If you're a music fan, you probably already know that you can turn tracks from a store-bought CD into digital MP3 files. But if you still haven't left the analog age of vinyl LPs or cassettes behind, don't fret: You too can enjoy the fun of making your albums into CDs or putting them into an MP3 music library.
Any standard PC with a sound card can record and archive almost anything that you can play through a stereo system. That includes old 33, 45, and 78 RPM records; reel-to-reel and cassette audio tapes; FM radio broadcasts; and soundtracks or live concerts recorded from a telecast onto VHS videocassettes. With one of a number of free or shareware software packages, you can organize your favorite songs on your hard disk and then put them into easily accessible music libraries or onto custom discs.
Unlike vinyl records and cassette tapes, you can't scratch a .wav or .mp3 file, and they don't decay or degrade no matter how many times you play them. Even better news: Filters built into sound-editing software can reduce or eliminate pops, crackles, and tape hiss, making your digital music files sound cleaner than the originals.
Hardware isn't a major concern if you want to record music--even a PC as modest as a Pentium MMX-166 with 32MB of RAM can do the trick. However, we suggest that your system have at least a PII-266 CPU and 64MB of RAM. If you intend to edit and clean up the music after you capture it, you will want at least 96MB of memory.
You'll also probably want to reserve 2GB to 4GB of hard disk storage
space for your music library, but you can get by with less. Assume you'll need
about 1MB of disk space for each minute of music converted to
At least as important as the CPU is the sound card you use. Most
current sound cards offer two types of audio-input jacks: line-level input
(usually indicated with the words
Some sound cards are better than others. Those found on most laptop
computers are optimized to deliver "near-CD" quality when you play music, but
they're not nearly as good at recording. For desktop PCs, you can't go wrong
with high-end models from Turtle Beach, Ensoniq, or Creative Labs. We found an
exhaustive set of current PC sound card ratings at
You'll need to schlep your stereo components near enough to the computer for you to hook everything up. For an LP record player, you will likely need both the turntable component and your amplifier; you'll have to connect the turntable to the amp's line-inputs and then connect the line-outputs from the amp to the PC's sound card. Most cassette players provide a sufficient line-level signal without the help of an amplifier.
You must also have a stereo audio cable--with male RCA connectors (the large round plugs on your stereo) on one end and a 1/8-inch "mini" stereo (headphone-style) plug on the other end--to connect the components to the PC. Any store that sells stereos will likely carry the necessary cable; save some money and skip the high-end, gold-tipped cable, which won't make a difference in the sound your computer picks up. Once you have your cable, connect the line-out port of the playback device to the line-in port on your sound card.
Radio-frequency interference from the PC itself can put a lot of static into your music, so do the following to minimize it:
The Sound Recorder applet included with Windows won't cut it for
recording high-quality stereo music. For our examples in this story, we used
If you don't like MusicMatch Jukebox, you can also use any of a wide
variety of free or shareware applications (available in our
Before you begin, to avoid any interruption in the sound-recording process (and resulting errors), close any open windows on your desktop as well as all open applications, except for your audio-recording software. Disable any screen savers and antivirus utilities, making sure to turn off any auto-update features as well.
First, set MusicMatch Jukebox to capture sound from your playback
device. Launch MusicMatch Jukebox and choose
Open the Recording window (select
Next you'll need to specify a recording format. Here are a few criteria you'll want to consider:
To make your recording quality selection, choose
If you haven't used a turntable in a while, don't forget the basics for a clean, pop-free playback: Always give the LP a quick brushing with a lint remover just before you begin recording, play the LP in a dry run to remove packed-in dirt from the vinyl grooves, and then clean the disk again (check the stylus for accumulated lint as well). And if you have a direct-drive turntable, calibrate your turntable's rotation speed.
If you plan to capture music from a tape player, clean and demagnetize the tape heads. You can pick up a tape head demagnetizer at any good stereo store or at a Radio Shack. Check the Dolby NR and tape material settings on your player against the cassette. To determine the optimal settings, listen to the output before recording.
Just before you start recording, you will need to make final adjustments to the playback and record levels for your sound card. This is an essential step, and you should do it any time you change the record or cassette, or whenever you switch between different playback devices.
To begin, double-click the speaker icon in the system tray. (If you
don't see it there, click
The Volume Control has two mixing consoles. The first one that opens
is the playback mixer; to switch to the recording mixer (labeled
You'll need to adjust the line-in slider in both mixers. If that
slider is missing from one or both mixers, choose
You can launch two instances of Volume Control if you want both mixers to appear at the same time. Launch Volume Control once and then switch that window to the recording mixer. Launch Volume Control again by way of the Start menu, and you should then see both the playback and recording mixers on your desktop.
Some sound cards, such as Aureal or Creative Labs cards, may include custom volume control software that lets you set playback and recording levels from a single mixing console.
The final step before you start recording is to run a test playback session to check your audio levels. With everything hooked up and ready to go, lower your turntable's tonearm onto the record (or push the play button on your cassette deck). Turn back to your PC and open the Volume Control console. Switch to the recording mixer and adjust the line-in slider until the sound reaches a volume that's comfortable and lacks static and distortion from being overdriven through the sound card.
Next, open the playback mixer and adjust your playback levels by moving the line-in volume and balance sliders. You should hear sound through your computer's attached speaker system or through your headphones. Select the Mute check boxes for the Microphone and CD Audio Balance sliders. In general, you'll get better results by setting the main Volume Control sliders to a slightly higher level than the line-in sliders.
When you've achieved your perfect playback level, open MusicMatch
Jukebox (or whatever sound recording application you plan to use). Click the
To hear what you've recorded, click the
With your PC recording setup now calibrated, enter a new name for your
selection in MusicMatch Jukebox's Recorder window. Cue up your track, click the
If you have scratchy LPs or older cassette tapes, you can remaster your favorite tunes by using some widely available commercial software.
If you own Easy CD Creator (the suite of CD recording tools made by Roxio, a subsidiary of Adaptec), its CD Spin Doctor utility can remove tape hiss, pops, and crackles in your recordings.
CD Spin Doctor has a simple interface: Select a source audio file
(.wav or .mp3) from the left pane and then choose a destination "cleaned-up"
version of the file. Click the
In our tests on scratchy LPs, CD Spin Doctor only superficially
removed the kinds of surface noise you get when you record from LPs and
cassettes. In comparison, Enhanced Audio's $100
Diamond Cut allows you to record directly through your sound card's line-in port (bypassing MusicMatch Jukebox), but it's much more than that. This shareware gem, available in a 30-day free trial version and bundled with some disc burners, includes a full set of recording studio tools and detailed documentation to go with them. Preset filters for electrical hum, tape hiss, crackling vinyl, and clicks and pops allow you to clean up a recording without being a professional sound maven.
Whether you decide to polish your music collection after recording it
or you merely capture tunes and play them directly in .mp3 format, you'll want
to check out FXSound's
DFX, a plug-in for the most popular MP3 players (including Nullsoft's Winamp, Real's RealJukebox, and MusicMatch Jukebox), provides an auxiliary set of playback controls. Using DFX, you can adjust the treble and bass response, add "concert ambiance," or create artificial stereo separation without altering or distorting your sound file.
With all the tools available to help you create a digital music library, there's no real reason (other than sentimental value) to keep hold of your LPs, cassette tapes, or reel-to-reel devices. After a while, even the best-maintained player will likely break or fail beyond repair, so it's best not to wait to convert your music to a digital format. Besides, in converting your albums you can reacquaint yourself with the music of yesteryear. Then again, you may want to choose wisely--we all might be better off if you don't help the music of the Bee Gees survive into the next millennium.