Digitizing Vinyl Records and Tapes with VinylStudio
See also Scot Hacker's blog for a comprehensive guide.
This guide sets out to describe how to digitise you records and tapes with VinylStudio. VinylStudio is computer software that sets out to make this job as quick and easy as possible without compromising on the results. All you need is a PC or Mac, a record or tape deck, a cable or two and possibly something called a phono pre-amp. USB turntables (and cassette decks) are also suitable but there is often a cheaper way.
The results of your efforts will be CDs that you can play in your car, on your hi-fi or on your computer. You can also copy tracks to your MP3 player or your iPod and / or play these tracks on your computer (without the need to burn a CD).
2. What is VinylStudio?
VinylStudio is software dedicated to digitizing vinyl albums and tapes. It provides all the tools you need - recording; track splitting; click, hiss and hum removal; CD burning and generating MP3 files - in a single package. It also helps manage your collection as your recordings build up, rather than having to keep track of, potentially, thousands of individual audio files. Added together, these things make a big difference. VinylStudio can save you LOTS of time, free up a big chunk of hard disk space and costs only a few $$$. It also makes the job a lot more fun and gives excellent results.
VinylStudio can handle vinyl albums, tapes, 78s and singles, all with equal facility. Support for collections of singles (and spoken word cassettes) was added in VinylStudio 4.
3. What is Involved, Roughly?
Apart from the obvious problems of connecting up your recording equipment to your computer (which is covered below) and recording your music, there is the question of how you keep track of all the files involved and how you turn them into something more useful, i.e. CD's and/or MP3 files for an MP3 player or iPod.
The way VinylStudio approaches the problem is to build up a collection. This consists of the recordings themselves (you obviously need to record your music onto your computer before you can do anything else), album and track name information, track boundaries and the results of any audio cleanup work you have carried out (primarily filtering out clicks and hiss). VinylStudio then has enough information to burn CD's containing proper track boundary information (just like the ones you buy in the shops) and to copy tracks to your MP3 player or iPod.
All of the steps in this process can be done using the tools provided in the program and most are automated. For example, having defined your track breaks (which takes only a minute or two), you can instruct VinylStudio to burn a CD and then go off and do something else (or, indeed, start recording the next album).
4. What kind of Computer do I Need?
VinylStudio will run on any of the following computers / operating systems:
- a reasonably modern PC running Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7
- a Macintosh running OS X 10.4 (Tiger), 10.5 (Leopard) or 10.6 (Snow Leopard). This can be a G4 Power Mac or better,or any Intel based Mac
Disk Space: The main thing you need is plenty of disk space. Each recorded album takes up about 500MB (= 1/2GB) so, for example, an 80GB hard disk can hold (only) about 150 albums. You might consider deleting your recordings after burning them to CD, but it's worth hanging on to them as you can then come back to them later on to, for example, create MP3 files from the split-up tracks (it would be tedious to have to rip the CD's you have just made...). If you are really hard up for disk space, VinylStudio can record direct to MP3 format but we would only recommend this if you have no alternative.
If you need more disk space, you can buy an external USB hard drive but there are some things to watch out for on older machines - see comments below. Braver souls can try installing a second hard disk inside their computer, which works well in our experience, if you can pull it off.
Processor Speed and Memory: If you plan to use VinylStudio's audio cleanup tools you will enjoy life a lot more if you have a machine with a reasonably fast processor - we would recommend 1Ghz or better - and a decent amount of memory (512MB should do, unless you are running Vista which requires 1GB to do anything at all).
Sound Card: The sound card built in to most computers will record audio perfectly well, but some can introduce mains hum or other forms of noise into the signal [screenshot]. The best way to tell if your sound card is up to scratch is to make a test recording and listen to it on headphones, especially the quiet passages. If there is significant background noise (compared to playing the same record on you hi-fi), consider buying an external unit, such as the Griffin iMic, which does a good job for the price (around US$30 / UK£30). Please note that the iMic is not compatible with Windows Vista.
Alternatively, you can buy yourself a USB turntable or cassette deck as described below. If you have no audio equipment of your own, this might be a good option.
Speakers: You will need speakers (or headphones) attached to your computer so that you can hear what you are doing. A pair of headphones is really helpful in assessing the quality of the recordings you make (and in the pursuit of domestic harmony).
