How do I...

turn LPs into CDs?

How to turn LPs into CDs

Since the days when CDs replaced the humble LPs, there has been an absolute poverty of turntables available on stereo systems to play our favourite LPs.

And to make it worse, there are many people who still wish to enjoy those oldtime music classics now locked away on their LPs. So how do we extract the music from LPs and place them onto CDs?

Now that CD is the de facto official format for recorded music, you will need several essential pieces of equipment:

  1. A turntable - you may need to borrow one of these from a friend or check your local trash n' treasure or recycling centre;
  2. An appropriate cable and/or plugs for attaching the stereo sound output of your turntable to the stereo sound input port of your computer;
  3. A computer with at least 700MB of free hard disk space. You will need this amount of space because this is how much digital information has to be recorded in "CD quality" sound for an entire album;
  4. A piece of software for recording sounds. For Macintosh users, we recommend the freeware software called Coaster 1.1.3 (which already has built-in amplification capabilities and can record music to the required "CD quality" sampling rate);
  5. A CD burner with appropriate CD writing software (e.g. Adaptec Toast) capable of creating an audio CD;
  6. A soft cloth designed to remove dust and dirt from the surface of your LPs; and
  7. A high-quality silver or gold recordable CD disk like the ones sold by Kodak.

For really professional results, you may also want to consider buying or borrowing the following extras:

  1. A fresh new piezoelectric turntable needle for reading the LP music in case the old one is in poor condition;
  2. A stereo amplifier to help increase the sound strength emanating from the stereo sound output port of your turntable;
  3. A professional sound-editing software for cleaning up the hiss, pop and crackle sounds emanating from the needle of your turntable as it vibrates in the record grooves and picks up all sorts of dust, specks and possible groove damage on the LPs; and
  4. For those people unfortunate enough to have the latest USB-capable computer (e.g. the titanium PowerBook G4) without any standard sound input ports (e.g. the 3.5mm stereo socket variety), you will have no choice but to purchase a USB device designed to pick up stereo sounds for your computer.

PLUGGING THE TURNTABLE INTO YOUR COMPUTER

The first step in recording music from your LPs is to connect your turntable to your computer. Begin by checking the type of sound output connection sockets (or plugs) you have got on your turntable.

On most turntables, there will be a cable with two RCA plugs at the end of it. Now if you're using one of those older Apple PowerBook G3 Series computers, you may be tempted to plug one of these RCA plugs into the AC adapter socket at the back of your laptop. Please don't do that!

Although Apple Computer, Inc. has tried to so incredibly hard to think about what would be the best and most unique AC socket for this particular model PowerBook and have somehow decided to come up with one that seems to accept the RCA plugs, this AC socket is NOT a sound input port!

Check your computer manual first before you go about plugging the cable into any reasonable hole you can find at the back of your computer. You'll need to know precisely what your sound input port looks like or you might cause some damage to your computer.

If your computer does comes with a sound input port as standard and you know where this is located, have a look at the RCA plugs (or whatever connection you are given with your turntable) and the sound input port on your computer. If you are extremely lucky, your computer may already accept the plugs. But if not, you must go to your local electronics store and ask a specialist to pick out the right adapter for connecting the turntable's RCA plugs to your computer.

Most of the older types of computers normally come with a standard audio-in 3.5mm stereo socket port (look for the microphone icon). So all you will need is an adapter that accepts the RCA plugs and converts them to the required single 3.5mm stereo "minijack" plug for connection to your computer.

For many of the newer computer models on the market, you may have no choice but to purchase a special USB-device for accepting stereo input sounds for your computer. Nothing like getting out your wallet and throwing away a little more money for this now luxury sound feature!

For the USB-variety of computers, we recommend Adnet's PowerWave. It comes with a reasonable quality microphone (called iMic from Griffin Technology worth $118), plus a four-port USB hub with a built-in powered amplifier.

THE SOUND RECORDING SOFTWARE

Download and install the freeware Coaster 1.1.3 for Macintosh users. For PC users, there should be lots of choices for free or low-cost software recording. Just try one that you like the most. The most important thing you'll need to remember when choosing a sound recording software package is to find one that has the option to record at a sampling rate of 44,100Hz (or 44.1kHz) at 16 bits sample size because this is the standard format for producing "CD quality" sound on your CDs.

