After recording an entire side of an album as a single .wav file, you have a choice: If you want to preserve the experience of listening to vinyl, including any pops, clicks, and crackle, you can burn this raw audio file directly to CD. Alternatively, you can use your software to filter out as much of the noise as possible, and then divide the large file into individual tracks and convert each of them to a compressed audio format such as MP3.
Microsoft's Plus Analog Recorder offers the fewest cleaning options (they consist of simple check boxes for 'Reduce Pops' and 'Reduce Hiss'), but they work quite well. Analog Recorder automatically marked individual tracks; and when the split between songs wasn't right, I found that moving the markers was easy.
Pinnacle's Clean 4 wasn't as successful at detecting where songs began and ended, so I wound up making lots of corrections to songs' start and end points. Doing this wasn't particularly difficult, though.
Clean 4 offers a laundry list of audio effects and features, including reverb and 'Add Brilliance', but they're wrapped in a cluttered interface reminiscent of something from Star Trek. One example: You have to click the 'Process This Title' button to execute any effect--but it blends with the rest of the controls because it has the same gunmetal-gray skin as everything else in the window.
Interface issues aside, the filtering in Clean was excellent. With minor manual adjustments, it removed most of the crackling and clicks from my audio without trashing the quality, although it did knock just a bit of the high end out of songs. Between Clean 4 and Plus Analog Recorder, I'd call my results a toss-up: The finished product from each program sounded pretty good. I can't say the same for Magix Audio Cleaning Lab 2005: Its audio improved when imported through a preamp, but I was consistently unimpressed.
The next-to-last step consisted of adding the information about songs that appears in music-management software and digital audio players. Of the three programs, Plus Analog Recorder let me do the most extensive tagging of my tracks before exporting them: It let me add labels for artist name, album title, and track title. Clean 4 permitted me to identify just artist and track title, and Magix allowed me to save the track title as the file name but offered no way to specify artist or album. Virtually any digital music management program, such as ITunes or Musicmatch, can add this ID3 data to music files.
The last step of my testing was to save songs as individual files. Plus Analog Recorder saves files in Windows Media Audio format by default, and you must use Windows Media Player to burn songs to a CD. But you can purchase an MP3 Creation Pack (a $10 third-party plug-in) that lets you save files as MP3s. Clean 4 requires a $10 upgrade before you can export to MP3 more than 20 times. Magix limits your MP3 exports until you register the program and download a free upgrade.
Today, you don't have to be an audio engineer to give new life to your favorite vinyl. After investing a few bucks and a few hours of your time, you'll have a bunch of oldies (or rare imports) to add to your playlists. And when you can listen to those songs on your PC, burn them onto mix CDs, or load them into a digital music player, you'll find that they are soon back in heavy rotation.