CD Burner: You will, of course, need a computer equipped with a CD or DVD burner, plus a USB port for downloading MP3 files to your iPod or MP3 player. All DVD burners can burn CD's.
Can I use a laptop? Well, you can, but there are a couple of potential pitfalls. Firstly, many only have a mono input jack and secondly older models have much less disk space available than a comparably priced desktop machine. Laptops are also much harder to upgrade.
To check whether your laptop has a stereo input jack (some do, some don't), use VinylStudio to make a test recording and listen to it on headphones. This should reveal whether the recording is stereo, especially if you compare it with the original. Then, if you need to, you can purchase a USB sound card, such as the Griffin iMic. Whichever unit you buy, make sure it has a Line In connector - many cheap and cheerful models only have a Microphone input. Please note that the iMic is not compatible with Windows Vista.
You can also, of course, use a USB turntable or a USB phono-preamp such as the NAD PP-3. These work fine with laptops.
USB Hard Drives: The easiest way to add more disk space to a laptop (or a desktop machine, for that matter) is to buy an external USB hard drive - these have become very much cheaper recently, but if you have an older macihine equipped only with USB 1.1 ports (as opposed to USB 2.0) performance will be very poor, so check first. There is a useful USB 2.0 FAQ here, and another one here.
5. What Audio Equipment Do I Need and How Do I Hook it Up?
This seems to be the biggest stumbling block for most people and the various options are covered below in some detail. You can also find the same information in condensed form here.
5.1. I Already Have a Turntable and it is Connected to my Amplifier
If you already have a record deck connected to your amplifier (which must therefore have a phono input), you may need nothing more than a cable to hook it up to your computer. Most older amplifiers (especially those consisting of separate units, rather than the integrated mini/midi units more common today) have a pair of female RCA connectors (also known as phono sockets) on the back labelled Rec Out, Tape Rec or similar. These connectors will look something like this (we're talking about the ones on the far left):
|Output from Hi-Fi||Cable|
|Input to PC  ||Input to Mac|
If you are lucky enough to have such an amplifier, you can run a cable like the one pictured above directly to the Line In connector on your computer (arrowed, PC on the left and Mac on the right). On a PC, this connector is normally on the backand is colour coded blue. The cable you need goes under a variety of vaguely similar names, such as 3.5mm Jack to 2 x Male RCA Phono Audio Cable (it's sometimes called a 1/8" jack in the US). These cables are not hard to come by and cost only a few dollars. In the UK, you can get one from Maplin Electronics. This links should take you straight to the catalog item but if not try searching the website directly.You can also get one from Amazon by mail order (search Amazon's website for Jack to RCA cable). Make sure you get a cable with male RCA connectors (i.e. plugs), not female, and make sure it is long enough!
There may be a link connector on the back of your amplifier between Play In and Rec Out. If so, you can safely remove it (and ensure that the Tape button on your amplifer is not pressed, otherwise you won't hear anything).
5.2. I Already Have a Turntable but no Amplifier (or my Amplifier is not Suitable)
If you have no amplifier, or if your hi-fi has no suitable output socket or cannot be located near your computer, you will need something called a phono preamp. This boosts the signal from the pick-up cartridge (which is very weak) to a level sufficient to drive the sound card in your computer. It also equalises the signal, which would otherwise lack bass. In short, you can't do without it. Here's a picture of one:
|Input to PC  ||Input to Mac|
A basic phono preamp (which is all you need) is not expensive. The one pictured comes from phonopreamps.com and costs around US$30. In the UK, Maplin Electronics come to the rescue once again. To connect the preamp to your sound card, you need the same cable as described in the previous section. The signal leads from the turntable plug directly into the input of the preamp and you should connect the turntable's ground wire to the ground terminal on the preamp, if it has one, to minimise mains hum pickup.
Phono preamps with a USB connector, such as the NAD PP-3 are also beginning to appear on the market. These cost a bit more but are a good choice if the sound card in your computer is not up to scratch or if you want to avoid the hassle of buying the cable you need to connect a conventional preamp. If you buy a PP-3, you get a copy of VinylStudio Lite (which has some feature restrictions) thrown in for free.