If you are using Coaster 1.1.3, you will love the "Input Gain" feature. The beauty of this option is that you don't have to buy an amplifier for your turntable just to record music. Unless your turntable is a very old and poor quality "LP-reading" instrument, just set the amplification level you want on your Coaster software, and let the software play whatever music is coming out of the turntable directly onto your computer's stereo speakers. Sounds perfect doesn't it!

PREPARING YOUR SOFTWARE FOR RECORDING

If you can't hear anything, make sure your software is listening to the right sound input port. Look for something on the software that says, "Device..." and choose "Built-In". This will get the software to listen to the right port. In Coaster 1.1.3, you will find the same option, except it is called "Sound In" in the pop-up window sitting next to the "Input Source" option. Now move the "Play-Thru" slider just enough to get sound coming through to the computer's stereo speakers.

As a final adjustment using Coaster 1.1.3, click on the "Link L-R" check button and raise the Input Gain sliders until you get adequate amplification. Look at the coloured L-channel and R-channel meters. If you are playing an LP on your turntable, the meter should be showing you coloured lights jumping up and down with the music.

To avoid distortion creeping into your otherwise perfect music, make sure the lights on the meters don't exceed the top of the scale. On Coaster 1.1.3, there is a final set of red lights just above the meter which tells you when the sound exceeds the acceptable level and music clipping occurs.

It is alright, while this final set of red lights don't come on, for the music to push the lights of the meters into the red zone (below the 0 level). This is just a warning that you are getting close to clipping your music. When you clip your music, the final set of red lights will come on temporarily telling you that you have produced just enough distortion to ruin the quality of your sound.

Now before we begin recording the sound, select the sample rate of "44,100" and a sample size of "16" in Coaster 1.1.3. On other software, you should be able to select a sample rate of 44.100 kHz and a size of 16 bits somewhere in your preference section or directly on the main window itself.

RECORDING MUSIC FROM YOUR LPs

Now we are ready for the fun part! Get your turntable ready to play the LP from the beginning. Clean your LP using a soft cloth to get the best quality sound coming out of the needle of your turntable. Also blow away any dust and dirt built up on the needle itself as this will increase the hiss and crackle of your music.

With your clean LP sitting on the turntable, move your cursor on the computer screen until it hovers over the Record button. In Coaster 1.1.3, this appears as a square button with a big red dot in the middle.

Press play on your turntable and wait until the needle touches the LP and falls into a groove. As soon as that happens, quickly click the Record button. Your software is now digitising your music and recording it onto your hard disk (or RAM if you have enough of it). As soon as you have finished with playing one side of the album, click the Pause button on your software. In Coaster, this should be the third button on the right of the Record button.

Turn your album over and press play on the turntable, as soon as the needle is into a groove and ready to pick up sounds, click the Record button.

When you have finished recording your LP, click the Stop button next to the Record button in the Coaster software. Give your sound file a name and save it to your hard disk in the AIFF format.

DO A QUICK CHECK OF YOUR DIGITAL MUSIC FILE

Next, you can use your Apple QuickTime software (or Coaster) to play the AIFF file. The sound coming through from your file into your computer's stereo speakers should be excellent. It should sound exactly as you have heard it coming into the computer during recording.

Welcome to the power of digital sound recording!

BREAKING UP THE DIGITAL MUSIC FILE INTO INDIVIDUAL SONG FILES

Now you need to break up the file into individual songs. We need to separate each song because you may want to have the option of selecting the songs you want to listen using the music selector button on your CD player instead of being forced to listening to the entire album.

You may use your QuickTime software to laboriously listen to each song and find out at what point the music ends, selecting the song, then copy and paste each song into a new music file ready for saving. Or you can use a special sound editing software like the freeware SoundEffects 0.9.2. For PC users, try Arboretum System's Ray Gun for A$260, or HiSoft System's SoundProbe 2 for A$200.

The beauty of having a sound editing software is that you can see a visual output of what your entire album looks like. In that way, you can see at which point the music of one song dies out before the next song begins. Then it is just a matter of highlighting the song between each quiet point on the visual output, copying and pasting the song into a new file, and finally cleaning up the beginning and the ending of the song so that it will sound good when the music begins and that there are no unnecessary noises continuing beyond the end of the music.

