Digitising Vinyl

In my opinion it is quite ordinary to collect LPs and in the recent decades, CDs. It is absolutely ordinary to have amassed around 2000 LPs and about the same number in CDs. Jokes aside I have never met someone else with the same passion intensity.
I no longer have as many LPs as I have replaced some of them with CDs in the recent years. I have also been going through them with as determined mind as possible in order to thin them out and to re-categorise them. With all the house moves and new donations the collection had gotten into a great state of entropy!
So with this in mind they were only retained if I planned on digitising them, i.e. if I was actually willing to spend the time (some time during the course of my life) in recording them, editing them, and also photographing the covers. Some of the music is just not available so short of spending a small fortune at Amazon, digitising them is the only viable solution. I have probably more than a hundred LPs boxed and sitting in my dining room waiting to be given away to a charity who sells them.
I do so love to digress…
The purpose of this article is to help people with the conversion process. It is loosely separated into two parts, namely, the recording of the music, and the photographing of the covers. At the end of the article you will find some links for you to do your own research as I am only filling in tips and solutions I have learnt from 30 odd years of handling Vinyl. There is no point in repeating what has already been well documented online.
How far you want to take the process is entirely up to the person’s needs. You could be on the perfectionist’s side of the procedure like me, or simple want to convert the records quickly and as easily as possible. There are USB Turntables and software that will do it easily for you. To do it properly you really need to do it manually but then again I am a perfectionist.
The more advanced tips and tricks obviously require a little more attention and even experience but they are helpful nevertheless.
The basic equipment for the sound side of things is fair simple but need some clarification. You obviously need at least 3 parts, the record, the record player, and a PC! Let’s begin with your records themselves.
Cleaning and Maintenance
It goes without saying that you need to have them as clean as possible for the best possible recording. Remember that this is a once off, lifetime recording unless you plan on redoing all the recordings again.
Since we are now decades down the line, it is not so easy to get cleaning fluids and such equipment for maintaining and cleaning vinyl records. So what is a person to do? Panic! No, just kidding!
Hopefully you can still get your hands on either the original record wiping, velvet block thingies or a soft velvety cloth. Wrap it around a toilet roll and wipe the record with it. I still have the little dust arm that catches fluff before the needle reaches it. Try to get one if you can.
I used to wash my LPs in the wash hand basin with a plain old bar of hand soap, lather up and wash off very well using my hands flat on the record and rotating the record with the grooves under flowing water. This helps to get out the residue in the grooves. Now about 15 years later, these very records are still clean and show no side effects from the soap. Ask me again in another 15 years!
A trick I learnt many, many years ago for badly scratched or crackly records is to use toothpaste to wash the records. Why? So they smell minty fresh of course! Seriously, the toothpaste builds up on the grooves and scratches. Leave the toothpaste on the record for a little while but not till it dries! Then wash off the excess toothpaste and use your hands or even a towel to squeeze the record and rotate it in the same direction as the grooves. NEVER do anything against (perpendicular to) the grooves!
Now you have a pleasant smelling record and the grooves partially rebuilt with toothpaste residue. This helps to make the perpendicular scratches less prominent and it produces much less of a loud crackle.
A last note on washing or wetting your records is that you MUST take great care with the labels in the centre. They are just paper and sometimes really cheap. So try to avoid getting any soap, toothpaste, or excess water on the label. Some labels will lose their ink and fade, some will not even absorb at all which is great.
Always remember to NOT rub the labels at all! You can pat it dry if you like but the best thing for records is to let them drip dry when you are done. I used to prop them all up like naughty children on a timeout in the bath to drip dry.
Another trick, which is documented online, is to play/record very old or badly scratched records wet. This lubricates the surface and produces less sharp crackle. Some people say it spoils the records, I haven’t really noticed this but then I only did it once in order to record them with the best possible quality.
The easiest thing is to do is use a spray, atomiser type bottle filled with either distilled or filtered water to avoid having chemical deposits and such build up on the grooves. Spray up close and on the record but cup your hand to avoid water getting on the surface of the turntable itself. Also spray on the side opposite to the needle so you don’t get anything more than the needle wet while playing.
Remember that some clicks, pops, and crackles are not due to scratches on the record but dirt. Sometimes there is a tiny little something stuck to the grooves which you can gently rub off with your nail. Again, always with the groove and NOT against it!
If you have a very deep scratch across the grooves you can soften it a little but you must take extreme care with this! If you have strong nails you can press down lightly with increasing pressure over scratched area and sort of smooth back and forward along the grooves. This has the effect of flattening the actually groove and producing a less sharp noise. You can also use a towel or cloth between your nail and the record. I cannot stress how careful you need to be with this technique. NEVER use it unless the scratch is so bad it has made the record unplayable really.
