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Saving your old LPs and cassettes. Revisit the music of your youth!

Okay.... It's the blind leading the blind here... if you are an expert, not blind, go someplace else quick before what follows annoys you! (But I have been using computers for a while. Though not an expert on LP recording, I think I can help you get started. I'm writing this while my "getting started" wounds are fresh, so that I don't forget the sorts of things that "everyone" (who's an expert) "knows".)

In this essay I will address moving old audio recordings from LPs (or tapes) to the "wonderful" (some say) "modern" world of MP3 players and media streamers.

This essay will be most useful to Windows users. However, some of the software mentioned is open source, and available in Linux. Also, many general principles are covered, so even non-Windows people may find useful stuff.

So much for the bad news. Good news: I don't like spending money. Most of what follows only requires that you have a working computer and a way to play your LPs (or tapes... assume that's part of everything from now on.)

Where we are going:

As I type this, I am listening to music I purchased long ago as an LP. That music, today, is coming out of my PC.

A simple solution:

While I will go into alternatives and extensions to the basic plan, it IS possible to just....

Record a whole sides of an LP to separate .wav files Play those .wav files from a PC, one at a time, as if putting on LPs

Fancier solutions:

The good news is that while capturing the LPs is a tedious exercise, it is one that you shouldn't have to repeat, except when Things Go Wrong. And it is a job that can be left to look after itself... you just have to change the record and the filename whenever it suits you as you go about other things in the day. (If your record player is "civilized", and lifts the needle, shuts itself off at the end of the side.)

The fancier things I suggest below can be done... or not, as suits you... at a later date.

I would strongly suggest keeping somewhere the "raw" .wav files which are the first fruits of playing the LP into the computer. If you do, as you later develop other skills or requirements, you can go back to the raw files. It is a bit like keeping "negatives" of any digital images from your camera. (Something else I suggest to anyone who will listen.) With external hard drives being so excellent today, there is no reason to plead "no storage space". The hard drive in your computer WILL fail... and anything that you have stored only there will be LOST. So you need to be backing up, anyway. Best to back up the original. You can regenerate the derivatives. Of course, any derivatives, be they images, sounds, documents, or whatever, which entailed a lot of work in creation should also be backed up. But you'll never know your future needs and skills... keep the originals of everything, so that you can get the best results later.

Once you have the whole side of an LP captured as a .wav file, you may want to go through it and edit out pops/ skips/ scratches. It isn't too hard. (Discussed later.) But you don't have to.

You may also want to break it up into it's constituent tracks.

And you may want to generate "descendant" files in MP3 or other compressed formats.... while your data is in a .wav file it takes up a lot of space.

You may want to add information to the files. Some file formats let you store things like the title of the song, the composer, the artist, a category within the "audio" (etc!) file. It is like the ExIF data that JPEGs hold. With that added, it is easier to find whatever it is you want to play. You can tag files, so, for instance you could tell the computer "play me some vocal music with trumpet". But you don't have to, if it all seems too tedious.

Once you have your audio files, they can simply reside on one PC, and be played from there when it suits you. Or they can be put into MP3 players to listen to when you are away from your PC. Or they can be put on a server (don't let this term scare you... more on "servers" in a moment) and be played on any computer connected to your LAN. Don't have a LAN, I hear you cry? Do you have a broadband internet connection? Then you probably have a LAN. If you have a wireless broadband connection in your home, then you DO have a LAN! Well, so what, you say... why do I want to use it? Why not just keep my music on my PC anyway? The answers to that are as follows: The server will be useful for other things. The music won't be taking up space on your PC. If you wish to, you can add other players around the house to play music from the server in rooms the computer isn't in. (These can either be spare, old, PCs (laptop or tower), or dedicated devices like the Streamium. Two "buts": The room with the extra player has to have connection to the LAN, be it wired or wireless and the music coming from each player is independent.... until I figure out otherwise (there are, I think, solutions... but I don't know if they are easy and cheap.) When I say "each player is independent", I mean that if you are playing "Song A" in the living room, and turn on a player in the kitchen, the kitchen player won't be playing "Song A". (Well, it might play "Song A", but the two performances won't be in sync.))

