This is pretty much common knowledge, now: vinyl records have been experiencing an unprecedented comeback over the past few years. While the arrival of the cassette tape and compact disc on the market during the 90s seemed to have made vinyl records a thing of the past (before being themselves supplanted by dematerialized music in the early 2000s), it experienced a triumphant resurgence in the 2010s. The vinyl record got a new lease of life and, upon its return, enjoyed a few novelties which made it even more appealing to collectors and novices. With colored or transparent records, etched sides, 3D holograms, picture discs, re-releases and remastered albums, the vinyl record has been rejuvenated. However, a crucial element of modern audio remains an issue: portability.
In the early 2000s, the release of the first MP3 players revolutionized the market of portable music devices. Nowadays, digital audio players can store multiple gigabytes of music and their storage capacity can even be extended thanks to their micro-SD port. Modern DAPs can also stream Hi-Res music from online platforms or be used as a musical source in a car using Bluetooth transmission. We can also mention the rise in popularity of multiroom hi-fi systems and connected speakers, along with the possibility to listen to music via online music platforms or locally shared files. With that in mind, what is the best solution to enjoy a collection of old records that was passed-down, to look for an LP at a record store, to support your favorite artists by buying a physical copy of their albums, or to collect your favorite records while still taking advantage of the convenience and easy access to dematerialized music?
Some music labels quickly understood that collecting vinyl records shouldn’t mean giving up listening to music on-the-go or having a multiroom system at home. As a result, they came up with a solution so that physical format and digital audio file may coexist: placing a download code inside the sleeve of vinyl records. Then all you have to do is go to the URL address written on the card and enter the download code to legally download the album. Most of the time, the album is available in MP3 320kbps format, but some platforms let the user pick between various formats (MP3, FLAC, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, ALAC, WAV, AIFF). Some vinyl records also include a CD version, which is ideal to easily digitize the album or to listen to it in a car with no USB port or Bluetooth transmission. Such practice isn’t customary for all record labels and manufacturers yet, which means that it is sometimes necessary to digitize records yourself if you want to listen to them on a smartphone, a DAP or a wireless audio system.
Digitizing a physical support consists in transforming a photograph, a slide, a VHS or cassette tape, or a vinyl record into a digital file. Once the files are transferred and stored on your computer, an SD card, a CD or a USB flash drive, you can easily save, copy and share them. This method is ideal for enjoying your record collection wherever you go, but also to extend the lifespan of your vinyl records. So, how do you digitize records?
How to digitize your records in the best conditions possible
The process is similar to the working principle of a digital to analog converter. However, while a DAC is designed to transform a digital signal into an analog signal in the most accurate way possible, without coloring or damaging it, digitizing a record consists of doing it the other way around. The turntable transfers the analog signal to the analog to digital converter (or A/D converter) in order to transform the sinusoidal wave into a digital signal made of 0s and 1s, or square wave. This digital signal will be more or less identical to the original content depending on the sampling rate. We will come back on this point later.
- The sound quality (sampling rate)
- If you already have a turntable and wish to keep it
Whether you decide to use a USB turntable or a dedicated preamp, there are some essential steps to follow in order to ensure optimal conditions during the digitizing process.
First of all, it is crucial not to overlook the importance of the USB cable used to connect the turntable or the phono preamp to your computer. To ensure proper digitization of a record, it is important to guarantee a stable dataflow and to prevent jitter. Just like with a USB DAC, data packets have to be transmitted without interruption so that the entirety of the signal may be recorded by the software.
Accessories commonly used to maximize the performance of a turntable are also key elements to ensure proper digitization. While these accessories are important to preserve the signal when it is transmitted from the preamp to the amplifier, then to the speakers to become a soundwave and reach our ears after being influenced by our surroundings, they are absolutely essential when it comes to directly recording the signal straight out of the turntable. It is crucial to make sure that the turntable is placed on a stable surface and to keep interference to a minimum. This may be caused by having too many electrical devices connected to the same power strip, poor electrical grounding, or the use of low-quality cables. Using damping feet such as the NorStone Damp 50 or Pro-Ject Damp It and a record clamp such as the Audio-Technica AT618 which will absorb even more vibrations which may be detrimental to the digitization process, or even worse, cause the record to skip.
