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Digitizing Old Record Albums

I used to collect records, both for myself and as material for a part time job as a DJ at weddings and parties. I amassed a sizable collection (perhaps 800 albums, though I have not counted). A lot of that was collecting other people’s collections when they converted to CD or downsized for families or new hobbies. At one point, an Air Force buddy unloaded his huge collection of Soviet Era Eastern European Rock and Metal albums on me, many of which are pressed on an East German label named AMIGA (which was a novelty at the time as I had an Amiga computer).

I eventually switched to compact disks, but could not afford to replace the entire record collection, so I maintained both collections and working turntable and compact disk players. As the years went by I played my records less and less, and even ripped all the compact disks into my computer for convenience. Many of my record albums are now replaced with compact disks now.

There are a few records that I keep because they sound better than a compact disk. There are very few of these, but they are special. It requires a really good moving coil cartridge and high quality preamplifier to get this spectacular sound, but I am proud to own a few.

There are many records that I keep because the labels have never printed a compact disk version of the album, or they did so, but for a short run and it is now out of print and impossible to find.

For these, I thought I would get around to digitizing them some day, and then I kept putting it off.
My Mom has re-prioritized this for me, and I love her for it. She had a few records she could not find on compact disk and she wanted them “turned into CDs” but knew one of her two computer geek sons could do this… and the first batch included some old Christmas albums she (and my brother and I) grew up with. Now I have a mission and a deadline… and set to work.

I ran into several road blocks. Converting the entire CD library over to computer files has been so convenient for me that I had not even used the plain old stereo gear in ages. The CD player, the cassette deck, and the turntable were all dusty and not working. I could not even find the phonograph cartridge I packed away so it would not get damaged in the last household move. A long weekend, and some time wrestling dust bunnies (are they still bunnies when they can swallow you whole?) and I am happy to report the gear is mostly working again. The cassette deck and CD player (both vintage late-1980s Technics) are once again working and sound fantastic. I forgot that MP3 is a convenient compromise that really does NOT sound as good as CD or even tape.

I found the cartridge, a Yamaha MC-705, and it’s replacement, a fantastic Denon D-110; I spent a few hours trying to adjust the tonearm on my Yamaha PX-3 turntable, and could not get it to work. Something is preventing the arm actuators from sensing when it needs to move, and the belt for the linear tracking arm is slipping. Service manuals and repair kit are now on order.

In the meantime, I wanted an even quieter belt drive turntable to record from, so I ordered a Denon DP300F with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge from and it came in just a couple of days. I did not really need the new cartridge, but I wanted to hear a different take and have a backup. I disabled the preamplifier that is inside the turntable, as my vintage Onkyo Integra P-308 has a vastly better preamplifier, plugged everything in and adjusted the tonearm in about an hour and started playing records and was immediately impressed with the quality of the sound.

For years I have used a Roland Edirol UA-1EX USB audio interface to connect my Mac Mini to my vintage Yamaha R-9 receiver (the main amp in my house). The Edirol can import and export sound, I had just never used the import function before now.
I plugged the tape out connectors on my preamplifier into the inputs on the Edirol, and fired up Audacity (free, open source sound file editor and converter for Linux, Mac, Windows, others) and was pleased to discover that the sound was already being “heard” on my Mac Mini. Simply press the “record” button and it began sampling direct to my hard drive. I had no idea how easy this would be. The hard part is getting a turntable working and balanced again.

I tackled “Jimmy Dean’s Christmas Card” (1965 Album) first for my Mom. I recorded each track by playing them one at a time, then pressing record and stop in Audacity. I then cleaned up the tracks a little (I must learn more about this part) and saved the AIFF files for each song, tagged and marked appropriately. I have modified this method now, and record a whole album side into Audacity, save the project, then cut up the project into individual song tracks as needed (it’s faster this way).

I copied the files into an iTunes playlist and burned my first audio CD album, then burned a label.
I enjoyed many fond memories while listening to the album I grew up with, and thank my Mom for getting me started on a new hobby for a while (digitizing the rest of the vinyl that I don’t have on CD already).

Thanks Mom!

What’s needed:

  • a decent quality turntable (plain old analog players are best, USB turntables are junk)
  • a decent quality phonograph preamplifier that matches your cartridge to line level outputs
  • a sound sampling card, or USB interface, or device on your computer
  • a computer
  • sampling and sample editing software like Audacity (free)
  • track ordering and CD burning software like iTunes (free)
  • about an hour per album, minimally

Remember, turntables are sensitive to vibrations – so refrain from jumping for joy as the beautiful old music streams out of your speakers, at least while you are recording.

I cannot rave enough about how cool Audacity and iTunes are for this sort of job; and I am a raving fan of Edirol as well, excellent device and well worth the money. I am picky about audio gear, so you could probably do this for a lot less expense if you went cheap on record player, cartridge, and preamplifier; but remember, your time is valuable too. If you are burning an hour to do this why not spend the money getting the best master copy you can.

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