On Ripping Vinyl, Pt. 1: From Licorice Pizza to Hard Drive

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Cleavers are better than knives.

Actually, I’m using Audacity with an Ion turntable. Your mileage may vary, as will your controls, depending on what you use.

The number of whosit bands whose LPs have made it to CD or, even more likely, MP3, is amazing. Julian’s Treatment, for heaven’s sake! The H. P. Lovecraft!

Great jazz artists of the 1950s are making it over, so if I had just waited two years I needn’t have gotten the vinyl for the Peter Gunn (TV show) soundtrack by Henry Mancini.

What I am not seeing are lesser movie soundtracks, especially those of the 1970s and early 1980s. When they came out on vinyl, and when the switchover to CDs occured, they were too new to be collectible, so that they’ve fallen between media chairs.

So here I am converting the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, often called the Bakshi LotR or the 1978 LotR, with the soundtrack by Leonard Rosenman. It’s not as distinctively epic fantasy as the Howard Shore OST, and that’s what I like about it. It sounds like a good action/adventure soundtrack written anywhere from the 1930s to its own era. That means it makes good writing music.

I’m waiting on Miklos Rosza’s 10″ Quo Vadis, with nostalgia. My BFF from high school had a copy of this, and anything newer doesn’t include the song of the Vestal Virgins in the processional. Also in the mail, a movie I never saw, the 1978 Yanks whose soundtrack for a WW2 setting might suit some of my projects. (Then again, it may all be too mushy, but that works for other things, right? Characters can’t always be jumping through windows.)

Now, if you have considered doing this sort of thing but been thinking it’ll all be too technical and fussy — fear not. You, too, can convert your grandparent’s LPs or your great-grandparent’s 78s.

#1 step for quality is to get a crackle-free disc. They happen! The copy of the Krull OST I got is beautifully clear. (Early James Horner.) Many discs are worn, but cleaning them can make a huge difference. Before you ever put a platter on the turntable, inspect it. Look for gunk, dulling, dust, scratches. You can clean it, in a circular motion, with special cleaning agents, or go the extra (expensive) mile to get a disc-washer, like libraries used with loaner LPs. This gently deep-scrubs the grooves while keeping the label dry. A brush or velvet pad held to the surface on the turntable will get off superficial lint, but it’s not going to deep clean. You need

  • Liquid without polishing agents.
  • Lint-free cloths to clean and dry. Microfibre cloth is not only unnecessary but, as usually polyester, not very absorbent and possibly setting up static. Silk, nylon, or rayon are staticky. Your best bet is 100% cotton. T-shirts worn to lintlessness, well washed to remove any remaining bodily exudates, are the standard for me. Worn-out linen or ramie will also do.
  • Distilled water, to rinse off the cleaning liquid. De-ionized water is alkaline. Alkaline = hard water, which if air-dried will leave lime deposits.

Look out for an old habit some people had, an early form of the Skip control. When they decided they hated a track on an LP, they would drag an old needle or a sewing needle across the grooves as it spun. This would pull the needle across to the next track, effectively erasing the one band. You know it will be the one you wanted most. This mainly occurs on your own yard-sale finds, though not every on-line seller is either observant or honest. The person selling their granpa’s old vinyl may never think to inspect them.

#2 is to have a lint-free stylus (the needle). I have a tiny soft brush, about three rows of bristles, especially for this job. A carbon-fibre brush I use for the discs will also wipe any dust off the stylus. I mean, you can get freaky about accessories, like the tiny tube with magnifying lenses for inspecting the stylus (it also works nicely to inspect the face-painting on 28mm figures), but they’re not necessary.

You want to set up the turntable on a firm support. If the table it’s on wobbles, wedge it solid. Mine is on an old-style computer stand with a pull-out shelf for a heavy dot-matrix printer. It’s astonishingly solid. Naturally, I pull it out to use it and leave it out while it’s running. I don’t think moving while recording is an intelligent idea. I also don’t try to convert when my downstairs neighbors are slamming doors at each other. Middle of the night is good. Recording to convert is touchier than a baking cake when it comes to failing because of people dropping into chairs in the room or closing windows on the other side of the apartment. That’s why you monitor when you record, so you can hear it stutter and just abort that try.

Recording takes as long as listening. There isn’t any way to hurry it up, and you don’t want to do other things on your computer, just in case they interrupt the memory recording. Multi-tasking is okay on programs that aren’t touchy: the CPU actually does something on each one in turn, which is the problem. Having a half-second or quarter-second interrupt on the conversion, because your web-crawling has a tough load at some site at the same time you switch tracks in iTunes, is disasterous. So keep yourself entertained on your phone or Kindle while ripping and monitoring. Note that the human mind doesn’t multi-task too well: you may not hear a hiccup in the recording if you leave the sound on during a game or get too involved in the best-seller.

You might monitor on speakers, but I prefer headphones. Big audiophile isolating headphones. There’s no reason you couldn’t do it on earbuds, though. Just watch volume.

So now you’re set to monitor a clean as possible disc on a stable turntable.

You bring up the program. You open File, New. It brings up a complex-looking control panel. No fear. All you care about are the major buttons: red dot, Record, yellow square, Stop.

Go to Preferences and make sure monitoring via software is active.

With the turntable powered on but halted, set the stylus in the outside groove, the lead-in to the first cut. If you have crackle, the worst will be in the outer cuts.

Click the Record button, then push the big button on the turntable to start it spinning.

Now, this is the trick to making it easy.

Don’t try to record each track separately.

Just record one whole side. It saves you a lot of jumping around and re-recording from missing a start. Later on, process a side to remove noise (if you can: I found that filter that to be highly over-rated, and it does bizarre things to simple acoustic cuts). You can break it into separate tracks by highlighting the right section, Copying, and Pasting into a new file, just like paragraphs in a word-processor or parts of a graphic. This you can do sometime while people are slamming doors or hammering on walls. The worst crackle and pop usually show up between cuts, and you just don’t carry those over.

When the needle reaches the end of the inner track, click the Stop button, then stop the turntable and lift the tone arm to its rest. Save the project somewhere you made room for it. A project takes about 350-400 MB per side. It usually consists of a control file (.aup for Audacity) and a folder of the actual zillion files that are the recordings, one megabyte at a time.

Repeat, until you run out of hard drive space or records.

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