How To Properly Convert Your Vinyl Record Collection to Digital

By Wesley Fenlon

A painless way to digitize your vinyl and quickly export perfectly-tagged mp3s with Audacity.

A veritable treasure trove of classic vinyl recently fell into my lap, bursting with treasures like "Blood on the Tracks" and "Led Zeppelin I"--it’s a collection of hundreds for me to listen to, enjoy . . . and rip. There’s something a little bit magic about vinyl that separates it from the digital music libraries we use today: the incredible artwork you can touch and feel, the weight of the record in your hands, the subtle difference in tone and atmosphere of an analog recording. It’s just different, in an irreplaceable way. But there are some drawbacks. Scratches and pops are atmosphere, but skipping signifies damaged vinyl. And portability? Forget it.

Armed with a fairly cheap ION USB turntable, I’ve started listening my way through the 60s and 70s, recording every wah-wah and analog crackle the needle picks up. I’m doing it partly for safekeeping but mostly because dealing with music technology--both new and old--is awesome. By grappling with drivers, software and a mess of configurations, I’ve finally settled on a streamlined system that works really well. You won’t know how satisfying it is to hear a fantastic quality mp3 of Neil Young’s "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" until you’ve ripped it from vinyl yourself. 

ripping and cleaning up analog audio recordings. We’ll be using Audacity, too, so look to his guide if you want to know about cleaning up your tracks and removing pops and clicks. While I’m leaving most of my recordings untouched, the few that need noise removal (like a poor gargly vinyl of The Alan Parsons Project’s "Pyramid") will undergo the Braga treatment.

From the Needle to the Screen

The advantage of ION’s USB turntable is that it plugs straight into a USB port and (in theory) makes it a total breeze to record sound straight from the record player. The disadvantage is that there’s some pretty flimsy hardware here and utterly crap software. When I first plugged the device into my computer and installed its drivers, my sound stopped working completely until I unplugged it again. Some Internet scouring helped sort out the problem: in Windows, the USB Audio Codec likes to take over as the default playback device, even though it’s only there to record audio. Stupid, but easily fixable: just set your speakers to the default playback, set USB Audio Codec to default recording, and you’re good to go.

preamp to boost the signal to recordable levels.

The second snag I hit was all software. ION’s included EZ Vinyl Converter picked up a continuous clicking sound that was definitely not coming through the record player. It disappeared at times, but I couldn’t pinpoint the cause--I’m blaming cheap USB products and even cheaper software, as the sound popped up on both systems I tried it with. Not to be deterred, I quickly discovered the sound wasn’t picked up by Audacity. I’d found my recording software.

Configuring the Basics in Audacity

Download Audacity and the LAME mp3 encoder for Audacity if you don’t have them already. Now it’s time to hit the most important settings within the program before recording. Open preferences, and under Audio I/O make sure to set your speakers as the Playback device and your proper recording input for the Recording device. With the ION, that’s USB Audio Codec. Switch Channels to 2 (Stereo). Then check “Software Playthrough (Play new track while recording it).” Now you can hear your music!

  • On the Quality tab, set your default sample format to 16-bit. 
  • On the File Formats tab, set your mp3 bitrate--or leave it alone, if 128 is good enough for you. I like the happy medium of 192. 

That’s it for preferences. On the main interface, click the dropdown arrow next to the microphone icon in the top-right corner and enable Monitor input--now you should be able to see your input levels, which will be helpful in a minute.
Albums, albums, albums! Can you name them all? 

At this point all our prep work is done--it’s time to start recording.

Laying Down the Tracks and Exporting

We want to make this process as easy as possible and avoid the headache of exporting a ton of individual tracks. How do we do it?

  • Start playing your album and press the record button in Audacity. 
Let it roll--if everything’s working properly, you should be hearing the album through your PC speakers and seeing the track record in Audacity. Check out your input levels and make sure they’re not maxing out too often--if they are, you may want to restart with a slightly lower volume setting.  

  • If everything’s to your liking, let it play until you get to the end of the first side. Hit Pause in Audacity. That’s the key step--the Pause button, not the Stop button. 
  • Flip over, put needle to vinyl, and start playing the record. Quickly Unpause in Audacity by pressing the button again.
  • If it’s a single record album, play through the end of side two and then hit Stop. If it’s a double, hit Pause again after the end of side two, remove the vinyl, put on side three, and keep recording.

Exporting an entire album at once will take a little while, but you'll be rewarded for your patience with perfectly tagged mp3s. 

The goal is to have a single recording of an entire album. Don’t freak out if you slip up and hit Stop accidentally--simply start recording where you left off and Audacity will create a new track. When you’re done, highlight that entire audio track and click the Find Zero Crossings option in the Edit menu. Then cut the track and paste it at the end of your first track to get one long uninterrupted recording.

Save it as an Audacity project just in case you want to make any changes. Now use the magnifying glass button to zoom the project out some--you don’t want to have to horizontally scroll for a mile, but you want to be able to identify those silent spots that indicate gaps between tracks.

  • Type in the name of the first track and hit Enter--you should see a little flag appear on a new Label Track below your recording. Follow this procedure for every track on the album--it can be a bit of a chore to input song names at every track break, but it’ll make for clean ID3 tracks. 
  • Done? Go to File, Export Multiple, choose mp3 as your format and pick a new folder for all your exported tracks to come. Make sure “Using Label/Track Name” is selected and hit Export. 
  • On the next screen, put in your Artist and Album info and fill in the Genre and Year fields if you’re so inclined. Hit OK to begin exporting and go get a drink--you earned it!

Import your new mp3s into iTunes, Windows Media Player or your software of choice to grab some album art and enjoy your music. Doesn't it sound better after you've put all that work into it?