If you’re a long-time music lover, chances are those old record albums are just taking up house room. At some point, you might start thinking it’s time to digitize the whole library. The tools are cheap-to-free, but it’s a big project. Best to make some decisions and preparations before diving in.
You can plan on spending 20 to 30 minutes per album just manipulating the digital files after you’ve recorded it. Most albums take about 40 minutes to play, so figure at least one hour per album.
In effect, then, you’re earning $10 – $12 an hour to convert your library, since that’s about what you save by not having to replace the album with a commercial CD. Consider that a CD doesn’t hiss or pop, and probably includes some bonus tracks that weren’t on the original vinyl release. Before you’re through, you’re likely to find it worthwhile to go the CD-replacement route with at least a few of your albums.
It’s essential for sanity, so best thing is just to sit down with your collection, fire up your spreadsheet, and inventory all two or three hundred items. You’ll want columns for artist name and album, of course, but I recommend also having these: availability of the CD version, source and price, whether to record or replace, and other notes you might find helpful, like date recorded, sound settings, exceptions, etc.
The turntable you use determines the quality of the digitized results. The $99 made-for-the-job turntable with USB output that plugs right into your computer might be just fine for you, but do consider the two big links in the “fidelity chain” here: the quality of the cartridge and the quality of the built-in analog-to-digital converter.
At the other end, hard-core audiophiles might opt for hooking up their good turntable to the computer’s sound card — one that has an equally good A-to-D converter. Typically, this setup would involve plugging the turntable into a decent mixer, with the mixer output then going into the sound card.
The approach I took is somewhere in the middle. I ordered a TEAC GF-350 turntable with built-in CD-R recorder for $230 from Amazon.com. It is a true “record-player” that comes in a table-top cabinet. It doesn’t even connect to the computer: you play a record and get a CD. Having the CD is reassuring and it’s a good hedge against hard disk crashes, but it does add an extra step compared to straight-in recording.
The rest is about the software. Please note that it’s PC-based, although good Mac equivalents are available. Still, the steps will be similar on both platforms. Here’s a summary of them, along with the PC software I used for each:
- Rip – CDex
- Clean – Creative Media Toolbox 6
- Split – Creative Media Toolbox 6
- Convert – CDex
- Equalize – Creative Media Toolbox 6 / Audacity
- Tag – MP3Tag
- Normalize – MP3Gain
- Add to library – Media Monkey
(See end notes for a complete list of sources.)
If you choose to record to CD first, rather than straight in, you’ll have to rip it to get the digitized music into your computer. I used a free program called CDex, available from download sites like sourceforge.net or cnet.com. There are other good rippers out there, but CDex also includes a very good WAV-to-MP3 converter.
Ripping to a WAV file has advantages, and I recommend it. The WAV is uncompressed, with full fidelity, whereas MP3 is compressed. You’ll go through several steps processing the sound file, so if you work on the MP3 copy and keep the original WAV file, it means you can always go back and process it different ways, if the need comes up. And it usually will.
To proceed, mount the CD that you recorded, open CDex and go to the “Options | Settings” menu to set a destination folder for the ripped sound files. Click the button for “Extract CD tracks to WAV files,” and after about two minutes, CDex is finished ripping.
Whether you record straight in or rip, you’ll have two WAV files for an album (side A and side B). Open up Windows Explorer and use it to rename the files, say, “Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited-A.wav” and “Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited-B.wav.” You’ll want to use this complete file name, because it will help automate the process of tagging your MP3s. It’s also a good way to “tag” your WAV files, since WAV doesn’t actually support tagging.
Then proceed with cleaning, aka “de-hissing.” In addition to taking out the hiss, this step also reduces the clicks and pops endemic to vinyl. One of the best-known programs for this is Spin Doctor, but I chose Creative Media Toolbox 6 because it includes more tools and costs the same, about $40 (available at creative.com/software/mediatoolbox6). The Clean-up Music tool in CMT6 is the one to use for this step.
Splitting the sound file into individual tracks is probably the most time-consuming part of the whole process. Even though most recording software (and my TEAC unit as well) offers an option to separate the tracks “automatically,” it’s a hit-or-miss proposition at best, and the mistakes take more time to fix than just doing it manually in the first place.
A general-purpose sound editor like Audacity (free at audacity.sourceforge.net) can certainly be used for the task, but I found the Split-up Music tool in Creative Media Toolbox much handier, and a real time-saver. Split-up Music makes some best guesses about where to split, based on volume level, and marks those points; you can adjust the sensitivity, resulting in more or fewer splits. Then, while you’re looking at the waveform display and listening around the markers, you can go in and confirm, move, add, or delete markers.
