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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.


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.

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