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Breathe new life into dusty vinyl by digitizing your LPs (the right way)

Vinyl isn’t dead — it’s simply on the mend. Record sales are on pace to surpass the 7-million mark in the United States alone this year, quietly toppling another 20-year sales record for a fourth consecutive year. Some believe the recent sales spike is ushering in a new renaissance of sorts, breathing life into a seasoned format that barely survived the ’90s and the early ’00s thanks to digital music formats. Other’s say vinyl’s newfound vitality lies with new-age audiophiles with a penchant for superior sound, or maybe it’s simply a hipster fad, like double-rimmed glasses, mustaches, and fixie bikes. Whatever it is, vinyl is staging a sleeper comeback.

Unfortunately, not all record labels pre-package their vinyl with digital download coupons or CD copies of their latest release. It’s a new methodology, stemming from our desire to sync our tunes with our home audio system and mobile devices. However, though many analog recordings still rely strictly on the drop of a needle, that doesn’t mean you can’t convert them into a more accessible digital format. Doing so will not only preserve the record for future listeners and allow you to take entire albums with you on the go, but it will give you a convenient means for cleaning up noisy records using a bevy of simple software applications.

The only question is, how do you do it without breaking your patience and the bank?

Related: Our favorite turntables under $500 and guide to preserving your vinyl collection

The hardware

Sadly, there is no catch-all method for digitizing your vinyl collection. The exact process depends on what kind of equipment you’ve got. Some turntables come with built-in pre-amps, others don’t and rely on a receiver with a built-in phono pre-amp or a stand alone phono pre-amp. And recently, modern turntables now feature both a built-in pre-amp and USB output, allowing you to quickly and efficiently convert that musty copy of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill with little effort. That’s not to say you can’t convert your vinyl to a digital format without an integrated USB output, but opting for a turntable outfitted with said output makes the process far easier. Below are two such offerings we recommend.

Audio Technica AT-LP60USB ($200)

Audio Technica

Audio Techica’s AT-LP60USB isn’t stylish, but it’s a mainstay as far as budget turntables go. The simple device comes equipped with an integrated pre-amp and a USB output that’s compatible with both PC and Mac systems, not to mention two speeds (33⅓ and 45 rpm). Best of all, it offers admirable sound for the price.

Available at: Amazon

Pro-ject USB Elemental Phono USB ($200)

Project Turntable copy

Pro-Ject Audio Systems’ flagship turntable is as capable as it is hip. The minimalist device features a DC power supply for quiet performance and USB output for quick digitization, along with gold-plated RCA contacts and cartridge pins. It even touts line level output for connecting to nearly any system sans additional pre-amp.

Available at: Richer Sounds

Aside from your turntable, you’ll also need a few cables in order to make the necessary connections. If your turntable lacks a USB output, for instance, you will need a stereo RCA cable and an RCA-to-3.5mm chord. Both cables are relatively affordable, typically under $10, at your local electronics store or online sites like Amazon. You’ll also need a computer with a “Line-in” port and enough space to save the resulting digital files, as well as a little patience given you must play an album in real-time in order to properly record and convert it. Furthermore, you can always purchase a dedicated phono pre-amp if neither your A/V receiver or your turntable features once. There’s a wealth of pre-amps on the market ranging anywhere from $20 to and upwards of $1,500, but opting for a nicer device will nearly always result in heightened clarity and a more natural soundcape.

The software

Getting the signal from your turntable to your computer is only the first step. The second part of the process is finding the right software application to record the resulting audio. Although there is a bevy of premium software designed to help you rip audio from your turntable, such as Pure Vinyl and Vinyl Studio, the open-source Audacity will suffice for most users. The freemium application may not offer dedicated tools for converting vinyl into some more accessible, but it can still record at sampling rates up to 192kHz and export the resulting audio files as either MP3, AIFF, FLAC, or WAV for playback on a slew of popular platforms. The interface may not be as polished, either, but the software works with Windows, Mac, and Linux-based machines.

Audacity Screenshot

Audacity interface

The process

Once you have the necessary gear and software in order, it’s time to start the digitization process. Although you’re more than welcome to digitize your vinyl wherever you see fit, we recommend choosing a space that’s relatively quietand devoid of outside vibrations — i.e. passing trains, stomping children — that may cause rumbling or an unwanted needle skip.

Step #1: Clean your vinyl: Vinyl has a knack for getting dirty. Dust accumulates over time, even if you keep records in their sleeves, and fingers leave behind oils and other muck, so it’s best clean your albums using either a dry or wet cleaning method. Any imperfection, whether it stems from scratches or mere dust, will be recorded when digitizing. Consider buying at least a simple bristle or micro-fiber brush and some cleaning solution if you haven’t already.

Step #2: Connect your devices: Next, connect your devices in the appropriate manner. If using a turntable with an integrated USB output, plug the USB cable into the corresponding port on your computer. If using a turntable without a USB output, connect your record player to a standalone pre-amp or A/V receiver before relaying the RCA connection (via monitor output) to the “Line in” port on your computer using the RCA-to-3.5mm cable.

Step #3: Launch Audacity: Open the cross-platform Audacity, or your preferred audio-recording software of choice, on your Mac or PC. Afterward, select the appropriate input source from the system preferences pane or a similar settings panel. If using Audacity, click Edit and select System Preferences before selecting “Line in” from the drop-down menu within the Recording section of the Devices pane. Keep in mind you may have to additionally select the input source from within your computer’s main sound panel.

Step #4: Record: Click the Record button and start your record to begin capturing audio from your selected source, adjusting the input levels to reduce clipping and subsequent distortion when needed. In Audacity, the record button is represented by a red circle in the topmost navigational toolbar.

Audacity toolbar one

Step #5: Wait: Allow your desired section or the entirety side of the record to play through before clicking the Stop button, represented by a yellow square in Audacity and typically resting beside the Record button in most audio suites.

Audacity toolbar two

Step #6: Split the tracks: If you’re like most people, chances are you’d rather split the entirety of the record into a individual tracks. If using Audacity, click and drag your cursor to highlight the duration of a particular track. Afterward, click the Tracks option within the toolbar, select Add Label At Selection from the resulting drop-down menu, and name the track appropriately.

Audacity Add

Step #7: Export the album: Once you’ve split and named each track, click File within the toolbar and select Export Multiple from within the drop-down menu. Afterward, choose your desired file format, save location, and enter any missing metadata in the resulting pop-up menu before clicking the Export button in the bottom-right corner.

Aud Save

Step #8: Enjoy: Once finished converting, enjoy your newly-digitized vinyl in the media player of your choice!

[Header image courtesy of tomertu/Shutterstock]