Genealogy: How to convert your vinyl LPs and singles to CD

Genealogy: How to convert your vinyl LPs and singles to CDBy Barry J. Ewell

Do you have your favorite LPs (78 rpm, 33 rpm, and 45 rpm) that belonged to your mom or do have your own collection that you would like to put on CD or MP3? Many old 78s and LPs are irreplaceable, so it pays to preserve them in a digital format. With a good sound-recording and sound-editing program you can take those old scratchy LPs and 78s and record them through your sound card and then burn the music to an audio CD or store it as an MP3 file. You can even filter out all those clicks and pops.

Step by step instructions

Install recording and editing software on your computer  
The standard sound recorder application that comes with most PCs will not enable you to record an LP to your hard drive. There are, however, a variety of programs that record audio, ranging from freeware to very expensive professional editing software. Many of the software programs downloadable demo versions are available for you to use for a period of time.

A good rule of thumb is to try before you buy. Some of these obviously work better than others, and some have more features, but in general you want a program that writes files directly to the hard drive and that enables you to do some minor editing of the recorded files.  Examples of editing software would be

  • Sound Forge
  • GoldWave
  • Adobe Audition
  • WaveLab

Connect adapter cable

  1. Connect an adapter cable from the tape out (or record) jack of your stereo receiver to thelineinput of your sound card:
    1. Determine whether you need a preamp.
    2. You will need to amplify and equalize the sound from your turntable in order to record it onto your computer.
    3. If your turntable has a built-in preamp, you should be able to plug it directly into your computer’s sound card.
    4. If you don’t have a built-in preamp, you can either plug the turntable into a stereo receiver and plug the receiver into your computer sound card, or you can purchase a preamp—you can get these at most computer, audio or electronics stores—and plug your turntable into that.
    5. Make sure you buy a preamp with “RIAA Equalization” which is necessary for LPs made after about 1950.
    6. Note about cables: You may need to purchase standard RCA cables (if you don’t have them already) to connect all the components. Depending on the type of input and output jacks you have on your sound card, turntable, preamp and receiver, you may also need converters to allow you to connect each component to the next.  Any audio or electronic store like Radio Shack should have them.
    7. Note about connecting components:  If you are not using a preamp you’ll need to run a cable from the headphone or “audio out” jack on the turntable or stereo to the input or “line in” jack on your computer’s sound card. If you have a preamp, connect the cable from the turntable to the “line in” jack on the preamp and then connect another cable from the “audio out” jack on the preamp to the “line in” jack on the computer sound card.
  2. Hardware and software tips.
    1. If you don’t already have good recording equipment and software, and you just want to record a few LPs, you really might be better off just buying the CDs. You may be surprised how many old LPs are now available on CD. Unless you have a large vinyl collection or LPs that can’t be found on CD, it might not be worth the time and expense to record your LPs yourself.
    2. You may be able to skip the computer and sound card altogether if you get a good CD-RW recorder. These can be connected directly to your stereo receiver so that you can record LPs onto CDs as easily as you used to record onto cassette tapes. If you want to edit the recording, you can simply use your CD to transfer the files to your computer and burn additional copies with your computer’s CD burner.
    3. Get the right turntable:  If you have a record collection, you’ve probably got a turntable. While you’ll be able to make your recording using almost any turntable, the quality of your finished CD depends heavily on the quality of your equipment. The pawnshop‘s special record player in your basement may not be suitable for recording purposes.
    4. Get the right sound card:  You don’t need a professional-quality sound card to make a good recording, but the standard-issue cards that come with many computers just won’t do. If you already have a sound card, try recording with it. The recording might be fine; but if not, you might want to upgrade.
    5. If you used a freeware program, it was probably saved in mp3 or wmv format, but if you used Microsoft Plus, it would have been saved as a Windows Media file, which you can convert to mp4 using iTunes or burn directly to a CD with Windows Media Player. Because mp3 is a lossy format where some data is thrown out, save to .aiff or .wav with no compression. In Mac OS, .aiff is CD quality audio, .wav is the closest possible on a PC.
    6. If you have a laptop, it may not be feasible to use a sound card. In this case, you can utilize a USB audio interface device. As with all the equipment, these vary in quality, so shop around and read reviews before buying.
  3. 3. Hardware and software warnings.
    1. Turntables are extremely sensitive to vibration. Of course you can expect the LP to skip if you bump the table it’s on, but other less harsh vibrations can also affect your sound quality. While recording, try to minimize background noise—make the room as soundproof as possible and step lightly.
    2. Do not hook up your computer sound card to a speaker output on your stereo receiver. The signal from a speaker output is likely too powerful, and it could cause serious damage to the sound card.
    3. Power down either the computer and/or the audio source before the final connection. The initial surge can damage circuits with some combinations of sound card and audio source. Sound cards are especially sensitive to this damage.
    4. If hardware installation is needed, be sure to take the usual precautions: turn off power to the computer, “ground” yourself by touching something else metal before touching the inside of the computer case and make back-ups of any critical information stored on your computer (i.e., “the next great novel” that you’ve been writing) by either copying to a 3.5″ floppy or emailing the file to a friend or relative.

