How to Convert LPs to Digital Files

Save your music collection -- and a little space -- by converting your old records into digital files you can carry anywhere.
Save your music collection -- and a little space -- by converting your old records into digital files you can carry anywhere.
Travelpix Ltd./Getty Images

Are you tired of watching your old albums gather dust in your attic? Did you just find some great old records at a yard sale? Are you sick to death of looking at all those crates of LPs in the corner of your living room? There is a solution -- convert your old vinyl into some form that takes up less space and that won't get warped, scratched or broken. It would be nice to have the music digitally whenever and wherever you like to listen. Here's the big question, though: Is this a reasonable do-it-yourself job?

Before you start gathering the necessary equipment, think about your needs and goals. If you have a few special albums you want to digitize, you're probably better off getting some help or hiring a professional; after all, digitizing old vinyl albums is an exacting and tedious process. If you don't enjoy the technical side of things, or are in a hurry, it might not be worth your while.

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You don't have to keep the old record player in the living room corner, though. There are alternatives:

  • Buy the music again in digital form. This can save you a lot of trouble. If you find the same album on an inexpensive, used CD, then you can easily copy the CD onto your computer. You could also buy music online and download it.
  • Sign up for a subscription service such as Spotify or Rhapsody that charges you a monthly fee to play all the music in its library.
  • Pay a pro to digitize the music for you. There are businesses online and maybe even in your city that will make custom CDs, with a separate track for each song, complete with titles and artists' names. Such services may include editing to remove the pops and clicks from old LPs. Then you can rip (copy) the CD that's been made for you and use it in whatever digital form you choose. The service isn't cheap – expect to pay around $35 per album. It might be worth it if you have just one or two special LPs that you can't duplicate otherwise.

But if you have a lot of old albums, buying the music again or paying someone else to copy it might be too expensive.

Some people prefer to copy old albums because they really like the rich, warm old LP sound. If that's your motivation, your do-it-yourself effort might not give you the quality of studio recordings, especially if you're dealing with something such as classical music. But if all you want is to be able to listen to your old rock or beach music records, you can probably accomplish what you want without going to great expense. Here's how.

Finding the Right Turntable

So you've decided to digitize your music collection. The hard part's over, right? Not quite -- you'll have to make decisions at several points in the process. Some of your choices may depend upon what you already have in place. Other decisions may be determined by what you want. Whatever route you choose, you will need a turntable on which to play the albums. This should be a component turntable, not an antique console or child's record player.

There are three main types of turntables available:

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  • A turntable/CD burner combination. These all-in-one units are made to digitize LPs. They burn a CD of the record as you play it on the turntable. Then you load the CD into your computer, and do whatever you want with it. The obvious advantage is simplicity and ease. However, they're pricey -- prepare to pay at least $200 for a decent model. If you try to save with a cheaper model, you may sacrifice sound quality.
  • A turntable with a digital output, usually a USB-enabled turntable. This turntable is also made to copy albums. Just set it up, plug the USB into your computer, install the software, and you're good to go. These turntables may run about half the price of a turntable/CD burner combo.
  • A conventional turntable. This approach can be a big advantage if you already have a good-quality turntable, even if you haven't used it in years. Take the trouble to make sure the needle works and that the turntable itself is clean and running smoothly. Aside from using something you already have, the advantage here is the potential for the best quality. The downside is that this approach requires the most technical expertise. You will also need something to get the sound from the turntable into the computer, and the know-how to accomplish this feat.

Computer Connections

You can use your turntables to play your records, but why not use it to convert them to digital?
You can use your turntables to play your records, but why not use it to convert them to digital?
Tony Cordoza/Getty Images

If you're working with a conventional turntable, you'll need some way to connect that turntable with your computer. Most standard turntable components have dual RCA output jacks, one for the right speaker and one for the left. You'll need a Y-shaped audio patch cable that you can buy at any audio store for as little as $10. This connector plugs into the stereo's two output jacks (be sure to connect the red plug to the red port, and the white plug to the white port) and then connects to the computer's line-in jack. On most computers, you shouldn't plug into the microphone jack because the sound quality will be poor.

Digitizing old LPs is trickier than copying cassette tapes because of the way records are made. The line-in jacks on computers are made for cassette and CD players. But records must go through an equalizer or the sound quality will be terrible. If your turntable is a system into which you plug speakers, your amplifier should be good enough. Otherwise, you will need to use an external sound card that accepts the RCA input or a dedicated preamplifier (also called a receiver).

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The preamp is important because the line-in jacks on computers don't use the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) curve. The RIAA developed a playback equalization curve that equalizes the bass and treble frequencies. Records and stereos use the RIAA curve, and if the equipment you use when copying LPs does not, you will have terribly tinny sound with lots of pops and squeaks. Think about antique phonograph records and you get the idea. The preamp between the turntable and the computer solves the equalization problem [source: Vinyl].

Once you have your stereo connected to your computer, you'll need good Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. Read on for tips on software and output formats.

Audio-editing Software

Here's another decision to make: Many people like audio-editing software that's available as shareware or freeware. Audacity is one of the most popular programs out there for Windows, and Macintosh computers use Garage Band. These programs enable you to record and edit your music to your computer, and export it to your portable device or burn it to a disc.

