Tuesday, March 16, 2004

How to spin vinyl into gold

Got some LPs? The music lives

Click here to e-mail James
SSSST-pop! When I heard that sound again after nearly 10 years, the smile nearly broke my face. "That's your favorite sound in the world, isn't it?" my wife asked.

My answer was yes. A record player's needle finding the groove is still one of my favorites.

I grew up with vinyl records, much preferring them to cassettes and even compact discs in the early days of that new technology. I think some music sounds better, fuller and richer on vinyl than on CD as long as you have a good turntable with a pristine stylus.

Of course, they still haven't invented a turntable that will work in the car or play both sides without having to flip it. And a lot of rare records, including some in my own collection, have never been turned into CDs.

That leaves three alternatives:

• Buying a CD recorder that hooks directly into the stereo. But the recorders go for more than $200, which becomes a budget issue.

• Replacing all those records on CD, which would cost much more than this writer earns over a very long period.

• Digitizing your vinyl collection, which will allow you to make permanent CD versions of your favorite LPs, 45s and even 78s - if you can find a player to play them.

After a tip from a colleague, I decided I would digitize some records. I was surprised how easy it is.

A lot of other people have already written about this on the Web: Just type "turning vinyl into CDs" into your favorite search engine.

I tried it myself this week, using my beloved Techniques linear tracking turntable hooked into my desktop at work. Using the third side of the double live LP We Want Miles by Miles Davis, I burned a Windows Media Audio (WMA) format cut of "My Man's Gone Now," with the slight crackles not distracting from Miles' beautiful muteless trumpet. Then I did the second side of Supertramp's Breakfast In America (avoiding the nauseatingly perky "The Logical Song").

What you need is a workable turntable, preferably with a built-in preamp, a connector that has the red and white RCA plugs on one end and a mini stereo plug on the other (the tip should look like a small headphone jack, and many portable CD players come with one to hook into a stereo receiver), a sound card that takes stereo input either through a microphone or line-in jack, and a decent music-burning software.

For those turntables without preamps, you can buy one for about $30 at any electronics store (it boosts the sound signal to normal levels), or you could get one of several devices designed for computers. Australia-based Xpsound (www.xpsound.com) sells a $99 preamp that hooks into the computer that also includes a ground wire screw that hooks into a PC via a USB or serial port. It also comes with a full version of Diamond Cut to clean up the tracks.

I had a Recoton plugged-in preamp, but Radio Shack makes a battery-powered version.

As for the software, I used MusicMatch, which comes free with a lot of applications and can be downloaded for free as well. It has a recorder option that can be set to line in. Tip: Go under "options" on the recorder and check off "mute" while recording so you can hear the breaks in the songs - and do the same under the volume control for the computer. To do that, double click on the volume icon in the system tray and click the line-in muting box off.

For anyone who wants to clean up the sound, removing those crackles and pops, you can for an extra $30 to $100. Several programs allow you to do that: Diamond Cut (www.diamondcut.com), Sony's EZ Audio for about $50, and Roxio's Easy CD & DVD Creator ($80). They take a sample of the quiet between tracks, and that allows you to flatten out the signal, thereby reducing it for your entire recording of that record.

They also make it easier to make several tracks during one recording session, an issue on MusicMatch, which requires you to pause the turntable and stop recording between tracks to create separate files for each song. (Many people get around this by recording an album as one long track.)

I didn't try those, because:

• I like hearing the old familiar pops.

• I can't afford it.

Then take the WMAs or MP3s and burn them to a CD using your favorite program. It's as easy as that.

The opening bars of "Take The Long Way Home" by Supertramp still has that brief skip, however - nothing to be done about that. The sound on "My Man's Gone Now" was very clear, and I could then use Windows Media Player to play it as well. (I prefer that because it has a free equalizer, while you have to pay for the upgrade to get a full equalizer with MusicMatch.)

Sure, the initial pop of the groove is still there, as is some other light scratchiness.

But that just makes my smile grow wider.


E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

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