320 KBPS. This will give you the least amount of compression and the highest-quality MP3 you can get. You’ll appreciate it later, especially if you have any old MP3’s recorded at 128 KBPS or lower. When you hit save, a window will pop up where you can enter a variety of MP3 “tags.” This is all the descriptive information about a song or album, stuff like title, artist name, genre, etc. I just fill out the basics at this point. One helpful tip: Once you hit Okay and your file is created, delete the audio tracks from that window, go back to your original window, cut and paste the next song to the window you used to create the first track, and when you export it, all the MP3 information will still be there, which cuts down on a lot of typing.

After you’ve created all the files for the individual songs, you’ll need to tag the MP3’s. I use a program called TagScanner. It’s from a Russian site, but it’s a safe, reliable, free program. If you want to use another program, go right ahead, but I’ve yet to find something that works as well as TagScanner. For the general information like album title, genre, album artist and cover art, I’ll select all the songs, enter the information and hit save. I’ll then go back and edit the specific details for each song.

Tagging the MP3's

As far as cover art goes, if you can’t find a picture of the album cover online, you’ll need to create one on your own. Even if you can find a picture online, if you prefer high-quality album art (like I do), you’ll still want to make your own. Taking pictures of the cover with your camera or phone won’t really work. You won’t get a perfectly square picture. I scan each cover four times with a resolution of 600 pixels/inch, giving a quarter turn between each scan. I’ll then edit each scan. Since my scanner isn’t a true flatbed scanner, there will be some shadows on one end of the scan. I’ll crop each scan to remove the shadows. I’ll then import all four (or more, if needed) into Microsoft’s Image Composite Editor (ICE). This will stitch the scans together for you. I’ll sometimes have to edit the final results, but it saves a huge amount of time compared to when I’d have to edit them together on my own, lining up each scan down to the pixel level. It was tedious and took forever.

Importing the scanned images

Stitching the images

All stitched together...

Crop the image...

Then export it to disk/save it

Once you have an acceptable cover, resize it to whatever size you want to use for your files. I prefer 1600x1600 with a resolution of 96 pixels/inch. You might want something smaller, but I like to have high-quality cover art.

Re-tagging the MP3's with the finished cover art

After all this, move your files into whatever folder you use to store your music, then import it into your program of choice, whether iTunes, MediaMonkey, Groove Music, Realplayer or whatever. You’re ready to go, and can finally start listening to your music!

Voila! Breakfast is ready...

That might sound like a lot of work. Truth be told, it really is. Recording a single LP typically takes around 40 minutes. I always do that at least twice. For your average, non-mint album, editing and cleanup takes at least double the time it took to record it. Scanning and creating the cover art takes at least half an hour. Tagging an album is usually around 5-10 minutes. All in all, a single album can take me 3.5 hours of work, not counting the time it takes to go the store and have them cleaned. An album that needs a lot of cleanup can take double that. In the end, I think it’s worth it.