Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Guide to Turntables For Digitizing Vinyl REVISED!
posted by O.W. a remix.

Based on numerous comments as well as corrections on other sites, I'm remixing this guide so I don't have to post a dozen updates as postscripts.


With all due respect to the NY Times, their recent story on computer-compatible turntables makes the process seem far more expensive and/or complicated than it really is.

I address some of the basics on digitizing in my "How to Start an Audioblog Guide" but I decided to write something down that'd be more detailed.

Keep in mind: this guide is intended for folks looking for a quick, efficient way to convert vinyl into digital files. It's is NOT meant for hardcore audiophiles who want to squeeze out the best sound possible. There are ways you can do it but it'd involve an investment of at least $500 and up vs. what's suggested below which shouldn't run most folks over $200, if even that.

First of all... let's assume you do not already have a turntable. You have a few choices here. This is the most important detail you should think about:

Until recently, most basic turntables did not have a built-in amplifier. This is because turntables are/were always plugged into something else that could amplify the sound, whether it's a home stereo receiver or a DJ mixer - building an amplifier into the turntable itself was unnecessary. However, if you want to plug a turntable into a computer, the lack of an amp presents a problem because the sound coming out will be too quiet for digital encoding.

Solution: Buy a turntable with an amp. You have a few options here, depending on convenience vs. quality. The convenience option would be something like a Numark PT-01 Portable Turntable. The quality option would be something like an Audio Technica AT-PL50. The key feature with both of these is that they have built-in amplifiers which will allow you to connect them directly into a computer without having to run them through another device such as a mixer or receiver.

The Numark is good for those who like its smaller footprint and the fact that it can be, if desired, battery powered and taken on the road. The Audio Technica is better for those who want better sound and plan to just digitize at home and don't really care about portability.

Alternative Solution: Buy a pre-amp. See footnote [3].

How do you connect these into a computer? This is where the NYT article really got things completely wrong: as long as you have a microphone jack on your computer (and just to be clear: not all have them but most do, including most laptops), you're good. This is where the NYT article and my original post both got it wrong. Sort of.

Depending on the kind of computer you have, the solution to connecting the turntable to the computer may already be provided to you: a stereo line input. I described this as a "microphone jack" though many others were quick to point out that most mic jacks are mono not stereo. My confusion arose out of the fact that most of the computers I've used to digitize vinyl have had combination microphone/line input jacks. (God bless Apple). I was under the mistaken impression that this was the norm therefore, not realizing that on many other computers (*cough cough* PCs), the mic jacks may not double as effective line inputs for stereo sound. So be sure to check ahead of time. These days, most new computers will have a stereo line input but not all.

Assuming you do have a stereo input, regardless f you're on a PC or Mac. All you need is this: an RCA/stereo jack adapter. It's $5. Walk into any Radio Shack and they'll have one. Plug the two RCA ends into your turntable, plug the stereo jack into your microphone port, voila. It's that simple...well, almost.

At this point, you can now send sound from your turntable to your computer but you still need some kind of software to process that information into a digital sound file format. The NYT recommends Cakewalk Pyro for PC users. I've never tried it so I can't vouch for it but I assume it's probably basic enough for a neophyte.

As a Mac guy, I use Sound Studio 3 which I think is a great, easy to use program for sound editing and digitizing though it does require at least a teensy bit of a learning curve (like any unfamiliar software) for someone to get up and running. Nevertheless, I've been using it for years, especially to edit my mixtapes and digitize stuff for so clearly, I'm pretty happy with it.

But what about USB turntables? These aren't bad options insofar as they too get over the limitation of not having a pre-amp built-in. The NYT recommends the Ion USB which, to me, seems more or less identical in features to the Numark TT-USB and both come packaged with Audacity, a sound file software program that works on both PCs and Macs. (I've used Audacity before, am not a fan but given that the turntable comes with it, at least you know they'll be compatible). Both these models have standard audio outputs if you want to plug them into a stereo system and not just your computer.

