As a teenager, recording LP (long-play) records onto cassette tape for my portable player was definitely a lo-fi experience. To record, I set up a microphone in front of the our family's record player/radio console (and its lone speaker). Sometimes, house sounds were also recorded. Lo-fi was fine, because my portable cassette player was no different -- and I was desperate to hear music. Where I lived in Northern Canada, decent music was in short supply, whether on the sole radio station or the lone stereo store.
Three decades later, technology advanced, and I recorded (almost) all my LPs as MP3 files on my computer. (I'm going to use "LP" instead of record, so that the noun doesn't get confused with the verb "recording.")
TIP The legality of recording LPs depends on the jurisdiction. Where I live, we are allowed to copy music -- which we have purchased -- for personal use. I record my LPs so that I can listen to them with my MP3 player.
Going over the files a couple of months ago, I noticed that some LPs had not been recorded -- all of my Van Morrison and Passport LPs, for instance, as well as ones I had purchased (second-hand!) in the last number of years. So, it was time to fire up the LP-to-computer process again.
My setup looks like this:
- Dual 1225 turntable (my wife's, actually) plugged into my Marantz 2225 receiver -- both 45 years old and both still working well.
- Tape Out from the receiver to Audio In on the Dell.
- Audacity software ready to record.
Except it didn't work. For several days I tried to get my Dell laptop to accept audio, but all I got was a flatline, even though the Dell has an applet that asks me how I wanted the audio port to be treated when I plugged something in: microphone, line in, speaker, etc. I used headphones to confirm that there was audio coming out of the Marantz; it just wasn't getting to the Audacity software. I tried QCD software; same negative result. Then I wondered if I needed to input the audio through a USB port, so I went looking.
It turns out there are pre-amps that take the low-level output from 1970s record players, amplify the signal, and output it via a USB port. It turns out that there is exactly one model still being manufactured -- not a lot of demand, I suppose. So I ordered the ART USB Phono Plus ($100) from B&H in New York, and a week later it arrived. It worked!
TIP Modern record players usually include a USB connector (and internal pre-amp), so that no external pre-amp (pre-amplifier) is needed. Jump ahead to "Getting the Software Ready."
Hooking Up the Pre-Amp
1. Connect the record player's RCA cables to the Preamp Phono Line In connectors at the back of the Phono Plus. (See red outline on image at left.)
TIP The right channel cable is usually colored red, or sometimes black; the left channel is always white. I remember which is which with the mnemonic, "Red is Right."
2. If the record player has a third cable, it is for grounding. Grounding helps reduce electrical noise, such as the dreaded 60Hz hum. Connect the grounding cable to the Ground connector of the Phono Plus. (See other red outline on image at above.)
3. Connect the USB cable between the Phono Plus and the computer. The cable goes from the USB to Computer connector to the USB-A port on the computer. ARC includes the USB cable. (See green outline on image above.)
TIP The USB cable also provides the Phono Plus with its power, so no separate power supply needed. Very convenient!
4. On the front of the Phono Plus, push the Input button, so that it lights up in yellow. This tells the pre-amp to expect a low-level input from a phonograph -- aka turntable, aka record player. (See red outline on image at right.)
5. I suggest plugging a set of headphones into the Monitor Output plug. This lets you hear the music and so keep track what is happening. Turn up the Output Level all the way to "10" so that you can hear sound without needing to put on the headphones. (See green outline on image at right.)
With the hardware in place, you can prepare the software.
Getting the Software Ready
To record the music, I suggest you use Audacity software, as it is free. You can download it for Mac, Windows, and Linux from https://www.audacityteam.org/ and then install it. (QCD also works, but lacks the MP3 plug-in, which you have install separately, which might or might not work.)
To record music from the record player, you need to change some settings in Audacity. For Windows, here are the changes:
- Under Audio Host, choose "Windows WASAPI" (for Mac and Linux, this'll be different) -- WAS is short for Windows Audio Session
- Under Recording Device, choose "Line (USB Audio Codec)" -- codec is short for "coder-decoder"
The software is ready to record. Once the LP is rotating on the record player, all you have to do is click the red-dot Record button. But first...
Preparing an LP for Recording
After you place the LP on the turntable's platter, use a carbon fibre cleaning brush to wipe off the dust. Being carbon fibre, the brush also removes electrostatic electricity, which attracts dust.