And there are other reasons for setting up a server.... but you can leave that until much later. In this essay we will cover getting music from the LPs into your standalone PC.

Server: All I have in mind is a simple FreeNAS server, although if you've bought something fancier for Network Attached Storage, that should work fine too.

"PC": In this, when I say "PC", I am speaking of either a desktop or laptop type PC, although the desktop type won't be suitable in some situations, but that will be evident from the context when it is true.

First catch your rabbit:

You start by "playing" your old recording into a computer. This is a critical step, and worth some care. Do it wrong, and however well you do everything else, you won't get a satisfactory result. And any work you do "downstream" will be wasted if you decide to go back and re-do the initial transfer.

What I know:

You want to be careful when plugging different bits of electronics together.

In theory, you'd think that you could just plug the output from your record player into an input of your computer. Not entirely so. But up to a point, yes.

What I've done is to take the earphones output from my record player, and connect that to my PCs "line in" socket. And I had the volume turned way down during the early stages of set up and testing.

Once you have the PC apparently "seeing" the output from the record player (more on this in a moment), fiddle with the balance control on the record player... be sure that both the left and right audio channels are coming through properly. Problems? Fiddle with the jacks where things plug in... that was all it took to solve some of the problems I was having. One has to be not- quite- fully plugged in. Bah.

So how do I tell if the PC is "seeing" the audio signal? I use a nice, free, little program called LP Recorder. It has two "VU meters", one for the left, one for the right audio channel. They are active regardless of whether I am recording the incoming signal or not.

You can record short clips with the basic "Sound Recorder" app that you may find on your machine already. It is a free part of Windows, at least it was with WinXP... but it isn't always installed. In any case, as I remember things, it was limited, and could not record all of one side of an LP.

A "killer" feature of LP Recorder is that it closes the file if there is a long-ish period of silence... i.e. when the side has finished playing. Even if modern versions of Sound Recorder will record a whole side, they will also record minutes of silence at the end of the side if you aren't hovering, waiting to end the recording when the side ends. Be careful, though.... a stretch of very quiet music can be mistaken for a period of silence with my elderly version of LP Recorder. Check each file when it is complete to see that the whole side of the LP was recorded. (Alternatively, you can set the "time until close file" value, but then you'll have to do some "trimming" if you want to stay sane when using the files. (Trimming would be done with Audacity. See below.)

Oh dear... a bit of bad news: I've had LP Recorder on my PC for many years. I don't recall paying very much for the version I have. (I did some "vinyl to digital" work years ago, then it got sidelined until I went back to it recently.) TODAY (3/10) LP Recorder is still available... good... but the author has decided he wants to be PAID for all his hard work. Reasonable! I wish people would pay me for my programs! You can still fetch LP Recorder over the web, and try it out... but the demo version will only record up to 4 minutes. (Maybe this is what I was thinking of when I said the Windows .wav recorder is limited?) After that, you can register for full use for $40. If you go this route, consider carefully the package with other goodies... you might want them. Sorry it isn't as inexpensive as it once was, but that does rather tell you something about it being good, doesn't it? And that it has been around for so long? I imagine that there are less expensive options out there. I'm happy with my old version of LP Recorder, though, so I'll leave hunting for something suitable to you.

This might be the place to discuss something. There are many "Vinyl to Digital" packages out there. Many of them are "all singing, all dancing". Not only will they capture the input from your record player, but they will chop things up into tracks, apply noise reduction, burn a CD, put meta tags on MP3 files, etc, etc. I tend to shy away from these things. I much prefer a more "granular" approach. I have a good signal capture package (LP Recorder). I use a separate package for my file enhancement needs. I suspect that my approach lets me have exactly what I want, instead of the features and interface that the program developer wanted me to have.

