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Turn Analog Junk Into Digital Gold: Audio

Analog Audio Made (Sort Of) Easy

I have one box of LPs left, a now embarrassing collection of tidbits from the early- to mid-1980s. A-Ha. Twisted Sister. "We Are the World." Don’t laugh–you had to be there. I also have a smattering of cassettes, mostly “party mixes” made in the decade preceding cheap, PC-based CD burning.

Fortunately, analog audio is a simple affair. Playback devices, such as LP players and cassette decks, output via a red and white RCA cable. A few specialty peripherals designed specifically for us analog archivists blend old playback gear with new USB interfaces. Let’s start with one of these: the ION TTUSB. This item lists for $199, but is available on Amazon for a remarkable $58 new. You can pay $99 ($250 list) for the TTUSB 10 model, but this only gains you a dust cover and tone-arm lift level, which aren’t exactly essential if your purpose is for single-use conversion and archiving.

The TTUSB includes everything you need, including encoding software and a 45 RPM adapter. (I own exactly one 45, a Def Leppard item I bought for the “Ring of Fire” track on the B side. Note that the TTUSB playback speed was noticeably uneven at 45 RPM.) ION bundles a supposedly idiot-proof application called EZ Vinyl Converter. Actually, in most regards, EZ Vinyl is idiot-proof. It’s Windows that will make you pull your hair out.

First off, realize that Windows-based PCs will recognize the ION turntable as a microphone device, so you need to treat it like a microphone. I did my testing on a new Windows 7 installation, so you’ll need to adjust accordingly for XP or Vista, but get yourself into the Control Panel’s Sound area and then into Microphone Properties, visible within the Recording tab.

Within the Microphone Properties window and under the Listen tab, there’s a checkbox for “Listen to this device.” If the box is checked, you’ll get an echo delay that will screw up your recording, so uncheck it and click Apply. Note that once you uncheck it, you won’t be able to hear the turntable without the recorder app running in the proper mode–at least I couldn’t use my system’s Realtek audio drivers. (Audio fans will wonder why I’m talking about audio quality while using integrated audio. The answer is because Asus has yet to release Windows 7 drivers for my Xonar 1.3 Slim card as of this writing.)

Under the Levels tab, Windows defaults to a value of 100, which is way too strong. I had to back my settings down to 24 before I eliminated all clipping, although the exact value will depend on your source material.

Under the Advanced tab, you’ll see a pull-down menu for Default Format. The options here range from one channel, 16-bit, 1,1025 Hz up to two channel, 16-bit, 48,000 Hz. Without dragging us into a side article on audio mechanics, you just need to know that higher values here indicate more information and thus higher fidelity. CD-Audio records at 16-bit, 41,100 Hz (or 41.1 kHz). As you might already guess, this does not capture the entire range of human hearing. It’s good but not as rich as the original studio recordings. The 16-bit/44.1 kHz scheme was settled on for CDs because that was the best quality available that would still fit a full album onto a CD back in the 1980s. Taking 16-bit audio samples 41,100 times per second, a stereo file fills about 10 MB per minute. In order to fit the 74-minute recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, designers needed at least 740 MB of disc capacity, which is how we ended up with a 120 mm disc diameter.

When DVDs came along and offered seven times as much storage capacity on the same-size disc, engineers were able to raise sampling levels to 24-bit/96 kHz for six-channel surround sound (24-bit/192 kHz for stereo). This still doesn’t replicate an original audio recording event, such as a concert, but it’s considered close enough that hardly anyone can detect the difference. So it follows that if you’re going to encode records, which are widely known to have superior fidelity to CDs, you want to do that at 24-bit/96 kHz. Unfortunately, Windows’ Microphone Properties will only let you select up to two channel, 16-bit, 48,000 Hz. Under this pull-down menu, though, you’ll see a check box for “Allow applications to take exclusive control of this device.” Make sure that’s checked. If your application can apply higher sampling and bit rate values, it will.

  • mariushm
    This seems so complicated, especially because of Windows 7 and the choice of products used.

    You can look on Amazon for a regular turntable (they start from 50$) and you just have to look at the spec sheet at the producer to see if they have "Line out" or un-amplified output. For example, the first result on Amazon, Audio Tehnica AT-PL50 at about $70, has "integral, switchable stereo phono pre-amplifier. Permits use of
    turntable with stereo amplifiers having either magnetic-phono
    inputs or “AUX” (high-level) inputs; also allows convenient
    use of turntable with most powered speakers" - as says in the manual.

    So you can just get a 50 cent audio cable, plug the RCA outputs to the "Line In" of your soundcard and record the tracks using whatever you want, for example Goldwave or Adobe's Audition (former known as Cool Edit Pro). And, if you want quality, just get Windows XP and use up to 24bit, 96khz but you should stick to 48khz, 16 bit, because this way it's the easiest to convert to MP3 or OGG or FLAC.

