Vinyl Recording How-To
as there are more and more people picking up film, there are also a lot
of people today discovering the joys of vinyl LP's. Even the
younger generations are picking up the older technology. They like what it stands
for, they like the permanence, and they like the sound quality.
It's as if people are saying "Okay, the Twenty-First Century has been
fun and all, but now we want to go home."
They're rebelling, in a sense, because at this stage in history there
are a lot of corporate types trying to monetize music to the point where you don't even have anything to show for it.
We're being nudged toward this rootless society where everything is by "subscription", evaporating as soon as the payment
stops. That might at first sound alright for the bands,
until you realize that after a million song plays, a band might get only two hundred dollars. Lesser-known artists might be lucky to get a few
thousand song plays, which translates to... not much. So
really, the subscription service does not benefit the bands, and it
does not benefit the fans.
The only ones who make any real money from subscriptions are the corporate types who are pushing the whole thing. The
corporations are playing a numbers game here: if they have hundreds of big-name recording artists, they make a lot of money;
meanwhile each artist makes very little. It's the same thing that happened with stock photography.
The mistaken idea of the digital age is to assume that everything can
and should translate to the digital world. A similar (and equally
false) assumption is that the digital version of
something is necessarily as good as its "real" self. For
instance, digital food is not really a good idea. Digital
music works, of course, but as we're moving toward subscription
services the whole thing is starting to feel pretty flimsy.
Today, many people are deciding that we don't need no
stinkin' subscription services. There are a lot of
people listening to CD's, vinyl, cassettes, and even the occasional
8-track tape, and they're doing it because they enjoy the whole process
of listening to "real" music. They also like the better
audio quality, as opposed to the vapid streams of digitized audio
they'd been hearing.
MP3's encoded at 320 kbps are potentially pretty
good, but a lot of MP3's are not 320. They're not even 256
kbps. Even the best ones are still just a fleeting bunch of ones
and zeroes, unless you go ahead and record them to a tangible medium
such as a CD. I've also mentioned that a lot of MP3's are junk no
matter what the bitrate, because the "masters" they used were not
really "masters", but poor copies.
In a world where certainty and familiarity seem to be eroding fast into what often feels like a sea of madness, the
vinyl LP represents an island of joy. I never thought I'd feel that way about cassettes and CD's, but yeah,
those too. (The other day I just realized it would be pretty awesome if bands would
put out tapes on CrO2 cassette.... that said, vinyl is even better and I'm glad a lot of bands are doing that.)
Vinyl is still the king of tangible music, and when you get a record that was done right, it's also the king of sound quality.
The question is, what's the best way to record vinyl so you can listen to it elsewhere? Is the process difficult?
We're going to have a quick primer on vinyl recording. As we'll
see, the process is really not difficult. It can actually
be a lot of fun.
What You'll Need
- Turntable with a good cartridge (check out my buyer's guide here and here)
- Stereo receiver or amplifer with a phono stage (see buyers guide)
- Sound card with 3.5mm stereo input jack (most computers already have this)
- RCA to 3.5mm stereo cable (6 foot version available here; 12 footer here.)
- Recording software such as ReZound or Audacity (available for free, here.)
- Some CD-R's on which to record your music when it's done. I really like these because they are visually easy to recognize as music CD's amid a heap of data discs.
The exact procedure will vary depending on what software you use. Basically, here's a summary:
1. Connect the RCA-out cables from the turntable to the "Phono" RCA-in jacks of your stereo amplifier.
2. Connect the RCA "Tape Out" jacks of the amplifer to the 3.5mm audio-in jack of your soundcard, using one of these.
3. Make sure your "record" or "mic" input is not muted in your computer's volume control. It often is, by default.
4. Make sure your mp3 player software is closed, because it takes over your sound card!
5. Open up your recording software.
6. Start the software recording and then carefully lower the stylus onto the record.
7. If it worked, you should end up with waveforms like this on your screen:
In Audacity, recording is as easy as clicking on the button with the
red circle (sixth one from the left, in the upper left-hand corner of
the screen), then clicking "stop" (yellowish-gray square) when the
music is over.
Record the whole side of the record. You can split up the
tracks and save them individually later (make sure to do this before trying to
burn a CD, or you won't be able to select different tracks in your
car!!). It's easier to do noise
reduction on a whole side than to do it through each individual song,
so do your noise reduction before saving the individual tracks.
Not every recording will need noise reduction. Mostly, it's for
vinyl that's been played quite a bit and has some surface noise.
Don't forget to save the audio project before you close out of the software.
If you save the project as a WAV file, you will be able to open and
edit it in most any software. If you have to save it in a non-WAV
format, try the FLAC format. This is also a lossless
format. FLAC is becoming a preferred method of music storage for
audio, mainly because you can tag FLAC files with the artist name,
album title, etc. (Technically, you can tag WAV files too, but
it's a weird / older tagging format that most players don't support.)
Also, a FLAC file is typically only about half the size of a WAV file in terms of disk space. Then again, WAV is sort of
the "gold standard", and most audio software can directly handle WAV
without having to "import" it. Rezound can't open FLAC
files directly, but it can open WAV files. Audacity can open FLAC files via the Import function.