Also in that "what do you want" vein: Beware the "automatic" scratch, hum, crackle, etc removers. Yes, they probably can remove the noise of scratches, etc... but what else do they remove? You can remove things "by hand" more intelligently than any computer. Yes, it will be more work. But how much quality will you give up, just to have the easy life?

To reiterate something I said before: Take a lot of trouble to get the best quality audio capture you can manage. After that, you can play the captured .wav file immediately, "warts and all", so you'll have your music. And you can send the .wav file through whatever clean up/ cut up processes which take your fancy... and re-clean it, or re-chop it again later, if you discover your first idea wasn't good.... as long as you save the original capture

Now I am going to go back to the question of how you capture the audio off of the LP.

If you still have a reasonable working record player, complete with amp, etc, you are probably "good to go".... especially if you have a socket you could plug earphones into. That is a way to connect to your PC. (It doesn't matter if your system is integrated or a fancier "component" hi-fi). If you don't have a place to plug in earphones, you MIGHT be okay connecting the PC to where the speakers connect... but ALL connecting of things is YOUR responsibility and risk. Please do not imagine that if you fry anything I am going to pay for it to be repaired or replaced. YOU are REPSONSIBLE for what you CHOOSE to do, however radical that may seem to some people.

If you only have a working turntable, just a turntable, something that you previously plugged into an amplifier, then that is NOT ENOUGH. In the days of record players and amplifiers, even before Dolby, the electronics engineers did Clever Things, and squashed frequencies at one stage, spread them out again later. You have three options:

1) Get the whole system, including at least the pre-amp, working again. (If you don't understand "pre-amp", just ignore that bit!) 2) Buy a device that is made to go between turntable and PC... they do exist. 3) Buy a "USB turntable".... they also exist. They combine the mechanical bits... (turntable, arm, needle) and the electronic bits needed to connect your LPs to your PC.

Doing it....

So! You've got a working record player connected to your PC. You've got some program running in the PC which can capture the incoming music.

Before you put the LP on the turntable, make sure it is as clean as possible! Be sure your needle is clean. Attention to this sort of detail will pay off in the long run.

Play a bit of the LP, and adjust the volumes so that the VU meters are happy.

That simple sentence gives rise to several paragraphs, which follow immediately... we'll get back to "the big picture" before too long, I promise!

"Adjust the volumes". Depending on how you have things set up, you'll have a volume control on the "sending" device, i.e. the record player, and at the receiving device, i.e. the sound recording software in your PC. You want a reasonably strong signal going out from the sending device, so that the little wobbles as it passes through the wires are small, relative to the "good stuff".... but you mustn't overwhelm the circuits at the PC end. At the PC end, the recording software will also probably allow you to adjust the amplification of the received signal, on its way to the file on the computer's hard disk. As you've heard many, many times, everything in a computer is a number. What you may not understand is that those numbers are generally limited... they can only be "so big". How big? Depends how the program was written. (This was what was behind the "Millenium Bug" problem of 1999. It WAS a real problem; the programmers did a great job of getting us into 2000 without hassles that we truly might have had.) A "sound", recorded on a computer is just lots and lots of numbers. And they can only be so big. It is a bit like the fact that a car with a 5 wheel odometer will look like it has only gone 00025 miles when it has gone 100025 miles. A big number will arise from a big noise... one with a big volume, after you take into consideration both the volume of the send signal, and the volume it is amplified to in the receiving software. You don't want many numbers getting "clipped". If your volume settings are too high, the recorded sound will be "wrong" because of "00025"s where the number should have been "100025". The VU meter on any sensible recording software is going to show with yellow and red when the volume settings are too high. So, you'll be careful not to have the volume turned up too much. Sadly, you can't get away with keeping everything really soft. If you go too far in that direction, you lose sound quality too.

You will probably want to monitor the sound as the transfer is effected. A judicious balancing of the two volume levels will allow you to have acceptable volumes coming out of your speakers while still having an as-big-as-possible but not-too-big signal going into the recording software. Just remember NOT to turn the hi-fi's volume down in the midst of doing a transfer. I'm lucky: I have a speaker mute button which doesn't disrupt the signal to the PC.

