Saturday, December 29, 2007

it's the vinyl countdown

So you're (like me) old enough to have a substantial collection of vinyl LPs, and you're not crazy about the idea of re-purchasing all the albums on CD. Well, there's an answer. To ensure I haven't got to rediscover all the settings next time I do this I thought I'd document them here.

Actually, there are several anwers, depending on whether you currently own a turntable. If you don't, then you might want to consider buying a USB turntable, just to make the whole connecting to the computer bit a bit easier.

If you do already have one, then presumably you've got it connected to an amplifier, so what you need to do is run a lead from the "TAPE/REC OUT" sockets on your amplifier to the microphone input socket on your computer. Chances are this will involve two RCA phono plugs on the amplifier, and a mini stereo headphone plug at the computer end, so you'll need an adaptor. One of these would probably do the trick.

Connect everything up. Then set the computer up by ensuring that the recording control (found under the Volume Control settings) is set for Microphone input. Set the amplifier up by ensuring that it's switched to PHONO and that TAPE MONITOR is switched on (i.e. as if you were recording an LP to tape, like we oldsters used to do in the previous millennium). Also ensure that you mute the output to the speakers or you'll get a nasty hum on your recording.

You'll also need some wave editing software on your computer. If you've got CD burning software then you'll probably have one as part of this. I've got Nero Burning ROM 5.0 (old, but very good - newer versions are available), and it has a thing called Nero Wave Editor bundled with it, which does the job very well.

Then put the needle on the record, hit Record on your wave editor, and sit back. There's no getting away from having to do this in "real time", so you're looking at 20-25 minutes per side of vinyl LP. Pop out and have a cup of tea or something.

Once it's finished, stop recording and save the resulting wave file somewhere. Then you just need to split it up into individual tracks. Here's how I do it:

Select the bit of wave file that contains the track you want. Allow a bit of leeway either end to avoid snipping bits off by accident. Then hit Copy, create a new file, hit Paste, and save the track under an appropriate name. As I'm sure you can tell just by humming the waveform in your head, this is Ballad Of Hollis Brown by Bob Dylan.

Then all you need to do is tidy up the ends of the track, which you can do using the Fade In/Out options, like this:

At this point you're pretty much done. Further effort can be expended depending how fussy you want to be about sound quality. I generally restrict myself just to sorting out the really obvious pops and scratches; these are generally fairly obvious just by visual inspection. There's one (the incongruous-looking spike) about a third of the way along the section below:

The best way to remove these is just to cut them out. A spike like this occupies a couple of thousandths of a second at most, so you won't notice anything "missing". Zoom in until the spike resolves itself into a waveform:

Then select the offending bit, and just delete it.

Done! Now all you need to do is use your CD-burning software to burn the lovingly-prepared tracks to a CD, and you're home and dry. Remember if any of the original LP tracks segue into each other that a) you'll need to be careful where you make the split when cutting up the original wave file (obviously don't use the Fade options under these circumstances) and b) you'll need to remove the standard 2-second delay between tracks that a lot of CD-burning software puts in by default to preserve the original flow of the songs.

It sounds more complicated than it is - once you get the hang of it it's quite easy. You're probably looking at between an hour and an hour and a half to transfer a complete LP, but you can be out in the kitchen drinking tea or solving quadratic equations for a large chunk of this time.

Finally, some hints about iTunes - if you want (as clearly you will) to add the tracks you've just created to your iTunes library, the best way to do this is to rip them off the CD after you've created it. Don't be tempted to import the raw WAV files into iTunes (even though you can) as it just generates trouble with conversion to MP4 format. Plus, if you've done a reasonably faithful job of replicating what was on the original LP, the unfeasibly clever Gracenote CDDB software will retrieve the track names for you when you put the CD in, so you don't have to do any typing (you will have to if you manually import the files).

Oh, one other thing - you'll need to check your computer's audio set-up before you start, specifically that the computer has a dedicated sound card. My old Dell desktop PC has a Sound Blaster sound card which works perfectly, while my shiny new (and in most other respects far better) Dell laptop has something called SigmaTel Audio installed which isn't really up to the job. It sounds like it has some built-in noise reduction stuff which just gets in the way, particularly in quiet passages, which are reminiscent of the problems I used to have with Dolby B noise reduction when taping LPs, in that the whole thing sounds like it's being played through an old sock.

There you go. This has been a public service announcement, as well as a convenient point of future reference for me. We now return you to your regular scheduled blogging.

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