November 2009

From Grooves to Gigabytes

More specifically, what I want to do is listen to Cosmic Chicken—a great DeJohnette side from 1975 that has never been released on CD—while I’m out riding my bike on the path around my local park. In theory, the solution is simple: Copy the music from the vinyl record to my computer, make MP3 files of all the songs, and transfer them to my iPod. But in practice, it’s complicated.

The signal chain for this seemingly straightforward process includes not only the turntable and the computer, but also a phono preamp and probably a USB audio interface, and lots of cables, too. Then there’s the task of setting the recording levels. Then you have to chop the recording into separate tunes. Then you have to type all the artist/album/song information into iTunes or whatever digital music software you’re using. Software such as Golden Records and Vinyl to MP3 has been created to simplify the process, but it’s still cumbersome enough to discourage most vinyl fans from copying more than a few cherished favorites to digital. And if your vinyl collection numbers in the thousands, forget it.

Luckily for vinyl enthusiasts, a whole new crop of products has recently emerged to tackle this problem. The first debuted about two years ago: a record player with a USB output that connects directly to your computer, with no phono preamp or USB audio interface required. That product, created by Ion Audio, spawned a small industry that seeks to make copying records onto your computer or iPod easier than ever before.

ORIGINAL AESTHETICS

Before we get into the specifics about these new products, I’d like to explain why I think it’s essential for jazz fans to add vinyl copying to their technical repertoire. Obviously, you don’t want to pay for CDs or MP3s of music you already own on vinyl. And even a modest collection of jazz records probably includes several titles that, like Cosmic Chicken, never saw release in a digital format.

An oft-overlooked reason to copy vinyl is for the sound quality. I don’t mean to imply that a digital copy of a vinyl record will sound better than a CD of the exact same recording. However, for many jazz fans, CDs on which the music has been re-mastered and remixed carry less sonic appeal than the original vinyl issues.

Many CDs made in the 1980s and early 1990s from earlier analog tapes sound strident, because digital audio technology was in its infancy at the time and mastering engineers were still learning their way around the new equipment. Also, when producing CD releases of older material, engineers sometimes alter the EQ or otherwise impose the sonic preferences of today on the art of yesterday. Sometimes vinyl is the only way to do that.

TURNING THE ’TABLES

With most USB turntables, you simply connect a USB cable from the turntable to your computer, then run special software designed for copying vinyl records. The phono preamp and analog-to-digital conversion circuitry is built right into the turntable. This arrangement removes all the hookup hassle, and it’ll almost certainly give you better sound quality than you’d get using the cheap analog-to-digital converters built into most laptops.

Some of the latest USB turntables eliminate the need for a computer hookup. The $249 Denon DP-200USB, for example, has a front port that accepts a USB thumb drive. Plug in the thumb drive, hit record, and whatever you’re playing on the turntable will be recorded as 192 kbps MP3 files on the USB drive. From there you can transfer them to your computer.

I recently got a chance to try the DP-200USB, and was thrilled to find how easy the vinyl-to-digital process becomes when you’re recording straight to a USB drive. I put Cosmic Chicken on the turntable, hit the start button, and then hit record as soon as the needle dropped. I didn’t even have to set the recording level. When Side One finished, I hit the record button again to stop. I repeated the process with Side Two, and in no more time than the record took to play I had an MP3 file for each side of the record. With almost no effort, I finally had Cosmic Chicken in a digital format. (I still had to break the recordings into separate tunes and add the album/artist/song info—but more on that later.)

Ion Audio’s $149 Profile Flash also records to a USB thumb drive, and adds the capability to record at 128 and 160 kpbs as well as 192. It also has a slot that allows recording to SD memory cards.

Two other Ion Audio ’tables eliminate the computer from the process entirely. The $199 iProfile incorporates an iPod dock and allows direct dubbing of music to the iPod, using the iPod’s Voice Memo feature. The $349 LP 2 CD lets you record albums to its internal flash memory, then burn them onto CDs. Unlike most USB turntables, which are rather barebones in design, the LP 2 CD has an adjustable tonearm that takes standard phono cartridges, a feature that should assure better sound quality than most USB turntables can muster.

