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Turn Analog Junk Into Digital Gold: Audio

The Digital Generation

This series will show you how to convert your old media into a digital format. In the first article, grab your LPs and cassettes and we’ll give you a step-by-step guide for getting quality recordings that will surpass anything your CDs can offer.

When exactly did the Digital Generation begin? The compact disc became commercially available in 1982. I recall getting my first home CD player along with a Magnavox stereo system for Christmas in 1987. Then, consumers were torn between buying analog LP records or cassette tapes for cheap or the same albums on CD at a substantial price premium. Eventually, of course, the digital medium won out on the virtues of dropping prices and key technical advantages. CDs didn’t warp if you left them in the sun. They didn’t click and pop with continued wear and they were much harder to damage with scratching. Best of all, they didn’t hiss like tapes in quiet passages.

Audiophiles continued to frown on digital over the years, complaining that their precious LPs sounded better than CDs, with better sonic range and a warmer, more life-like feel. Those of us without crystal eardrums–which was nearly everyone–said CDs sounded better because they had less noise and digital soon triumphed in the market.

The analog vs. digital battle then moved to photo and video. It took 15 years for digital photography to move from invention in the mid-1970s to shipping consumer products in the early 1990s. The first time I ever reviewed a digital camera was in June of 1999, back when two and three megapixel sensors were cutting edge. At this time, anyone who wanted true photographic quality still shot analog film and slides for superior color quality and resolution. The arrival of the DV camcorder format in 1995, followed by MiniDV in 1998, likewise forced aside VHS, Hi8, and similar analog video camcorder formats, although still and video cameras remained at the mercy of evolving image sensors to provide high quality at affordable prices. Only in the current decade have these sensors reached the point where professional photographers and videographers were willing to abandon traditional analog media in favor of their digital successors.


We could argue that the Digital Generation truly began in this decade, probably around 2003 to 2004. By 2005, VHS sales represented only 15% of the home video market. Digital camera sales blew past film cameras in 2000. The driving market force today is the young and their voracious appetite for iPod and YouTube content. My children will probably never know life with analog–my oldest got his first Fisher Price digital camera at age five. My youngest, who is four, shoots photos and video with my BlackBerry phone.

  • 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.