USB turntables are more convenient in that you won't need to buy that extra RCA/stereo jack adapter. The advantage of the non-USB turntables is cost: you'll save at least $50. Any which way though, any of these turntables will get the job done.

Does USB vs. line input make a significant difference though? There's considerable disagreement here and my opinion is: no. See below, footnote 1.

Which turntable should you get? Personally, I'd probably be more inclined to buy the Numark TT-USB, mostly because 1) it has pitch control (even though it is NOT designed for DJ use), 2) the sound quality is probably going to be decent and 3) it's a good brand (I've never heard of Ion). In second, I'd roll with the Audio Technica AT-PL50 because AT makes excellent audio devices and it has an automatic play option that's lacking on the other turntables. The Numark Portable is good for record diggers but the sound quality for digitizing vinyl likely just won't be there the same way it would be with the other models.

Let's be clear though: you don't need a USB turntable. You really don't. It's not a bad added feature but it's not essential. Again see [1].

Last, but not least: what if you already own a turntable? I already addressed this in the "How To" Guide but basically, if you already own a turntable, most likely, it lacks a pre-amp which means you to run it through some kind of amplifier. The easiest source would be a home stereo receiver. You would then run that RCA/stereo jack adapter out of the receiver (or you could even buy a different adapter and do it through the receiver's headphone jack) and back into your computer's microphone jack. It'd be a slightly more tangled set-up but hey, that's the breaks.

But what if your computer doesn't have an audio line input? Get a Griffin iMic. It will allow you to plug an audio input into it and convert it into a USB port on the other end which you can connect into your computer. For more info on the iMic (and its limitations), see footnote [2].

ADDED: A reader in the comments section noted that Turntable Lab has a page dedicated just to vinyl --> digital solutions. Some of these look pretty good but be careful: none of them seem to come with a pre-amp built in. You'd still have to run your turntable into another device in order to use these stand-alone USB/Firewire devices.

But what if your computer doesn't have a microphone jack or a USB port? Uh, time to upgrade.

Any questions I leave unanswered? Post in comments and I'll amend this guide accordingly.

[1]: I've been told by a few folks that it's probably better to go straight from the turntable into a USB port rather than the input jack mostly because sound quality will be better. It looks like most computers tend to have pretty low-end input jacks that will create added noise/distortion when you're trying to digitize. Therefore, the argument is that the cleaner sound option would be a turntable --> USB connection (i.e. something like the Ion or Numark) rather than going fro RCA outputs into a stereo jack.

This same advice is echoed by the bloggers at Wired:
    "Sure, you could connect a preamplified turntable directly to your computer's mic or line input, but if sound quality is at all important to you, the New York Times' method -- buying "special hardware" -- is a far superior option, because the built-in inputs on computers add all sorts of horrible noise to your signal. Only a USB input that processes the sound outside of the computer can deliver distortion-free sound."
Here's the thing: I actually disagree with this contention. If you're a hardcore audiophile, then sure, you could drop $500 on something like an MBox in order to get the best fidelity possible but if you're going to that lengths to digitize your original, deep purple, Prestige label jazz albums, why would you buy something as cheap or plastic as an Ion USB turntable? Doesn't make sense. My suggestions are for people who want to digitize their vinyl collection the most efficient way possible vs. people who won't let their audio cables touch the ground in fear that it might contaminate the sound quality of their $30,000 turntable.

Point in fact: I've digitized HUNDREDS of songs using nothing more than the above-mentioned RCA/stereo jack adapter into a mic port on three different generations of Apple Powerbooks/MacBookPros. Does it create symphony-hall-quality audio? No. But does it create sound files that sound slathered in distortion? Not in my experience. Going through a mic jack creates a perfectly acceptable sound file for most listeners, especially those listening to music in their car or over those cheap-ass white ear buds that Apple has now flooded the country with. Is USB cleaner? Probably but the difference is likely more subtle than most will pick up on (in fact, I'll create a little comparison later this weekend).