- Start the turntable. How this happens varies by brand. In the case of my Dual 1225, I push the tonearm lever to the up position, and then manually position the tonearm over the lead-in grove of the LP.
- Hold the carbon fiber brush radially on the LP, touching the LP. (See figure at left.)
- After a few rotations, ease the brush off the edge of the LP.
- Lower the tonearm on the lead-in groove of the LP, and then immediately click the red-dot Record button in Audacity.
- On the Phono Plus, turn the Gain Trim to "0", and then watch the Clip Signal LED. If it is lit in green, all is well. If it flickers red, the "volume" is too high, so reduce the Gain Trim in the direction of "-10". (These two are outlined in yellow in the image at right.)
- In Audacity, monitor the input level. (See figure below.) It should never reach "0". If it does, again reduce the Gain Trim level.
If the volume levels are fine, then you can record the entire side of the LP. As you record, Audacity displays a sound graph.
Most LPs are around 17-20 minutes on each side; the longest in my collection is 28 minutes long.
5. When the LP ends, click the black-dot Stop button, and then lift the tonearm from the LP.
6. Usually there is some blank space at the start and end of your recording, where the needle lands on the LP before the music begins, and then afterwards when the music ends and the needle leaves the LP. I recommend you edit out these blanks. Drag the start of the recording track forwards to remove the blank from the start, and then from the end of the track. Dragging to remove the blank looks like this:
TIP Every so often, use the cleaning brush to remove accumulated dust from the record player's stylus. Do this gently! And do it in from back to front.
Saving Recordings as MP3 Files
Save the recording as an MP3 file like this:
1. From Audacity's File menu, choose Export | Export As MP3
2. In the File dialog box, change the file name from the generic "untitled.mp3" to something more descriptive. I use the following format, because I tend to listen to artists by folders, not by playlists:
Artist Name - Year - Album Name - Side 1.mp3
This sorts the music files by artist name, and then by year, so that the album names are listed in the correct order of their release dates. For example
Pat Metheny - 1976 - Bright Size Life - Side 1.mp3
Pat Metheny - 1976 - Bright Size Life - Side 2.mp3
Pat Metheny - 1981 - As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls - Side 1.mp3
Pat Metheny - 1981 - As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls - Side 2.mp3
I then place all albums by the same artist into a single folder, such as "Metheny Pat." Artists are usually sorted by their last name, groups by their first name.
3. Click OK, but you're not quite done.
4. The next step is to fill in metadata. This is information that is stored with the MP3 file so that music software do things like sort files by artist name, year, and so on.
5. When you are done entering metadata, click OK, and then Audacity takes about ten seconds (on my computer) to convert the recording to an MP3 file.
6. Close the recording in Audacity by clicking the tiny x next to Audio 1, and then repeat for the other side of the LP.
Adding Album Covers to MP3s
One important piece of metadata missing from MP3 files recorded by Audacity is a picture of the album cover. I add these using iTunes, like this:
1. Once I have recorded a bunch of LPs as MP3 files, I turn to iTunes. Import the MP3 files into iTunes with one swoop with File | Add Folder to Library, navigating to the folder holding the MP3 files.
2. Once imported into iTunes, the MP3s feature blank album covers. Right-click one, and then choose Get Album Artwork. If you are lucky, iTunes will the correct album cover. But I find that it it fails about half the time, either not finding the cover or finding an incorrect one.
So, you have to add it yourself, manually, by editing the metadata. Note that there are two ways to add metadata in iTunes:
- Album Info -- adds data common to all tracks (sides) of an album
- Song Info -- adds data specific to one track or side
So, I first fill in missing data with Album Info, such as the number of tracks (or sides, usually 2) and the album art. If details need to be added to each song (track), then I go to Song Info.
3. To add the album cover, I go with my Web browser to Discogs, as it has decent quality images of covers. Don't go with Wikipedia, as its images are painfully low-res. At http://www.discogs.com enter the name of the article and /or the album.
4. Under the image of the album over, click More Images.
5. Right-click the large image, and then choose Save Image As. Save the JPEG (or sometimes PNG) file to a convenient folder on your computer.
6. Switch back to iTunes. Right-click the album, and then choose Album Info. Click the Artwork tab, and then click Add Artwork.
7. In the file dialog box, choose the image you downloaded, adn then click Open.
8. Notice that the image appears. It will be applied to both tracks (sides). Click OK.
Now when you play the tracks on a music player, it will display the album cover.