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Vinyl to MP3, the Hard Way

One of the questions I get most often--but which I am least suited to answer--is "how do I copy my old records to my computer?"

I started buying music at a time when the only viable choices were tapes and CDs; I don't think I've bought even five recordings on vinyl in my life, so our last how-to story on this topic had to be done by a freelancer. Many of my colleagues, however, came of musical age in an earlier era. And one--my fellow Business section cubicle dweller Steve Mufson--had both a sizable vinyl collection (which he summarized as "classical to jazz to folk to music from South Africa, where I had worked in the mid-80s") and a willingness to try out a gadget designed to ease the process of converting them to MP3 files.

This device, Ion Audio's TTUSB, is a $199 turntable that includes a USB port. The Ion's digital USB connection allows you to plug the thing into your PC, throw a record on, drop the needle and start recording... once you also install some extra software on your computer. Ion bundles two programs: Audacity, a free, open-source program for Macs and Windows, and MixMeister's Windows-only EZ Vinyl Converter.

(The Ion is not the only product in this category. Almost-identical USB-connected turntables are sold under a variety of brand names; the Ion's stereo miniplug input, which you could use to connect a cassette player through to your computer for tape-to-MP3 conversions, seems to be one of its few distinguishing features.)

Mufson reported that the whole setup worked, but the software left too much of the labor to the person doing the actual DJing: It couldn't split a recording of a side of an album into individual tracks, so he had to mark each gap between songs. Audacity also can't open or save a recording in MP3 format by itself; you need to install an extra plug-in or use a second program, such as iTunes, to compress the .wave files that Audacity generates.

The bundled software can remove click and pop sounds from records automatically, but Mufson didn't hear much difference from that:

These still sound like records when you convert them to digital, especially if they've got a few nicks in them. So if you're used to the improved sound of CDs you might not be satisfied. It's good enough for me, though.

As a result, he said he still has a lot of work to do to bring his vinyl recordings into the 21st century:

But after weeks of fiddling with this, I've only recorded nine or 10 records. It's time consuming. I figure that for the cost of the turntable, I could have bought many of the old songs/records I had before. And if I put a value on my time, maybe I'd be able to buy a lot more.

Then again, buying your music all over again may not be an option either: My colleague may not have much luck finding copies on CD or iTunes of the township jive tapes he bought in South Africa.

From his experience, I'd say this gadget works--but that there's still room in the market for somebody who could bundle software to automate much more of the vinyl-to-MP3 process. Ideally, you'd want to be able to throw on a record, click a button on the computer to start the recording, then return to the room 20 minutes later to flip the album over. And if you could find two or three vinyl-owning friends to share one of these turntables with, the cost objection might fade away as well.

If you've transferred an album collection to your hard drive, how did you do it?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 4, 2007; 10:57 AM ET
Categories:  Music  
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