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Online Extra: Turning Vinyl into Digital


By Jay Greene As a teenager, I used to do all sorts of menial tasks just to get a few dollars to run to the record store and add a new bit of vinyl to my collection. I was a disc jockey at my college radio station, and my collection grew as I picked up obscure disks in my favorite genre at the time, old New Orleans rhythm and blues.

Reviewing ELP's Laser Turntable (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/7/06, "New Life For Those Dusty Old LPs") gave me the chance to unearth those platters that had been stashed in my basement for more than a decade. But I live in the modern music world, and I wanted to create digital versions of my record collection to play on my iPod. I found that it's hardly easy. But with an $8 cable, a bit of software, and a boatload of patience, it can be done.

Of course, you don't need a $15,000 Laser Turntable to accomplish the task. Pretty much any turntable that can hook up to a stereo system will do. But if you dust off that stereo you bought in college, check the needle and the belt, if it's belt-driven. Both might need replacing.

MAKING THE CONNECTION. Then you'll need to connect your turntable to your stereo receiver. Some older turntables can cause problems because the connectors don't always match modern stereo receivers. You might need to buy a phono pre-amp, which can be had online for less than $50, to make the connection.

Now, move your receiver and your turntable close to your PC. First, connect the turntable to the receiver. Then hook up your receiver to your PC. You'll need a cable for that. It's called a Y-adapter audio cable, and I bought one for $8 at RadioShack. It has two RCA plugs that connect to the output jacks on the back of a receiver. At the other end of the cable is a 1/8-inch plug that connects to the line-in jack—typically blue—on a PC.

To hear your LPs on your PC, you should open up the volume control on your PC and make sure that the Line In controls aren't muted. You should be able to hear your albums through your PC's speakers. Finally, set the Line In volume so that the sound comes through loudly but not so much that it's distorted.

QUIRKY PRODUCTS. The next step is capturing that sound. I tested two programs—Roxio's Easy Media Creator 8 and Magix Audio Cleaning Lab 11—for the task. Each helps you rip several albums to your PC at a time, clean up the sound, and then separate each song into an individual file so you can label it.

Both products do the job well, though each has its quirks. In the end, I preferred Creator 8. It produces one giant digital music file from an album, then has the smarts to read the sound waves so it can create separate files of individual songs when the sound stops. That works pretty well, although it did get tripped up when a song had a sudden pause then resumed a few beats later. But it's not too hard to undo that.

And if your LPs aren't in pristine condition, no worries. Creator includes a sound editor, which takes a bit of tinkering to get just right, that helps remove some of the hiss and pops from damaged albums.

DO IT YOURSELF. Creator also includes a clever bit of software that connects to the Gracenote Web service, a repository of track information, such as the artist's name and the album. The idea is to make it easy, with just one mouse click, to populate those fields after your rip an album to your PC. Most of the time, it worked well, sniffing out song details from just a track title that I typed in. But for obscure tunes, the kind that I more often than not chose to digitize, Gracenote had no information. So I typed it in myself.

Audio Cleaning Lab didn't handle track information nearly as well. Like Creator, it includes software to fill in song details. But when that information is unavailable, it's difficult to type in the information yourself. Magix offers another bit of software, called MP3 Maker 11, to handle that task. But it's altogether too many steps.

Audio Cleaning Lab's one advantage over Creator is that it's much better at making the job of cleaning pops and hisses out of tracks easy. It includes wizards that automate the process for nonaudiophiles like me who don't want to be bothered with adjusting different controls to fine-tune the sound.

After connecting your turntable and setting up your software, the only thing you'll need is time, and plenty of it. Unlike ripping a CD to your PC, which takes less than a minute for an entire disk, you have to copy your LPs in real time. So grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and reconnect to that piece of your music collection that you thought was gone forever. Greene is BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau chief


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