Digitize your cassettes and LPs
While it’s fantastic to be able to instantly download an album from iTunes or Amazon.com to your iPod, many classic recordings will never make the jump to a digital store. If your music collection stretches back several decades, odds are you have at least a few beloved analog titles on cassette or vinyl. They need not languish unloved and unheard simply because they’re in an old format. With just a few steps, very little money, and a reasonable amount of time, you can bring those classic recordings into the digital era.
The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you have all the right equipment. At a minimum you’ll need the means to play back your media—a cassette deck, a turntable, or both—plus the right cables to import everything, enough hard-drive space to store your audio, and, of course, a computer to capture and digitize the audio. Aside from the computer, you’ll find inexpensive options for all of these.
If your Mac has a microphone input and you are importing from a cassette deck or an amplified phonograph, you’re almost set. All you need is a Y-cable, with red and white analog component-audio connections (often called RCA) at one end and a 1/8-inch stereo (or minijack) connection at the other. You should be able to get one of these at your local electronics store for less than $5.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, if all you have is a stack of old records, and no way to even play them, much less import them, you may want to consider a turntable with a USB connection. Ion Audio’s $99 Ion TTUSB05 turntable is a good choice. A USB turntable will automatically adjust the RIAA curve (see “The RIAA Curve” for more details) and amplification levels for you, and makes importing audio a snap.
However, most people will likely fall somewhere in between in terms of equipment. Perhaps you have an unamplified turntable that’s been gathering dust for decades. In that case you’re going to need something called a phono preamp, a device that boosts output levels for line-level recording and corrects the signal (you may already have such a device if your turntable is connected to a digital AV receiver). You can typically find these phono preamps on eBay and the like starting at about $25. Or perhaps your Mac doesn’t have a microphone or line input at all—a problem for both cassette and LP importing on some older Macs. In that case, you’re going to need a USB audio input, such as Griffin Technology’s $40 iMic, which will also act as apreamp. If you have neither of these capabilities, ART’s $129 USB Phono Plus v2 preamp (discontinued, but available from Sweetwater.com and other resellers), amplifies the signal (and corrects the RIAA curve) while providing a USB connection.
Next you’re going to want to make sure your computer is set up correctly to import audio. Go to System Preferences and click on the Sound icon. Under the Input tab, select the correct sound input for your setup. If you have a 1/8-inch cable running directly from a cassette deck or an amplified turntable, select Audio Line-In Port. If you are using a USB connection—such as Griffin’s iMic, a USB turntable, or a USB preamp—select USB.
If you’re using the USB port, you must take one more step as well. Launch the Audio MIDI Setup application found in your Utilities folder. Make sure that the default input selected is the same USB audio selection you chose in System Preferences and that the format is set to 44100.0 Hz and 2ch-16bit.
Finally, you’ll need to think about disk space. Even if you intend to archive everything to CD or DVD (see “Future-Proof Formats” on the next page), you’re going to require a fair amount of disk space to capture the audio and edit it before you save it off. A general rule of thumb is that CD-quality audio will eat up about 10MB of space per minute. If you intend to listen to everything on your iPod or a stereo connected to your iTunes library, you may want to invest in an external hard drive to store all that primo sound.
Once you’ve set up your hardware, your next task is going to be making sure you have the right software. You have plenty of applications to choose from for importing and capturing audio. I recommend two good, low-cost options: Roxio’s CD Spin Doctor ($40), which is also bundled with the company’s Toast Titanium; and Griffin’s Final Vinyl, a free application that comes with the iMic. Don’t worry if you’re already using another application, such as Apple’s GarageBand; it should work in basically the same way.
CD Spin Doctor This is my favorite program for digitizing audio from an old analog source. Before you actually start recording, you’ll want to adjust your levels. Launch the program, select New Recording, and click on Continue. In the next window, click on Advanced (if you haven’t previously switched to Advanced mode) and then click on OK. Under Input Settings, make sure the correct recording input device is selected and Recording Quality is set to CD Quality. Now start playing your record or cassette and adjust the Input Volume slider so that the audio volume indicator at the top of the CD Spin Doctor window peaks toward the top end of the scale without going into the red (red levels indicate that your source is too strong and will likely make your recordings sound blown out). When you’ve adjusted your levels, restart the record or cassette and click on the red Record button. Let it capture all the audio from one complete side of your source (or, if you prefer, one particular track). When you have a side completed, click on the Stop button, click on either OK or Always Start In Advanced Mode, and then save your file. This is your rough master.
Now it’s time to split tracks—otherwise you’ll end up with one entire side as a single long audio file. Go into CD Spin Doctor’s preferences, and click on the Waveform & Tracks icon. You’ll see three sliders at the bottom of the resulting options screen. For LP recording, Roxio suggests setting the top slider, Sensitivity, to +0.071 or higher; cassettes should be set above +0.045. This will help the software figure out where the breaks between tracks are. You should also adjust the time sliders for track duration and silence length as needed. Enable the Auto-Define Immediately After Recording Is Complete option, and from now on CD Spin Doctor will attempt to identify tracks upon import.
