Vinyl's not dead yet. The market for records has never gone away, and chances are good that you still have some albums tucked away that you can't part with but no longer listen to. If you miss those tunes, here's good news: You can easily make clean digital copies of them. In fact, if you can plug a cable into a socket, you can convert your vinyl recordings into MP3 files. And here's even better news: You can handle all the importing without expensive or complicated software and hardware.
To conduct my conversion testing, I grabbed my copy of Greatest! Johnny Cash (circa 1959, from Sun Records) and a turntable. My computer and a phono preamp rounded out my equipment list.
You'll need a phono preamp to boost the volume (or level) of the audio coming from the turntable and to compensate for the RIAA curve, a form of equalization built into records since about 1950. Though you can import audio from a turntable without using a phono preamp, it isn't advisable. The level is likely to be very low, and the sound very tinny.
For this project I connected a turntable directly to my PC and to a stand-alone phono preamp, but if you still have a turntable attached to your stereo, you don't need to buy a separate preamp: Stereo receivers that support a turntable have a phono preamp built in. If you want to use your stereo instead of a separate preamp, you can connect the receiver's Aux or other line-out jack to the line-in jack on your sound card. If your PC and stereo are in separate rooms, however, a stand-alone preamp may be the simplest way to bring your turntable and your PC together.
If your computer lacks a line-in port and has only a microphone jack for sound input, consider investing about $100 in an external sound card like Creative's USB Sound Blaster Audigy 2 NX or Griffin Technology's PowerWave. The external card will provide a line-in port with the correct level; and because it's isolated from the other electronics in your system, it could yield cleaner sound. Don't link your sound card to the speaker outputs on your receiver: If you do so and then turn the volume up, you are liable to do serious damage to your sound card.
For my tests, I tried out a couple of phono preamps separately: Memorex's MX-SP2 Stereo Phono Pre-Amplifier ($40), and TCC's TC-750 Audiophile Phono Preamp ($43). Both of them come with a stereo RCA cable for connecting the preamp to your turntable. The TC-750 also includes an RCA-to-stereo MiniPlug adapter for linking the preamp to your sound card. Those connections are fairly easy to figure out. In addition, most turntables have a ground wire: The TC-750's sturdy steel case has a thumbscrew you can attach the ground wire to, but the Memorex's case doesn't. To eliminate the obnoxious ground loop hum I heard when working with the Memorex, I connected the turntable's ground wire directly to a case screw on my computer.
Overall, the TC-750 delivered richer, fuller audio, with more-distinct highs and crisper bass. That's important because the better the audio is when you capture it, the better your final output will be.
Magix's Audio Cleaning Lab 2005 utility ($40) comes with filters that are capable of substituting for a preamp, according to the vendor, so I tested them, too. Though the filters worked--more or less--the resulting audio was noticeably flat, with fake-sounding bass. And Magix did a poor job of documenting this filtering capability: I wasted considerable time trying to figure out how to forgo the preamp. For superior-quality sound and better control, you should invest the $40 or so that a hardware preamp costs. And while you're shopping, buy yourself a record-cleaning brush. The less dust you leave in your LPs' grooves, the less noise you'll have to clean up after importation.
Once I had all the hardware set up, I was ready to fire up a couple of programs and bring the Man in Black into the digital age. I looked for reasonably automated applications that do the job from end to end: importing the album side, splitting the tracks, cleaning up the audio, and saving separate digital audio files.
I tested (besides Magix's Audio Cleaning Lab) Microsoft's Plus Analog Recorder (which is part of the company's Plus Digital Media Edition, $20), and Pinnacle Systems' Clean 4 ($50). Of the three, Plus Analog Recorder made importing and cleaning up the easiest, and it also did the most complete job of labeling files with artist, album, and title information.
If you own a disc-burning suite like Ahead's Nero 6 or Roxio's Easy CD Creator 6, try the sound editor bundled with it before you purchase anything else. Many such suites have basic tools for importing and enhancing analog audio.
In most audio software, a waveform window sits in the middle of the screen. It contains a squiggly line that represents the sound you're listening to. The waveform looks high-tech, but you can safely ignore it, especially at the outset of your import process.
You do have to pay attention to the audio level on the line-in, by watching a pair of level monitors (one each for the left and right channels). Start recording a test file and look at the monitors: You want the loudest sections of the song to reach the yellow section, but not to break into the red. If the audio software doesn't have a volume control, you'll have to find your computer's line-in level control (the way to access this varies with different operating systems and sound systems) and adjust the line-in volume until your recording comes in at the level you want.