What Do I Need to Digitize Vinyl LPs? Ask the Editors

digitize vinyl

Q: What do I need to digitize vinyl LPs? I don’t have a large collection—100 albums or so. Some are junk, but some are audiophile recordings from the 1980s, so I want good quality at a reasonable cost. My system includes a Sony PS-X40 turntable with a Micro Seiki LF-7 cartridge, Carver C-1 preamp, and HP G71-340US Notebook computer running Windows 7 64-bit. What additional equipment do I need, and what is the best procedure to accomplish my goal?

– Thomas S. Reitz (tsreitz)

A: There are two things to think about here: hardware and software. On the hardware side, you don’t necessarily need any additional equipment, other than a cable with two RCA plugs on one end and an 1/8″ stereo miniplug on the other end. Connect one of the outputs from the Carver C-1 preamp to the audio input on the HP laptop.

Which output from the Carver should you use? To get the cleanest, unprocessed signal, use the External Processor outputs, which are not affected by the preamp’s volume, balance, or tone controls. If you want to include the preamp’s EQ or Sonic Holography effect in the digitized recordings, use one of the Main Outputs. However, you’ll have to do some level balancing to get the best result, so I recommend using the External Processor outputs.

The laptop’s analog-to-digital converter (ADC) is probably okay, but probably not the best. If you want to maximize the quality of your digital recordings, you can use an outboard USB audio interface—which includes an ADC—instead of the computer’s audio input. There are many USB audio interfaces on the market, such as the PreSonus AudioBox USB ($130) or AudioBox 22VSL ($250).

I know the PreSonus brand, and it’s very good. There are many other good ones on the market as well from companies like M-Audio, MOTU, Focusrite, and others. Many provide far more than you need; unless you’re also a musician who wants to record several tracks at once, you don’t need one with more than two channels.

If you use an outboard USB audio interface, connect the preamp’s output to the interface’s input using the appropriate cable—RCA plugs on one end and 1/4″ phone plugs on the other end for the PreSonus and most other units—and connect the interface’s USB port to one of the USB ports on the laptop. You’ll need to set the input-level controls on the interface so the highest volume on the LP is as “hot” as possible without clipping.

Then there’s the software; you need a program that records the incoming digital data from the audio interface to the computer’s hard disk. If you choose to use the laptop’s audio input, you can get simple recording software. Audacity (seen in the screen shot above) is a popular choice, but I also ran across a program called Golden Records from NCH Software that looks interesting. According to the NCH website, Golden Records can apply RIAA EQ, so a preamp is not needed; you can connect the turntable directly to the computer’s audio input.

Both programs are compatible with Windows 7 64-bit, and both convert analog audio signals to CD (16-bit/44.1 kHz) or MP3 (compressed) digital files. I strongly recommend not converting to MP3; you can always convert the uncompressed CD files to MP3 later if you wish, but for maximum quality, you should convert the analog signal to an uncompressed format.

The PreSonus units come with recording software, which provides more functionality than you need for digitizing vinyl LPs, but it’s free with the unit, so why not use it? There will be a bit of a learning curve, however. With these units, you can digitize with a bit depth up to 24 bits; the AudioBox USB uses a sample rate of 44.1 or 48 kHz, while the AudioBox 22VSL can use a sample rate up to 96 kHz. It’s debatable how much benefit you can hear by digitizing vinyl LPs at 24 bits and 96 kHz as opposed to 16-bits at 44.1 kHz (the specs for CD), but there’s no harm in using higher bit depth and sample rate—other than requiring more storage capacity for a given amount of music.

Once you have everything connected together and the software running, you can play LPs on the turntable, and the audio will be digitized and stored on the computer’s hard disk. Be sure to clean each record carefully before playing it to minimize clicks and pops. As mentioned earlier, set the input levels so the loudest moment on the entire side of the LP is as “hot” as possible in the digital domain without clipping. Once that level is set, hit record and play the album; pause the recording to turn over the LP. Some software, such as Golden Records, detects silences and automatically splits the tracks into separate files; if your software does not do this, you’ll have to do it manually.

Digitizing an entire LP collection is laborious and time-consuming, which is why many people hire a service to do it for them. But if you’re a DIYer with time on your hands, go for it!

If you’ve got an AV question, please send it to AskTheEditors@avsforum.com.