OPTIMIZE US!

I could use some help…for years, Soul Sides has been hosted through a shared server on Dreamhost and everything has been lovely…until about 6 weeks ago when their server went haywire, thus creating all kinds of problems that pains me to even recall.

Coming out of that dark period, the site was still experiencing problems and DH decided to “upgrade” me to a virtual private server (VPS). Things have run much smoother (good) but a VPS is substantially more expensive (bad). Either way, DH has never been able to explain to me what exactly was creating the heavier server loads that necessitated the upgrade to a VPS.

At this point, I’m way outside of my technical wheelhouse and I could use some help in figuring out 1) what the hell is happening to generate high server load and 2) what I can do to lower it and thus, get me back to a shared server again.

I’m absolutely down to barter/trade/pay for someone’s time and knowhow. Holler at me.

UPGRADING THE DIGITIZING SYSTEM


When I originally created a “how-to guide to audioblogging,” it was largely reflective of my own experiences of tinkering with different audio options. Over the years though, I’ve upgraded that system and it made sense to talk a little about that, both to share with all ya’ll as well as get a sense of what’s working for you.

My man Brendan wrote a very detailed guide of his own that I’m in the process (B, really, I’m getting there!) of combining with my own experiences but here’s the skinny version before that’s done.


If you’re just getting started, keep in mind that digitizing requires an electrical chain that begins with the stylus and ends with a sound file. How complicated or sophisticated you want to make that chain is really up to you. The basics of a standard chain are:

Stylus/Cartridge
Turntable
Preamp
Analog/Digital Converter (ADC)
Computer

However, in some, these things are combined. For example…

When I originally began Soul Sides in 2004, my chain was this.

  • Stylus + Cartridge + Turntable + Preamp: Vestax Handy Trax Portable Turntable
  • ADC: A basic y-adapter (newer versions of the Handy Trax have built-in USB outputs but my generation was too early to come equipped like that)…and that ran straight into the line input of my Apple Powerbook G4 (PPC) where I used (and still use) Sound Studio to convert into MP3s.

    Cheap, simple. Total retail cost (not including the computer): $130? Of course, the sound quality that a portable turntable is going to generate is not likely to be the best you can ask for. Anyways, in 2006, when I moved from S.F. to L.A., I had a desk wide-enough to accommodate both a turntable and mixer and so I upgraded:

  • Stylus/Cartridge: Shure White Label cartridge
  • Turntable: Technics 1200
  • Preamp: Rane TTM56 DJ mixer
  • ADC: a basic y-adapter running into my Apple PowerBook G4 (Intel).

    Retail cost of this set-up…not cheap. If you went by the prices you see on Amazon, we’re talking about $1500! But of course, that’s sort of misleading because the turntable and mixer were part of my DJ set-up and therefore, equipment I would have owned regardless if I were digitizing or not. I would never, ever recommend someone just walk out and snap up a 1200 and Rane mixer if they just want to digitize. But the point here is that I altered the chain by adding a preamp (i.e. the DJ mixer). I also improved the cartridge/needle by buying the White Label.

    I basically added another component in the chain and hopefully, improved the sound signal as a result. However, I was still running all this through a cheap y-adapter into a stock Apple soundcard. I’d say for many people, this will produce acceptable results. Many folks probably already have a digitizing chain that runs through a stock soundcard and they’re happy with that.

    For me though, I just wasn’t loving what I was hearing. And that could totally be subjective/psychological. But whatever the case, I got restless with this and decided to upgrade again and that brings us to present. This wasn’t all cobbled together at the same time, but happened over the course of the last half year and it’s what will likely be the lasting chain for some time to come.

  • Stylus/cartridge: Ortofon Nightclub-E or Pickering XV-15
  • Turntable: Pioneer PL-530
  • Preamp: Radial J33 phono preamp
  • ADC: Apogee Duet, running into the Firewire port of my Powerbook G4.

    A few crucial differences here from previous set-ups. First of all, I bought a dedicated, stand-alone phono preamp. That way, I could return my Rane back to my DJ set-up where it belonged and I had a smaller preamp that I could fit into my home office. The Radial got the highest marks from my peers. More importantly, I finally decided to upgrade from using that y-adapter and bought a Duet, which is a stand-alone audio converter. Essentially, it replaces my laptop’s soundcard with one of the most well-respected analog/digital converters out there. The turntable switch-up wasn’t an upgrade so much as an aesthetic change of tastes. I still have my two 1200s but I wanted something different for the house, just for the hell of it and I liked the look of the 530. I don’t know if the sound quality, overall, is better on this or the 1200 but I doubt it’s a massive difference. I did upgrade to an Ortofon Nightclub-E, which is regarded by DJs as the best “bang for the buck” in terms of sound quality for a DJ needle but most non-DJs would probably prefer the Pickering that came with the PL-530 I bought on Craigslist. It’s a good quality hifi cartridge and personally, I like the built-in brush.

