Vinyl In, Music Files Out

New software lets you copy LPs into your PC. But it's no picnic



After I wrote a column about transferring music from CDs to a personal library on a PC (May 11), a number of readers asked if the same could be done with vinyl LP records or tapes. The answer is a qualified yes. You can do it, but in most cases it's sufficiently expensive or troublesome that you might be better off replacing your records with CDs, if they're available.

The problem lies in the difference between analog and digital recordings. CDs are digital. When you rip them -- to create a copy on your computer -- you're just converting from one digital format to another, typically with considerable compression to save disk space and to allow the music to be loaded onto handheld players. Records and tapes are purely analog. To get them into a computer, you have to re-record the music in a digital format, a much trickier and slower process.

One solution is to outsource the task. If you do a Web search for "LP to CD" or "tape to CD," a number of services pop up, typically charging $15 or more per record. At prices like that, you might as well buy the disk.

If you have the time and the interest, however, you can do the conversion yourself. To start with, you need a turntable or tape deck, a stereo preamplifier or integrated amp, a computer with a line-in audio jack (most desktops qualify, many laptops don't), and cables to hook them together. Then you need software that lets you record and edit the sound, then convert the music to the desired format. Roxio Easy Media Creator ($70) and Nero 6 Ultra Edition ($100, $80 if downloaded) are two Windows programs that can do the job.

MOST WOULD-BE RECORDING ENGINEERS will probably find the $50 ADS Technologies Instant Music RDX150 a better solution. It's a small box that sits between your amp and a USB port on your PC. This means it will work even on computers without a line-in jack. Plus, you can bypass the PC's audio system, which is often mediocre at best.

Instant Music comes with software from Nero for recording and editing. Two on-screen wizards, for records and tapes, guide you through the process -- help that you will need because the Nero programs are not particularly user-friendly. The software tries to find the breaks between tracks, but on some recordings, particularly those of live performances, the songs segue into one another, and you'll have to split the tracks manually. You will also want to experiment with the filters, which can remove hiss, rumble, pops, and other noises to which vinyl and tape are prone.

The big flaw in the Instant Music setup is that it's designed to burn the music onto a CD. Of course, you can do this and then rip the CD, but you'll probably want to just export the tracks to your hard-drive library of digital music in the format of your choice. The software manages to make this more complicated than it should be.

As is often the case with entertainment media, Mac users have it easier. All Macs except for the new Mini have line-in jacks and decent sound systems, so you can plug right into the computer. (A version of Instant Music will soon be offered for Mini owners.) The Boom Box from Roxio ($50) makes the recording and editing processes simple. And when you are ready, a single click will send your tracks to iTunes in whatever format you have set for iTunes ripping.

With either Mac or Windows, you still have one task left. Unlike CDs, records and tapes contain no information about themselves, so you'll have to use your music player's editing tools to supply the album, artist, and track names. You can expect to spend at least an hour converting a typical LP, the bulk of it being used up by real-time recording. Clearly this is a big commitment, but with luck you'll have music that sounds as good as a new CD. And if you have rare old records that never got released as CDs, digitizing them yourself may be a worthwhile labor of love.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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