…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 .
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 Soul-Sides.com 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 .
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 .
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.
Continue reading The Soul-Sides.com Guide to Turntables For Digitizing Vinyl REVISED!