Spending a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Ripping LPs with Audacity

Sometimes, it’s just pleasant to to putter around the house, doing small tasks.  Getting little jobs done, checking them off the To Do List, provides a nice sense of accomplishment.  One task I’m working on this afternoon is recording LPs to MP3 files.  My goal is to hear my album music on Amazon Cloud Player.  I’ve recorded some favorite albums before, but it wasn’t until I discovered a long forgotten album, On the Flip Side, by Ricky Nelson lurking among my Amazon Cloud Player albums that I realized how much I appreciated having my vinyl on the Internet.

The Internet is such an odd driving social force.  It make us want everything at our fingertips.  For decades I only had once place to play my music.  As a kid, it was in my bedroom, but after I got married, it was my living room.  Now I can listen to a lifetime of music anywhere I have network access.  When I got back into LPs I found I enjoyed the old ritual of playing albums on my stereo system.  That was very satisfying.  Shopping for albums and having friends come over and listening to records was very retro, very nostalgic.

Alas, the modern world is so relentless.  In recent months, the time I play music the most is between 4am and 6am, when I have a bout of insomnia.  Pretty funny huh?  Strange time to rock out, but surprisingly, it’s a good way to start the day, or even to add a soundtrack to those early morning dreams if I’m lucky enough to drift back to sleep.

I keep my iPod touch and a pair of headphones by the chair I sleep in.  (Long story, but I sleep in a chair.)  If I wake up early, or stay up late and can’t get to sleep I call up some tunes.  Either from my favorite playlists on Rdio, or from the Amazon Cloud Music Player.  Being in a semiconscious state is a wonderful time to listen to music.  Sometimes I fall back asleep and even wake up again floating weightless in a sphere of music.  Pretty damn cool.

Learning to convert LPs, or even cassettes,  to MP3 files is not that hard.  Audacity is a free software program that works on PC, Mac and Linux.  The trick is to get your turntable connected to the computer.  You can even buy turntables designed for working with computers.  Older turntables require a preamp.  You can buy cheap ones for under $20, or spend a fortune if you’re a audiophile.  Newer turntables have a built-in preamp, and the latest turntables are specifically designed to work with computers by having a USB jack and cable.

I set up an old turntable on my desk that allows me to play LPs through my computer speakers while I work.  When I want to record an album, I just launch Audacity.  You also to get LAME to export to MP3, an auxiliary program, but it’s free.  The export feature on Audacity will link you to it.   All this can be a bit technical to get going, and instead of me going through all the steps I’m just going to link you to some very fine tutorials.  Just remember, the setting for bit rate is in the File|Export menu that calls up LAME.  I use 256 kbps.  LAME’s default is 128 kbps.

Here’s a video tutorial where the guy is using his receiver for the preamp.  The setup is much simpler if you have a turntable with a built-in preamp, or USB output.

I bought a preamp from Amazon for my old turntable.  It looks like this and is currently $17.14.

preamp

The sound quality would be superior if I used a superior preamp or good receiver, but I find this little cheap gadget works well enough for me.

The simplest setup is a turntable with USB and a laptop.  Next easiest is a turntable with built-in preamp.  You’ll need an adapter with 2 RCA inputs that converts to a mini stereo jack that plugs into your line-in.  After that involves adding a portable preamp like I did.  After that, you can use an existing receiver using your tape out RCA jacks to mini stereo jack.

I’m a lazy LP recorder.  I record a whole side and end up with two MP3 tracks for each albums.  Side 1 – Album Name, Side 2 – Album name.  I store these in My Music folder, under a folder named for the artist, and then another folder named after the album.  If you want to record each song separately, you can record the entire album, using pause between sides, and then use Audacity’s editing feature to pull out each song and export it separately with the track name.  Some people get very fancy and save the recording as WAV files, and then burn a CD.  As you learn and play with Audacity you’ll see all kinds of possibilities.

I also use a similar setup with a tape deck to convert old audiobooks to MP3.

After a recording session, I run the file upload program for the Amazon Cloud Player and my songs are added to my library.  Tomorrow, in the middle of the night, I can call them up.

Audacity is fun to play with.  Think of it as a word processor for sound.  If you have a microphone you can even record and edit your own speeches, or if you have a digital sound recorder, interview people and later edit the files.  I’ve helped people who do oral history to clean up their files.  Audacity does take a bit of learning, but isn’t that hard.  I helped a 70 year old lady who was very computer phobic use Audacity because she had about twenty hours of interviews with a man who constantly cough.  Audacity let her take out all the coughs, and clean off the white noise that was in the background.  Her final product was published as an oral history without the constant cough and annoying background noise.

I don’t buy many LPs anymore, just the ones that aren’t available on CD.  I use MusicStack.com to find out of print LPs, like the 1971 LP Never Goin’ Back to Georgia by The Blue Magoos.  Audacity can look intimidating, but it doesn’t take too long to learn.  It can be annoying if you can’t easily configure it to your computer.  Most of the time the default install finds your soundcard and speakers and everything is copacetic.  If you have a motherboard soundcard and an added PCIe soundcard, you might need to select the right device.

The Audacity interface looks like this:

audacity-screen

Depending on your level of audio fanaticism, you can use Audacity to clean off pops and hiss.  I’m lazy.  My recordings sound like I’m playing an album, and that doesn’t bother me.  I does seem like a minor miracle to put an album on, record it, and then play it by clicking on a file name.

Like I said at the top of the page, I like puttering around with little jobs.  I like scanning photos to .jpg, or scanning old documents to .pdf.  I like organizing my files into filing systems.  I like recording LPs and cassette audio books.  Slowly all my life is ending up in Dropbox.

JWH – 2/17/13

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