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An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on January 12, 2017 at 12:10 AM Comments comments (42)

"Beam Me Up , Scotty"

 

The Odyssey is over. I completed transferring all of my vinyl record albums to digital files. I chose a sampling rate of 96khz/24 bit for the FLAC files that I created. I shared a few of the files with friends and they are getting high marks for their quality.

 

This project was enlightening, educational and enjoyable. Hearing music that I love that I have not heard in decades is a wonderful benefit. Music is a very powerful force on our psyche. (The only competitor is probably our sense of smell -- the olfactory sense.) Hearing a particular song can instantly move us across space and time to other experiences, as though we were in a "transporter". (A rudimentary form of virtual reality?) There is little else that could make an 85 year-old feel like a teenager again. (By the way, I am not 85 -- I have quite a ways to go before I get there.)

If you have questions for me about the project or the music, please feel free to click the "Contact" link, above.

 

In the mean time, I am considering another blog. The theme will be "Lost Sounds". There are sounds that are disappearing (or have already done so) from our "soundscape". I would like to capture those sounds, save them, and make them available in an on-line "museum". Stay tuned.

Sincerely,

 

 

Tom

An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on January 7, 2017 at 4:20 PM Comments comments (1)

Two Items


1) More than a few readers were interested in what is in my vinyl collection. It isn't huge, but it represents a lot of carefully chosen favorites, always purchased on a strict budget, from the 60s through the 90s. (The quantity of "cut outs" in my collection -- that is, records with a hole punched in the sleeve -- is testament to my budget restrictions.) If you are interested, I will send you an Excel spreadsheet of the collection, derived from Discogs. Just send me a request via e-mail or through the "Contact" button above.


2) Once you've decided on a file type -- MP3 or FLAC -- you'll have some options on the quality level within that file type. These are settings made within the file type's dialogue in VinylStudio. Without going deep into the technical details, the higher the number you choose, the higher fidelity file you will create and the bigger the file size. Either way, MP3 files, even when recorded at very high sampling rates, will virtually always be smaller than FLAC files, even if the FLAC file is recorded at lower sampling rates. 

An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on January 4, 2017 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (0)

Selecting Your File Type


One of the decisions that you'll need to make after creating a digital version of your vinyl album is what file type you will make with the digital version. You've probably heard the term "MP3" before. MP3 is a type of digital file. There are about a dozen different digital music file types. These file types can be broadly categorized into two groups: "lossy" and "lossless".


As the name implies, "lossy" files strip away some of the content to reduce, or compress, the file size. This is a form of "lossy" compression. Of the "lossy" file types, MP3 is the most common. Virtually all devices that can play digital music files can play MP3 files: tablets, phones, PCs, media servers, you name it.


"Lossless" files, as you might surmise, retain the original file's content, bit for bit. Although there is some compression to make the file smaller, the playback process restores the compressed information to its original uncompressed structure, hence the term "lossless".


Lossy files like MP3 came about because digital music files can be quite large. It wasn't that long ago that storage space, whether on a hard drive or on flash media, was expensive and limited in size. Using MP3 compression reduced the music file size to about 5 - 10% of its original size. That allowed more songs to be stored on the smaller drives of the day. These days, drive size is not really a limiting consideration (except with certain phones or older computers). Drive prices continue to drop and their storage sizes continue to grow. Still, MP3 lingers on as the frequent default for stored or streamed digital music files.


Unfortunately, the MP3 compression process can have negative audible effects on the file in question. In short, sound quality is traded for reduced file size. Because of this, the very term "MP3" is often derided by audiophiles for the reduced quality of sound that often results. If your playback will always be on a phone through a $20 set of ear buds, or on an inexpensive music player with limited fidelity and performance, then you'll probably never notice the difference.


On the other hand, if you are (like me) more demanding in the performance of your music listening, you'll probably want to store your digital files in the FLAC format. FLAC stands for "Free Lossless Audio Codec". (Codec is a portmanteau of compression/decompression.) FLAC files are about half the size of their original, uncompressed counterparts, but they retain all of the original file's information, so there is virtually no loss in fidelity.


Which file type should you choose? You might think that FLAC files are the way to go and if fidelity is important to you, you would be right. There's a "but", though. (Isn't there always?)  FLAC files are incompatible with some hardware and software. For example, iTunes and iPhones and other Apple hardware do not support FLAC files. You can play FLAC files on those devices by loading a converter. The converter will convert, on the fly, the FLAC file to a file type understood by Apple hardware and software. This process can result in reduced fidelity, though.


One of the reasons that I chose an HTC phone was because it supports FLAC files in their native format -- no conversion required. A plug-in, high capacity micro SD card provides all the needed storage for my digital music files on my phone.


Your expectations and demands will determine which file type you choose to make. Either way, VinylStudio can create the file type of your choice.