    In this case, calculating the retail cost means I would have to include the turntable since I bought it specifically for digitizing. Assuming standard, “market rate” on all the components, we’re talking about $1000 (by buying used and using credit I had, my total cost was more around $650 so you can find good savings if you’re patient). Regardless, that’s pretty hefty and I can imagine people thinking, “do I really need to drop a grand for a digitizing system?”

    Of course not. It really depends on how far you want to take it. I’ll wait to finish up that digitizing guide that Brendan and I are working on to really get into the nitty-gritty of each part of the chain but just wanted to share how “the magic happens” at Soul Sides Central these days.

  • Unpeeled


    After what seemed like a great beginning, I decided to stop using Peel. The main reason was that it stopped identifying all the songs that were posted even though I could discern no difference in how they were listed in a post. That kind of inconsistency pretty much negates the main reason you would use a program like Peel to begin with: consistency and reliability.

    The other thing too: Peel won’t work for any MP3 site that doesn’t host its MP3s directly which means people using any kind of 3rd party storage site (which is many sites) will be operating outside of what Peel – or really, any similar program – can handle.

    Especially given my fondness for trying out stuff like Divshare.net, this kind of limitation (through no fault of the programmers) makes any MP3 blog reader limited in worth. I’m perfectly happy with using my RSS reader to quickly flip through updated posts and scan for content I might want. It’s not nearly as efficient but then again, I also know I won’t end up missing songs by accident either.

    If folks have had better experiences trying out other software, let us know in the comments.

    For the Listener: Next Level Audiobloggery


    Caught this off of Stereogum: an MP3-reading software program (for Macs only) called Peel. (PC people, look below).

    The interface is very, very simple: put in your favorite MP3 blog URls and its iTunes-styled window will automatically list (and download if you so chose) all the available MP3s for each site. I played around with this tonight and was pretty impressed at the simplicity and ease of the program. The fact that you instantly see what new songs have been listed, plus stream a full-length preview (or DL) is very intuitive as are most of the other features (for example, you can easily open any blog into a web browser – though not by clicking on it – and adding or deleting blogs is quite easy too.

    The program also doubles as a browser (you just have to tab over) so you can still read liner notes and the like (though I suspect, many will be tempted just to grab the music and run).

    However, before ya’ll rush out to peep, a few caveats:

    1) If songs aren’t properly formatted, then they won’t list correctly in Peel. (This may not matter to people who listen first, ask questions later).

    2) Peel can only work with blogs that host their songs on a direct server. It will not work with blogs that use zshare.net, yousendit.com, rapidshare.com, etc. That’s not a shortcoming of the programming – but it does mean that many audioblogs (for example, all album-based blogs) won’t work with how Peel is set up.

    3) Peel does make it easier for people to strip music from context and personally, I think the context is actually pretty important. Of course, if you’re really into a song, it’s easy enough to tab over into the browser display and read whatever there is to read. However, if you’d likely go to the blog to see what’s up but posts that contain no music – even if it’s a major announcement – won’t be reflected in Peel’s “playlist” listing.

    (This is a subtle way of encouraging people to please actually read Soul Sides now and then).

    4) Small nitpicky things: if you close the window in Peel, you can’t re-open it again. And the space bar doesn’t work to either pause or play a song. I’m sure these are bugs that will get fixed in a future update.

    For PC and Mac Users:

    Peel doesn’t seem to be coming to the PC any time soon but there is a “similar” program that runs on both Windows and Macs called Songbird.

    I hesitate to call it the same kind of program since Songbird actually has far, far more features built into it compared to Peel but this is both a strength and weakness. Personally, I found Songbird overly complicated (not to mention slow), with a poor interface and lack of intuitive design. In other words, it felt like a program designed to run on Windows.

    This might appeal to some of you. Songbird can certainly do a lot more than Peel can right now, with at least a dozen or so add-ons for those who like to customize. If you want simplicity, elegance and efficiency however – Peel’s the better program for what it does. I’d suggest downloading both and seeing which fits your personality better.

    Small note: The one thing about Songbird that I did like is how it integrates the browser and playlist displays (something that Peel tab-separates) so that you while you’re reading the page, a small playlist pops up underneath and starts listing what songs are available. With Peel’s iTunes-esque display, I don’t think this is functionality they could easily build-in but it is something about Songbird which I personally think is kind of cool. That said, for ease and efficiency, I plan on sticking with Peel for the time being.


    And speaking of next level… A reader sent in this recommendation: forget Zshare and check out Divshare.

    What makes this even better is the embedded player option (a function that exists many other places, but this is one of the first places I’ve seen where this is added for free rather than as a paid option).

    Peep, here’s that same Lil Wayne/Devin/Bun B song from the other day, done up Divshare style:

    My pet peeve is that you’d have to rename the .mp3 file to something more intuitive (but I suspect this is a functionality they might build in later).

    All said, a streaming player that reduces bandwidth and allows for download? It’s enough to make me consider a permanent switch. Hmm…

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