Thursday, 11 December 2008

What to do with those old records?

Those of us of a certain age will no doubt remember playing music on vinyl. I remember getting my first "hand-me-down" record player, spending my pocket money on 7" singles, later on hunting down picture discs and other limited edition records, and generally having fun with my music.

Time passes however, and the scratchy old black discs have been replaced by shiny silver coasters. I've not been able to face the thought of ditching my old records and so they've been languishing in storage for the past decade. At least they were until I got the bright idea of trying to transfer them onto my computer.

Now a lot of it I've already re-bought on CD (or in some cases bought MP3s online), but some of it just isn't available in any format other than vinyl. It would be nice to get these lost classics (or old crap as my wife puts it) in an easy to use format. Of course, I've still got a stereo stacker system (remember those?) which I've hooked up to my PC and recorded off an album or two.

There are some disadvantages to this.

One is that the stereo is large, heavy, bulky and pulling it over to where the PC is also means that I'm tripping over the damn thing whenever I'm trying to record from it.

OK, so thats more of an inconvenience than a real problem. So do things get easier once you've plugged the earphone socket of the stereo into the soundcards line-in?


The sound levels can be a bit tricky to set up correctly. Once you've set up the graphic equalisers on the front of the stereo to a nice level, found the right volume to avoid clipping when you're recording it back and finally managed to record the album you STILL find an annoying hum (from the stereo's built in amplifier).

Now you can remove the worst of the hum, hiss and crackle from the records using Audacity (or whatever other audio software you use) but sadly the more you need to clean up, the more the sound quality of the final track suffers. (Before any audiophiles get in and start telling me about resisters that need to go between this, that and the other, forget it. I'm trying to record some music, not take lessons in soldering.)

The final results were passable, but still contained a bit of hum, which was certainly noticable when playing them alongside regular MP3s.

So what are the alternatives? Well, these days you can get hold of USB Turntables reasonably cheaply. These plug directly into your computers USB port and allow you to record directly from there. If you shop around you can normally pick up a cheap one from just over £20 (or less if you can get something in the sales). I picked mine up for just over £11 which was a bit of a bargain. They're also small enough to fit on my desk next to my PC when I'm in the mood to transfer some of my music.

If you are using Windows then you can just plug in and go (* see the notes at the end). There is a "drivers" disk supplied with the turntable, which doesn't actually contain any drivers. Instead it installs a copy of Audacity for you. The accompanying instructions take you through recording, cleaning up and exporting your tracks using Audacity.

Using it with Linux was just as easy. I plugged it in, installed Audacity using the package manager and from there on in the provided instructions were fine.

Recording using the turntable is much more straight forward than using the stereo. Firstly there are no levels or volume to adjust, you just plug in, select the USB device to record from and that's about it.

The instructions probably won't be needed for most of us, but it's always nice to see how other people do things. Personally after recording the track I normalise it, use a low level noise reduction to remove the worst of the hiss and clicks, manually split it into separate tracks and then save it to MP3. You can, of course, save to WAV, FLAC, OGG or whatever else floats your musical boat.

For those of you who may be interested, I tested this out with what is probably the oldest album that I've got - Baby Grand's self-titled first album from 1977, which was the first album I owned (I'd won it at a fairground).

The annoying hum from the stereo was totally absent when recording via USB and the overall sound quality on the final tracks was surprisingly good. All in all a good solution to the problem of transferring my old music.

* One last note about Windows and USB turntables. Not all versions of Windows will work with them. Windows XP and XP Pro should be fine, but Windows Media Center ironically enough doesn't contain the necessary drivers and so doesn't work. Apparently Windows Vista doesn't either. Some of the newer ones do have support however, so if you are using one of these versions of Windows, then you'll need to check to see if your OS is properly supported.

Any current version of Linux should work "out of the box" as it were, but if in doubt check with your distro's supplier. Ubuntu 8.10 certainly had no problems. Plugged it in, selected DSP2 as the recording device in Audacity, and that's it. No drivers to install, no problems.

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