The Guide to Turntables For Digitizing Vinyl REVISED!

…This…is 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).