How to rip anything: recording from LP or cassette

How to rip anything: recording from LP or cassette


In our how to rip anything series Jenneth Orantia and Mike Le Voi show you how to (legally) copy rip or download virtually any form of media so you can enjoy it permanently.

Ripping CDs to hard disk is relatively easy as the audio is already in a digital format. However how do you preserve your old LPs and cassettes before the playing mechanism wears out? Here we’ll show you how to make digital copies of your precious audio collection using free readily available software. The basic requirement is to connect your audio player to your PC sound card so you’ll need an audio player a sound card and the right software.

Audacity is free cross-platform audio-editing and capture software perfect for our task today.

Audio player requirements

If the player is a cassette deck you can simply connect the ‘Line Out’ sockets on your deck to the ‘Line In’ socket on the sound card. If the cassette deck is plugged into your amplifier you could instead connect the ‘Line Out/Tape Out’ sockets on your amplifier to your sound card.

For LPs you have two choices. Most audiophile turntables have to be connected to an amplifier as the output from the phono cartridge is low and requires amplification and equalisation before it can be used. Thus you need to connect the ‘Line Out/Tape Out’ sockets of the amplifier to the sound card.

You can connect a modern USB turntable directly to a USB port on the PC as it handles the amplification and conversion to audio PC input. However if you have a really good turntable with a good cartridge use that. It will almost certainly have better sound than a USB turntable that’s been built to a price.

Sound card requirements

With this item the sky’s the limit. The recommended approach for home audio recording and editing is a USB sound card with multiple inputs. My sound module is an Edirol UA-101 with 10-channel Input/Output – but you can buy a module like a Roland Cakewalk UA-1G for a lot less.

Ideally the sound card will have optical and coaxial digital inputs as well as analog ‘Line In’ and ‘Line Out’. However for this article all we need is a sound card with ‘Line In’. For those on a budget you can use the built-in sound chip on the desktop motherboard. The quality won’t be as good but then the old LPs you have are probably not in perfect condition either.

For this article I will assume you’re using the motherboard sound card so all you need is a cable with two RCA jacks on one end and a stereo mini-plug to fit the ‘Line In’ socket on the sound card on the other. Be warned that many cheap cables are wired wrongly – so you may have to reverse the Left and Right plugs at the amplifier end.

Software requirements

There are many packages available. Some are expensive with many features like Wavelab some are good and cheap like Reaper and Sound Forge but for this article we’ll be using Audacity as it’s freeware. Audacity runs on Linux Mac OS X and Windows but for this article I’ll be concentrating on Windows 7 running on a bog-standard Dell desktop.

Software setup

Download Audacity from here. Get the latest version 1.3.12 beta or later for Windows 7. After running the setup program there are a few configuration changes you should make via ‘Edit > Preferences’.

Devices

Choose your sound card. I’m using the desktop built-in soundcard.

Quality

Choose 44100Hz and 16-bit. You could use 24-bit or higher but for recording LP and cassettes that’s overkill and you’ll be rendering down to 16-bit anyway.

Interface

Choose -60dB for ‘Meter/Waveform dB Range’. This allows better metering for LP or cassette recording.

Import/export

Uncheck ‘Show Metadata Editor’. You don’t want to be prompted when doing rendering.

Keyboard

I recommend you change ‘Zoom In’ to Numpad8 and ‘Zoom Out’ to Numpad2. You’ll be zooming in and out a lot. Unlike any other editor I’ve used you can’t use the up and down keys to do this – so this is your best alternative. I also recommend that you set the shortcut for ‘Edit > Split’ to be ‘s’.

Create an Audacity project

Open Audacity and immediately select ‘Edit > Save Project As’. Choose a suitable name and save the AUP file in a directory dedicated to Audacity use. Audacity will create a new directory called ‘project name_data’ under this directory. The audio data you record will be stored in this subdirectory.

Make a test recording

Start playing any LP preferably a loud one. Press the ‘Record’ button. You need to set the levels so the maximum recording level reaches about -6 to -3dB and doesn’t go above 0. You can make the meters easy to read by dragging them onto the desktop and making them larger.

Use standard Windows 7 facilities to set the level. Right-click the speaker icon in the system tray or use ‘Control Panel > Sound’. On the ‘Recording’ tab make sure the correct device is specified as the default.  Click ‘Properties’ for this device. On the ‘Listen’ tab you may want to check the box called ‘Listen to this device’ so you can monitor the sound using headphones plugged into the desktop.  On the ‘Levels’ tab Right-click the ‘Line In’ slider and choose dB.  Move the slider so the recording level is never too loud. You may have to adjust the Left/Right balance but it shouldn’t be necessary.

