The Secret to Digitizing Records

I had a watershed moment this weekend. After decades of procrastination, I began migrating my favorite tunes on vinyl over to my computer.

In the process, I got an education into some of the pitfalls of this process, and although I sought advice on the web, I didn’t find anything super helpful, so I decided to write this report. I’m sure there are better ways and better equipment available for true audiophiles on unlimited budgets, but this is intended for people like me who want to spend less than $100.

You’ll need a turntable. Any turntable will do. Around 1980, I bought a pair of Technics SL-D1’s and a mixer. Somewhere along the line, I threw out the amplifier. If you don’t have an old turntable, you can buy a USB-ready turntable with built-in amplifier for under $100 (or buy a used turntable for even less). A USB turntable will greatly simplify the process, but if you buy one, make sure it has a built-in amp and includes a free software CD for cleaning-up and archiving.

Unless you buy the USB turntable with built-in amp, you’ll need an amplifier, preferable one with a USB connection.  After researching the options, I bought a USB Phono Plus for $90 off amazon, a small, compact device that provides sound inputs via USB and includes SoundSaver Express software. This device takes up a lot less space than my old amplifier. You can find cheaper ways to connect, but the USB Phono Plus had some cool-looking dials and buttons to play with, including a filter for low-end rumble. Turntables have three cables, two RCA cables (one white, one red) and a ground cable. The ground cable must be securely connected to your amplifier or you’ll experience considerable hum and distortion, especially if you have a lot of electronics in your home. I had to find a pair of washers to hold my ground screw in place, as it was horseshoe-shaped and the Phono Plus is designed for a bare wire. You should be able to tug gently on the ground wire and not pull it out of place.

I’ve been a working journalist for nearly 45 years now, and one of the keys to being a good journalist is maintaining archives, so I kept pretty much everything, including every record;  I must have around 1,200 albums. My first step was to alphabetize this collection and organize it so I could locate albums quickly. I’m not interested in digitizing all 1,200 records, and, in fact, I almost never digitize more than one song off any album. I only want the cream of my collection clogging up my iTunes. But if the urge to hear a song pops in my head, I want to be able to locate it within minutes.

Right away, I noticed some of my most precious records had very slight warps. Maybe they sat too long on a turntable in the sun (which is why turntables should never be put in direct sunlight). Even a small, hardly noticeable warp can be devastating to sound quality, as I soon discovered. What happens with small warps is the tone arm rides the groove like a boat on the choppy seas, and when the wave peaks (the highest point) sound drops out. I didn’t know how to fix this problem. Sometimes you can salvage a seriously-warped record by putting it in the sun for a few minutes and then pressing it between two sheets of glass while it cools. But that is a drastic measure, I’m told, and not always successful. What I needed was a clamp—a weight to hold the record flat and minimize the warp. People usually try to fight record warp and other issues by increasing tone arm weight (or putting a penny on the tone arm), but that will not solve the problem and will likely damage the needle and the record.

You could buy a brass record clamp for between $60 and $200 online. I didn’t want to pay that price, so I just got a small unopened can of paint around the same diameter as the paper center of a record album. I put the plastic 45-adapter on top of the record to create a flat surface and then carefully centered my paint can on top of the adapter. Without the adapter, the paint can cannot sit on the spindle. The results were astonishing. Any can or weight can be used as long as it is round and can be centered on the record.

If nothing else, you now have the greatest secret in digitizing records. The firmer your record sits on the platter, the better recording you will achieve. So stop putting weight on the tone arm, where it doesn’t belong, and start weighting the record. This process was so transforming that after I discovered it, I had to go back and re-digitize several songs because the sound quality was so much better with the weight in place.

I found the easiest and fastest way to import the songs was to bring them in via Garageband. Just make sure you set your preferences to capturing the highest possible quality. The default settings for capture are for lowfi because hifi takes up twice the space.

Some records had issues with hisses, crackles and pops. These records were digitized through the SoundSaver software, which includes a hiss, crackle, pop remover that works extremely well. In fact, I was impressed with SoundSaver’s ability to take distorted files and turn them into very normal, optimized sound waves. It doesn’t provide a lot of controls, but since this is an express version, an upgrade might be available.

One serious issue still remains: when the sound gets really low, the sound drops out, leaving uncomfortable gaps of silence with no background noise. I don’t know what is causing this drop-out, hardware or software, and so far, I’ve only noticed this issue with classical music, which has more intense dynamics, and most of the problems are small enough that I can salvage the tracks in Final Cut with minor effort. But if anyone knows an easier fix for this issue, please let me know.

After I posted this blog I got a recommendation from my favorite music critic, James Marshall, otherwise known as “the Hound,” who favors Amadeus, a very inexpensive software,  to digitize records. I should check it out as Amadeus apparently uses the headphone jack on your computer as a stereo input. If you already have a turntable and amp, you might want to check Amadeus out as a reliable and inexpensive option.

How To Set Up a Turntable:

Pick a spot near your computer where your turntable can find a permanent home. Use a level to check your table or desk. The turntable must sit on a completely level surface; any tilt can degrade your sound quality considerably. After the turntable is in place on the flat surface, spin the platter 360 degrees with the level on it, checking to make sure the bubble remains stable and centered.

If you have a decent turntable, you’ll need to adjust the weight on the tone arm. Turn both knobs at the back of the tone arm until the arm becomes weightless. Set the indicator to zero. You’ll want to turn the back knob until the indicator reads somewhere between 1.6 and 2.2 grams of weight. Every stylus has its own recommended weight and it’s important to maximize this adjustment. I had no idea what the recommended weight for my needle was, so I set the weight at just under 2 grams. Once you have the weight set, adjust the anti-skate device at the back of the tone arm. The anti-skate should be set at the same number as the tone arm, so I set mine just under 2. You can check the calibration of your anti-skate easily by putting the tone arm at zero weight and setting the anti-skate to zero. When you turn on the turntable the tone arm will be pulled toward the center of the record. Turn the anti-skate knob just far enough to bring the tone arm back to its resting place. Now adjust your tone arm weight and use the lift lever to raise your tone arm and then drop it at the start of the record. Does the needle stay in the groove or does it jump and skip forward upon contact? If so, you must turn up your anti-skate slightly. The purpose of the anti-skate it to counteract the centrifugal force of the spinning platter. Having an incorrect anti-skate or incorrect tone arm weight are both just as damaging as a tilted surface.

I found this entire process a lot easier and a lot more fun than I anticipated. I only wish I’d started sooner.


Author: Steven Hager

I'm a writer, journalist, filmmaker and event producer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s