The Equipment
The next thing you need to consider is the record player itself. Without a doubt, you need to be using the best turntable you can lay your hands (and wallet) on! If you use a damaged or poor needle, you will be putting all the effort into this to get a poor result.
There are some businesses that have started making turntables again and some are even dedicated specifically to converting music. I have found I get a better quality recording with my proper turntable with a good needle.
So what is the difference between using a dedicated USB turntable or a properly old fashioned turntable? There are several points either way so I’ll touch on them. First let me start with the new USB type. If you do go this route you need to be aware of several things.
With a USB record player the music is Digitised INSIDE the record player and THEN spat out via a USB cable connection. This is fantastic because it avoids a lot of cables and connections which may diminish the signal quality.
Just make sure you get a USB turntable that has a volume adjuster directly on the unit or your louder records will have the wave form clipped and it will sound distorted! The one volume fits all DOESN’T work properly! Be forewarned. It also doesn’t help to lower the volume after the fact! So your recording software has already received a distorted signal.
Another important aspect is that the arm should have an adjustable weight at the opposite end to the needle. Why? So that you can balance your needle weight on the record of course. A few years back I managed to get an electronic gadget to set the needle balance and weight. The main reason is so that you can set the weight heavier on the needle to jump less on bad scratches. Too heavy a needle can lead to scraping sounds on the recording but it stops the jumping. You can do it just for a difficult track.
If you use a traditional turntable then you must first plug it in to either a small little pre-amp designed for this very reason or into a proper old fashioned amplifier. The signal that the turntable emits is too soft to record directly to the PC. The advantage of the new “disposable” USB record players is that they have a pre-amp built in.
The Recording Process
Next comes the PC… The quality of your sound card is important but considering the output from a turntable I don’t believe it is THAT important. Having said that, however, it must be fairly good or once again you are wasting your time. Avoid using a very old sound card with rusty or corroded inputs that will diminish the sound quality.
For the best possible quality and trueness to original sound you must switch off all sound effects such as echo, surround effects etc. Set everything to none or plain. You can switch them all back on when you are finished recording but you do NOT want to record those effects on your original.
Next switch off ALL the different items on your PC mixer accept the one you are using to receive the signal from the record player. This reduces buzz and interference. You should also avoid other interferences such as a fan blowing in the direction of the needle or electrical buzz creating devices plugged in the same plug point.
Vibrations are also not desirable so it is best to place the record player on a stable surface preferably on a shock absorbing mat to reduce interference. Remember that your loud speakers will also cause vibrations which can unsettle the needle on the record. Keep the speaker volume just loud enough to listen for jumps etc. and no louder!
Lastly, you should preferably switch off all other programs and leave the PC alone to record. By using the PC at the same time you are running the risk of overloading the system and causing a sort of stuttering effect in writing to the sound file while recording.
The best is to use your older machines which are set up for recording only. I have my old PC with nothing installed except for recording software. I do not even have an anti-virus on it. This way I can sit in my office and type this very article while listening to Caterina Valente sing her heart out more than 50 years ago uninterrupted by my modern computer movements.
It is also important to listen to what is being recorded so you are not saving either bad jumps, scratches, or even hours of a stuck record, stuck record, stuck record, stuck record!
It is tempting to keep the turntable cover open during recording for quicker use but don’t. It will reduce falling dust and lint. The static electricity generated by the friction of the needle on the record is a big draw card for lint! Remember that this is not just for temporary playback pleasure but for a lifetime of enjoyment.
I am not going to go into any detail as to which software does what and is best. There is a wealth of software available and a tremendous amount of very interesting articles on this subject. Some are free, some you need to fork over some cash. You must decide what it is worth to you.
There is lots of software that will “magically” repair and remove crackle from a sound file. Research online and be careful how you use this software so you don’t actually remove anything more than what you want. You can actually accidentally remove percussive sounds too as they sound like clicking. Some recordings you either need to use very subtle settings or none at all in cleaning up the sound file.
Remember to try to record a “blank” piece (i.e. without music) either at the beginning or the end so that this software can analyse the noise and hum frequencies in order to accurately remove the offending frequencies from your recording.
It is also desirable to record a full side as one file for the software to later analyse. It is tempting to chop up the files by pressing stop start with each track but it is far more work to clean up separate little files than a whole record side at once. Some people even record both sides to one sound file but I prefer to keep Side A and B Separate. It is easier to find the tracks to separate and name them later.
What is important in the recording phase is to use software that allows you to adjust the recording volumes with a visual “clipping” levels. This way you can adjust the volume so that the music is not recorded to loudly or too softly.