If all of the above wasn't enough hassle, there are two other things you'll have to struggle with as best you can...

a) The volume levels you use from day to day should be fairly consistent. When you are only playing something recorded in a given session, all will be well. But if on Monday you recorded something, quite loud, and on Tuesday you recorded something at softer settings, and on Wednesday you try to listen to a mixture of things from Monday's work and Tuesday's work, you won't be pleased as the volume level leaps up and down... a bit like television advertisements being louder than the program they interrupt!

b) You need to understand the concept of "dynamic range". If the whole LP is of tranquil, solo flute music, the volume will probably, rightly, be about the same across the whole 20 minutes. On the other hand, many musical works have very soft bits and very loud bits, which certainly helps the dramatic effect... but doesn't make life easy for the recording engineer. Even if you are not getting into "clipping" problems, you may find that what might work well in a concert hall isn't ideal if, say, you are listening to some music while you drive your car in noisy traffic. First you turn it up to hear a quiet bit, then you turn it down to avoid being anti-social during a loud bit. No easy answers, but thinking about the problem is an important first step!

There are programs out there which can automatically adjust the volume levels of stuff for you... but you must understand that you can't "recapture" things lost to clipping, and any "messing with" the sound, as in adjusting the volume profile, is never free. You will alter the sound. Maybe not in all ways for the better. Hence my advice: Keep your "negatives". If you don't like what a processor did, you can have another go.

Remember that the loudness of the music at the start of a disc may not be typical of the loudness in other parts.

LP Recorder has an OPTIONAL "Level adjust" which may help with these problems. But isn't it nice that you can turn it off?

So! Enough about all that.

You put the LP on, you check the volume levels. You make sure there's no avoidable hum. And you then carefully prepare, put the needle on the start of the record, and before the music starts to play, start the computer recording the sound.

Alternatively, start the computer recording first, and put the needle on the record a moment later. This is easier, and you will probably be running the audio file through an editor later, and can "snip off" the extra silence at the start then.

You record the .wav file.... one big file for the whole side is what I do.

File names are important. Be organized. I'm gradually numbering all my LPs... LP0001, LP0002, etc. One option is to create a folder for each LP. The first thing in each folder is s1.wav and s2.wav... the wave files with side 1 and side 2. From there, I can go on. I keep separate records of the name of the album, recording company, company's id number for that album, etc. (The latter can help you pull information off of the internet. You may not need to type out the track labels, performer information, etc.). And my system is simple, manageable, and won't be overwhelmed, no matter how many LPs I do.... if I keep it under 10000!

Why the zeros? Why "LP0001" instead of "LP1". If you put the zeros in, the folders will sort in the order a human would sort them. My tenth LP was recorded as LP0010, the 11th as LP0011. With my system, my list is....


Without the zeros, you would get....


The computer, bless it, is just being "logical". Pity it can't read our minds, just do what we were thinking it would.

That system can lead to a lot of folders! An alternative, probably better system, is to use names like....

LP0014rawS1.wav ... etc

... for the initial "capture" of each LP's two sides. If you decide to go on to "tweaked" versions of them, or to breaking them up into tracks, you could have....

Those files should be in a "wrapper" folder called, say, "Audio captures". You can extend that to a two layer system with "Audio captures" being the "outside" folder, and folders within that for, say, LPs 0001-0009, 0010-0019, 0020-0029, etc.

And you will back up your work, won't you?? Going through your LPs and playing them into your computer is a pain.... you won't want to do it more than once! External hard drives connected via USB are wonderful devices.

("Fine" versions of LP12's side 1 and side 2, in entireties)
("Fine" versions of LP13's side 1, split into tracks "a" and "b"
Use letters for the track IDs, and they won't run out,
and they won't get confused with the 1 and 2
specifying the tracks.)
LP0013fS2d.wav... etc

I would encourage you NOT to call a track "HardDaysNight-Beetles". That makes sense to a human, but using such a "system" gets messy in a computer filing system. Audacity, and other players, give you a host of ways to attach human friendly names to albums and tracks. Have the underlying system more computer friendly, and you will be happier in the end.