An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on January 3, 2017 at 4:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Snap, Crackle, and Pop


Vinyl LP records are a physical medium. By that, I mean that a stylus (needle) is in physical contact with the walls of the record groove. As such, the friction between the stylus and groove walls produces some amount of background noise. There are different compositions for vinyl, some of which produce less background noise. Unfortunately, unless you are playing audiophile pressings like those from Sheffield Labs or Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, there is no way to know how quiet the vinyl is for a given record.


Vinyl also suffers from noise created by contamination on the record. If the stylus encounters a spec of dust, for example, that will result in a snap. Or a crackle. Or a pop. A clean record is a quiet(er) record. Mishandling that scratched a record produces unwanted noise as well.


The lack of background noise is one of the big benefits of CDs, DVDs, and streaming sources over analog records. (Of course, portability and ease of access are big benefits to digitally stored music, too.)


My album collection has been carefully cared for over the years. Even so, many of my records have some degree of snap, crackle, and pop. Good news: VinylStudio has a built-in filter that addresses these issues (as well as the inherent background hiss on cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes). After creating my recordings in VinylStudio, I ran its "Clean Up Audio" function. It counts the number of snaps, crackles and pops that it removes and shows the statistics when the error correction is complete.


My noisiest album is an original, mono pressing of "Bob Dylan", by Bob Dylan, from 1962. I am not the original owner. Each side counted in excess of 100,000 corrections. My quietest album is "The Guess Who - #10", from 1973. Each side counted about 800 corrections.


A note about the Guess Who album: it is an RCA, four-channel, "Quadradisc". A lot of four channel ("quad") records were made with a different grade of vinyl that resulted in lower noise. This album is noticeably quieter in live listening.



An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on January 2, 2017 at 3:05 PM Comments comments (0)

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

 

Because transferring an analog album to a digital file is a one-for-one, real-time process, you'll want to be prepared to have the volume turned up, at least a little, during the transfer process. You need to be able to hear if there's a skip in the record and when each side of the record ends.

 

There is an unexpected benefit to this: you get to listen to every album that you own, from start to finish. I delighted in re-discovering some wonderful music in my collection that I hadn't listened to in a very long time. (After all, I bought the album in the first place because I like the music a lot to begin with!)

An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on January 2, 2017 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)

Will I Need an External Analog to Digital (A-to-D) Converter?


This question came up recently. If you are using one of the previously mentioned turntable "kits", these come with a turntable that has a USB plug on the end of the turntable's cable. Plug that in to one of your computer's USB ports, load the software that came with the kit and you are ready to go. The turntable has electronics built-in that convert the turntable's analog signal into a digital signal that feeds the USB port.


In my case, I am using my own audiophile-grade turntable. To get the analog signal from the turntable into the computer, the signal must first pass through a stereo receiver that has a "Phono" input. Then, a connection from the receiver's "Tape Out" to the computer's analog "Line In" jack is made. This eliminates the need for an external analog to digital converter that would feed the computer's USB port. A lot of people are unaware that most computers have such a "Line In" jack. It's almost always on the back of the computer and it is often a combination jack; one jack accepting either a signal from a microphone (very weak) or a "Line" source (stronger). The selection of which source the computer anticipates, microphone or line level, is made in the computer's audio settings. If the default is for microphone and you plug in a line level signal, it will likely be too strong a signal and cause distortion.

An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on December 31, 2016 at 2:40 PM Comments comments (1)

And So It Begins


Having loaded VinylStudio into the new-to-me computer, I set about learning how to use its very versatile and in-depth capabilities. Like any new software, it takes a little getting used to, but as previously mentioned, I found it to be well designed, user friendly, and easy to navigate with plenty of built-in help functions that I used at times.


I also resurrected my turntable. Fortunately, despite having been mothballed for about 14 years, it worked perfectly. (I did conduct a complete calibration, for the audiophiles among you readers.)


The next step was to export my record "collection" from Discogs. I refer to the database file that I manually created on Discogs that has all of my albums with all of the associated meta data, like album art, track names, track lengths, year of issue, and other stuff. When you export the file, you do so as a CSV (comma separated value) file that Excel can read and re-save as an Excel spreadsheet. VinylStudio can be pointed to that spreadsheet  -- et voila! -- from that spreadsheet, VinylStudio will automatically populate all the aforementioned metadata into the digital file of the vinyl LP that you create. While the process still has a number of manual steps, a little work up front building your Discogs database (collection) means that VinylStudio does most of the heavy lifting later on.


Once everything was connected, I was ready to transcribe my first album. 

An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on December 30, 2016 at 6:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Analog-to-digital and Digital-to-analog Conversion


I've had some dialogue with readers of this blog around the subject of the impact of the analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog (A-to-D and D-to-A) converters in the computer on the final quality of the digital files created. Different people have different opinions on this topic and there is no shortage of debate on the subject. With that in mind, while I do have an opinion on this, the topic is beyond the scope of the Analog Blog.

An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on December 30, 2016 at 3:05 PM Comments comments (0)

I Discover VinylStudio from AlpineSoft

Thanks to a quick Google search, I found VinylStudio made by AlpineSoft in the UK. This software is specifically designed for transferring vinyl LPs (and other analog media like cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tapes) to digital. It is well designed with a logical user interface and plenty of built-in help. They allow you to download a free "crippled" version (it limits the number of albums that you can transfer) to discover if it is compatible with your computer hardware.