Now you have the levels set for maximum sound press the ‘Stop’ button and delete the track that’s been created. Press the ‘Record’ button again and put on the LP you want to record. Don’t worry about recording lots of ‘silence’ at the beginning of the track as you’ll be editing it out later. Don’t do anything else on the PC while recording is taking place as you may cause a glitch in the process. When side one has finished playing leave Audacity recording and take the LP off the turntable. Leave about a minute of silence and then put on side 2. When side 2 has finished playing take the LP off and press the ‘Stop’ button.

Check for DC offset

DC offset in the recording process is caused by cheap hardware. Good USB sound cards won’t suffer from this problem. However the sound chip on a standard desktop is likely to be affected. Look at this screen shot.  It shows a ‘silent’ part of the recording being played. However the meters show that residual noise level is about -33 to -30dB on each channel. You must remove this ‘noise’ before you do any other audio processing. Luckily Audacity can do this for you. Double-click the waveform and select ‘Effect > Normalize’.  Make sure ‘Remove any DC offset’ is checked. Uncheck ‘Normalize maximum amplitude’. There’s no need to do this if you set the recording levels correctly. Click ‘OK’.

Save the recording

First save the project. Now you need to export the complete recording as a single .wav file. Theoretically there’s no need to do this. However if you make editing errors and save the current project the deleted parts of the audio will be deleted from the ‘_data’ subdirectory! You don’t want to record the whole LP over again so play safe and choose ‘File > Export’. Make sure ‘WAV (Microsoft)’ is selected. Choose a name for the .wav file such as ‘APC Test RAW’ and save it.

Edit the recording

Now create a new Audacity project and save it. Use ‘File > Import > Audio’ and choose the ‘RAW’ file you just saved. You don’t need to do much editing – there are just a few steps you need to do.

Delete unwanted silence

Delete the beginning silence from the recording. To do this zoom in and zoom out as required. Position the cursor at a point about one second before the music starts. Press ‘s’ to split the recording at this point. Double-click the unwanted silence to select it and press ‘Delete’. The rest of the recording now moves to the start of the track.

Delete the silence between side 1 and side 2 of the LP. Position the cursor two seconds past the end of side 1 and press ‘s’. Position the cursor two seconds before the start of side 2 and press ‘s’. Double-click the unwanted waveform in the middle and press ‘Delete’. Delete the unwanted silence at the end of the recording using exactly the same technique.

Add track markers

Now you have a single audio file that looks like a CD – except it doesn’t have any track markers. Zoom in to the recording and pick out the start of each ‘track’ by looking at the waveform shape and auditioning the sound. When you’ve found the beginning of a song position the cursor about one second before the song starts and use ‘Tracks > Add label at selection’ or press [Ctrl]+[B].  Edit the label name to be the name of the song. Repeat this for all songs including the song that starts right at the beginning of the track. Finally save the completed project.

Export the album

Each track label will be used to name the song. However before you can export the songs you need to add the album title and other information that Audacity will use to generate the final files and tags. Use ‘File > Open Metadata Editor’ to do this.  Enter the album name the artist name year and genre and click ‘OK’.

Now use ‘File > Export Multiple’ to export the songs. You can export the songs as .wav files .flac files .MP3 files etc. Make sure you select the option called ‘Numbering before label/track name’.  Audacity can export .wav and .flac (lossless compressed audio) out of the box. To export to MP3 or AAC format for use with Windows Media Player or iTunes you can download the MP3 and FFmpeg plug-ins. Refer to the instructions in Audacity under ‘Edit > Preferences > Libraries’.

Which format you use will depend on the required use. For the best quality for archiving choose WAV or FLAC – .wav files are exact images of what you recorded but are large and .flac files are compressed versions of .wav files and are about half the size. They can be played by programs such as VLC media player.

MP3 and FLAC format files will also contain the tags you used for describing the songs and album. Windows Media Player shows the tags for .MP3 files. VLC will show the tags for .MP3 and .flac files. I recommend you export the files twice. Once as .flac files for archiving and once as .MP3 files for playing on your notebook iPod or whatever. Once you’re happy with the final result you can keep the .flac files and delete the ‘raw’. wav file and the Audacity projects you created to make this album.

This article has only scratched the surface of audio editing so you may like to experiment with Audacity for even better results. For example I haven’t covered fade in and fade out for the start and end of an LP nor have I covered the use of cross-fades and other effects such as noise removal. You can experiment with these if you want to. Whatever you do have fun!