How to Digitize Your Vinyl CollectionS

Your LP collection may be the coelacanth of storage mediums, but it is often a repository of tracks and titles that you simply can't get anywhere else. Here's how to digitize your wax-platter music, and finally drag the last remnants of your analog life into the 21st Century.

The overarching idea behind LP digitization is actually really simple. You output the analog signal, boost it with a preamp, then feed it into a computer where it is recorded in an electronic format. What's difficult is deciding how you want to do that. It depends greatly on what resources you already have at your disposal and how much you're willing to spend to get the gear you want. In general, you'll need at least some, if not all, of the following items:

  • A turntable with at least "phono level" outputs, though newer models will also sometimes include a USB port
  • A stereo receiver with phono inputs and "line level" outputs
  • A digital phono preamp (if your receiver lacks phono level inputs and a built-in line amp)
  • A computer-audio interface (a device that changes the analog signal to digital)
  • Audio recording software such as Adobe Audition, Garage Band, or Audacity
  • Cables: two RCA-RCA, one RCA-3.5mm TRS Y-connector

Now, a quick word on Line levels. The line level is defined as, "the specified strength of an audio signal used to transmit analog sound between audio components." That specified strength is one volt. The phonographic needle and cartridge (phono level), on the other hand, produce an electrical signal on the order of minivolts. So, to boost phono level to line level, the signal needs to be amplified—either in the turntable itself or externally using a phono preamp. There are literally hundreds of such preamps available on the market today, ranging in price from a few bucks to hundreds and offering a menagerie of features and output options. Two very popular models are the ART DJPRE II, which has both analog inputs and outputs, and the ART USB Phono Plus, which outputs directly to a USB and can save you a few steps.

Let's start with the turntable itself. First, determine what its output level and type is. That will directly determine how many steps this process will take. If it's an analog-phono output, you'll need to run the signal through a preamp, then through the receiver, then through the computer-audio interface, then into the computer. If it's analog-line level, it can be plugged directly into the computer audio-interface, then into the computer. If it's a digital output,you can stop reading now—just plug your turntable directly into your computer and start recording.

Turntables with analog-phono outputs are getting rather hard to find outside out of your parent's stereo cabinets. They're easy to spot because in addition to the RCA plugs, the output also includes a ground wire that eliminates the 60hz hum when connected. This type of turntable will require the most steps and additional equipment as you'll have to boost and equalize the signal before digitizing it.

To do so, plug one of RCA-RCA cables into the phono out jacks on the turntable and the matching Phono In jacks on the preamp. If the preamp has an analog output, use the second set of RCA-RCA plugs to connect its Line Out to the stereo receiver's Line In. Then, take your RCA-3.5mm jack Y-cable and connect the receiver's Line Out to the computer-audio interface's input, then plug the interface into your computer's USB port. Got all that?

Turntable -> Preamp -> Receiver -> Interface -> Computer

Now if you're stereo has a built-in line amp and Phono In, you can skip the the preamp since it's redundant. And if you've got a newer stereo with digital output, you can ignore the Interface for the same reason. And, of course, if your turntable produces signal at Line level and has a digital output, you can cut out the three middle steps and connect the turntable directly to the computer.

Now that you have your hardware ducks in a row, it's time to actually do some ripping. Turn on all the devices, set them to the proper channels, double check you've not crossed any connections, and boot up your audio software. Before you start recording, you'll want to adjust the input source, audio quality, number of channels, etc as well.

Then, once you're done ripping the tracks, its simply a matter of importing the resulting MP3 or AAC files into iTunes or uploading them to your cloud service. [B&H Photo - About - Alpinesoft - Inside Home Recording - Image: Abacucu / Shutterstock]

This is just one of a multitude of the ways one can digitize his LP collection. Do you use an easier, cheaper, or better method?