Avoiding Beginner Mistakes
When doing a "vinyl rip", there are at least three four common
- Using a bad stylus
- Using an LP that needs cleaning
- Turning the recording levels up too high
- Too much digital processing & noise reduction
1. The Stylus:
A worn, dirty, or damaged phonograph needle will produce poor sound
quality. The most common problem is an overly "tinny" sound,
where the middle-high and high ranges are too loud (and distorted). If you want
the best sound, use a good stylus that's within its recommended service
life. Use it only on clean LP's that don't have any major
scratches or problems. If you want to keep your good vinyl in top
condition, don't mess around; get a new stylus or cartridge for
the turntable. I like this one for standard-mount turntables.
2. The LP:
just because a vinyl LP doesn't look dirty, that doesn't mean it's
clean enough to yield its best sound. Before you record vinyl to
tape or computer, you should clean the grooves with 50% isopropyl
alcohol. The other 50% should be distilled water, not tap
water. (If you want serious deep cleaning, just skip the
alcohol/water and use the wood glue method.)
I started out using a piece of paper towel or bathroom tissue dampened with the alcohol, but these put more lint into
the grooves than they took out. The paper fibers were just the
right size to get embedded in the grooves! This made the
record sound terrible. Then, I had to play it all the way through
just to scrape the lint out of the grooves with the stylus.
That's not good for the stylus, probably. TP proves to be
especially bad for cleaning vinyl records because it basically disintegrates in the presence of water. Yep, I should have
figured that out before cleaning LP's.
Above: Somewhere in that
ball of lint is the actual stylus.....
I found that a lint-free microfiber cloth
works much better. It has to be lint-free! I suggest obtaining a couple different
types; find the one that works the best for you. Also pick
up some distilled water.
Put one drop of clear detergent into about a quart of distilled
water: just enough to break the surface tension, and no
more. Use this solution to clean the vinyl. A good, stout spray bottle full of distilled water can be used as a mini pressure-washer to help blast the crud out of the grooves. (These
are the kind to get.) Don't get any liquid on the center
label; if you do, blot it off immediately with a dry towel.
If it's a record you really cherish, consider using painter's blue
masking tape and some plastic wrap... cut a circle slightly larger than
the label and affix the tape to the runout (blank) portion of the
LP. Don't stick the tape to the paper label!!!!
When you wash the microfiber cloths after a few uses, do the final
rinse in distilled water so there's no tap water residue stuck in the
fibers for next cleaning. Don't use fabric softener when washing your vinyl-cleaning cloths.
After cleaning, let the vinyl LP dry
thoroughly. Blow out the grooves with canned air to get rid of any dust that might have settled later.
Again, if you want real deep cleaning, consider the wood glue method. I wouldn't use it on your prized audiophile LP's, but it's great for cleaning up scratchy old records.
3. Recording Levels!
This is incredibly important. Back in the days when analog sound
was king, we knew that if you turned up the recording level "in the
red", it would distort. The average consumer of mp3 music does
not know this today. Turning up the recording levels too high
does not make the recording sound more "powerful". Instead, it wrecks the sound
quality and makes it so you can't stand to listen to it turned up
Once the levels hit 0 dB, the sound gets clipped.
Anything above 0 dB actually gets cut off, meaning your recording will
sound like garbage. There are a lot of mp3's floating around out
there-- for sale-- which sound terrible. Before you do the final
recording run, play through the record and monitor it with your
software. There should be little or no clipping. If you get
more than a couple brief incidents of clipping throughout the whole
record, your recording levels are too high. (If there is no clipping, use
that file as your "good" run... obviously.)
I don't know where people got the idea that it was too much work to use
a volume knob, but recording levels are not the proper way to adjust
loudness. If your system can't play a song loud enough, then what
you need is a bigger stereo!
Take a look again at that photograph above, which shows the sound file from
of a recorded vinyl LP. The thing to notice is
that the peaks are distinct and have points. They're not
all crammed up against the boundaries of the window. There are
not huge areas that are squared off (i.e., chopped). Your recorded audio peaks should have some headroom.
4. Don't Over-Process!
Digital technology likes to ruin stuff. The more you process something
digitally-- whether it be a photograph or a song-- the more it gets
mauled. It's not a natural-looking or sounding change, either. With
digital "noise reduction" you can end up with a really ugly "garbled"
sound. Better to have a slight amount of background noise, and a few
isolated crackles, than to start cutting into the integrity of the song
There is one more thing that some beginners do wrong when recording
vinyl: they think the equipment will correct errors for
them. They drop the needle down wherever they please, they start the
recording late, and they end up with an MP3 file that's missing half
the song! Analog equipment does not have fancy error-correcting
mechanisms. It does not automatically do things for you.
What you see (and hear) is what you get. It just requires a little skill, but you'll be glad you learned it.
You don't need a super-expensive turntable to get into vinyl
recording. For about 100 bucks, you can get the Audio Technica
AT-LP60 or the Numark TTUSB (see links, above).
Recording vinyl into digital files is a great way to "listen to records" in your
car or on your portable mp3 player. It may not be quite as good
as listening to the record "for real", but if you do
the process right, it will sound a lot warmer and more full than the
typical mp3 file.
Even LP's with a bit of surface noise have a kind of liveliness that transfers well to CD. Maybe it's the high
range (treble) or something. It just sounds so good.
A 700-MB CD-R can fit two vinyl LP's worth of music on one disc.
The Verbatim "Digital Vinyl" CD-R's look cool (grab a stack here), and it's highly fitting to use them for recording vinyl LP's.
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