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.