Those seeking to combine the sound quality of an audiophile turntable with the convenience of USB should check out the $499 Pro-Ject Debut USB. It’s a digital-output version of the $349 Debut III turntable, which many vinyl junkies consider the least expensive turntable worth owning. The Debut USB doesn’t come with recording software, but it’s sturdier and more refined than any other turntable mentioned here.

And if you don’t want to invest in a brand-new turntable, that’s OK too. Thanks to a new crop of USB phono preamps, you can use the turntable you already own to make digital copies of your records. A great example is NAD’s $179 PP-3, which resembles an ordinary phono preamp but adds a USB jack on the front. The PP-3 hooks into your audio system the same way any other phono preamp does. Whenever you’re ready to dub some records to digital, just connect your computer, select the USB interface as your source, and you’re ready to go. With the PP-3 connected to my Pro-Ject Debut III turntable, I found it easy to make great-sounding digital dubs on my laptop computer.

Those who prefer audio gear with a more exotic flavor should check out Bellari’s $399 VP530 USB phono preamp, which uses vacuum-tube amplification circuitry in pursuit of a warmer sound than transistor-based phono preamps deliver. Prices for other USB phono preamps run as low as $45 for the Behringer U-Phono UFO202 to as high as $1,625 for the Sonneteer Sedley USB. Most do not include vinyl-recording software.

THE TRICKY PART

It’s certainly possible to dub and edit music from vinyl records using conventional audio recording software such as Audacity or Sound Forge, but the process is laborious. If you dub an entire side of a record at once, you’ll have to go in and cut the single digital file into individual song files, then trim the first and last tunes from each side so the music starts and stops where it’s supposed to. You’ll probably want to process the files to rid them of the noise, clicks and pops common to vinyl playback. Then you’ll want to add the album/artist/song title info by changing the file names or editing the info in iTunes or Windows Media Player.

Fortunately, many USB turntables come with computer software that automates this process to some degree. I got a chance to try two such software packages: Trans Music Manager, which comes with the Denon DP-200USB, and VinylStudio Lite, which NAD supplies with its PP-3 USB phono preamp.

Trans Music Manager attempts to automate the identifying and tagging process. Load an MP3 recorded on USB thumb drive via the DP-200USB turntable, and the software will find the silences between tunes and chop the tunes into separate files. It then queries the Gracenote Internet music database, using the first 15 seconds of each tune to identify the album, artist and song title. It also allows manual insertion of start and stop points for tunes, but it doesn’t include any processing for noise reduction or click elimination.

When I inserted a USB drive full of tunes, freshly dubbed on the DP-200USB, and imported one of the files into Trans Music Manager, I was shocked to watch the software chop the files up and identify the tunes in a matter of seconds. However, I soon discovered that it had chopped one of the tunes into two files, and that it had somehow discarded most of another tune. I tried adjusting the auto-splitting parameters and running the Auto Split feature again (and again), but still got flawed results. The software wouldn’t recognize any of the other tunes I loaded, even though those tunes are in the Gracenote database. I could have done the whole process manually in less time using Audacity (which is available free at audacity.sourceforge.net)—and cleaned up the noise and clicks while I was at it.

VinylStudio Lite proved much more valuable. This program works as a digital recorder with the NAD PP-3. Conveniently, it starts recording automatically when the needle drops. You have to enter the artist and album title manually, but that little bit of effort pays off—using the MusicBrainz Internet database, VinylStudio Lite correctly identified every tune from every album that it could find in the database. It was easy to transfer an album’s worth of tunes in WAV format into my computer’s music folder. However, the Lite version lacks two essential features included in the $29.95 full version of VinylStudio. The full version lets you create MP3 files of all the tunes on an album in one fell swoop, and it also includes extensive audio-restoration features for cleaning up noise, clicks, rumble and hum. There’s one major downside to all vinyl recording software, though. An album like Cosmic Chicken or Arthur Blythe’s Elaborations (another favorite of mine that has been cruelly refused a CD release) doesn’t appear in most Internet music databases, because most such databases hold info only for CD releases. Software such as Trans Music Manager can still split the tracks up for you (albeit with some errors), but you’ll have to enter the artist/album/song info manually.

While none of these products comes close to making it as easy to copy vinyl as it is to rip CDs into iTunes, they all make the process simpler in some way. And when you’re facing a stack of dozens or hundreds or thousands of records that you want to digitize, every little bit helps.

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