To ensure ideal conditions for playback and digitization, it is also extremely important to clean the record and the needle really well to make sure that no speck of dust or any particles will disturb the process. By using a product specially made to clean vinyl records and such as the AM Record Cleaner, a stylus brush, for example the AM Stylus Cleaner, and a carbon fiber brush such as the Pro-Ject Brush It, you can get rid of the particles and the static electricity. This will ensure optimal conditions for playback and digitization.
A USB turntable is specially designed to let you digitize your vinyl records. These turntables feature an integrated RIAA preamp and a USB output to connect them directly to a computer. All there is to do is to install recording software and start playback. Many turntables come with the Audacity software, which may also be downloaded free of charge on the official website. Once the turntable is connected to the computer and is recognized as a peripheral device, start the software and select the turntable as the input. You can then create a new track and start recording before placing the needle on the disc.
When digitizing your LPs, it is especially important to run a preliminary test before recording so that you can adjust the sound level. You need to make sure that the sound level control remains below the red zone at all times in order to avoid clipping and the resulting distortion.
Once the record has been entirely digitized, you can separate the tracks and export them in your prefered format. During the export, you can also enter the metadata (artist, album, year, …).
Among the USB turntables available on the market, there are entry level models designed for listening to records and digitizing them in the easiest way possible, most of the time in MP3 128 kbps files. However, some models are designed to offer high quality digitization, such as the Sony PS-HX500 turntable, for example. This model is Hi-Res and DSD certified and features an analog to digital converter which is capable of outputting DSD 2.8 or 5,6MHz as well as 16-bit/44.1 kHz up to 24-bit/192kHz files.
Thanks to its analog to digital converter which is natively compatible with DSD 2.8MHz, DSD 5.6MHz, and WAV up to 24-bit/192kHz, this turntable allows you to turn your records into Hi-Res audio files. Other models are also fitted with such analog to digital converters, such as the Pro-Ject Debut Record Master HiRes, which is capable of exporting DSD256 audio streams up to 705.6kHz and PCM up to 384kHz. Hi-res Audio Recorder is a software specially developed for this type of application and will allow you to take full advantage of the potential of Hi-Res certified turntables.
Phono preamp with USB output
If you already have a turntable and have no desire to replace it, digitizing your LPs without replacing your records player remains an option. Whether it is for sentimental reasons, because you are perfectly happy with your current turntable, or because it is a vintage model or a high-end audiophile model without USB port, using a RIAA phono preamp with a USB output lets you digitize your records without switching your turntable.
A dedicated phono preamp with a USB port works like a standard RIAA preamp in a hi-fi system. A preamplifier enhances the performance of a high-end turntable by reducing background noise and ensuring a more spacious and detailed sound stage. Analog to digital converters used in USB phono preamps are, generally speaking, better than those used in turntables. A mid range preamp such as the Thorens MM-008 ADC lets you digitize your records in 32-bit/96kHz PCM.
For the most demanding audiophiles, some USB phono preamps are high-end models designed to ensure digitization at a very high bitrate to remain as close to the original analog signal as possible. This is the case of the Pro-Ject Pre Box DS2 hi-fi preamp. This versatile device is compatible with moving magnet and moving coil cartridges along with many other sources thanks to its comprehensive range of inputs. This preamp is made with premium components and uses state of the art technologies, and as a result, the sampling rate ranges from 32-bit/44.1kHz to 768 kHz.
However, note that the relevancy of such sampling rates is discussed at great length among audiophiles. On a purely pragmatic level, a standard vinyl record covers a frequency range from 16Hz to around 23kHz. As a reminder, human hearing ranges from 20Hz to 20kHz for “young” ears which haven’t experienced any damaging sound exposure. Without getting overly technical, we should mention that the sampling theorem known as the Nyquist-Shannon theorem states that the representation of a discrete-time signal requires equally spaced samples at a sampling rate greater than twice the maximum frequency of the signal to be recorded. A sampling rate of 44.1kHz covers a maximum frequency of 22kHz, which is slightly over the human hearing capacity. A digital recording in 16bit/44.1kHz should therefore be vastly sufficient for most uses. No need to use a superior sampling rate for listening to music via Bluetooth, on your phone or via a multi-room system. Demanding audiophiles will favor a digitization in 96kHz or over in order to retain all the harmonic details. However, although digitizing LPs is a great way to preserve a record collection or to rediscover it in a new light, the aura of a vinyl record and the uniqueness of the sound are tied to the object itself and the listening experience.
Browse our selection of equipment developed to transfer vinyl records to digital files in our digitizing selection.