CLEANING UP YOUR INDIVIDUAL SONG FILES

The other advantage in having a sound editing tool is the incredibly wide range of filters available to help improve the quality of your music. For example, any good sound editing tool should come with a hiss filter, a pop filter and a crackle filter.

You should bear in mind that these filters are not perfect. You will not be able to completely remove all unwanted noise from your music. But the filters will make a difference and help you to enjoy your music even more (unless you are one of those nostalgic listeners who love listening to all the noises associated with playing LPs on a turntable).

If using a sound editing tool to clean up your music files, read the instruction manual to get the most out of your software.

RENAMING INDIVIDUAL SONG FILES

The next step is to rename all your individual song files from 01 to as many song files as you may have. You have got to do this because your CD writing software for creating the audio CD needs to know which song should start first on your CD all the way to the last song.

BURNING THE INDIVIDUAL SONG FILES ONTO A CD-R USING A CD BURNER

We are now in the final stages of digital recording. The next thing to do is to "burn" the individual music files onto a CD-R and then play the audio CD we have created on a standard CD player.

Begin by making sure your CD burner is plugged into your computer, and the software drivers and CD write software are ready to "burn" digital music onto a CD.

Insert a CD-R disk inside your CD burner. Close the lid. Open up your CD write software. If you are using Adaptec Toast, choose Format and select "Audio CD" from the menu command. Drag and drop all your AIFF music files onto Toast. You may click the "Audio..." button to see if the songs are in the right order and to press the "Play" button to see if Toast can properly play them.

You are ready to convert your CD-R into an audio CD together with all your music files "burned" on it. In Adaptec Toast, click the "Write CD..." button. Finally click the "Write to disc" button to begin burning the CD.

Depending on the speed of the CD burner, it should take between 5 and 35 minutes to burn the music. Your CD write software will tell you when it is finished.

PLAY YOUR NEW AUDIO CD ON YOUR CD PLAYER!

After the burning process has finished, you can remove the CD from the CD burner tray and insert it into any CD player. You should now be able to enjoy your music on any favourite CD player.

Copyright issues regarding music copying

Recording music from LPs onto CDs is not an illegal activity so long as you follow the copyright laws of your country.

Under Australian copyright laws, you may create one copy of the music from an original copy onto any storage media (e.g. a CD) and keep the original (i.e. the LP) in archive. However, if you produce two CD copies from the same original copy, by law you are required to destroy one of the three copies you have. You may choose to give away your LPs. That's fine. But the thing to remember is not to have a third or more copies on the same premises as where you play your music.

Also be very careful about how you play your music and whether the copy of the music you are playing will result in producing some kind of extra income in your business. For example, a hairdresser who decides to play his/her CDs at a hairdresser salon could be compelled under copyright laws to pay a license fee in order to play the music.

The copyright owners of the music can be quite strict in this regard. So check with the law in your part of the world for a definitive answer on this.

But I can't play my new audio CD on my DVD player!

Your DVD player must be one of those "dual-laser" systems capable of accepting audio CDs as well as DVD disks.

Standard "single-laser" DVD players do not read audio CDs because the laser is equipped to read accurately at a narrow wavelength of 650 nanometre (nm). On the other hand, audio CD players read information using a longer wavelength of the laser light of 780nm. These differences in laser frequency is usually enough to cause you the problems.

However, it is still possible that your "dual-laser" system may not be picking up the information on your audio CD. Sometimes the dye used in CD-R disks to record information may not adequately "respond" (or change its reflectivity characteristics to a great enough degree) at the 780nm laser frequency when burning audio information on it.

At other times, the dye on your CD-R disks may "respond" during burning, but the laser beam incident on it when it is being read by your CD/DVD combo "dual-laser" player may not be strong enough to be detected because the darker variety of dyes has absorbed a lot of the light energy, or perhaps the light from the laser is too strong and the dye may reflect all of the light energy.

So which CD-R should you go for to ensure compatibility across practically all the CD players on the market? The Kodak disks are usually pretty good. But if you have trouble with these disks, look for a CD-R that is specifically designed to store audio information (e.g. Philips CD-R Q Audio).