So! You've got a few LPs saved as .wav files. How to play them back?

I use WinAmp. It plays .wav files quite happily. If you are familiar with the Microsoft "Media Player", then you'll understand, in broad terms, what WinAmp can do.

When you are ready to "get fancy", WinAmp is also quite capable of playing MP3 files. It can build playlists, read tags from within files, etc, etc. It can play things on my NAS device without any "extra" hassle... so far as the system is concerned, it is just another volume of backing store.

A quick word about playlists, in case you are the other dinosaur on the planet who hasn't been using them for years.

I think they are a double edged sword. Useful in their way, but vulnerable.

"When I was a boy" if I wanted to hear a piece of music, I put the right vinyl platter on the turntable, and out it came.

Today things are "better": I save a .wav file. Let's say I called it LP023s1.wav, and let's say I saved it on my C: drive in a folder called Audio, in the C: drive root.

Then I start up my WinAmp. Now... I can play that file directly, but WinAmp would rather a I built a playlist. Playlists are a bit like lists of shortcuts. To see their "power" for good, we need to extend our example a little.

Suppose I have the following audio files, again all in the C:Audio folder. These are all smaller files, each holding a short piece of music. Each line starts with the filename. The "pattern" in the names is not something I'd expect in real life, there was just no reason to get clever here. That is followed by a description of the piece...

Song1.wav Beetles "Yesterday" (voice and instrument, modern)
Song2.wav Handel "Hallelujah Chorus" (voice and instrument, classical)
Song3.wav Simon and Garfunkle "Cecilia" (voice and instrument, modern)
Song4.wav Bach "Air on a G string" (no voice, but instrument, classical)
Song5.wav Handel "Water Music" (but voice, but instrument, classical)
Song6.wav Bach "Toccata in C" (organ alone, classical)
Song7.wav Saints-Saens "Organ Symphony" (organ and orchestra, classical)
Song8.wav Bach "Jesu Joy" (voice, orchestra)

Even with that little list, you could play...

Modern music
Assorted classical music
Music by Bach
Music by instruments alone
Music with some voice

"Playlists" were invented to make it easy to say "play me the music by Bach".

Remember that underneath the "playlist" system is the fundamental files. The Bach files, for instance, are Song4, Song6 and Song7.

My "problem" with playlists is that they don't create themselves. I just can't see myself building the wretched things. And they are vulnerable.... what if I decide that Song4 isn't worth the space it is taking on the disk, and I delete it? That will result in any playlist referencing Song4 having to deal with a "broken link".

On the other hand, playlists do bring a neat feature. Consider again the songs I have on my hypothetical drive, and the playlists I suggested. Song7 would be part of the "Bach" playlist, AND part of the "Music with some voice" playlist... present in two playlists, but only one copy taking space on the hard drive. This is good.

I know that you can build playlists on the PC you are playing the music on, even if the music is coming from an NAS server. I suspect that you can put those playlists on the server, so that they can be used from any PC connected to it.

I'll leave this whole topic in a bit, but first a little more on sorting, indexing, categorizing your music. If you use the following tools, building playlists becomes easier.

The WinAmp Media Library pane has a table with a row for each audio file you have told WinAmp about. (We're back to talking about the underlying files, not the "virtual lists" of things to play, i.e. playlists) The table has columns for Artist, Album, Track, Title, Length and Genre. I believe you can switch others on, and I believe you can store the album artwork on your hard disk, too, and display it when an album is playing. This is wonderful... if you type all that data in.... or if you can find a website online (they must exist) with that data ready for you for whatever LPs you have in your collection.

With some file formats, notably MP3, I believe, you can even embed this data in the audio file. There are some features built into WinAmp to help you edit these things. For instance, if you have chopped, say, album "LP0015" into its constituent tracks, you can apply "LP0015" to all of the tracks in a single editing operation.

