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A Closer Look

Digital Transformation Revives Old Records

By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page F07

Transferring your old LPs and cassette tapes to MP3 files offers a rare kind of satisfaction -- for once, you don't have to repurchase your old music to hear it on your new hardware. But you may still find yourself paying in other ways.

Transforming the contents of vinyl and tape into digital files is simple in theory -- play the music through your computer's audio input and record it with special software -- but in reality, each step can dent the quality of the recording.

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Trouble usually starts with your audio source. Cleaning up the side effects of dusty LPs or dirty tape-deck heads with music-editing software can be tricky or impossible, so clean your LPs, turntable stylus and tape heads properly.

A tape deck can be plugged directly into a computer's line-in jack (it should sit next to the headphone jack and may double as a microphone input), while turntables generally must be connected through a stereo amplifier first. You'll then need a Y-adapter cable ($5 or so at any electronics store) with RCA jacks (often red and white) on one end for your audio hardware and a single headphone jack on the other end for your computer.

The usual next step is telling your computer to listen to that input. Windows XP makes this inexcusably complicated: Right-click the volume icon at the right of the Windows taskbar and select "Adjust Audio Properties," then click the Audio tab. Select your sound card as the sound-recording device, click the "volume" button below it and verify that the "select" box under your line-in or microphone jack is checked. In Mac OS X, open System Preferences, select the Sound category and click the Input heading to choose the line-in jack.

For a price, specialized sound-recording programs automatically detect song breaks and save each track as its own MP3 file -- but usually under a generic name, as most of these programs can't look up album and song titles for you. (Other formats are available, but MP3 is by far the most widely used; choose a "bit rate" setting of 128 kbps, or higher if you're a pickier listener.)

Some CD-burning packages include such tools; see, for instance, Roxio's Easy Media Creator (Win 2000 or newer, $80) and Toast (Mac OS X 10.2 or newer, $80). Some are sold as stand-alone utilities, such as Magix's Audio Cleaning Lab (Win 98 or newer, $40).

You can also use a free, open-source program, Audacity (Win 95 or newer, Mac OS 9 or newer, Linux, audacity.sourceforge.net). This is rougher sledding: It can't split tracks automatically and or save songs in MP3 format. You can fix the second shortfall by downloading a separate MP3 encoder, or by saving each song as an uncompressed file, then converting it into MP3 format.

All of these programs will show you the volume of the incoming audio. To set the recording level, watch the volume jump up and down as a song plays, then adjust that level so that the peaks almost hit the upper and lower bounds.

All this effort, however, may still not yield a decent recording. Many laptop and desktop PCs include weak audio hardware, and even quality sound cards can pick up interference from other components inside a computer. Some computers lack audio inputs.

In those cases, you can add a clean line-in jack with an external USB audio adapter such as Griffin Technology's $35 iMic.

Aside from an unlabeled input-select switch, the iMic was simple to operate, needing no software drivers. It provided crisp, clear recordings surpassed only by high-end audio cards.

As a last resort, we tried one such device, Creative's external Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS ($100, Win 2000 or newer), which delivered the cleanest music files in our tests. But for that price, you could also buy the 100 best cuts off those LPs and tapes as higher-quality, 99-cent downloads at any music download site.

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