That turned out to be worthwhile because VinylStudio wouldn't work with my laptop. I tried it on my wife's desktop computer and it worked without any issue. Rather than spend a lot of time trying to sort out the laptop issue, I sourced a late model Dell desktop on craigslist for $80. It had a good soundcard, enough hard drive memory and enough RAM to get the job done. It runs Windows 7, which is a trusted, stable operating system. I loaded VinylStudio onto it and it ran perfectly. The purchase cost of VinylStudio was about $30, so my total investment was about $110. (Not being a MAC owner, I cannot vouch for VinylSoft on a MAC.)


Why Not Just Buy the CDs or Stream the Music?

#1 Some of my records were never released on CD or are not available on any streaming service.

#2 I had a little time on my hands to manage the project.

#3 I like the sound of the vinyl. (Not necessarily more than I like the sound of the digital equivalents, but the vinyl does sound different, and I'm not talking about the "snap, crackle, pop" that comes along with LP records. More on that later.) 


An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on December 29, 2016 at 5:45 PM Comments comments (0)

To All and Sundry

I am aware that there are turntable kits on the market, many for under $100, that include the software to accomplish the digital conversion process. So why I am going to all of this trouble?


I already own an audiophile grade turntable, so buying another turntable would be redundant. Further, the "kits" are entry-level, utility products. I am interested in capturing the highest possible fidelity from my records and I only want to do this once, so that's why I am not using one of the "kits".

An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on October 23, 2016 at 8:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Is there software to facilitate transferring vinyl LP records to digital?

After conducting on-line research and talking to trusted friends about my project, including those with record collections measured in the thousands, I decided that the first step was to catalog my collection. I considered building an Excel spreadsheet for that purpose, but there is a better way: create an account on "Discogs". [ www.discogs.com ] Discogs, short for discographies, is an on-line, crowd-sourced, web site, database and swap meet for recorded material. It makes the process of cataloging a collection fairly easy and then automatically provides a toolbox of great resources, all at no cost.


I set up my account and dove in. I started my collection by cataloging a few albums. I got the hang of it quickly. One of the nice features of discogs is that it will price each of your entries, and your total collection, based on the sales that take place in the discogs market area. (Discogs collects a small percentage for sales conducted through their marketplace.) Want to sell your albums? You can price them based on what the market will bear and you can see that right in front of you. Looking to buy an album? You can do that there, too, just as easily.


You can use your discogs collection in a number of ways. Export it to an Excel spreadsheet and it becomes an easy way to document your collection's value for insurance purposes. You can use that same spreadsheet to partially automate the next big step: transferring your vinyl records to digital format and importing all the metadata at the same time. After my collection was built on Discogs, I needed to determine the best software for the transfer process.  Stay tuned.

An Odyssey from Vinyl to Digital

Posted on October 19, 2016 at 4:15 PM Comments comments (0)

Thank You Emile Berliner!

A name not many recognize, Mr. Berliner invented the phonograph record. No! That was Thomas Edison, you say! Mr. Edison invented the recording cylinder and most people think of him when they think of records, but it was Emile Berliner who created the flat, phonograph disc for recording and playback. Here's the link to his Wikipedia page:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emile_Berliner ]

Since Mr. Berliner's invention in 1895, many of our recorded media have been on flat discs: 78 rpm records, 45 rpm records, 33 1/3 rpm records, Laserdiscs, CDs, CD-ROMs, DVDs, Blu Rays. His concept survived the transition from the analog era into the digital age.


A few months ago, I decided to copy (transfer? transcode? digitize?) my collection of vinyl LP records to digital.

A year ago, I transferred all of my CDs to a multi-terabyte media server, located in my house and accessible from any TV, computer or audio system in the house, from my phone or from any external computer. That process was pretty straightforward. I used "EAC" (Exact Audio Copy) to rip the music from the CDs and store it on the server. EAC is free-ware, very effective, and had an easy learning curve (for me, anyway -- your mileage may vary.) The beauty of the CD format and EAC was that all of the meta-data such as track names, track lengths, and much more, was all on the CD to begin with and automatically or semi-automatically copied over to the server. (Capturing the CD artwork was a semi-automatic process.) My CD ripper copied at an average of four times normal playback speed, so a typical CD took about 15 minutes to copy, start to finish. I have a few hundred CDs and I worked on the project randomly over the course of a couple of months in my spare time.


The vinyl is an entirely different matter!

Records contain no meta-data and transferring the record is a one-to-one, real-time operation. If a record is 45 minutes long, it will take about an hour to transfer, including preparation and post-production. (More on that later.)


Before beginning, I had some research to do:

  1. Is there software to facilitate transferring vinyl to digital?
  2. If so, is the software expensive?
  3. Are any of my computers up to the task?
  4. Is my turntable up to the task?

These questions and some that aren't even asked will be answered in my coming posts.

 






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