Ripping Vinyl to your iPod
The solution, of course, is to rip your LPs and cassettes. This entails playing each recording, digitizing the music as it plays, and then putting the digitized music into a form that any iPod can use.
My goal during this project was to develop an easy, repeatable, and very high quality process to digitize LPs. This article explains the process.
The Rules of High Quality Vinyl Ripping
Accuracy. On your home hifi system, you look to hear the best sound in your ears. The digitization process is fundamentally different. Digitization is all about capturing the source analog signal as accurately as possible. Do you have a fancy $5000 A/V receiver? Lose it! Such a component will give you no ripping advantage, and very likely will be a quality liability. Digitization is NOT about amplification, it's about accuracy. (after digitization we can put the signal though filters to improve the sound).
Symmetry. When you listening to music, you might like to tweak a couple of settings to suit the room, your listening preference, or to correct an imperfect recording. Don't do it! While digitizing, you want your analog signal to be completely consistent with the analog recording. While you're digitizing, don't move cables or adjust analog settings. Make sure the turntable is well isolated. And avoid power fluctuations that can noise up an otherwise stable analog signal. Don't cook that microwave pizza until you're done, because that noise will very possibly end up in your digitized signal.
Conversion Quality. You don't need the $100 cables, but the cheap bargain-bin cables won't do either. You don't need and shouldn't use speakers - speakers are for listening - and digitization is not listening. And you need a good sound card for quality analog-to-digital conversion (ADC) is critical.
Digitization Equipment and Tools
I started by placing a commodity home amplifier and turntable into the room where my computer resides. Now don't think I went to crazy rearranging all of my equipment - I didn't need speakers or other equipment.
I connected the turntable and receiver into a UPS unit, which also serves as an excellent power conditioner.
The amplifier's role in this project is not the same as it's role while listening to music. During the digitization process, the amp's role is only to act as a pre-amp, feeding the sound card with the milliwatt-level signal sourced from the turntable. Since there is no delivery of sound to the speakers, there is no benefit to using a high wattage amp. In fact, a larger unit will likely just introduce additional noise into the system.
Admittedly I'm a bit of a sound snob, so I did upgrade a few capacitors in the pre-amp section of the amp I used. But most people will get excellent results without getting funky with the circuitry.
I used generic cables for this set-up. Normally I'd use high quality cables, but given the rapid setup and tear-down of this setup, there was no chance for any oxidization to form between mating surfaces. I love high quality cables for a system that I configure once. But fancy cables are pointless for a one-shot analog digitization system used over the period of a few months.
The Ripping Process
- Remove the disc from its dust jacket and check for physical defects. Avoid ripping a damaged disc that will ruin your cartridge.
- Clean the record with a quality cleaning tool to minimize noise from dirt. I like the Stanton Record Cleaner Kit. I use a home-made cleaning solution.
- Cue up the disc. Start the recording process in Audacity.
- As the disc is played, verify the line-in level in Audacity. You want the level to be as high as possible without peaking at 100%. This is highly dependent on the recording and your equipment. In general, the longer the LP in play time, the higher you'll have to set the line-in level.
- At the disc run-out, stop the recording process
- Save the captured file as a WAV file
- Repeat for Side 2.
After you rip, you should convert the files to a lossless compression format for archival. I find that FLAC reduces file size by about 33%. Once I have about 4 GB of FLAC files (about 18 LPs worth of music), I archive the "master" rips onto DVD-R.
My recording program, Audacity, generates WAV files. I then lossless-compress these files into flac form:
flac -V -8 my_album_side_1.wav
This will losslessly convert the WAV file into FLAC at it's best ("-8") compression rate. Flac will verify ("-V") that the resulting file can be converted back into the same exact WAV file. Cool! From there I burn the resulting FLAC files to DVD-R for archival purposes. I find I can put about 18 LPs worth of music on a DVD-R.
I usually don't listen to the FLAC files - they're my "master digitized copy" in case some new music encoding technology comes around the bend.
iPods and other MP3 players
I convert the FLAC files to MP3 format when I want to put them on my iPod. This saves even more space than FLAC, at the expense of sound quality. Since I do most of my iPod listening on the train or in the car, sound quality just isn't that import (too much ambient noise).
Converting the lossless files into MP3 is is also an easy process:
flac -sdc my_album_side_1.flac | lame - my_album_side_2.mp3
Conclusions and Further Thoughts
The digitization process is simple, and can be successfully accomplished using common hardware and freely available software. The important part is to have a consistant, quality digitization so that filters will work appropriately across an entire LP.
In conclusion, converting Vinyl (and other analog recordings) into MP3s should be performed in distinct steps. The distinct steps allow you to have a master lossless copy of the recording in digitized form. After the creation of the master digitized copy, you may apply countless filters and transformations to clean, break apart, or otherwise manipulate the sound. If you need to re-apply transformations, you won't have a need to re-digitize - you'll already have a lossless digital master on hand.
If you'd like more information on the particular hardware and software I use, please drop me a note.