When you give it the ok, Split-up Music outputs individual WAV files for each track, adding a sequence number to the file name, e.g. “Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited-A01.wav,” “Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited-A02.wav,” etc. Repeat the track-splitting steps for side B.
Now you have your digital image of the album (minus vinyl noise), all nicely split up into tracks. Keep these somewhere as your reference files, and do all further sound processing on the MP3 files you’ll create in the next step. That way, you’ll have the originals to go back to in case something happens — or you change your mind — further down the line.
Now to complete making your reference files, add the track number and title to each WAV file name, so you’ll end up with something like this:
Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited-01-Like A Rolling Stone.wav
Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited-02-Tombstone Blues.wav…
… Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited-08-Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.wav
Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited-09-Desolation Row.wav
Fortunately, there’s a good way to avoid having to type all of this. Several online databases, such as allmusic.com and onlinemusicdatabase.com, index most albums available. You can search for an album and get back a display with tons of information about it, including a list of the tracks. From there, it’s easy to cut and paste the track names into your file names.
These complete file names will fully identify your WAV files and also provide the essential tag information for your MP3s. At this point, it’s safe to delete the original side A and side B source files.
This is also a good time to set up a conventional folder structure for organizing your MP3 files. In Windows Explorer, go to the area where you’re working on them, perhaps in Libraries\My Music\Vinyl. Create a subfolder for the artist, in this case “Bob Dylan,” and under that, another subfolder for the album, “Highway 61 Revisited.” Make sure the artist and album folder names are exactly as they appear in the file names. Your player/library program will be grateful.
The WAV files should probably live in a separate folder somewhere else — for one thing, it will simplify adding the MP3 files to your player library later. And with those complete file names, all the WAVs for all the albums can all go into one big folder and still be nicely organized.
“Convert” may be a misleading term — we’re actually generating MP3 files from the WAV files, which we’re going to keep. Bring up CDex again and start by checking the settings for your MP3 output. Go to the “Options | Settings” menu, then open the “Encoder” tab. Make sure Encoder is set to “Lame MP3 Encoder,” Version is set to “MPEG I,” and Mode is set to “Stereo” (not “J-Stereo,” or Joint Stereo — it tends to introduce compression artifacts you can definitely do without). There’s also a “Don’t delete the WAV” checkbox; make sure it’s checked.
Now set the MP3 bit rate. This is where you trade off sound quality for file size. Hey, disk space is cheap and plentiful, and even portable devices are pretty roomy these days — go for at least 256 kbps. At Amazon, most of the MP3 tracks they have are 300 – 340, just by way of comparison. If someday you really find yourself needing a lot of highly-squeezed files, you can always go back to your reference WAVs and re-encode at 128 or 160.
Adding EQ is the creative part, and usually necessary. The sound that comes off of vinyl tends to be stingy in the bass, and the higher frequencies usually need adjustment to bring out a full, balanced sound. Most of this will go according to your own tastes, of course.
I started out using Audacity, but its 30-band equalization may be overkill in many cases. Some albums will call for thorough EQ treatment, and Audacity will deliver.
I ended up relying more on the Equalize Music tool in CMT6, setting its five-band equalizer to a slightly-modified version of the “Rock” preset. The CMT6 tool is simpler and quicker than Audacity, but not as powerful.
Run the Equalize Music tool on your newly-created MP3 files. It will create equalized copies, but if you select the same folder as the destination for them, the program will add “” to each file name. Having a separate working folder will avoid this, but make sure your equalized files are the ones that end up in the album folder. The unequalized files, you can delete.
This is where you add all the ID information to your MP3 sound files. With a single free tool called MP3Tag, this can proceed almost automatically. There are many similar tools available, but this one I know does the job nicely. It’s available at mp3tag.de, as well as some of the usual download sites. Make sure it’s the German one, from Florian Heidenreich — there’s another program by the same name that’s not nearly as good.
Open up MP3Tag and point it to the album folder. You’ll see the filenames in the right window, and in the left window, a number of fields for the tags — song title, artist, album, year, etc. You could, at this point, type the tag info directly into each those fields, but the good news is that you don’t have to.