    An USB turntable will not give better quality, as it will take the analog signal and just digitize it, then Windows will convert it back to analogic signal so that applications see the USB as a microphone. It's just poinless conversions.

  • hellwig
    Oh shucks, I was counting on getting to the video today. My fiancee (who's not a computer nerd like some) bought herself a VCR/DVD recorder combo machine to backup old family videos. My though was to use a regular VCR, and the video-in on a quality TV tuner card, but then I'd have to find good video recording software (bundled software is never good), worry about encoding the file at a proper rate (sometimes, even if the movie is less than 2 hours, my DVD software can't compress it to fit on a DVD), etc.. etc...

    I look forward to seeing the solution the author came up with, see if I can take any pointers from it, assuming its not "Use the Media Center capabilities of Win 7/Vista", cause that's not what I want to hear.
  • williamvw
    mariushmThis seems so complicated, especially because of Windows 7 and the choice of products used.The settings I dealt with in Windows 7 are largely present in prior versions, and I felt it was important to work on the platform many people would be using in the weeks and months to come in case there were any unforeseen surprises. Also, I opted for the USB-based turntable for its universality. Sure, you can probably buy a better RCA-only turntable for less money, but not everyone has Line In capabilities on their PCs -- and the number is getting steadily lower as notebook dominance continues. On the other hand, *everyone* has USB. By the time you get to the end of this article, you should have a decent enough idea about the ins and outs of this process that optimizing for any type of analog player or input should be no trouble. I love quality and agree with everything you're saying, but I felt convenience and universality was even more important in this case.
  • williamvw
    hellwigOh shucks, I was counting on getting to the video today. . . . I look forward to seeing the solution the author came up with, see if I can take any pointers from it, assuming its not "Use the Media Center capabilities of Win 7/Vista", cause that's not what I want to hear.Should I give away a spoiler? OK, yes, I'm going to be working with the tools already built into Windows, but I also have Pinnacle Studio 12 and Adobe Premiere Elements 7 on deck. Are you sure you want to dismiss Windows out of hand? Are you *positive* that it can't give you satisfactory or equivalent results to fee-based options? In a few days, I guess we'll find out. ;-)
  • kittle
    Nice article. now i have some tools to convert some of my old cassettes.
    hopefully theres no 64-bit annoyances with these programs.
  • williamvw
    kittleNice article. now i have some tools to convert some of my old cassettes.hopefully theres no 64-bit annoyances with these programs.I was running on Windows 7 64-bit and had no trouble with anything I tried.
  • Parrdacc
    Until I read this article I forgot all about my Technique SL1200 turntable and the vinyl's I still have. Just might have a project for this weekend.
  • I seriously LOLed when I saw page 2... That's the exact model video-camera I picked out for my dad when I was in highschool XD
    We still have a bunch of the hi-8 and basic 8's from our old old sony which bit the dust... I tried playing them in that camcorder but unfortunately it won't play. I'll be waiting for the next segment. I want to see different approaches/hurdles to be overcome :P
  • Luscious
    williamvwnot everyone has Line In capabilities on their PCsNot sure what stuff you're smoking there, but I have yet to meet with a notebook/netbook/desktop that didn't have a line-in or mic jack. Every computer has one, since audio is now a requirement on PC's.

    I've been converting analog audio to digital for more than 10 years, using Cool Edit Pro as my preferred software, and a good 3.5mm audio cable. It's the only software I use and the only software I need, as everything else I've tried is a crying joke. Everything from noise-reduction, hiss/pop removal, normalizing, hard-limiting, dynamic range expansion, parametric EQ, gap removal, down to bit-for-bit cut/paste wave file editing I've done - and I can load and save WAV, MP3 and WMA files in any bitrate/sampling frequency I desire. Best software purchase I ever made, and it only cost me $25.

    For vinyl rips I still use my turntable/amplifier and get standard RCA out. As for cassettes, I have a soft-touch full-logic dual tape deck that I use to play back my mountain of type IV tapes, all recorded with Dolby C and S NR. They sound damn close to anything even my hyped DAT recorder could do back in the day for sure.

    As for itunes rips, I just use the stereo mixer as my line-in source - play back on itunes and record with CEP. It's the easiest way to un-DRM your music, and a great way to record streaming audio from sites like Pandora. (Free music anyone?) You can even connect computers together to record from one to the other, like you would in the old days with two tape decks.
  • redeye
    back in the day, when you had an excellent record player, LP sounded better than cd's (mainly due the lack of anto-aliasing filter)...
    THEREFORE, converting LP use the POS ion turntable is an exercise to futility because of the crappy needle etc on that turntable.
    or put another way search for the artist online if it's available it will sound better. than what you can do.