Audio-Technica Brings New Life to Old Vinyl
By Jim Bray
The days of wow and flutter are back!
Remember the turntable, that big platter-based dinosaur on which we used to play our music before compact discs and digital downloads herded them to the landfills of the world? They were the heart of the home audio system for decades, and many audiophiles still argue that the sound you could get from a vinyl record is better than that from a digital compact disc.
I tend to argue with that assertion because it isn't the medium that ensures the quality but rather how you use it. I've heard some fine-sounding albums over the years, and I've heard some pretty thin and muddy-sounding CD's, too – but I've also heard CD's that sound so good they could bring tears to the audiophile's eyes.
It's a pretty moot argument these days anyway, with vinyl mostly a forgotten species except in a few rarefied audio circles. And if you're anything like me – a thought that probably scares you more than you'd like to admit – you've already replaced most of your vinyl record collection with CD's, DVD-Audio/SACD discs, or digital files.
But what if you still have a record collection you'd like to save for posterity? With each successive playing of a vinyl record you lose some of its data, so it makes sense to make a digital copy you can keep forever, even if you put it away in a shelf or on a server for the day when you can finally see right through the grooves on that old LP.
Fortunately, Audio-Technica has an elegant solution tailor made for converting your analog albums into digital discs or files. The AT-LP2D-USB is an honest to goodness belt drive automatic turntable that comes with a built in USB interface you can connect directly to your computer. It also comes with the software you need to record your favorite tunes onto your hard drive, from which you can burn them to disc or archive them however you want.
Audio-Technica says the turntable is designed "to deliver high-quality sound, with a balanced aluminum platter, precision Dual Magnet stereo cartridge with replaceable stylus, and a pickup arm with soft damping control." It's fairly lightweight compared to some of the higher end ones I can remember, including my old top-of-the-line 1970's vintage direct drive model that lives in a box somewhere, but it works fine. It features fully automatic operation (you press "play" then get ready to click the "record" button on the software, and a 33-1/3 and 45 RPM speed selector to play all your LP albums and 7-inch singles.
The only thing missing is 78 rpm capability, which is a shame, but I imagine those records are scarcer than hen's teeth anyway.
The $230 (approximately) turntable even has its own built in preamp, so you can connect it to a modern day audio system that may not have turntable capability built in. When I hooked it into my big, Rotel-powered system and the PC simultaneously the audio quality through the big speakers suffered from interference (I blame the PC), so I had to monitor the proceedings by plugging the turntable into my headphones instead – and this worked fine.
The software, Audacity and Cakewalk Pyro, is easy to use and lets you add track markers like you'd find on a CD, as well as offering some cleanup capability to help get rid of scratches, pops and the like. The Audacity application was great for recording from the turntable, while Pyro also offered the capability for ripping and burning to disc – and even to create ringtones.
They aren't real powerhouse apps, and I found myself moving the digital files from Audacity on my notebook to a more powerful audio application I use on my desktop PC because I like the its extra features, but Audacity and Cakewalk are both easy to use and work fine within their limitations.
I was amazed to find that, after all these years, I still have a reasonable selection of vinyl albums stuck in boxes in the crawl space off my home theater – many of which I've never found on CD and some of which sound lousy on CD, usually because they're transfers made early in the life of digital technology when engineers were still learning how to use the digital domain properly. I'm trying to be charitable here. Heck, I even have an old British pressing of Sgt. Pepper, in mint condition, that I'd forgotten about! Anyone want to make me an offer for that gem?
The Audio-Technica turned out to be perfect for recording this classic stuff. Hookup was a breeze, once my son bailed me out on a Windows issue that wouldn't let me record – not the Audio-Technica's fault at all (probably mine for messing where I don't belong).
Remember to put the turntable's dust cover down before you start recording – and make sure you don't jiggle the turntable or the surface on which it sits – lest you put a "whomp" noise onto your digital file. This was another blast from the past, when I used to record albums onto reel to reel tape, only to find such flaws in the final recording.
I knew there was a reason we moved away from turntables….
I got a bit of a scare when I fired everything up and captured my first album – The Monkees' first album – onto the hard drive. The album recorded in monaural (single channel) sound and, try as I might, I couldn't convince the software to record it in stereo. Cussing didn't work, reconfiguring didn't work – nothing did.
Then I looked at the album cover again. It was a mono album!
Well, duh! When I put a stereo album on the turntable it came through in two channel glory.
I also recorded an old quadraphonic album (The London Symphony Orchestra's version of The Who's Tommy – how's that for obscure?), a matrix encoding from the Sansui QS days I remember so fondly. I'm confident the encoding came through fine (why wouldn't it?), but since the days of QS decoding appear to be long gone I can't listen to the original four channel mix and have to be satisfied with one of the new fangled digital surround sound fudging features so common today.
It sounds good, though.
As for cleaning up the records' pops and clicks, the software does a decent job here, but I like to minimize the filtering because it always seems to throw out some of the music baby with the noise bath water.
On the other hand, I found myself tweaking some albums to give them a "balls transplant" because they came through the digitizing process sounding kind of thin. This experimentation caused to me create a nice collection of useless coasters that look just like CD's, of recordings I wasn't happy with.
Then I figured out that I could do test burns using CD-RW discs – tweaking the digital files until I was satisfied and only then committing them to non-rewritable compact discs. The rest was history.
A lot of the sound quality potential comes down to GIGO: Garbage in, garbage out. All the digital filtering in the world (at least, from consumer equipment and software standpoint) isn't going to turn a thrashed old album into a pristine compact disc. But you can get darn good sound quality from a good quality source. And what usually happened with my recordings was that I'd leave them as is, bumping up the volume a tad but otherwise not tweaking anything else; it was better for the most part to have pops and clicks than to slice off the high frequencies.
But it sounds pretty strange to put on a CD and hear the telltale sound of a stylus on vinyl during quiet segments!
You can use the software to output to MP3, WMA or WAV files (and more), and to design CD covers and labels that look a tad more professional than felt pen markers.
I had a ball playing with my old vinyl again, and dragging it kicking and screaming into the digital age. But now that I can safely throw away the old albums, I find myself torn: the turntable works well with my home audio system as well (though its volume is a tad soft) and some of my albums come with commemorative booklets, liner notes and the like – stuff I'd like to keep for posterity.
So maybe I'll keep some of the old vinyl stuff around anyway, playing them as they were meant to be played as long as they last, while keeping the digital versions for the car and the other CD players around the house.
It's a win-win scenario and it keeps the old records out of the landfill!
It doesn't do a lot to clean up that mess in the crawl space, though.
Comment from Larry: Just in case Jim Bray missed it, the Audacity software will allow you to play your 78's at 45 rpm, and if using a higher sampling rate, it will 'adjust' the track to 78 rpm... magic.
Copyright 2008 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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