Turn Analog Junk Into Digital Gold: Audio

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.

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  • 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.
  • Anonymous
    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 PCs

    Not 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.
  • burntham77
    I have an Ion Tape2PC unit which gives me the option of USB output or standard RCA output. Based on the comments about USB converting several times, would I be better off just using the RCA outputs and plugging those into my Line-in on my soundcard? The USB connection has worked well enough for these cassette tapes (they're mainly just people talking, no music), but any improvement in quality would be welcome.
  • williamvw
    Just a brief note to follow on my page 2 comments about not wanting to buy a Hi8 camera for just one use. At the time, I found a couple possibilities selling for about $80 locally on Craigslist. When I finally found a camera repair shop across town willing to rent one for $20/day, I thought I'd found the best possible solution. However, the first unit I rented turned out to be defective. By the time I got the replacement, my schedule had shifted, and it took me twice as long as anticipated to get through all of the various encodings and tests needed for the follow-up article on video encoding. By the time I could finish with the camera and get someone across town to return it, I'd had it for a week. The owner gave me a "break" on the rental, knocking my bill down to $100. Had I just bought the Craigslist option for $80, I could have taken as long as I wanted, then resold it, maybe even for $50. Clearly, buy and resell would have been a smarter approach than rental. Lesson learned.
  • Anonymous
    As far as audiophileness goes, you're using the wrong equipment. I can see you plugged a usb turntable into you're system (or through you integrated card), used windows mixer to get the samples and recorded everything that way. That's probably why you con't hear much difference between an mp3 and a flac file. I suggest you get a decent turntable (like a $1.000 up), a good audio card that supports ASIO (I've got an M-Audio Audiophile 192) and record Line in from the tt to audacity through ASIO, one at 16/44,1 (cd quality) and another at 24/96 (sacd quality). You could also get a sample at 16/48 (dvd-a) and 24/192 (max fidelity); but be sure to take them all separetly, 'cause converting a sample to an inferior bitrate/frequency (downsampling) degrades quality beyond conversion if the new bit/freq aren't factors of the old one (ex: 24/96 -> 24/48 is ok, 24/96 -> 16/44,1 degrades the sample beyond the obvious of changing the bit/freq values). Then do a test, using foobar and ASIO (not those winamp BS decoders and windows mixer, which downsamples everything it gets anyway).

  • wild9
    The actual digital stream itself is based on a format that is inherently lossy. You're simply restoring a lossy file, even if the restoration is 99.9% accurate.

    For audio I prefer analogue any day. The only compromise I make is to digitise my LP's in 24/96 quality.

    Due to the nature of the digital stream the soundstage often changes as a result, too. For example, play the Genesis track 'Tonight, Tonight' on an LP, then compare play it on CD - the latter sounds hard, and compressed, because that's what it is. After a while it also becomes fatiguing.

    So I know it's being a stick in the mud, but I have seen little to convince me that digital is always better..for synthesised sounds yes perhaps..but an expensive CD player on a transistor amp is only scratching the surface in terms of quality when it comes to an LP on the same rig. Hook the LP upto a valve per-amp and it could quite possibly blow your ears away even compared to a good CD player/DAC combo. For electronic music it works OK, but for analogue transfers..nah, I'll pass.

    The marketing men will sell digital because it makes them money. The rest will experiment, using the correct hardware (including decent record decks, amplifiers and leads), and I have never seen anyone that wasn't impressed by it. I like the convenience of digital, not the quality, not at this stage.
  • wild9
    If you don't like the space your LP collection is consuming, record them onto VHS tape. The audio bandwidth of VHS is great and you can insert index points to locate your tracks.

    Caution:Never hook your LP player straight into your recording device, unless it has the correct phono stage. Failure to do this can result in damage to your hardware. If your amp has a phono input, plug the LP player into it first, then hook some decent leads from the amp into the video recorder. Also beware of creating feedback loops, that can damage your amplifier.
  • wild9
    Sorry for the multiple posts.

    I have also found that muting the unused inputs on my sound cards lowers the hiss levels when recording through the primary aux input, although that might be unique to my system. It's got a good Creative card, but it gets some hiss and feedback from those other inputs. It also (like most cards), saturates the aux input very easily, so unless I keep it real low it's a waste of time.

    Also, can't emphasise this enough..get some decent leads. The one's that come from the shops are mostly junk that isn't designed for quality. If the device you're recording from is old, clean the outputs with a suitable cleaning solution.
  • Anonymous
    I feel I must clear up a few misleading things from the author and the comments.

    1) don't get fooled into thinking that USB record player is the way to go. Ideally you are going to want the best record player you can afford. This will always be your biggest limiting factor for high fidelity. That and of course having a pristine record. If you want to really be a geek about this project, you are going to want a record player that will undoubtedly have analogue outs that you will plug into a line-in on computer. Just be sure that Be sure your sound card specs are up to the challenge. Furthermore it is true that going USB is introducing an extra layer of conversion, although I admit I have never done or heard of any objective comparisons to see if it makes a difference.

    2) The 2nd most important aspect to this is the sound recording/editing software. The best I have used for non-professional use is Amadeus Pro, but I think this is Mac only.

    3) Limiting junk noise: A number of commentators and the author complained about this and attributed blame to just about everything but the actual culprit. It is in all likelihood not the record player's fault or the computer's in any sort of direct way. Unfortunately the pre-amp can pick up all sorts of frustrating electromagnetic interference. One common problem is a 60 Hz humming that you hear as a result of electrical ground loop feedback coming from the power outlet you have your stuff or nearby stuff plugged into. There are many things that may help with these noises: Plugging into a different electrical outlet, moving the record player and/or computer to different locations, using shielded cabling, using a good receiver with a good phono pre-amp. But there is only one thing I can promise will work: Disconnect from the power grid. How you ask? Record with a laptop using battery power. I would recommend a macbook pro as the way to go, except the new ones retardedly no longer have a line-in port, so keep an eye out for that if you are in the market for a laptop.

    4) Amongst Wild9's horrible points (sorry Wild9), he does make one good one. Make sure you have everything other than the record player line-in input muted on your computer because that can cause sound problems for sure.

    5) In direct response to Wild9's other comments: a) Your description on the nature of digital sound is confusing and misleading; b) Don't ever, EVER, EVER!!! record an LP to VHS or cassette tape. The thought of anybody doing that will keep me up tonight; c) Not sure what you are talking about with destroying hardware other than maybe blowing out your speakers and your ear drums by being retarded with the volume too high or maybe accidentally double-amplifying the sound with the record player pre-amp and a receiver pre-amp both on; d) sure having good leads can't hurt, but its impact to the sound production of a system is highly exaggerated and quite frankly is a bit of an accessory racket for businesses, which I think is why this misconception continues to be propagated through the decades because so many salesmen and audiophiles believe it to be true. A physics professor should be able to tell you that the diameter of your cabling will have a negligible impact on the sound fidelity. A chemistry professor should be able to tell you that that cheap copper cable has a greater conductance capacity than your expensive gold cable. The bottom line is your cabling choice is the most negligible decision you need worry about in this process. But Wild9 does make a good point that it is probably a good idea to buy some compressed gas to blow your analogue connections out with (it is great for dusting records with too right before recording them)!
  • Paul Synthematix
    It really grinds my gears when people call analog 'junk' the best cd players and synthesizers in the world are analog, and lets not forget vinyl beats digital hands down for warmth and sound quality. Your ears hear in analog NOT digital.