Vinyl Recording How-To

120studio.com
July 2013


Introduction

Just 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 they make only a couple hundred dollars per million song plays.  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 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.   (The same thing is happening 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 mistakes:
   - 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 loud.  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 itself.

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).   Once you hear what vinyl sounds like-- even an older, used LP with a bit of surface noise-- you may become addicted!



Above:  Without a doubt, the best Ventures album... mine is a scratchy old one picked up for 50 cents (lots of surface noise... probably needs a cleanin'), but you can still grab the nice new 2012 color vinyl reissue through this link.  I hear that copies of this limited re-press are running out... don't wait too long.  Everyone with a turntable should have this album. 


Parting Thoughts

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), I don't know.  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.  

I hope you've enjoyed this article.  You can help me keep this site going by shopping through any of the links on here, for pretty much anything.

Thanks for visiting!




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