There are a lot of ways to skin a cat and you probably would like to hear: “We plugged this thing into our turntable and out popped our whole analog collection directly onto our iPod while we were sleeping." Alas, things are not always so simple, especially when the goal is to preserve the inherent warm audio quality of a beloved vinyl collection. But all hope is not lost! Below is a detailed instruction of how to convert your records into high quality digital files.
We had 3 things we needed to accomplish:
- We wanted to backup a medium-sized vinyl collection onto a hard drive.
- We wanted to control the process- we don’t want some software telling us what are pops and clicks and what is musical nuance and we don’t want everything to be owned by Apple.
- MUST HAVE WAV FILES, no more “archiving” in lossy, compressed formats. Because is it really archiving if you didn’t record the whole thing? We have a decent turntable and want the reproduction to be as good as it can be.
This will sound crazy to some of you, but we want CD quality sound for our vinyl backups. “Better than” would be nice, but achieving that quality is double the trouble of the following process. If you look around, most of those USB turntables and standard iTunes/Windows Media/other make the results of the process of backing up your high quality music very low end. And one day iTunes may not exist, so we want an apocalypse-proof storage method...and we are keeping the records. This is NOT spring cleaning.
There are sacrifices to be made in space and simplicity, but sometimes you just can’t listen to a song that is 30% of its original density. Some of you may want your whole collection of music on one device at one time, but when you can listen to fewer songs at a higher resolution, you cross over from music listener into the realm of audiophile.
To start, we run the signal from the turntable to a phono preamp (Bellari VP-129). You have to do this anyway just to play your records, so you should already have the equivalent.
We then plugged that into a device called (predictably) iKey from iKey-Audio. This is a tool designed for getting anything analog into your computer or even directly onto your iPod. It does it without futzing around with sound quality or running the signal through unnecessary hardware...like the low-quality microphone jack on your laptop. It does have the ability to record in MP3 format, at several levels of compression. It converts directly to a USB output and has a battery pack so you can use it to record live broadcast. Admittedly,it is annoying to use, but it does work.
The biggest problem was with the level dial. Every time you record a record, you have to set the level. Most records were recorded at varying “volumes” over the course of any given song. These days everything is recorded at “10” because everyone wants attention and they don’t care about the journey. So in order not to eclipse the capabilities of a sensitive input on a recording device, you must set the level to bring the sound and the circuitry it’s traveling through in sync
On the iKey, it’s an actual dial and it gives no indication as to where you are in the spectrum. It occasionally flashes pitifully when you are too high or too low, but its like having a warning light on a landmine.
But how could it know, really? You would have to play the whole record in order for it to know how loudly it was mixed. A lot of trial and error and hopefully knowledge of your music collection will guide you.
Second thing is that there are a whole bunch of LEDs on this thing that serve MANY purposes so it is often difficult to tell what it’s doing- is it recording, or is it ejecting the USB drive? A pain.
The third thing that is a bit of trouble is that once you get the music onto a key drive or some similar, the entire side of the album is registered as one song. Oi. There is also whatever scratching and clunking you recorded onto the beginnings and ends of these from putting the needle down and picking it back up at the end.
Which brings us to part two of the process: The editing software… surely there must be a whole slew of great software out there to do this for you but again, we want control over the process so as to retain as much of the original experience as possible. Audacity, which we've talked about before, gives you that for free. It is a super easy to use software and you will be cutting the crap out of your music with no loss of quality in no time. See below screenshot for the interface and what 'too much
cowbell level'(in the red circle) looks like.
We decided to leave the songs intact. Why? Because you have to extract each song, one at a time, in order to break them up and…what the hay...why not just listen to the whole side? We can always extract them later. Think of it as a Hot 107 Block Party, all the time. It’s old music anyway, this will just take you deeper into the nostalgia.
Now comes the good part and one that will probably warrant another post. iTunes has done a lot of great things, and forced us to put up with a lot of things. In the latter category we have the lack of control over where music can be stored, what format it’s in, and its shoddy mobility from one device to another. You lose one hard drive and you can lose your whole collection. Sucky.
The iPod and iPhone are designed for iTunes and it is designed for them. You can’t even get stereo Bluetooth on an iPhone. You can get uncompressed files to play on an iPod but Apple still wants to organize everything for you.
What if there were another software that could be used to manage and play your files on your iPod? One that didn’t monkey around putting “i’s” in front of everything and laughing smugly at the stuffiness of PCs.
That monkey is called Mediamonkey. It basically replaces iTunes and will even sync all your junk onto your iPod. It pretty much will allow you to do anything that Apple has decided will be bad for their music monopoly…that is to say: all the good stuff. It is also free.
Additional Notes: The iKey produces fabulous results with an unfotunate amount of difficulty. Audacity works wonderfully without the paperclip animation. And Mediamonkey does everything iTunes should, but can't for many different reasons.
Originally posted by Peter, September 5, 2008