Select all files in the window, then on the Convert menu, select Filename – Tag. There’s a formatting string in the pop-up window that you should arrange like this: %artist%-%album%-%track%-%title%. When the formatting string is right, the window will acknowledge by displaying the separate tag items for the highlighted file. Click OK, and presto, the main tag fields will show up all completed in the left window. Each track will show its own title and track number.
You can then fill in the remaining fields for the album. Select all files again, fill in the field, and then click the “save” icon. Note that it won’t take effect until you save. Have the online database open to your album page and you can get the year and genre information from there, plus the album art.
To get the album art, right-click on the image, select “copy image,” switch to MP3Tag, select all files, right-click on the space for album art at the lower left, and select “paste image.” Then click “save” on the main menu bar. Each MP3 file will now have a copy of the album cover, which most MP3 players will display along with artist, album and title information.
At this point, I also like to include some source information in the Comment tag field. Something like “Vinyl rip.” As you develop your MP3 collection, sooner or later it comes up: “Now where the heck did I get that one from?” Just a note like “CD rip,” “Amazon download,” or “Fred Schertz” will save you a lot of head-scratching in the future.
Now that you’ve got your MP3 files all tagged and set in a suitable directory structure, you don’t need those long filenames any more. Use MP3Tag to trim them down to just the song title: select all, pick Convert | Tag – Filename, edit the formatting string to %title%, and click OK. If for any reason you want to restore the long file names later on, just use the Convert | Tag – Filename option and specify the longer formatting string.
When you get MP3s from a number of different sources, the volume levels tend to be all over the place. You want to make sure that you don’t have to ride the volume knob as you listen through a diverse playlist. So you “normalize” all of them to a consistent volume level. There are facilities for doing this in almost any of the programs mentioned here, but all of them do a “hard” normalization — they rewrite the file with the volume adjustment permanently built-in.
I recommend leaving normalization last — it’s less likely to interfere with your EQ efforts that way — and using a “soft” normalizer like MP3Gain (available at mp3gain.sourceforge.net). This program is like the other normalizers in analyzing the peaks and volume contours of a sound file, but it doesn’t rewrite the file. Instead, it calculates a volume offset and stores it in a lesser-known tag field reserved for this purpose. At playback time, most players know to check that field and adjust the volume accordingly. This gives you a normalization that’s easy to adjust or even undo, if need be.
Open MP3Gain, click on “Add folder” and point to the album folder with your MP3 files in it. They’ll show up in the main window. Notice there’s a space on the menu bar that says “Target ‘normal’ volume.” The default is 89 dB, and that seems to work about right to avoid clipping on most tunes. You can try raising it a little and see if that works for you, but do watch for clipping.
Now select all the files and click “Track analysis.” It will grind away for about a minute, showing volume levels and progress bars as it goes. Select them all again, click “Track gain,” and it adds the volume offsets to each file.
Add to library.
Chances are you’re using Windows Media Player for your player and library management software, or maybe the iTunes client. They both do the same job and have similar layouts for their libraries. You may find it convenient to do all your ripping and processing in its own area (e.g., Libraries\My Music\Vinyl), a working area separate from the directory path your player uses for its library. Once you’ve processed the files there, you can pull the artist folder into the library, either with Windows Explorer or your library software.
Here’s the thing about Windows Media Player: there are other options. I tried using WMP for a while and had some real issues with it. I found it rigid and hard to live with. I switched to iTunes, and it was pretty decent, but it has a number of Apple-centric quirks.
That was before I came across Media Monkey, which is a joy to use and I recommend highly — it’s versatile, thorough, transparent, logical and hugely capable. It’s also free, for the standard version. The $40 registered version has a few extra features that might be nice to have, but are by no means crucial. Media Monkey is available at mediamonkey.com.
Those sources again:
TEAC GF-350. Record player with CD recorder. $230. www.amazon.com
CDex. CD ripping and sound format conversion. Free. www.sourceforge.net or www.cnet.com
Creative Media Toolbox 6. Track splitting, cleaning, equalizing, etc. $40. www.creative.com/software/mediatoolbox6
MP3Tag. ID tag management for MP3 files; filename-to-tag conversion. Free. www.mp3tag.de or www.sourceforge.net
MP3Gain. Normalizer using “soft” volume offsets. Free. www.mp3gain.sourceforge.net
Media Monkey. Library manager/player extraordinaire. Free (standard version). www.mediamonkey.com
Audacity. Sound editor good to have just on general principles. Free. www.audacity.sourceforge.net
Online music index databases: www.allmusic.com and www.onlinemusicdatabase.com