If you're returning to DJing as a digital DJ but still have a vinyl collection, or are considering making the switch but are scared about what on earth you're going to do about your "vinyl mountain", then ripping your old records to MP3 is probably high on your priority list.
Luckily, with some planning and a bit of understanding, such MP3s can sound fantastic.
This isn't a list of instructions, as everyone's circumstances will be different. More, it's an introduction to the topic and the issues, with some tips to help you get it right, if and when you decide to go ahead and so some ripping.
There are 4 stages to the process that you need to consider:
- You have to decide the best way to go about it depending upon what equipment you already have
- You need to install ripping software on your computer
- You need to do the ripping successfully
- You need to turn your ripped music into MP3s that are fit to join your collection
We'll take these one at a time:
1. What equipment do I need?
You have 3 basic choices (there are plenty of other ways of doing it, but these are the main ones). What you go for depends upon your budget, and what you already own.
1. A dedicated USB Turntable
If you want just one piece of equipment to do the whole job, then go for a USB turntable. This is a special record deck with a USB lead to plug into your PC. It has all the circuitry built in to it that you need to send a digital signal to your PC.
The first thing to say is: Avoid the USB turntables you see in magazines and retail outlets, from brands you've never heard of and at low prices. Would you use one of those in a night club? No.
Then don't use one to do a one-and-only rip of your favourite records. Not if you expect the MP3s to sound good, at any rate.
2. Normal turntable plus mixer and sound card
If you already own a turntable, you may already own a mixer. You may also own a sound card. But unless your sound card has audio inputs as well as audio outputs (and most DJ sound cards don't), you will need a separate sound card.
What you do is feed the "record out" or the "master out" from your DJ mixer into the sound card, which converts it to a digital signal and feeds it into your PC via a USB or FireWire cable (it's usually one of these, anyway).
Your DJ mixer has an RIAA phono pre-amp built into it to make the signal from your needle loud enough for the sound card to do its job, and really that's all we're using the mixer for here.
Make sure your mixer's pre-amp is good quality (do some Googling...) and choose a decent sound card. The minimum tech spec is 16bit/44.1kHz, which is the equivalent of CD quality, everything else notwithstanding.
If you don't own a sound card and want to buy one you can use for DJing too, it is possible to get a sound card that will do both jobs for you - there's a couple in our recent DJ sound card round-up that also have inputs, for instance.
3. Normal turntable plus dedicated vinyl ripping sound card
If you have a decent turntable but no mixer (or a rubbish mixer that you don't want to subject your vinyl for eternity to), and especially if you're going to have to buy a sound card anyway for your DJing, you may as well go for one of the models that has the ability to rip straight from vinyl as well as its DJ features.
These sound cards effectively have the vinyl pre-amp but and the bit that turns your signal into digital to send down the USB to the PC, all in one.
Again, if you're going to need a sound card anyway for your DJing, look for one that can do both functions for you such as the Native Instruments 4 (US$199 / £154 / €182) or the Mixvibes U-MIX44 (US$99 / £72 / €85).
Alternatively, if you are never going to need a DJ sound card and simply want one for ripping vinyl, a popular record-only models is the Art USB Phono Plus (US$66), which I have got and is excellent. The minimum tech spec to look for is 16bit/44.1kHz - the same as CD sound quality.
Don't do this...
The more astute may have noticed that we keep carping on about "sound cards with inputs". Hang on, you may be saying, my laptop has a Line-in. Why not feed the signal into that?
Just don't. Laptop sound cards are not optimised for recording well through 1/8" line-in jacks. Put the idea from your mind and let's move on...
Of course, if you have a desktop computer with a good dedicated sound card then that's different, but if you have a laptop with integrated sound, it won't be good enough.
2. Getting your ripping software
This records the input. The hands-down standard is Audacity. It's free, it's cross-platform, and it works well. You install it, get the settings right...
- Playback Device: The computer's sound card
- Recording Device: [the input from your sound card or the drivers that came with your USB deck]
- "Software Play Through" box checked (this is what allows you to hear the audio as you record it)
...and you're ready to go.
Ripping software may come with your USB turntable or sound card. By all means give it a go. Follow your ears, though. It's not likely to be the best of the best, and Audacity does the job very well indeed. Some manufacturers have thrown the towel in and just point you to Audacity anyway, nowadays.
3. Doing the ripping
If your cartridge is cheap, buy an expensive one. If your needle is older than "nearly new", get a new one. If your leads are ropey, get hi-fi leads. If your kit can be earthed, earth it. If you're in a noisy, vibration-filled room, move to a quiet one. If people walk around near your turntable, move them (or the turntable).
Get the gist? This is your one chance to get this right. A decent, well-isolated turntable with a great cartridge and new needle will produce the best results. I used to live in a flat when every time a lorry thundered past, the record would jump out of the groove! Not a good place to rip vinyl. (Or do mixtapes, as I continually founds out...)
While we're at it, clean your records (unless they're just out of the plastic from the shop).
It's to get the recording level right. Levels should be as high as they'll go "in the green". If they flick into the red, it should be momentary and only slightly. This is important - too high, and the signal will "clip"; too low and any residual noise is proportionately louder to the music. The best advice I can give here is trial and error - and use your ears.
4. From raw ripped music to finished MP3
So you've hit "record", grabbed a file and hit "stop" at the end. You can now edit the silence away at the start and finish using Audacity, listen to check it sounds good, and save as an MP3.
(Audacity actually needs an extra external dll file to be able to export as MP3 - when you try to do so, it will give you further instructions. It's a 5-minute process to go to the web to finds and install it, then it's done forever.)
Record your MP3s at 320kbps from Audacity and you'll be fine - set this in the preferences. Again, trust your ears.
So what next? I like to do the following (for vinyl rips and all other incoming music), and I'm including it here for completion's sake:
- Run each tune through Platinum Notes 3. Platinum Notes 3 (US$98) corrects any pitch variations, gets the volume perfect, and does some other audio quality tricks. (As Platinum Notes prefers to work with WAV files, and can output MP3 320kbps files itself anway, I actually export as WAV from Audacity and let Platinum Notes encode the file as an MP3 for me when it's done its magic). You can also look at MP3Gain, a free way to "normalise" volume across your rips (and your whole collection).
- Run each tune through Mixed in Key. Mixed in Key (US$58) simply adds key information for me. I mix in key nowadays, so for me this is an important addition. Rapid Evolution is a possible alternative, and as a bonus, it's free
- Add artist, title, cover art etc - I use iTunes to do this manually, but there are lots of alternatives out there.
Unfortunately, ripping vinyl is not the same as ripping CDs, both in complexity and in time needed! I ripped 20% of my vinyl collection on converting to digital, and it took me all summer.
Still, I listened to some great music and pruned out some rubbish at the same time.
And once you've done it, you can put your old vinyl away somewhere safe, knowing that your digital versions are as good as they can be and that all the wonders of digital DJing now await you.
Have you got a mountain of vinyl to rip, or have you just done it? Made any mess-ups or got any extra tips? Please share with us in the comments.