This isn't urging people NOT to adopt USB as the method of transfer. But for people who already own turntables who are worried that they might need to upgrade to a USB turntable or some other system, I'm merely suggesting: it's not that big of a deal. As long as you're audio wiring isn't being contaminated by, say, a running hair dryer next to your turntable, you should be fine. If you're looking for a first-time turntable purchase then a USB option isn't a bad way to go.

[2] The Wired bloggers offer some decent advice though they make a few mistakes in reading over my original post. For example, they wrote: "(I have a feeling the New York times reporter uses a Mac, and the Soul-Sides guy uses a PC.)"

Uh, look above. I write, "As a Mac guy, I use Sound Studio 3 which I think is a great..." I've been using Macs since 1990. I'm mildly mortified that anyone would confuse me as being a PC guy. Like...ewww. Yuck. Bleah.

More importantly though, Wired wrote: "Neither guide recommends which hardware to use..."

Wrong again. Look above: I recommend the same device Wired did - the Griffin iMic.

However, here's the problem: because the iMic works as a bridge between a conventional audio output and your USB port, it can and will pick up noise/distortion. In my experience using the first generation of the iMics, if you have a power source too close to the iMic, it will pick up distortion off that power source, creating a completely untenable buzz in your sound file. I'm not saying the iMic is bad; when it works, it works quite well but it's not a distortion-free solution 100% of the time.

[3]. I didn't include buying a pre-amp in the original guide because, to me, it seemed like one more thing someone had to buy and I'm all about keeping things simple. However, some people have access to older turntables that don't have a built-in pre-amps (most turntables do NOT have them, remember) but don't necessarily have a complete stereo system or DJ mixer they can plug all this into. Over at, "Chaircrusher" suggested this $50 pre-amp that one could buy as an alternative. For $50, that's not about to break the bank, especially if you end up picking up a turntable on the cheap from a garage sale or something. It's certainly cheaper than buying a DJ mixer or home receiver (assuming you don't already have one of these).

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Monday, May 23, 2005

posted by O.W.

I've updated this original post in a much longer post here.


Sunday, July 11, 2004

posted by O.W.

I figure I might as well take advantage of all this new traffic we've been getting lately. For those of you interested in starting your own music log, here is the Soul Sides Bare Bones Guide To Audioblogging (all rights reserved. no biting allowed, herbs)

Philosophical Considerations (aka Some B.S. You Might Want to Think About).

The point of an audioblog is to provide edutaintment. Make it fun, make it instructive, but either way, make sure you're taking into consideration both you and your subscribers. These blogs, by nature, are a practice in narcissism but it's self-aggrandizing, hey-look-at-all-the-cool-shit-I-know-about narcissism that actually might benefit people who are willing to put up with your preening for the sake of hearing what music you put up. THEREFORE, make sure they're getting something out of it and not just you.

Personally, I think audioblogs help service musical areas that most people don't know about. Posting up Nirvana songs - unless it's some bootleg of a concert from 1989 - is not exactly spreading the word on the obscure. Aim for songs or artists or genres that are off-the-radar. It's not about obscurity as it is about exposure. There's nothing wrong with posting up a popular song, but ideally, your blog shouldn't resemble the Billboard Hot 100 or a mixtape only a hardcore trainspotter can appreciate.

Also, I'd also recommend keeping your audioblog separate from any other blogs you have. That's just my own philosophy; it makes it easier for subscribers to find the content they want. That doesn't mean you shouldn't include personal experiences about the music you're posting up: of course you should, but people don't need to read about what you ate for breakfast or how work is going interspersed with your audio offerings.

How To...
1) Pick Your Songs. In any single post, aim for 1-3 songs only. I could explain the rationale behind this, but really, it's just a good idea to emphasize quality over quantity as well as selectiveness over inclusiveness. Also, don't pick the song you thought was "ok," hit folks with that crazydumbhotness.

2) Convert and Upload Your Songs. If you want simplicity and efficiency, I'd recommend creating sound files or ripping CD tracks as 128 MP3s. It's not CD quality but it's still quite listenable and more importantly, it keeps the file small(er) which is good for you and your subscriber.

