In this digital age, where listening to songs on cell phones and portable media players is common, analog media such as audio cassettes and vinyl records have lost their glory. Hits of the yesteryears are very easy to find on audio CDs or in MP3 format, but you might have hung on to your old audio cassettes and vinyl records because those albums weren’t reissued in the digital format, or you may have safely kept the audio cassette on which you recorded your child's first words 20 years ago. Listening to those precious audio cassettes and records would be more convenient if they were in audio CD or MP3 format, wouldn’t it? In this hands-on guide, we will show you how you can do just that in nine steps, from hooking up the record/audio cassette player to the PC to enhancing the audio quality, to finally exporting the tracks to MP3 format.
STEP 1: Getting ready
You need a good record player or an audio cassette player in order to get good recording quality. Although vintage record players by Garrard or Philips would suffice, the latest models deliver pristine audio quality. We used the Reloop RP-1000 MK3 turntable, which is available for Rs 13,000 from Narain Professional Audio Pvt Ltd (www.narainindia.com). Portable audio cassette players are available in abundance. You can buy a good one for less than Rs 1,000. You start with connecting the record/cassette player to the PC. The record player is connected to the amplifier via phono input. Set the amplifier’s source to phono and direct the audio signal from the headphone jack to the line-in jack on the motherboard’s rear panel or soundcard using an audio cable with 3.5mm plugs on both ends. If your amplifier has a 1/4-inch headphone jack, you’ll need a 1/4-inch to 1/8-inch adapter to use the cable. The cassette player can be connected directly to the line-in jack with an audio cable. Use headphones connected to the soundcard’s line-out jack to monitor playback and volume.
STEP 2: Get Audacity
Audacity is one of the best freeware audio editing programs. Download it from audacity.sourceforge.net/download . In Audacity, configure the audio source. Press [Ctrl]+P or go to ‘Edit | Preferences’ to bring up the Preferences dialog box. Go to the Devices section and set the recording device to your soundcard’s line-in. Click the 'Ok' button to accept the changes. Now play the record/audio cassette. You should be able to hear the playback through the headphones connected to the soundcard. Click once on the input level meter in Audacity or click on the drop-down list next to the microphone icon on the toolbar and select 'Start Monitoring'. If you see the left and right channel input level meters in action, you’re ready to record.
STEP 3: Setting the right audio level
This is a very important step because the quality of your recording depends on the audio level of the source. If the volume level of the source is too high, the sound will jar, and if the volume level is too low, you’ll have to crank the volume up to be able to listen clearly. To set the optimum volume, play the record or audio cassette and click the 'Record' button on Audacity’s toolbar. You’ll see the level meters in action and a waveform being formed in the workspace. The waveform should be such that the peaks don’t go out of bounds. Adjust the volume on the source accordingly. You can use the headphones to fi nd out if the sound is distorting. Play a track that sounds loud and hear it completely to arrive at the optimal volume level.
STEP 4: Record and label the tracks.
Before you start recording, make sure the vinyl is clean. Use a moist lint-free cloth and wipe the surface of the vinyl in a circular motion. Then use a dry cloth to dry the vinyl. If you’re using an old cassette player, it would be a good idea to clean its head. Take a lint-free cloth or a cotton handkerchief and moisten a tiny portion with isopropyl alcohol or deodorant spray. Then wipe the head gently with the moist portion. Click 'Record' on Audacity’s toolbar just before you start playing the record/audio cassette. Wait while the entire side gets recorded. Click the 'Stop' button when the recording is complete and save the Audacity project. Insert track labels at the beginning of each track. Press the [Home] button to go to the beginning of the waveform, and go to ‘Tracks | Add label at selection’.
Type the title of the first song. Navigate to the start of each song and add labels. When you’re done, go to ‘File | Export multiple’. Set the export format to WAV 16-bit PCM and uncheck the option ‘Include audio before the first label’. Specify the output folder and click 'Export'. Click 'Ok' when the 'Edit metadata' dialog box pops up. You’ll now have a folder with individual songs.