The process, however, is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Usually you have to be available every 20 minutes or so to turn the album over or put another one on. And you must split the tracks, stopping at the end of each track to export it and add labels.

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It's also possible to buy dedicated software that can cost you as little as $30. These programs make it easier to name albums and split tracks, among other things. You can still have problems splitting tracks, however, if you're copying classical music that includes silent moments or comedy albums were someone is talking.

If you're using a simple program, set it to record the incoming signal as a standard 16-bit stereo .WAV or .AIFF audio file with a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz. Then the results should be good enough to burn to a CD. WAV (Waveform, is a sound format developed by Microsoft and IBM. AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) is Apple's version, used on Macs.

The quality you end up with will depend partly on the quality of the original recording. Then there's the question of whether the record is warped or scratched, which will result in pops and squeaks. There is software available to remove such noise, but it may also reduce the quality of the music in the process.

That doesn't mean, however, that you can't do anything to reduce unwanted noise. Keep reading for recording tips.

Recording Tips for Optimal Sound Quality

Make sure your vinyl is spotless before you start recording.
Make sure your vinyl is spotless before you start recording.
Dave Bradley Photography/Getty Images

If you're going to go to the time, expense and trouble to convert your old LPs to digital files, you might as try to get the best quality.

The first thing you need to do is clean your vinyl. You may not be able to fix warps and scratches, but you can get rid of dust. And dust can make a difference in the quality of the sound. Again, you have choices: You can buy a record-cleaning machine. Brands include Nitty Gritty and VPI. They will cost in the hundreds of dollars. You can buy a commercial solution like Last or Discwasher, or you can use a homemade solution. There are many versions to be found on the web. Among the simplest are isopropyl alcohol (but not rubbing alcohol with additives), dishwashing detergent with no moisturizers, or even tap water. Don't get the label wet. Rinse thoroughly if you use detergent, and dry the records with a soft, clean cloth [source: DiscoMusic].

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The next step is to choose the right place to do your recording. Most of us don't have recording studios at home, but you can make the most of the spaces you have available. Record your music in a quiet room, away from household noise as much as possible. Put your turntable on a solid desk or table that won't move. Avoid rooms with a floor that gives or makes noise when someone walks on it. And ask others in the house to stay away or at least tiptoe quietly.

If you've got the right equipment, the right setup, the right room and you've prepared your records, you should succeed in digitizing your LPs. Keep reading to find out what comes next.

Don't Throw Your Love Away: Backing Everything Up

OK, you've figured out how to convert your LPs to digital. You've got the files in your computer. Now what? You can listen to them or export them in various forms. You can burn CDs, but part of your goal was probably having your music in a more portable format. And since there are questions about the life span of the CDs you burn, you'll want something that might be more permanent.

One thing you DON'T want to do is leave all that great music in your computer with no backup. You can copy everything into an external hard drive, for starters.

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If you are recording large numbers of LPs, you may want to use a compressed lossless output format such as FLAC (Free Lossless Codec) or ALC (Apple lossless). These use about half the space of .WAV or .AIFF output formats. Lossless files are what play on iPods, and their quality is high.

MP3s use lossy files, which take up even less space but lose more data in the compression process. But with copies of old records, most listeners may not be able to tell the difference. One solution is to first record your music as a .WAV file, and store that in your external hard drive. Then also export the music as MP3s that will take up less space in your portable music device.

Increasingly, a popular way to back up your digitized music collection is services that allow you to store it remotely in the cloud, which all but eliminates your need for a hard drive. Companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Spotify offer free or low-cost (depending on how much you're using) storage of your music and other data.

There may be additional options, such as iTunes Match. For an annual fee, iTunes will let you match any music in your digitized collection to content available in its store. Then you can stream that music free to any of your devices. Once you've matched that music, you can access it in the cloud. This can be a good solution if the MP3s you produced when you copied your old LPs aren't good quality – you can match them and listen to iTunes' higher quality [source: Hunter]. Of course, if you go somewhere with more Internet connectivity, you may have to rely on your own devices.

Now you're ready to copy those old LPs, listen to them wherever you go, and save them for posterity. Happy listening!

Author's Note: How to Convert LPs to Digital Files

My first reaction upon receiving this assignment was to think, "Why me?" I'm hardly a computer expert, and although I have some cool LPs gathering dust somewhere I'm content to listen to today's CDs or tomorrow's latest thing.

But I realize there are a lot of folks who really care about classic LPs, and they would appreciate some insight into the possibility of converting them to digital files. And who better to write for them than someone who has a similar learning curve when she starts the research?

My second reaction was to seek help. With many subjects, if I do thorough research online and in books and other publications, I feel confident writing articles based on my findings. In this case, I knew I would need guidance from real people. Fortunately, I was able to find two experts who were graciously willing to help me make sense of sometimes-conflicting advice on the Internet.

One of the insights I gained is that for most of us, it's not necessary to tackle such a daunting project. Just buy the music in another form or, if you have an irreplaceable LP, pay to have it professionally digitized.

The other is that for people who do want to try, digitizing is possible, and there are several viable approaches. Purists spend lots of money on specialized equipment and software. But lots of other people use freeware and inexpensive equipment to produce results that please them. As one of my experts kept saying, "If you're just trying to copy old rock or beach music albums, you're not going to be able to hear the difference anyway." Rock on.

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