Rescuing Old LP Records and Cassettes
by Philip Chien
This article is based on a class the author gave at the Maitland Public Library.
It's easy to convert your old LP records and cassettes (and other old recordings) to audio CDs and other modern formats. While there are companies who will charge you for this service you can do it yourself on your home computer. Your computer probably already has the necessary hardware and capabilities; all you need is an inexpensive audio cable and some free software.
Most computers have built-in sound circuits. On most PCs there are three color-coded jacks - green for audio out, pink for microphone, and blue for line in. There may be additional jacks for surround sound speakers, amplified outputs, or S/PDIF (optical). In many laptop computers there isn't a line in, just a microphone in and line out. As a rule laptop sound circuits aren't suitable for digitizing audio. Your computer has to have a CD burner or combo CD/DVD burner. (If it's under eight years old it probably already has a CD burner).
Do not purchase a $100+ turntable or cassette deck with a USB interface. While these units do work, they are EXTREMELY overpriced. An ordinary $5 to $15 turntable or cassette deck from a pawn shop (or whatever you already have) will do just as good a job. There are overpriced "kits" for transferring LPs and cassettes to CDs which are basically a $2 cable, software, and instructions similar to this article. Your desktop computer's built-in audio circuitry will do a fine job of digitizing audios. Snobby audiophiles will insist that you need a $500 (or more) turntable, specialized audio adapters which are certified for professional audio applications, and gold-plated connectors on monster cables. While these may provide a very small marginal increase in performance, they aren't worth the extra cost.
Stand-alone CD recorders can be hooked up to your home stereo setup, however they've got limited capabilities. In addition they will only work with special "Music CD-Rs" which are more expensive than plain CD-R (recordable CDs) because of an additional "tax" which goes to the music industry.
The computer should have a 3.5 mm. stereo jack for the line input. This is the same connector used for the headphones on MP3 players. Most tape decks and turntables have a pair of RCA jacks for their audio output. In many cases they're color coded - white for the Left channel and red for the Right. You will need an adapter cable with has two RCA connectors on one end and a 3.5 mm. stereo plug on the other. This is a very common cable; available at Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, and most audio stores for about $2 to $6. There are overpriced "Monster" versions with higher shielding and gold plated connectors, which aren't worth the extra price. The cable can also be purchased online. (Of course if your cassette player or turntable has different connectors you should obtain the cable with the appropriate connectors.) You can also record other forms of audio with the appropriate adapters. For example, you can hook up a phone line adapter (normal phone or cell phone) to record phone conversations. Or you can use your computer's microphone. In theory you can put your computer's microphone next to the speaker for your stereo, but that will pick up background noises and won't give very good quality recordings.
Put the stereo plug into the jack marked "Line In" on your computer's sound port. In most cases this will be a blue connector. Plug the other end of the cable into your tape player or turntable.
Transferring old recordings into your computer and burning CDs is a two step process - use your computer as a digital audio recorder to record the incoming audio in a digital format, and then use your computer's CD drive to burn an audio CD. The following instructions are for a computer running Windows XP, but the same techniques will work with most computers.
Windows comes with a small digital recording program, "Sound Recorder", but it's extremely limited in terms of capabilities. There are plenty of free digital audio recording programs (Audacity, Audiograbber, WavePad, etc.) and commercial programs (MAGIX Audio Cleaning Laboratory, Adobe Audition, etc.).
As a general rule the commercial programs have more features (better software for cleaning up noisy recordings, automatically determining gaps between tracks, etc.) and may have technical support. I like Audio Cleaning Laboratory. It's a reasonable price (under $50) and includes several excellent features (automatically determine when songs end, excellent cleaning functions, built-in capability to burn CDs, etc.).
Some programs will automatically select the correct sound port on your computer. If that isn't the case then select the "Volume Control" program on your computer (from the Start menu go to Accessories, and then Entertainment).
Go to "Options" and select "Properties". A window will pop-up with: Playback/Recording/Other (Other may be dimmed out). Select "Recording." Make sure "Line In" has an "X" on the left and click on OK.
You'll see several "sliders" - the electronic equivalent of volume controls on a mixing board. Make sure "Line In" is selected and put the slider about ¼ of the way up from the bottom. This slider adjusts the volume of the audio coming into your computer.
You'll need to experiment a couple of times to get the correct volume level. If it's too low the recordings will be too low to hear. If it's too high then the signal will be "oversaturated" and sound like a cheap AM radio turned up too high. Fortunately most audio capture programs include a Vu Meter (sound level indicator) to help you adjust the volume.
Start playing your cassette/LP and click on your software's record button (typically a red circle). In most cases there's a sound meter which shows you the recording level. Adjust the slider on the Volume Control marked "Line In" so the loudest portions of the recording just hit the highest settings on the recording level meter. Your software may have an indicator which tells you "Level too high" "Level optimal" "Level too low".
After you've adjusted your computer's sound settings you're ready to do the actual recording. Rewind the cassette (or reset the LP player's arm to the beginning of the record) and press play. Then click on the record button on your computer.
Once your cassette/LP has been recorded into your computer you should save the recording on your computer. The normal format for audio recordings is "WAV".
Now comes the optional steps.
Everything is saved in a single file at this point. If it's a speech or audio book than that may be okay. But if it's an album or collection of separate clips you'll probably want to save each song as a separate track. Your audio program will let you put in the track markers manually. Some audio programs will automatically look for spots with empty audio between the songs and put in track markers for you. That'll work with most recordings, but not ones where one song fades directly into the next without any pause in between.
If you hooked up a turntable directly without a preamp the balance will be wrong. Most recording software includes a "RIAA" equalizer, a software routine which does the equivalent of a preamp and rebalances the levels from records.
If the original material was a mixed cassette tape there will probably be popping noises between the tracks. You can manually select those glitches and remove them from the audio editor.
Most audio editing programs have audio filters which will remove hiss, hum, and other errors. The best programs will automatically clean up your recording, but audiophiles often prefer to correct errors manually. It's worth the effort if it's a cherished rare recording to enhance it as much as possible.
After all of your editing is finished you will have a group of audio files on your computer which correspond to the original songs from your cassette or LP.
Some audio recording programs have the built-in capability to burn a CD. Others will transfer to a separate CD burning program. The simplest audio recording programs don't have any CD burning functions, they assume that you're going to use a separate CD burning program (the one which came with your CD burner, or Windows XP's built-in capabilities).
Whichever method you use the key thing to remember is to ensure that the CD burning program is configured to record an "Audio CD" (as opposed to a data CD, MP3 CD, etc.). Put a blank CD-R into your CD drive and click on the "Burn" button and in a couple of minutes you'll have an audio CD. Your home-burned audio CD will play practically any CD player (the rare exception being the earliest antiques from the 1980s that don't recognize recordable CDs).
You can also take the digital audio files on your computer and put them on your MP3 player.
While this method describes how to transfer cassettes and LPs, it will also work with other audio sources - 8 Track tapes, reel-to-reel recordings, satellite transmissions, short-wave or broadcast radio, even old gramophone records or Edison wax cylinders!
Wavepad is an excellent free audio digitizing program.
Audacity is an extremely powerful free audio digitizing program, but not very easy to use.
Audiograbber is a free audio digitizing program.
Magix Audio Cleaning Lab is an excellent commercial audio digitizing program.
Order Audio Cleaning Lab from Amazon.com.
Order Audio Adapter Cable (mini stereo to two RCA) from Amazon.com
Very detailed instructions for how to transfer Long Playing records including methods for improving the playback quality.
About the author
Philip Chien has been doing multimedia on microcomputers since 1979.
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