Turn Those Old LPs into New CDs

You can create an indestructible library of once-fragile music

I was rummaging through my CDs looking for a hot Euro-dance album that I remembered from 15 or so years ago. Then it struck me: I had bought the LP, not a CD. I headed for the basement.

Now I have a CD that I burned myself. In the process, I discovered decades of music I hadn't listened to in years, a catalog of my changing musical tastes--from Peter, Paul & Mary to E. Power Biggs.

You might have any number of reasons for burning your old LPs and cassette tapes onto blank CDs. If they're valuable, even if only to you, you can archive them--vinyl and tape wear out with repeated playings; CDs don't. If your LPs are already worn out, you can now get inexpensive, easy-to-use audio-editing software to restore the sound to more-or-less pristine condition.

Transferring records and tapes to CDs with a computer, sound card, and CD burner takes about an hour each from start to finish. Plan on more if you're determined to get rid of every snap, crackle, and pop on the LP. But getting ready to roll can easily eat up a weekend: bringing your long-neglected turntable up to speed, finding the right cable to hook up your stereo system to your computer, and cleaning years of gunk out of the record grooves.

Let's start with that old turntable. If it's belt-driven, make sure the belt is not loose, cracked, or broken. You can find a $10-to-$12 replacement at your local music store or order one from turntablebelts.com. Check the stylus for wear or damage, and listen to a record to make sure the cartridge, which translates stylus vibrations into electrical signals, is in good condition. You might get replacement styli and cartridges directly from the turntable manufacturer. A number of audiophile Web sites have a good selection, including garage-a-records.com, needledoctor.com, and amusicdirect.com. Cartridges from makers such as Grado Laboratories, Ortofon, and Shure start around $40.

Where I ran into trouble was connecting my 20-year-old turntable to my year-old stereo receiver. The connectors didn't match. Another common problem: Many new receivers don't have phono inputs and the electronics to boost and configure the low-level audio signals from the turntable. For that, you'll need a phono preamp. RadioShack (RSH ) sells a battery-operated one for $25. In the end, I gave up and bought a new $100 Sony turntable with a preamp built in.

You'll also need a Y-audio or Y-splitter cable to connect your stereo system to your PC. Plug the end with red-and-white RCA connectors into the record-out section of your receiver. The single 1/8-inch pin on the other end goes into the line-in jack--usually the blue one--on your computer's sound card. A 6-foot Belkin F8V235 cable costs $5.99 at Best Buy (BBY ) and Circuit City (CC ). If your computer and stereo are in different rooms, just buy a longer cable.

Musicmatch.com sells a 100-ft. Y-cable for $30.

Be prepared for the thrill and, almost certainly, the heartbreak of hearing your old records again. As audio fanatics have long claimed, vinyl records often sound better than CDs of the same music. But you'll hear every scratch, every speck of dust on those records you thought you had taken care of so lovingly.

So give them a thorough cleaning first. You can buy any number of products, from the $25 Discwasher one-way brush system to an $800 Nitty Gritty machine that automatically wet-scrubs and vacuum-dries your LPs. I used a mixture of 80% distilled water and 20% isopropyl alcohol, wiping them in a spiral with a soft cloth and letting them air dry. That's what the Library of Congress recommends. But don't use alcohol on 78s.

Believe me, a few minutes over the kitchen sink will pay off handsomely when you start recording your albums into the computer. You can use almost any CD-writing software, including what came with your CD burner, probably Roxio's Easy CD Creator for PCs or Toast for Macs, or Ahead Software's Nero Burning ROM.

Specialized audio cleaning-and-restoration software is a better bet if your LPs aren't in mint condition. These programs are consumer-friendly--or sometimes older--versions of audio-editing software aimed at professionals. Priced at $400 just two years ago, today they cost as little as $50 and often can handle the recording and burning functions as well.

My favorite, by far, was Sony's $50 EZ Audio. It comes with three blank CDs and the cable to transfer music from LPs and cassettes to your computer. After you install the software, all the controls you need for recording, editing, and writing to a blank CD come up on the same screen. You just click on the record button and start playing the LP. After the songs are digitally recorded on your PC's hard drive, you can use the program's declicker, decrackler, and denoiser buttons to filter out objectionable sounds.

Sony licenses its audio software from Magix Entertainment, and that company's $50 Audio Cleaning Lab comes in a close second. The difference? The record, clean, and write functions aren't as tightly integrated, and there's no cable in the box. Roxio's $100 Easy CD Creator Platinum, which is different than the free version bundled with CD burners, comes with a program called Spin Doctor that has click removal and a more general "sound cleaning" function. But you must repeatedly preview the song or album to get the settings right before you record it, instead of recording it first and using the cleaning software on the digitized audio file, a much easier process.

I also looked at Syntrillium Software's $70 Cool Edit 2000 with its Audio Cleanup option ($50 extra) and at Dartech's DartPro 32, an older professional program you can now get for $80. While both are better at maintaining the ambience of the original because they eliminate noise, neither was as fast or easy to use as the Sony and Magix packages. Cool Edit does not come with built-in CD writing software.

Take my copy of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra--better known as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thirty years ago, I returned it twice to the store, trying to get rid of an annoying pop right at the beginning, a vinyl droplet that turned out to be molded into every copy. That is gone in my CD record. As for Hi-Energy, my dance LP, I left a few faint crackles and pops. That's the way it was, and that's how I want to remember it.

By Larry Armstrong

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.