Clean the LP

  1. Before you start, you should do your best to clean the record as thoroughly as possible—getting dust and gunge out of the grooves—which will eliminate a fair amount of the lower level noise that would otherwise require a very time-consuming job to remove at a later stage. A clean record plays a lot better than a dirty one, and if you’re making a recording you want the vinyl to sound its best.
  2. The best way to clean a LP is to use a professional LP-cleaning machine, but these can be expensive and hard to find.  You can get similar results, however, if you have a wet-dry vacuum cleaner and some cleaning solution.
  3. You can also wash records in the kitchen sink or use specially-designed brushes to clear surface dust. You want to be very careful when cleaning your records. Unfortunately, there are more tips and warnings than can be listed here, so check out the external links for more information.

Create a new file

  1. Create a new file in the sound-editing program you’re using. If you intend to create an audio CD, you must choose a sample rate of 44,100, two channels (stereo), and a resolution of 16 bits. This will create a file that takes up approximately 10MB of space for every minute recorded, so you will need plenty of free disk space.
  2. For voice or music to be embedded in a Web page, you can use a lower sample rate, a single channel, and 8-bit resolution to create a much smaller file.

Set the volume control
Play part of the track and use the volume control program to set your recording levels. In Windows, the first screen of the volume control program is for playback levels. To get to the recording level screen, follow these instructions:

  1. Choose Properties from the Options menu.
  2. Select the check box for Recording.
  3. Make sure the check box for line-in volume control is also selected.
  4. Click OK and the record level screen will appear.

Set record level

  1. Set the Monitor Record Level option in your recording program to On, and, as the track plays, adjust the slider for line-in so the level meter shows a strong signal, but not too strong, because any peaks will cause the meter to go into the red area.

Before you record an entire album, experiment with a short clip so you can determine which settings work best for different types of recordings. Write the settings down for future reference:

  1. Be sure all background applications are turned off while you record.
  2.  Lift the stylus and queue up at the beginning of the track.
  3. Click the Record button in your recording program.
  4. Lower the needle to the album.
  5. When the track is finished, click the Stop button and lift the stylus.

Editing: Playback
Play back the track to hear how it sounds. Trim off any silence at the beginning and ends of the track. If you have an audio cleanup plug-in, use it to automatically remove any clicks, pops, and hiss. If you don’t have an audio cleanup plug-in, try this:

  1. 1. Zoom in to each click or pop.
  2. 2. Select an adjacent cycle of the waveform at the zero crossing points.
  3. 3. Copy it to the clipboard.
  4. 4. Paste it over the cycle that contains the click.
  5. 5. Listen to the track again and run the hiss removal if necessary.

Editing: Normalize

  1. Normalize the track to adjust the volume up or down so that all tracks will play at a similar level. A value of 97 percent usually works well if your software normalizes by peak level.
  2. More advanced programs, such as Sound Forge, can normalize by average levels, which is much more accurate.

Editing: Fades

  1. You may want to add a fade-in or fade-out. Some CD recording programs, such as Nero, can automatically crossfade tracks as the CD is recorded.

Editing: Tips

  • If you used a freeware program, it was probably saved in mp3 or wmv format, but if you used Microsoft Plus, it would have been saved as a Windows Media file, which you can convert to mp4 using iTunes or burn directly to a CD with Windows Media Player. Because mp3 is a lossy format where some data is thrown out, save to .aiff or .wav with no compression. In Mac OS, .aiff is CD quality audio, .wav is the closest possible on a PC.
  • When editing, feel free to play around with your software’s noise reduction and equalizer tools until you get a good sound. This will usually involve a bit of trial and error, so you should always make sure to save the original recording unaltered and then rename edited files. That way, if your editing actually worsens the sound quality you can always go back to the original and start again without having to re-record the LP.
  • There are CD-Rs that have the look and feel of vinyl, which are relatively inexpensive.

Save files

  1. If you intend to record the track to an audio CD, save it to a PCM format WAV file (PC) or an AIFF file (Mac). Save the file to MP3 format if you want to play it from your computer or on a portable player.
  2. I like to save my music as mp3, because it reduces file sizes from about 30Mb to about 3Mb, with virtually imperceptible loss of quality.