Digitising Vinyl with an Old Mac

A recent offshoot of The Ancient Star-Song, the Christian music blog, is http://learntodigitizeyourrecords.blogspot.com/, which is a forum for “tips and tricks” on getting your vinyl (or tape) into a digital format. Having done some of this (no where near what The Ancient Star-Song or Heavenly Grooves or the secular blogs have done,) I thought I would outline how I get this done on my old, low end Mac. Most this can be accomplished in pretty much the same way on a PC with a few modifications.

The Mac I’m using is a Titanium G4 Powerbook. This laptop has an line audio input (as opposed to a microphone input, which won’t do for this job,) which makes digitising easy. That’s one of the main reasons I bought the Powerbook to start with. The manufacturers’ inclusion of a line audio input on a computer has traditionally been an on-again, off-again proposition, and now it’s almost mandatory to use some kind of USB appliance for line audio input on most computers.

One thing that makes the process considerably faster and less prone to digital skips is to use a high-speed hard drive, like one would use for video production. In this case I have a 7200 rpm, 100 GB hard drive for the job. I’ve used slower hard drives but wouldn’t go back to them.

Recording and Digitising

In any case, I’ve always tried to put the quality up front. To play the records, I use a Goldring G900 SE cartridge with an AR turntable and a Quad 33 preamp. I rigged a special adapter to connect the 5-pin DIN connectors on the Quad to the miniature (that terminology dates me!) jack for the computer. All records are cleaned at least with a Decca record brush, and more serious cleaner if the occasion calls for it (which it will, especially if you’re a true collector.)

The main software to digitise the incoming signal is , which is free. Audacity generally defaults to a 44 kHz sample rate, which is what you want. My usual procedure is to record the album onto one continuous file, pausing the recording to turn the record over. It’s generally a good idea to also display the level meter in the system settings as well as Audacity, to make sure you’re not overloading the input and producing a great deal of clipping. In the old days, one always had to shoot between too high of an input (which produced analogue clipping, as opposed to digital) and low (which featured the noise too prominently.) It’s always better in both cases to err on the low side, but with digital recording one doesn’t have to worry too much about the noise problem.

Once I’ve done this, I take a look at the sound profile from start to finish. If the pops aren’t too bad, I’ll have the program automatically amplify the file as much as possible. If the pops restrict the amplification, I’ll play around until I find the amplification necessary to avoid clipping the main signal (which is essential for good quality.) Amplifying the signal in this way keeps the relative dynamic range of the songs the same as the original album, and amplifying it as much as possible is a convenience for the listener, who can avoid fooling around with this volume control. (An example of an album that didn’t do this kind of amplification is the otherwise outstanding Outpouring album.)

With the file amplified, I save it in WAV format, then use Audacity’s “save selection” feature to select each song and save each as an individual file. Before starting this, create a folder and put each of the songs into the folder as separate WAV files.

File Catalogue and mp3 Conversion

After this, I generally use iTunes to catalogue the files and perform the mp3 conversion. You can use the LAME encoder with Audacity, but I’ve found that iTunes’ results are smoother sounding and have a smaller file size for the same streaming rate. You can import the entire folder in one shot using iTunes, then batch modify the file information to include the artist, album, year, genre, track number, and other information you’d like to include. I set iTunes up to actually import the files rather than use them in place. Once you’ve done all this, create a smart playlist and burn an audio CD of the results. This is for two reasons: a) it enables you to play and review it away from your computer, in your car for example, and b) gives you a digitised archive without any lossy compression, which is important if you ever lose your iTunes library.

Now you’re ready to do the mp3 conversion. The advantage of iTunes is that you can batch convert the files into mp3, then remove the WAV files (make sure you’re trashing the WAV files, iTunes isn’t always clear on which is which!) Although I’ve seen a 320 streaming rate for most of the albums I’ve downloaded, I don’t think it’s necessary for vinyl; 192 is fine, and will result in about a 30-40% smaller archive.

Cover Artwork

Obviously the best way to capture cover artwork is to set the cover up and use a digital camera to photograph it. Use the highest resolution you can, shooting in conditions with good lighting but ones that avoid any glare from light sources on the cover. Use a tripod so you don’t have to use flash; the results are generally better. Once this is done, I import the files into Photoshop, crop them and eliminate perspective distortion, correct the colour, and save them both in their native resolution and in the resolution you’re planning to use on the web.

One common fault I’m seeing with some cover photos is that the camera is too close to the cover, which makes the corners “curl away” from the centre, creating a distortion that’s hard to fix. It’s also a good idea to do both front and back.

Archive Files and Uploading

At this point you’re ready to upload. My situation is different from most others in that I do my own web hosting. In my early postings, I simply uploaded the individual mp3 files and had people right-click on them one at a time. This is generally a pain, although you’ll find your songs will disseminate more profusely. Now I put an album into a single archive file. Most music blogs use the rar archive format. This format is beloved of hackers because search engines have problems seeing what’s inside, which is frequently warez software.

The simple truth is, however, that after you’ve applied a lossy compression method such as mp3 files use, putting a lossless one on top of it with the rar, zip, or gz will shrink the file little, if any. My favourite method of putting an album’s archive files is to use a Unix front end such as CocoaZip and make a tar archive out of them. You can also include the cover art in such as file.

Once you’ve done that, you upload the file where people can access it, link to it, and it’s ready for dissemination. You can take a look at The Ancient Star-Song’s policy on posting, or my terms and conditions for examples of dealing with artists’ and other copyright holders’ wishes for their music.

Other Items

  • Some of the Macintosh programs I use can be found here. If you’re still using OS 9, I don’t have a good audio editor for this, but you can still use iTunes for the mp3 conversion and organisation, and Coaster (available here) to actually digitise the analogue signal.
  • There’s another description of the process (more centred on PC’s with a more modern set-up in every way) here.

6 thoughts on “Digitising Vinyl with an Old Mac”

  1. There’s another description of the process (more centred on PC’s with a more modern set-up in every way

    Actually I’m using a G4 iMac.

  2. Do you really want to convert your beautiful-sounding LPs (better than CDs, actually) to tinny MP3s? Surely there must be a flac-encoder and player for Mac OS as well.

  3. Actually, for internal use I recommend sticking with the uncompressed WAV format. That’s why I recommend making the CD off of the uncompressed file before any kind of compression. MP3 is OK if you’re planning to put it on your iPod/iPhone. There probably is a flac-encoder for Mac OS, I’m just not familiar with it.

  4. I ran across a great collection of classic Christian rock albums at a thrift store. Most are in mint condition with covers that show only some wear. Someone took good care of this collection. I bought a few for the nostalgia factor plus the gorgeous cover art, but I’d like to record them digitally. I’m wondering what your opinion is of the newer USB turntables that are out now. Have you used these? I see they’re available from $70-175. I am tempted to go back and buy more of those albums…the store only wants 99-cents each. *sigh*

    1. I have not tried one of the new USB turntables. I’ve thought about getting one, since my equipment is old and one never knows when it will cease to function.

      One of the albums I posted actually came from someone who simply wanted the album digitised!

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