How I Digitize Records

last updated 2/10/2013
D Vautier

I use several different programs to capture and edit recorded music whether it is from CD, cassette or vinyl.  There does not seem to be just one product on the market that can do every function well.  Most of the free stuff is just no good.  The good software is not too expensive however.

As to quality I do nothing less that 48000/16 for sound and 32000/16 for talk.  I compress everything to mp3 at 320.  My listening devices are not that good, car radios, zunes, usb sticks, iphones. 


Functions needed

1. A capture program that can slice and dice record sides and cassette tracks into files.  I use DAK.

2. An editor that does good simple basic work.  Wavepad does well.

3. A real good pop and crackle remover of needed.  Clickrepair is good but I only use it when I have to.  DC Mellenium works well for bad background noises but it's complicated and takes time to learn.

4.  Wave to MP3 converter.  Tons of these around.  Use latest LAME.

5.  Documentation.  MP3tag is very good.

6.  Burner.  lots around.  I use Nero.       

My Procedure

I think it is very important to use a good set of earphones when working with the music capture.  If you try to monitor with speakers you will not always be able to hear the background noise.  It is essential to listen for noise level.  You're not doing this to enjoy the music.  This is a technical function. It is also good to have your three basic hardware devices operating properly free of hum and noise.

1.  Examine the record or cassette and see if it is worth recording.  You have to play sections because quality is not visible.  The cassettes after 1990 have much better signal and capture well. Some vinyl songs may be damaged so they require filters.  Some records may look fine but when they are sampled, they sound terrible.  Forget it.  Listen for the labials, "s" sounds and background hiss.  Records can appear damaged and show no evidence of it when played because the dirt may be only on the ridge.  Warped records can only capture the inner tracks.

2.  Clean the record.  I don't spend a lot of time here because I think it is overrated.  If there are no fingerprints I get away with just dusting.  If you leave a record for just 10 minutes before playing it has to be redusted.  It has to be redusted again just before play.  Carbon fiber brushes are fine enough to get into the groves.  Your stylus, if in good shape, like edges .7 mil or so, only rides half way down the groove.

If I like the record I will go to some extra trouble to clean it, but in general I can't get too excited about cleaning.  When I do, I use a highly diluted mild detergent in a spray bottle and my fingers and then plenty of cold water.  

3. Sample sections of the record to get the correct signal strength.  Don't overdrive.  It's probably better to under drive just a bit, but when you amplify later you could bring up some noise.  The DAK capture software I use for example shows if I am overdriving.  My preamp also tells me the signal strength and can be adjusted.  Some records have a very strong signal while others do not.  The stronger the signal the lower the background noise.  Look for the strongest song on a side and set your volume accordingly, and volumes can change from side to side.  Volumes can change even on the same side in the case of collections or "greatest hits" type stuff.  The left or right channel volume may have to be adjusted because sometimes they are not balanced on the record.  This occurs with records that were originally monophonic.  Songs are difficult to break out In concert albums.

4. Record the side.  Have a cup of coffeeSet a timer for 20 minutes and go do something else.  Now look at the entire waveform before chopping it up.  You may have missed on the volume.  If the record gets stuck nudge it out and keep recording.  you can edit it later.  

5. Put markers between songs.  You may sometimes need to zoom in to do this.  If your capture software does not have markers I don't know what to tell you.  It can be real painful editing an entire side.  If it's a live piece you can often recognize the clapping.

If you are dealing with a concert piece, you need both the jacket and the record in hand as a guide to determine where to put markers based on the time of each selection.  Public concerts are hard to break apart.

6. Save the files to a folder.  I do this in WAV format since it has a lot of granulation.  I use 48000 KHz sampling.

7. Edit each song using some good editing software like wavepad.  I do at minimum two operations for every song; clean up song ends, and remove obvious pops and high end hiss.  Some songs don't need much work but they always need to have the ends cleaned up.  I leave one second of zero sound at the beginning unless it's a fade-in.  At the end it's often just a fade-out.  Listen for the background noise.

I fade-out the clapping on concert records.

CDs that are ripped to WAV often need volumes adjusted.  Also there is only a one third second lead in and about a ten second tail.  Adjust the leadin to one second and reduce the tail to one second. 

If the song has background, I use the DC Millennium software which has filters where you can sample background.  Wavepad is way great for cleaning up ends and individual pops.  Clickrepair is good for numerous small pops but it can reduce signal.  

Pops occur even on brand new records. The Millennium pop tool can remove small pops successfully and is excellent for background noise removal.  Real bad pops have to be removed manually.

Edit the wav file which is lossless (does not deteriorate through editing) so you can do editing operations all you want and save all you want without gradual loss of information.  When you are done with the editing save the lossless file. 

8. Convert your WAV to MP3 or any other media that has Codec level III tags or other tag information.  This will allow you to add documentation which is a must.  MP3 reduces file size by around 5 times even at 320 kbps.  There's lots of options.  Some people recommend VBA.  I don't notice a big difference.  I use a 320 for music and 128 for talking. 

9.Add Documentation; title, artist, album, genre.  Use the jacket and record information.  Don't forget about cover art which can be added with MP3TAG or other tools.  Some listening devices distinguish between the "album artist" field and "contributing artist" field for indexing songs.  "album artist" is indexed but the "contributing artist" field is often used just for display depending on your software.  I will also scan jackets if they have individual song information and put it in the comments field.

10.  Once you do this you have everything you need to burn songs anywhere: to CD, download to Ipod, transfer to Zune or a thumb drive or USB stick for your car.