Return to the main window, and click on the Auto Define button in the toolbar. Spin Doctor will then attempt to split your recording into individual tracks. You may want to fine-tune where each begins and ends by manually adjusting the edges of tracks to completely cut out the gaps between songs. You can also manually create tracks by moving the slider at the top of the audio waveform to the end of a track and selecting Action: Add Track To Playhead—useful for recordings of concerts or lectures, where software can’t easily distinguish tracks. If there are unwanted tracks (silence at the end of a tape, for example), discard them. When you’re happy with the tracks, enter a name for each in the Track List window.
The next step is one of the many reasons CD Spin Doctor makes such a great importing option. Let’s say one of your tracks has a lot of unwanted noise, such as tape hiss. Spin Doctor fixes those problems with just a few simple steps. Click on the Filters button in the toolbar. In the drawer that appears, select the Noise Reducer option at the top, and then adjust the De-Hiss slider (or either of the other sliders for clicks or crackles) while playing the track, until that hiss is history. You can also adjust the EQ settings and add some basic audio-enhancing effects here.
At the bottom of the drawer, select whether you want to apply the effects to all tracks or just particular ones. Click on Apply to wrap it all up.
Finally, you’re likely going to want to send your tracks to iTunes. This is easy: click on the iTunes button in the toolbar, enter the artist and album name, and choose a format—AAC, MP3, or Apple Lossless. Apple Lossless will give you AIFF-quality results but at a smaller (though not tiny) file size. Check the Apply Filters To Tracks box if you didn’t do so earlier, and click on OK.
Final Vinyl Using Final Vinyl is somewhat easier, but it isn’t as powerful as Roxio’s software. If you’re importing from a cassette, all you need to do is click on Record and start playback. If you are importing from a record player, launch the program, select Add from the Filters drop-down menu, and pick the EQ option. On the next screen, make sure the Connected To Turntable option is selected. In Final Vinyl’s Preferences menu, select Automatic Levels.
To begin capturing audio, click on the red Record icon and press play on your cassette deck or drop the needle on the record. If you want to listen to your audio as it plays back, make sure to select the Playthru option. Play an entire side of your album or cassette while the software records, and then click on Record again. Final Vinyl takes a few minutes to process your audio and build a waveform; you can then play back the recording and, if you’re happy with it, split it up into tracks.
To divide it into tracks, select Auto Mark from the drop-down menu on the left side of the main window. Now you need to adjust the bottom Noise Level In Recording slider so that it can mark your audio where one track ends and the next begins. You should be able to tell where the gaps between songs are by looking at the waveform. Make sure that the auto-marking noise level band that now runs down the center line of the waveform is wider than the audio signal in these gaps. If need be, adjust the time limits to compensate for any short tracks. Now click on the Auto Mark button, and Final Vinyl will attempt to mark tracks for you. You may have to delete some marks or add others, but once it has identified each track, it’s time to save your tracks as individual files. Move the playhead to each song, one at a time, and select Save Audio Region As from the File menu (unfortunately, there’s no batch export function). Give your track a name and choose a destination, and Final Vinyl will save it as an AIFF file, ready to go to iTunes, where you can burn it to CD or convert it to an MP3, AAC, or Apple Lossless file and then transfer it to an iPod.
A friend in New Hampshire recently asked me how to record LPs directly to CD. My answer was “don’t.” By recording directly to a CD, you may find yourself retracing your steps later, ripping the same tracks again and importing them to a digital library to play in a portable device. Although you very well may want to burn everything to CD so you can listen to it in the car or keep a backup, you should consider importing your tracks into your iTunes library first.
However, just as you don’t want to go right to full-quality CDs, nor do you want to simply save everything as MP3s. The best solution is to save your master AIFF files on an external drive, or to archive them on a DVD or other high-capacity disc, and to also save individual tracks to iTunes. While MP3 or AAC is dandy, Apple Lossless will give you better quality without sacrificing too much disc space. Better yet, since it’s a lossless format, unlike MP3 or AAC, you can always expand it later and get the exact qual-ity of the original AIFF recording.
The RIAA curve
If you want to import audio directly from a turntable, you need to make sure you’re cool with the RIAA. No, I’m not talking about copyright violation (it’s generally considered fair use to convert vinyl you own to digital files)—rather, you need to make sure that the audio has its RIAA curve corrected. Records are made with low frequencies reduced and high ones enhanced.
When they’re played back through a phono amplifier (some phono amps are built into turntables or AV receivers, but typically they’re not), this frequency is adjusted and corrected. In order for you to capture audio from a record, you need to make sure the signal has been RIAA-corrected first. A USB turntable will take care of this for you, as will Griffin’s iMic. Otherwise, you’re going to need a preamp.
[Mathew Honan is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and an avid record collector.]