I'm sure it is all very clever when you've mastered it.... for me, life is a bit short, and I may just leave my raw side-per-file .wav file captures as what I play. The occasional click from a scratch on the LP is good for my nostalgic yearnings, anyway.

The great news is that Luddites like me may ignore the advanced features. The system "works", even if you don't cross every t, dot every "i".

Getting a little fancy...

The first thing you might want to do is to convert your .wav files to MP3 files, or to other formats. Someday I may know enough to come back and say more about why you would want to do this. (Preview: I believe MP3s are more suitable for the neat little portable players which let you take your music with you without a computer.)

WinAmp seems to be able to do this. I say "seems" because I've only checked that there is a way, according to menus I've accessed. I haven't tested my ability to make those functions work.

Getting very fancy...

Suppose you have more energy than I do. Suppose you've captured all of one side of an LP. And there's a nasty scratch affecting 20 seconds of the recording. You can take it out! And software to do it is free, and works on Windows and Linux. (There's even a Mac version!) The program I like is called Audacity. It is an open source project with a big site where you can download it (Audacity), and where there is all the support you should ever need.

Not only can you take out scratches, but you can do things about volume levels, chop over-long lead-ins off, break the big .wav file up into smaller files, e.g. one file per track. You can do an "Export" to re-save something in a different format, e.g. MP3 or Ogg Vorbis. One 122k .wav file I had shrank to 11K when compressed to MP3, using, I think, the setting that gives quality comparable to a CD. Not only do you save disk space (perhaps not too important today), but also the data which has to travel across your LAN when you play the music, if you use a server, is reduced. This may be important if you have a busy LAN, or you are connected wirelessly. But- I'll say it again- keep your "negatives"... the original file captures. Who knows what wireless speeds will be possible in a few years? Who knows whether your ear will become more demanding of quality? (Compressing a file does reduce the fidelity of the sound. Some would say a trivial amount, others might disagree. And you may have set your export options incorrectly. There is not one "MP3". Compressing sound with MP3 is like compressing images with JPEG... you can end up with artifacts and degradation.)

Audacity is not a trivial program. If you were allowed to sit in at the controls of an airliner, you might not make a very good job of your first untutored attempt to land the thing. Happily, Audacity isn't that complicated, and unsuccessful first "landings" are of less consequence. And in the meantime, as I've said a few times, you can use the crude "answer"... just play the whole side of the LP from a single file. That's what you did in the "good old days", anyway... isn't it!

A little digression to marvel at the technology and what it can do: Scratches: It is simple to go through an audio recording and edit out scratches. You just play the track, and a visual representation scrolls along the top... like an "oscilloscope" trace. When you get a scratch, you just hit the pause button. Then you zoom in, usually two or three "select/ zoom" sequences achieves sufficient zoom. That leaves you looking at the "image" of the audio "under a microscope". At that level of zoom, you can see the individual peaks and troughs of the sine wave that makes up the sound. A scratch usually lasts for only one or two cycles. You can cut out that tiny slice of time without the listener's ear being any the wiser. You can even, usually, do a pretty good job of "joining up the edges", e.g., you start the cut at the top of the last complete "healthy" cycle and end it at the top of the first healthy cycle after the scratch. It is only very slightly harder than it would would be to take the extra "would" out of this sentence if you were writing it on your wordprocessor. Pretty amazing. Middle C is a wave of about 260 cycles per second, but you can "slice" into the wave at (from memory) at least 10 places. So, even is the scratch runs to two full cycles, you are only slicing out about 8 milliseconds of sound, with a precision of fractions of a millisecond. And while we're on "amazing things", isn't it amazing that you can hear the scratch anyway?! And that you DON'T hear the "hole" (missed out bit, not a gap), when you CAN hear the scratch.

In conclusion...

I hope that's helped you? I can't tell you what a pleasure it was to be listening to some of my old LPs as I wrote it. I guess those fond memories were etched deep in my musical sensibilities back then.

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