Just as you shouldn’t record the volume too loudly because it distorts, recording too softly can lead to diminished frequency capturing and parts of the sound can be almost inaudible or lost. The best bet is to listen to bits on several songs and then keep raising or lowering the volume till there is no “clipping” occurring. Then record!
The final format you want to save in is all your choice. I am keeping my original recordings in Wav format and once they are cleaned up and cut up into tracks then converting them into mp3s. I strongly suggest you save your original Wav recordings in case something goes wrong along the process and you need to restart. You do NOT want to sit and re-record your records.
The Cover Art Photography
Now for the gymnastics! If you have as many limbs as Hindu Deity then this will be easy! Unfortunately I don’t have enough limbs. It does take some effort but it is well worth it if you want to photograph your LP covers to keep with your digitised music.
Since a record cover is too large to fit in a standard scanner you will need to photograph them. Easy you say? Go photograph one right now, transfer it to your PC and then come back and tell me how great it came out!
Following are all the tips and tricks I have learnt in several years of personal experimentation. It all started out because I didn’t have a scanner that would work with my then current operating system and I needed to copy my CD covers to my PC as Cover Art. I got it into my head that my trusty Nikon should be able to give me digital copies as an alternative. So it did and I developed this technique outlined below.
Firstly, you need a record cover, a camera, a tripod (optional but will save you hours of work and give you better results) some flattened cardboard boxes or similar, a white surface to lay records on, a well lit and neutral environment in which to take the photos. Lastly you will need a PC of course!
Let me start off by saying that the best place to photograph things so that they are not skewed is on the floor! Yip, toss the record cover on the floor and photograph it! Why? Firstly it doesn’t move; secondly it is flat; thirdly you can stand directly over it. I first started trying this out by balancing the record cover against the wall. Not a good idea!
Now when I tell you that I do my photography in my bathroom, don’t giggle hysterically. There is always madness in my method! My bathroom is all white with black granite. It also has a large skylight and ample white tiled floor to photograph on. Yes, I do have a lovely ensuite bathroom!
The pure white, well lit environment reduces colour reflections which impact on the final photograph. The floor tile grid also helps me to line up my tripod and records so that the two are square on and saves me a lot of time correcting the images in my PC.
If you are using the tripod then adjust the two front legs so that they are a bit shorter to enable the camera to overhang the record placed between its shortened legs. Once everything is aligned zoom down on the record till it nearly fills the screen. It is best to use a shutter clicker so you don’t bump the camera while taking the photograph but you can also use the delayed timer.

How I do it!
You can see the fish-eye effect when I just quickly took this photo hand holding the camera.
The Final product after a trip through my graphics program.
This is your basic setup to taking photos. If you don’t have a tripod or a well lit place then go outside and take photos in the yard in a well lit place but not in the direct sunlight. You can place the item on the steps and take photos for example.
You want to be a little way off to reduce the fish-eye effect. This is the same principle as photographing people. You stand way off and zoom in. This way you get a squarer image with less distortion.
Next is where additional limbs would be great! As human beings we do not notice reflections and glare unless it is extreme. The camera, however, does! It looks awful once photographed. To avoid this you need the cardboard boxes or similar to position around till you either eliminate or reduce the glare.
Shiny, laminated records are the worst! You need lots of hands, a timer on the camera, and position the cardboard to reduce the reflections of windows etc. In my bathroom the reflection comes from the skylight so I hold the one (or two if necessary) cardboard boxes above the camera and while the timer is waiting it’s ten seconds to go off, I move the two boxes around till the glare/reflection is gone. Pose, wait, ignore muscle burn and back pain, and wah-lah! Near perfect copies!
Almost all photos need to be enhanced on your PC using your favourite software. It is a photo and not a scan after all. So even if you do not know how to edit graphics you can at least rotate a little and crop the images.
A trick with rotation if you have really taken square on photos is to use very small numbers. I have been doing this for so many years I know at a glance the rotation. So my photos are never rotated more than between 0.1 and 1 full degree.
Another important aspect with rotation is to never keep rotating more and more. If you have not rotated enough then undo and increase the degree of rotation. The reason for this is that image quality is lost with each action. You want to do the least amount of distortion type actions to an image before saving.
I could go on but that would be a lesson in graphic and editing thereof. Perhaps a subject for a tutorial someday!
So go digitise some records and remember this; Jazz first! Everything else can wait!
Further Notes: On Windows Vista and Windows 7, Microsoft has changed the way it handles sound and it has a terrible effect of lowering the volume on sounds it deems to be too loud in order to protect your ears. So don’t be alarmed if some of the tracks seem to go softer and louder all the time. Read up more online.
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