If you have reached a certain level of "maturity," you probably have boxes in the basement filled with artifacts known as vinyl records...
If you have reached a certain level of “maturity,” you probably have boxes in the basement filled with artifacts known as vinyl records.
We played these dinosaurs of the analog age on gadgets called turntables, and if we played them enough times — or spilled enough beer on them — they developed that combination of crackles, pops and distortion that teary-eyed audio tweaks like to call the “warmth of vinyl.”
Many adults persist in keeping these long after the only turntable that could play them has crumbled into dust.
More than a decade into the age of do-it-yourself digital audio, I still receive regular e-mail from folks who want to know how to convert their vinyl to CDs or music files for their computers and iPods.
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My longtime advice stands: If you like a vinyl album enough and it exists on CD, buy it or download it from iTunes, Amazon.com or Rhapsody. At best, converting vinyl is a pain in the neck, and those converted tracks sound pretty rough by today’s standards.
For those who persist, I’ve found a gadget that makes conversion much easier than it used to be, as long as you’re willing to invest the money, time and patience.
The $249 Ion LP Dock is a turntable designed to turn vinyl album tracks into digital music files and even play them right into your iPod — though the latter is more of a parlor trick than useful feature.
Ion has been selling conversion turntables for several years, but this is by far the most sophisticated model I’ve seen.
At first glance, the LP Dock looks like a normal turntable with extra-large controls (undoubtedly to accommodate the mature adults who own all the vinyl). It also has row of buttons with functions that analog turntable designers never dreamed about. And yes, there’s a dock on one edge for an iPod.
In addition to standard audio output cables with RCA jacks — for compatibility with traditional audio receivers and amplifiers — the LP Dock has a USB cable that plugs directly into your computer.
This direct digital connection sidesteps a long-standing problem with the traditional method of hooking a turntable to a PC — plugging the output cables into a PC’s sound card. Most turntables don’t put out a strong enough signal when they’re hooked up that way.
The direct USB connection and some internal processing handled by the Ion make a big difference in quality.
Setting up the LP Dock is easy. So is installing the software that does the actual conversion from analog to digital.
The bundled CD includes two Windows programs: MixMeister’s crude but foolproof EZ Vinyl Converter 2, plus a powerful but geeky open-source audio editor called Audacity that can eliminate clicks, pops and background noise. Mac users get Audacity only.
EZ Vinyl Converter lives up to its name. All you have to do is cue up a track, press an on-screen record button, wait till the track is through playing and click a stop button.
If you’re online, the software will analyze the track and try to find artist, album and title information from an Internet database.
Finally, it will automatically register the new MP3 track with your iTunes software. For tracks the software can’t identify, EZ Vinyl prompts you to enter the information manually.
This is easy but there are limitations. Unlike “ripping” tracks from a compact disc — a near automatic, high-speed process with iTunes or Windows Media Player — EZ Vinyl Converter works in real time.
It can’t sense the end of a track, so you have to baby-sit and press the stop button each time. Nor does EZ Vinyl Converter offer any way to clean up the sound.
My first conversion attempt (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” from Bette Midler’s 1975 debut album) was disastrous. The music was scarcely audible.
The troubleshooting guide suggested tweaking the “gain” knob, the equivalent of a volume control. For some reason, the unit had arrived with the gain turned all the way down.
Worse yet, Ion’s designers put the gain knob on the bottom of the turntable, the most awkward possible position for repeated tweaking. That’s one of my few complaints.
Most users will probably try this routine a few times, then switch to Audacity, which will record a whole side of an album, then do its best to separate it into tracks before converting them to MP3 files. If that fails, you can do it yourself.
The program also has filters for eliminating noise, scratches and pops, most of which worked well.
Bring on the iPod
Now for the magic. If your iPod has a voice-recorder function, you can plug it into the dock with or without a computer attached. The LP Dock takes control of the player and puts it into voice-recorder mode.
Cue up the song, press the record button on the turntable, then wait till it’s done and press the stop button.
Here’s the rub: There’s no way to tell what you recorded. The voice memos are identified by date and time only.
Also, the relatively uncompressed wave files the iPod creates are 10 times as large as similar MP3 music files.
The good news: When you sync the iPod with iTunes on your computer, it will automatically upload new voice memos to the PC.
Once they’ve arrived, you can convert them to MP3s and enter the album, artist and track menus manually.
Bottom line: Converting vinyl LPs still takes lots of time, concentration and tweaking, but the Ion LP Dock produces decent-quality digital files with minimal hassle. Just remember that they probably won’t sound as good as you thought they sounded 30 years ago.
And yes, the iPod feature is cute but not particularly useful by itself. You can save money and get the same recording quality with a less expensive USB model. Visit www.ion-audio.com.