Goodbye vinyl, hello MP3

Cliff Richard was (and maybe still is) Wired for Sound. He liked both tall speakers and small speakers and knew the "power from the needle to the plastic" made him "feel so ecstatic". This article is about reharnessing the power of the needle and the plastic in a digital age. It's about capturing the sounds from your classic vinyl (or audio cassette) collection so you can listen to them at work, in the car or anywhere else with your portable MP3 player and feel that ecstasy again. Make no mistake: to do it properly and try and match the sounds you remember first leaping out of your hi-fi's speakers (tall or small) is a real labour of love. Perfection is unattainable but to do it passably well is fairly simple with the latest software releases. Be prepared though: it still takes a lot of time.

Get yourself connected

To start with you need to connect your turntable or cassette player to your PC's sound card. Your turntable needs to be amplified and there are three ways to do this. First, your turntable/cassette player is amplified itself and you can connect to it directly. Second, you use your stereo system's amplifier and connect via its line-out or aux-out sockets. Finally, you use a preamp to connect between the audio source and sound card. In my case I used the RCA sockets usually connecting my 20-year-old amplifier to my cassette deck for recording vinyl the old-fashioned way.

Steinberg's Clean Plus 4.0 audio restoration and CD-burning software comes with a USB Phono Preamp and claims its sound quality is highly superior to many amplifiers. This is a nice bonus and could ease your connectivity problems. Hi-fi amplifiers usually have red and white RCA sockets; cassette players usually have a stereo mini-jack input (3.5mm mini connector), as do basic PC soundcards. Better quality soundcards often have RCA sockets. Check what you've got. All combinations of cable, with RCA plugs and/or mini jacks at either end, are available from good consumer electronics shops. To ensure you get what you want, visit a specialist store like Dick Smith or, for higher-end connections, a site such as www.totallywired.co.nz. If necessary, you can also connect via the amplifier's headphone socket, but the quality of the recording won't be as good as a direct link from a line-out.

Magix's Audio Cleaning Lab Deluxe 2004 comes with a twin RCA plug-to-mini-jack cable and a large jack plug with two mini-jack sockets for plugging into your amp's headphone socket. Portable cassette players, by their nature, are convenient to move and site wherever you need them.

Turntables are a different story. If your PC sits next to your turntable and hi-fi amplifier, you're in luck. If not, you'll need long cables. You can move one towards the other but, remember, your turntable must be sitting on a level, solid surface. You don't want the tone arm to jump or slide across your disc. In my case, my hi-fi and desktop PC, though sharing the same room, were just too far apart for the cables I had.

I ended up connecting my laptop to a Creative Labs MP3+ external USB sound card ($108), as my notebook didn't have a line-in socket. This is a fairly common situation. The USB cable offered a bit of extra stretch but the soundcard ended up suspended cable car-style between my amplifier and laptop. The laptop sat on the floor next to my turntable plinth which was far from ideal.

Get into the groove

To get the best quality copy of your vinyl you need good quality components every step of the way. If you don't have a good turntable you're never going to pick up all the sounds stored in those grooves. The same applies to the amplifier. If the cable connecting your music source to your computer is too long, or not the best, you're going to lose sound quality.

If you're serious about this job you'll use gold-plated connectors on your cables (the Creative Labs MP3+ soundcard has these), which all hi-fi buffs recommend. The quality of your soundcard (including the processor and input sockets) is also responsible for the quality of the recording.

CD-quality audio recordings are usually made using a sampling rate of 44.1Hz and a resolution of 16-bit. Your soundcard really needs to be able to offer this (the Creative Labs MP3+ offers 16-bit/48KHz), but if you've got a 24-bit card nothing's going to go to waste.

Both Audio Cleaning Lab Deluxe 2004 and Adobe Audition offer 24-bit support, which means recordings are made at a superior resolution. Even if you intend your audio to be burned onto a 16-bit CD, any manipulation of the 24-bit recording should mean no "rounding" mistakes can be detected in the audible 16-bit range.

If your turntable is the calibre of a Linn Sondek, a top-of the-range platter spinner, you're going to insist on the best components all the way. If you're using an ancient home entertainment centre you might accept some compromises. Either way, make sure you give your record or tapeheads a good clean. A giant dustball on your stylus never helps recording quality.

Tracks of my tears

The recording software packages all have options to automatically place track markers in your recording. These basically pick up on the silences between songs and then provide a marker to make sure each track becomes a distinct identity. They don't always work. My test song, 'Do Anything You Wanna Do' by Eddie and the Hot Rods, features a very quiet organ introduction followed by the guitars kicking in. This was recognised as two tracks by several packages. Although all audio editors make it simple to manually change track markings or adjust the way the package recognises song breaks, it does add to copying time.

You can imagine the same thing happening after the pause in Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel's 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)'. On the other hand, you could manually mark a whole side of an LP as a single track so it always plays them all, and in the same order, even when you've set Windows Media Player to random.

Format and resolution

When you've got your music sounding how you like it, it's time to save it. Of course you can save in WAV format (see "Save my soul", below), but this takes up an enormous amount of memory. A common option is to save your recording at 128Kbit/s in MP3 format. It takes up about 1MB per minute of music, so on a 700MB CD you could store 16 or 17 40-minute albums.

Resolution-wise you could drop as low as 48Kbit/s, or even lower with some of the software. But the maximum resolution offered under the software for MP3 is 320Kbit/s and this takes up around 2.4MB for a minute of music. Experts reckon this provides the musical definition of an original audio CD, but many people couldn't tell the difference between it and 160Kbit/s.

Besides, vinyl doesn't sound like an audio CD anyway - hence you love it. You've got to consider whether you'll be able to hear the differences in quality at this level. Are you playing your music through some top-of-the-range speakers and soundcard or are you using some cheap headphones on your MP3 player where 90Kbit/s would suffice?

Wired for sound

The experience of being able to record my precious LPs into digital format has opened my eyes. It's been a chance to dig out some long-forgotten gems and listen to them again. And it's a relatively painless exercise to get reasonable copies of my favourite music. I can record some of my albums, burn some onto CD and make others available on my PC and MP3 player. However, I know I'll never digitise my entire collection. I haven't got the patience.

Besides, I know there are people who've already gone to the trouble and made the music I love available on file-swapping sites such as Kazaa. (But you might not think much of their recording quality.) And then there's the fact that I like playing albums on my turntable while looking at the 12-inch sleeve. Cliff was right - there is power from the needle to the plastic. And I might now consider buying a new release on vinyl instead of CD, knowing I can get a digital copy if I want.

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