5.3. I Do Not Have a Turntable (or my Turntable is built-in to an integrated system)
If you have no turntable, or if yours is built into an integrated system with no external cabling, you will need to get hold of one. The solution that offers the most choice, and probably the most bang for the buck, is to buy a conventional turntable (perhaps secondhand) and follow the steps above. Make sure you get one which stops at the end of the record so that you can leave your recordings unattended.
There are a couple of other options, however. If you have a little money to spend, turntables that plug directly into a USB port are now available from Ion Audio and from Numark, and connecting them to your computer is very easy. However, only the (Ion iTT USB 05 stops at the end of the record so that's the best one to go for. (Note the 05 suffix). You can also get a 78 stylus for it if you need one.
Turntables with a built-in phono preamp are also beginning to appear, such as the Denon DP-300F and the Audio Technica AT-PL50. These can be connected directly to your computer's sound card with the cable pictured above but, since a phono preamp can be obtained and hooked up cheaply and easily, it seems a bit pointless to limit your choice of turntables in this way.
5.4. I Want to Record 78's
If you want to record 78's, you must use a suitable stylus. The grooves on a 78 are wider than those on modern albums and a standard stylus will bump along the bottom of the groove and sound horrible. You do not, however, need a 78 speed setting on your turntable as VinylStudio can do the speed conversion from 33 or 45 rpm for you. It will take longer to record each side, of course.
78 styli can be obtained for all of the USB turntables currently on the market so one of these might be your best bet. Otherwise, be prepared to trawl the Internet to get hold of one for your own turntable. You may find that you need to buy a replacement cartridge as well.
VinylStudio's audio cleanup tools, especially the hiss filter, work very well with 78's, even if there is a high level of background noise.
5.5. I Want to Digitize Tapes
If you have an old-fashioned separate cassette deck, it probably has phono output connectors on the back and hence can be connected directly to your sound card as described above. Almost all reel-to-reel machines also have such connectors, but if yours has flying leads terminated with phono plugs you need the female equivalent of the cable pictured above, which can be obtained from the same sources.
Another very simple solution for cassettes, which works surprisingly well, is to record from a personal cassette player (Walkman) using a cable with a 3.5mm (1/8") Jack plug on each end. Dolby tapes might sound a little sibilant doing things this way but you can use VinylStudio's graphic equaliser to correct this if necessary.
6. What Software do I Need?
If you go for an all-in-one solution like VinylStudio it should give you everything you need in a single package, and because it is designed to do precisely what you are trying to do, it is much easier to use than a collection of separate programs of a more general nature (such as audio editors, CD burning programs and the like). In addition to performing all the tasks described in this guide, VinylStudio helps you organise your collection as it grows, keeps your hard disk tidy and can save a lot of disk space (tell me more). It can also import any recordings you might have made previously.
The remainder of this guide gives you a brief walkthrough of the major steps involved in digitising an album using VinylStudio. There is also a lot more information about VinylStudio elsewhere on this website, including the help file supplied with the software.
The first thing to check is that your signals are getting through. VinylStudio has some tools for this [screenshot] and the help file covers this in detail. VinylStudio can also play back whatever is being recorded through your computer's speakers as it is being recorded so that you can hear what you are doing.
The next thing is to make a couple of test recordings and listen to them on headphones, especially the quiet passages, before you spend a lot of time recording albums for real. You don't want to have to do it twice!
It is important to get the recording level right - too low and you will increase the level of background noise on your recordings and lose 'dynamic range', too high and you will get 'clipping' (which can sound very unpleasant). If in doubt, err on the low side.
VinylStudio has recording level indicators (which flash red on overload) and a slider to set the level. The recording level will vary somewhat from album to album and there is no reliable way to set it automatically unfortunately, but you can simplify matters by recording similar albums (rock, classical, jazz etc.) in batches. One setting for the recording level slider usually then suffices for several albums, provided that you don't set the level too high.
VinylStudio stops recording automatically at the end of the album. This feature does not work so well for tapes but a maximum recording time can be set instead, after which time VinylStudio terminates the recording. There is also a facility to truncate overly-long recordings, recovering some hard disk space in the process.
8. Splitting Tracks
You don't actually split tracks in VinylStudio as such - you define a trackbreak between each track and VinylStudio then uses this information when burning CD's or generating MP3 files. It is worth taking the trouble to do this as your CD's are then made up of separate tracks, rather than entire LP sides, and you can copy individual tracks to your MP3 player or iPod.
