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Sunday, October 2, 2005

Vinyl to digital

My recent post about Van Morrison's "Moondance" album brought several nice responses. One was from an old friend in Missouri with whom I hadn't conversed in a while. In his e-mail, he asked me to explain how I was converting some of my old vinyl record albums to digital files. Sounds like it's something he's interested in doing himself.

I'm happy to do so, because getting set up to do it was a lot easier than I thought.

Our story begins with a visit to Fry's Electronics down in Wilsonville, a big-box electronics palace that's so big I nearly pass out when I walk in. It's an odd place to shop, to say the least. The checkout stations and the customer service arrangement remind me of a gas station I used to hang around in in Newark, New Jersey in the late '60s. (Hey, they drink out of the Willamette down in Wilsonville, which could explain some things.) Trying to get someone on the phone at Fry's is a sick joke. But they've got the goods, and if you're willing to put yourself through a, shall we say, unique experience, you can come home with all the software and hardware you need for e-bliss.

I approached one of the younger salespeople in there one day and asked him what it would take to convert old analog music sources to digital files. His response was breathtakingly nonchalant: "Oh, yes, we have what you need. It's this Soundblaster unit. $39.99."

This thing is a small box that sits on top of my computer and connects to it by way of a cord that has RCA jacks on the Soundblaster side and a USB plug on the computer side. It's got another place for RCA stereo inputs, and you just connect your normal old-fashioned stereo source to it the way you would to an analog amplifier. The end result looks like this:

(Pardon the dust under there -- I'm overdue for a date with a dust rag in the home office. Too busy blogging.)

When I first got this baby hooked up, I connected an analog cassette recorder to it directly, and marveled as my computer was now "playing" tapes I had made in the '70s and '80s. The sound was just fine, and there did not appear to be any special software actually running as the sound passed through. The Soundblaster thingie seemed to have simply turned the computer into a part-time stereo amp.

To add to the excitement, I dredged out an analog-output DJ mixer that I had lying around, and hooked it up, so that now I could mix sounds going into the Soundblaster. But that's a frill that isn't necessary to convert your tracks.

Now to get to that process. A bunch of software came with the unit -- the most critical ones here being Creative MediaSource Player and Creative WaveStudio. To record something passing through the Soundblaster gizmo, you open up MediaSource Player; click the input to "line in"; tell it what kind of digital file you want coming out (for me, that's WAV); and click on the record button. At that point, what you're hearing through the computer speakers is what's being recorded. Here's what it looks like on the screen when it's recording:

When the song's over, I just click the stop button, and the program asks where I want to store the file (or whether to discard it). I save the file somewhere on the computer where I know I can find it -- Desktop works well. Now I've got a perfectly good WAV file, and if I click on it, Windows Media Player pops right up and plays the thing. Presto!

But what I get is a pretty low-volume version of the song. Rather than just turn the speakers up (which can be pretty jarring later if you forget to turn them back down), I use Creative WaveStudio to edit the WAV file. That's actually the most fun part of the whole process. You get to play recording engineer.

When you open up WaveStudio and open the newly created WAV file, it looks like this:

That, from left to right, is a graphic display of the sound file you just created. The red and blue are the two stereo channels. One of the "Task" functions available on the bar up at the top is "Volume," and you can play with that to increase or decrease the volume of all or any part of the file. If you highlight the whole file and increase the volume to, say, 200%, the revised file displays like this:

Another nice feature of WaveStudio is the ability to edit out any parts of the file you don't want (and I assume edit in new stuff, though I've never tried that). And by zooming in on the file, you can get down to see tiny, tiny fragments of a second. On this track, there was a bunch of dead space at the beginning, as I had started the computer recording before the phonograph needle hit the first part of the track. And so I zoomed in, like so:

Highlighting the dead space at the beginning, I deleted most of it (not all, as that's not necessary), leaving me with this:

I did the same thing at the end of the track, and I inserted a second and a half of silence at the end, so that when you play the track back on a playlist, there will be a breath between this track and the next. When you're done tinkering, you just save the resulting file to wherever you want, and you're good to go.

As a Windows Media Player type, I've figured out how to tag the track so that it appears like any other in the sound library over there. Depending on which player you use for music, you'd want to do the same.

But I guess my bottom line to the rest of the geezers out there is this: If you can hear it on vinyl, you can have it on digital -- any song -- for an investment of 40 bucks and a learning curve. And I suspect that you may even be doing so legally!

Comments (7)

you don't even really need the gizmo. You can just hook up a connector that has RCA cables on one end and a 1/8 connector on the other (RCA to component, 1/8 in to soundcard) and use the creative wav studio. although i use Audacity, which is a freeware recording program (includes a mixer, and effects). I used this setup to digitize the analog tape recordings i made in Ontario.

You have any luck at finding a click-and-scratch filter for LPs that works fairly well? I've tried a few and not happy with any particular one.

My kid's using Audacity and really likes it so far...

Isn't Fry's a "big box store"?


Just a suggestion: wav format is "huge", you may want to save as something else - mp3, wmv or ogg.
What format? Choose based upon the player(s) you intend to use.

I use a digital recorder in meetings and such, and it records wav files. I convert them to save disk space.

WAV format is huge, but not all CD players will play mp3, wmv, or ogg. An mp3 CD in my Jetta is really just a cool window decoration. A wav CD in my Jetta is much more useful.

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