New: How does one convert vinyl into a sound file? I should have included something about this the first time: basically, you need to find a way to connect your turntable to your computer and there are many ways to do this, depending on what your audio and computer set-up allow. For me, I have a portable turntable with stereo RCA outputs and I use a simple RCA-to-mini-jack Y-adapter to plug that into my microphoine input on my Macintosh computer.

Once there, I use an audio program known as Sound Studio but there are dozens of similar programs you can use that will allow you to record sound to your computer and then edit it.

Most programs will tend to save sound files as WAV or AIFF files which will need to get converted to MP3. Apple users can just use iTunes. PC users - you're on your own but I can't imagine it being very hard. Like I said, I recommend MP3s at a 128 bit rate which is good enough to listen to but isn't CD quality sound, and therefore, is smaller.

Many free WWW hoster/servers will have storage limitations that you will likely fill up quickly if you store too many files at one time. Keep in mind that there is roughly a 1 minute = 1 MB ratio. Think ahead to how many sound files you want to keep up at any one time, calcuate how much time that will take and then you'll know how much storage you'll need. If you're posting up a few songs everyday, even if you only keep them up for 1-2 weeks, that will add up very quickly. Storage is cheap but if you have a free server, it may not give you that much to work with. Just keep that in mind.

3) Create an Audioblog. There's no shortage of ways to do this but for simplicity's sake, I'd recommend It's basic but easy to navigate and if you know any HTML, it's not hard to adapt to your own design visions.

Eric suggests:
    "There's also, which allows for direct upload and compression of mp3/wav, plus a higher quality method of recording from the browser, in addition to the standard phone posting capabilities for up to 60 minutes. The basic service is 4.95, which may or may not be good, depending on your trust/value of 'free' services."

4) Design Your Audioblog. Ok, this is pet peeve of mine. The whole point of an audioblog is to draw attention to your songs. Therefore, you should make it as easy as possible for someone to identify the songs without confusing it with other text on the screen. Examples of design triumphs and gaffes:
Great: super simple and clean.
Good: even though there's more information given, Fluxblog uses the same format for every post and separates it from any other links that might cause confusion.
Not so good: The design is a clutter of text and with so many hyperlinks, it's hard to tell, at first glance, what's the song and what's something else. Use of bolding for the songs would help, but so would creating a format that starts off each new post with the song first and then everything after.

From Kojack:
    Get Your Tags/Filenames Right. Proper tags on your mp3s and a filename following the conventional "artist - song name" format make for easier enjoyment of the music you're taking the time to highlight. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's hit "Save Target As" on a whim one too many times, only to end up with a couple of dozen mystery mp3s taking up space on my machine.

5) Launch!. Getting people to find your site comes down to creating links with other audioblogs. You highlight their blog, they'll highlight yours. Just remember that no one is obligated to link you, even if you're linking them and that you should be polite when requesting a link from someone else. In general, the better the songs you post, the more attention your blog will receive but "better" is in the eye of the beholder. If you specialize in Japanese death metal, you may not get a zillion people trying to find you, but you'll probably be big in Japanese death metal circles.

6) How long should you keep songs up for?. This is pseudo-philosophical/legal question of sorts. The thinking being: if you keep your sound files up indefinitely and eventually amass 10,000 songs for free download, RIAA might come knocking on your door and you don't want that. There's also just the idea that your audioblog rewards subscribers who check every day or two for new songs rather than some lucky newbie who randomly stumbles on, downloads everything, and then never returns. It's on you though. Most audioblogs seem to leave material up for 1-2 weeks and that sounds about right to me.

For future reference: Please do not hit me with technical questions, i.e. "what kind of software should I use to convert my sound files" or "where can I find a free server." I'll just ignore them. However, if you have comments or questions of a more general nature, try emailing me. Good luck and have fun.

Need more resources? Read Tofu Hut's Guide.