The process of defining trackbreaks is straightforward - you place markers in the gaps between tracks and then adjust them with the mouse to position them precisely [screenshot]. With a little practise, this takes no more than a minute or two per album, except perhaps for live albums which need a bit more care and attention. You can also fade tracks in and out.
For many albums, VinylStudio can look up track listings over the Internet; if not, you can type in the track names manually. Having track names available is useful (a) to help you navigate round the recording when using the audio cleanup tools and (b) when generating MP3 files for your iPod or MP3 player (VinylStudio adds so-called ID3 tags to the MP3 files it generates so that the track and album titles show up on the player's display panel). Entering track names is not essential, however, and if you only want to burn audio CD's you can skip this step.
Like other vinyl-to-CD programs, VinylStudio can scan for trackbreaks automatically. This sounds good on paper but it can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, depending on the nature of the music. Entering track times manually (if you have them to hand), or (with luck) finding them online is a much better alternative. VinylStudio will then place trackbreaks in more or less the right place for you and you can then adjust them yourself to get them exactly right.
9. Audio Cleanup Tools
VinylStudio offers a powerful set of audio cleanup tools, which are effective on vinyl albums, tapes and 78s. We do not offer any special effects (such as reverb) but have focussed on what we think is most useful and making it work well with no hidden 'gotchas'.
An important potential gotcha is disk space usage. VinylStudio tackles this problem in an unusual way. Audio files are large and it is therefore desirable to avoid making unecessary copies of them. On the other hand, you do not want to overwrite your original recordings with a cleaned up version in case you want to change your mind about something later. VinylStudio offers you the best of both worlds by keeping a record of your changes and applying them when necessary (when burning a CD, for example). This keeps hard disk space usage down (a recorded album weighs in at around 500MB, remember) whilst keeping your original recordings intact in case you need them again for any reason.
9.1. Click and Scratch Removal - good for vinyl albums and 78s
This is worth doing for many vinyl recordings, especially classical music, as even records in good condition generate some surface noise. It's no substitute for cleaning records properly before you record them, though, and it's worth taking a bit of extra care in doing so as you will have to live with the results for a long time hence (Google "cleaning vinyl" and you will get lots of useful hits).
The mechanics of declicking a recording are simple - you tell VinylStudio what settings you want to use [screenshot], initiate a scan (which takes around a half a minute for a typical LP side on a modern PC or Mac) and then listen to the results. You can also scan (or rescan) selected portions of the recording, perhaps with different settings, and there is a multi-level undo/redo facility.
Automatic scanning is good enough for most recordings, but VinylStudio has a lot of extra features for people who want to go the extra mile. Severe clicks not found or only partially eliminated by scanning can be repaired manually and damaged sections of a longer duration can be 'patched' [screenshot]. These are both semi-manual procedures in that you have to identify the damaged section but VinylStudio then generates a repair automatically, and they can work wonders for a badly damaged recording that you are keen to resurrect.
It is worth mentioning that declicking software is a bit of a black art as there is no foolproof method of distinguishing clicks from certain types of music. The two major problems are dulling of some percussion sounds and (worse, when it happens) distortion of rasping sounds like saxophones, brass and some synthesisers. VinylStudio's declicker does its best to protect sounds such as these. It offers a range of settings expressed in user-friendly terms and can therefore, we hope, be used to good effect by a wide variety of people. There is also an 'undo' facility which allows you to experiment without fear. As far as we know, no other program offers this feature.
9.2. Hiss Reduction - good for tapes and 78s
For vinyl recordings in good condition, hiss reduction is not usually necessary and is not recommended. It works by subtracting a 'noise fingerprint' (taken from a section of the recording where there is no music) from the music itself and therefore, by its very nature, takes something away from the original.
For tapes (particularly cassette tapes) and elderly vinyl, shellac or even cardboard recordings though, it's a different story. Hiss reduction [screenshot] can make a recording much more enjoyable to listen to provided that you don't overdo it; again there are some samples on our sound samples page. We have done our best to minimise the distortion (such as warbling or adding a metallic timbre to the sound) that hiss reduction can introduce and unless you try to get rid of every last trace of hiss (which is not recommended either) you should get excellent results.
