One of the more unheralded parts of the resurgence in interest in vinyl in recent years is the application of modern technology to improve the hardware and software. Modern turntables include the use of carbon fibre, ceramics and alloys that were the preserve of science labs in the 1980s. Construction techniques like CNC and 3D printing are creating shapes and forms at prices that were previously unobtainable. Some of the astonishing finishes that have accompanied the Record of the Month and Store limited editions are the results of processes that have also only become practical in the last few years.
This technology isn't limited to playback. In recent years, the business of digitizing vinyl has become both cost effective and much easier than it once was. Where once, you'd be looking a hefty selection of fairly pricey equipment and some significant practice to convert a record to a digital file, you can make very good quality files with cost effective equipment. This piece is intended to be short guide on how you might go about turning your analogue into ones and zeros.
Firstly,whywould you want to do such a thing? If we hold to the argument that vinyl is our preferred medium to listen to music (and it is), surely it makes no sense to turn it into something different? The argument for ripping comes down to practicality and access. While it is easy enough to listen to vinyl in a home environment, the business of listening to the same material in other locations- on the move, in a car, or simply on somebody else's audio system, are most easily solved by turning it into a readily accessible digital file.
The most commonly encountered method of doing this is to turn the signal from a record into a digital file that can be split into tracks, tagged and converted into the format of your choice. This is generally most easily done on a computer and many pieces of software exist for the task. The first decision you will have to make is where you take your signal from. A number of turntables hitting the market from manufacturers like Pro-ject, Audio Technica, Numark and TEAC have a USB output fitted directly to the turntable and this works in partnership to connect directly to a laptop.
If you have a good record player in your possession already, adding a second one for ripping might seem like overkill, so you can also take a digital signal from a specially designed phono preamp. Manufacturers like Pro-Ject, Rega, NAD, Chord Electronics and Alpha Design Labs have all released products that can perform this task and many of them are seriously good preamps in their own right. A final extra method is to use your existing preamp and attach an analogue to digital convertor to the output which will give you the USB connection you need.
There are pros and cons to all of these approaches. For brevity, rather than go through them all, what it all comes down to is that when you rip vinyl, you will preserve the basic character not only of the recording but the playback equipment too. If you have good analogue to digital conversion- and in 2016, this is not terribly expensive- you will have a warts and all presentation of your own turntable playing the record in question. This means that if you have a good turntable already, you'll want to use it for the rip rather than buying a cheaper one to go alongside it. My preference will always be toward using a preamp with USB out or an A-D over a turntable with the facility built in.
The concept that everything is recorded has some other immediate consequences. Is the turntable you are planning to use properly set up? If it isn't, fear not because we've written some useful guides on this already but be under no illusions that any issues will be there forever on the recording. By the same token, any dirt or scratches will also make the journey into posterity so be sure to make sure that the record is as clean as it can be before you begin.
The generally accepted software for performing the recording and encoding process is Audacity. This is free and supports Windows, OSX and Ubuntu/Linux. This will locate the USB interface you have connected, be it from turntable, preamp or A-D (and please note that due to most manufacturers buying these interfaces in, it is highly likely that the interface will show up under a random name when you do so). You can then select the sample rate from the ones the connected device supports- as a point of reference, a 'CD sized' file is 16bits sampled at 44.1kHz. My recommendation would always be to rip to this as a minimum- as we'll cover in a moment, you can create a compressed copy from a lossless one but you can't do it the other way around.
Audacity gives you the means to adjust the input level (although it is likely you'll need to max it and leave it there as the output from a turntable preamp is likely to be lower than from a more conventional source) and split your recording into separate tracks. As you are working in the digital domain, this means you can start the recording ahead of going anywhere near the turntable and simply trim off what you don't need afterwards. The easiest way to monitor your work is via Audacity as there is a time lag between the record playing and the material being encoded so you will be more accurate if you listen at the recording point.
Once you've done this, you will have a number of tracks encoded the format you selected but with no information on them. When you have reached this point, I would recommend personally leaving Audacity alone and taking these rough files to another piece of software- in this case, something called Perfect Tunes which is part of the dBPoweramp suite of software which works for Windows and OSX.
Perfect Tunes is among the best, if not, the best piece of software for applying artwork and tags to raw files such as created with Audacity. You can apply artist, genre, album titles and track titles to the files as well as either a single piece of artwork, or indeed one piece of art per track if you really want to. Unlike Audacity, dBPoweramp is not free but once purchased, your license is indefinite meaning you can move it from computer to computer. The dBPoweramp software is superb for ripping CDs too and it also offers file conversion- useful if you want to play you lossless rips in iTunes for example by tuning WAV into Apple Lossless. You can also create a compressed version too.
Ripped vinyl files are the same as any other ripped files- if they aren't tagged properly, they are a nightmare to use and find later on. It can seem anticlimactic and time consuming after making a successful 'pass' of a record to spend some time typing in the metadata but trust me, it is well worth doing if you want to make proper use of the file. Likewise, adding art is well worth the effort too if you have a playback system that supports it.
Ultimately, in all but a few special cases- ultra rare and expensive records being the main one, I'm not advocating using vinyl rips as a substitute for listening to the record itself. What I am suggesting is that where you have a record that you're enjoying and it doesn't have an accessible download or similar, you can get more use out of that music with some well thought out rips.
The Ideal Equipment
The Behringer can take an analoge signal from your preamp and turn it into a digital signal on a USB output for recording. Sample rates up to 24/192kHz are supported and it can be found for alotless than $200.
The Audio Technica provides solid playback and useful features including a USB socket for direct connection to a computer for ripping at sample rates of 16/44.1 and 16/48kHz.
It isn't much to look at but the Fono can take a signal from a moving magnet cartridge and turn it into a 16/44,kHz digital signal as well as sound pretty good while it does it.
If you want an all in one ripper, the Sony is the pick of the bunch. It sounds good, responds to upgrades and can rip material to multiple formats including DSD thanks to bundled software.
The GT40a is a moving magnet and moving coil preamp with built in A-D conversion and adjustable gain. It is capable of generating superb rips and sounds good used as a preamp in its own right.
If you must have the best of the best, for a short time only, the last few of these sophisticated beasts are going through at a knockdown price (relatively speaking). Able to encode to any format that takes your fancy, if you want to record greatness for posterity, this is where to look.