VinylStudio's hiss filter works in 'real time', so you can listen to a quiet passage of music and tweak the settings until you get the sound you want. VinylStudio keeps track of your filter settings for each recording so you are free to experiment or change your mind later on.
9.3. Hum Filter - use it, if needed
If you need it, turn it on [screenshot]. The impact on sound quality is negligible. To figure out if you need it, listen to a quiet passage of music (e.g. between tracks) and if you can hear a low pitched humming or buzzing sound, try turning the hum filter on. Again filtering is applied in real time so you will hear the effect straightaway.
If a recording contains both hiss and hum it is important to turn the hum filter on, as otherwise the hiss filter tends to degrade the bass notes.
9.4. Rumble Filter - recommended for all vinyl recordings and 78's
Rumble is low frequency vibration picked up, principally, from the turntable bearings and it can potentially damage loudspeakers at high volume settings. The problem is, you can't hear it. Again, this filter has negligible effect on sound quality, so you might as well use it [screenshot].
9.5. Graphic Equaliser - useful for tapes and 78s
VinylStudio's graphic equaliser [screenshot] is not as complex or flexible as you might find in a specialised audio editor but it is easy to use and more than adequate for the problems it sets out to solve. It has enough frequency bands (10) to allow you to, say, liven up an otherwise rather dull-sounding recording made from a cassette tape or to tweak a recording whose tonal balance is not to your taste. Like the filters above, it is applied in real time and, like all filters, can be applied selectively to individual tracks if you wish (or to any selected parts of the recording, come to that).
If you record 78s at 33 or 45 rpm you will lose a little bass. If this is a concern, you can use the graphic equalier to correct this. Since the equalisation on many 78s is a bit hit-and-miss anyway, just adjust the sliders to get the sound you want. Again, don't overdo it and if the level indicators flash red, reduce the preamp slider setting a bit.
If you like to live life in the fast lane, you might decide to record your vinyl albums at 45 rpm rather than 33. We don't recommend this as you will lose a little treble in the process, but if needs must you can use the graphic equaliser subsequently to improve the sound.
10. Burning CD's
A major advantage of using dedicated digitising software is that it makes burning CDs a lot simpler than using a separate CD-burning program like Nero: you don't have to generate files for each track first, find them in Nero, create a CD image of the right type, etc etc. It is also very easy to burn 'mix and match' CDs containing a selection of tracks from your favourite albums.
VinylStudio can create both audio CDs (which should play in any player) and MP3 CD's (which contain individual MP3 files and will only work in CD players specifically designed to play them) [screenshot]. You can fit around 150 3-minute tracks on an MP3 CD (good for long car journeys!) and the files are tagged with album artist, album title and track title which will show up on most players' display panels.
As of version 4, VinylStudio can export CD track listings to a file that most CD-cover editors (including Nero Cover Designer) can read. This avoids the need to type the track names in again.
11. Copying Tracks to your iPod or MP3 Player
VinylStudio can generate MP3 files for any or all of your recorded albums on demand and makes it easy to copy them across to your player [screenshot] . Again, the files are tagged with album and track information, and again virtually all players display this information. You can also play these files on any computer (using Windows Media Player or iTunes, for example).
VinylStudio uses something called VBR (variable bit rate) encoding to provide the best sound quality for the minimum file size. A fast computer helps when generating MP3 files as this takes a quite a bit of CPU power.
12. Can I do it for free?
Well you can, but it's hard work and you're unlikely to get such good results. We've seen a lot of people on various forums recommending a freeware program called Audacity but we really can't understand why. While Audacity is a very capable audio editor, it is not well suited to digitising records and tapes. For example, you have to copy each track out to a separate file manually before burning them to CD in another program - and then, if you want to download tracks to your MP3 player, you have to copy the tracks out all over again in MP3 format. It's all very tedious and time-consuming and whether you use our software or somebody else's, we really don't recommmend it. There is also quite a steep learning curve.
Whew! Lots of information to take in. We hope that this guide has been of interest. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions please contact us through our website: www.alpinesoft.co.uk/contact_us.aspx. You might also like to take a look at our FAQ.
To download a free trial copy of VinylStudio (record upto 5 albums, no time limit) please go to www.alpinesoft.co.uk/VinylStudio/download.aspx.
Software and website Copyright AlpineSoft, 2013.