STEP 5: Eliminating clicks and pops (for records only)
Clicks and pops are a distinct characteristic of vinyl records. If you would like to retain them, skip this step and jump to step 7; else read on. Audacity has a built-in plug-in for click removal, but the results aren’t satisfactory. Go to www.clickrepair.net and download ClickRepair from the Downloads section. Since the software is written in Java, you will need to download and install Java runtime environment. ClickRepair is a full-functional 21-day trialware, which is good enough if you want to digitize a few records within the trial period. The full version costs $40 (approx Rs 1,900) Run ClickRepair and load the file from which you wish to eliminate clicks and pops. After specifying the fi le, you will immediately be prompted to specify the file name of the result. Go with the default file name suffixed with ‘-cr’. Next, set the DeClick slider to 50, check Pitch Protection and Reverse and set the method to X3. Click the 'Start' button.
You’ll see the waveform scrolling while the file is being processed. The red peaks represent clicks and pops that were removed by ClickRepair. Now load the processed file (suffixed with –cr) and this time, set DeClick to 0 and DeCrackle to 50 with Pitch Protection disabled. The final result will be suffixed with ‘-cr1’. You can use the batch processing function in ClickRepair (‘File | Batch setup’) to queue tasks and process multiple files automatically.
STEP 6: Getting rid of tape hiss (for records and audio cassettes)
Like clicks and pops in vinyl records, audio cassettes suffer from tape hiss. Vinyls too suffer from hiss, but it’s not very prominent. DeNoise is a hiss removal program from the makers of Click Repair and can be downloaded from the same website. DeNoise too is a 21-day trialware and requires the Java runtime environment. Load a file into DeNoise and specify the file name for the output file. The default filename is suffixed with ‘-nr’. Click the 'Start' button and the song will start playing. Play the first 5 to 10 seconds of the tracks until the music begins to come through and then click the 'Pause' button. Select the lead-in portion of the track, which contains the hiss, and click the 'Sample Noise' button. This tells the software the nature of the noise/hiss that has to be eliminated from the track. Click on the 'Resume' button to continue processing the file. The result will be ready once the playback is over. Manual noise sampling delivers better results, but if you don’t have too much time on your hands, you can check the Automatic option and use the batch processing function (‘File | Batch setup’) to get much quicker results.
STEP 7: Brighten up the sound
Listen to the original recording and the processed file (suffixed with ‘-nr’). You will note a big difference. Now run Audacity and load a file processed in the previous step. At this point, you have the option to enhance the frequencies. You can tweak the bass, treble and mid tones using the equalizer. Go to ‘Effect | Equalization’ to tweak the frequencies. You can either draw the curve on the graph or use the sliders after checking the ‘Graphic EQ’ radio button. For those who aren’t well-versed with using the equalizer, the values to the extreme left adjust the lows or bass and the ones to the extreme right adjust the highs or treble. The middle values adjust the mids. Plotting points above the 0 dB line boosts the frequency. Clicking 'Preview' lets you hear the effect. If you aren’t satisfied, you can further tweak the frequencies or click the 'Flatten' button and start over. Put on the headphones and pay close attention to what you hear. Click 'Ok' to apply the effect to the entire track. Do this for all the tracks.
STEP 8: Normalize the sound
Normalization uniformly boosts or decreases the amplitude of the audio signal such that the peak amplitude matches the set value. So if the sound levels increase or decrease after click and hiss removal and equalization, normalization will correct the levels. This will ensure the final result doesn’t distort or sound too soft. Go to ‘Effect | Normalize’, check both options in the dialog box, and set the maximum amplitude to 0 dB. Click 'Ok' to normalize the entire track and save the file. Normalize all the tracks.
STEP 9: Create an audio CD or save as MP3
You can either burn the final result to an audio CD or convert the files to MP3 format. You’ll need a disc burning tool such as Nero Burning ROM to burn the WAV files to an audio CD. To add a really good finishing touch, shoot the front and back of the vinyl sleeve and use the images to design a cover for the audio CD. You can also use the front image as the album art for MP3 files. To convert the WAV files to MP3 in Audacity, you will need to download the Lame MP3 Encoder plug-in from Audacity’s website (Help section). Load the WAV file in Audacity and go to ‘File | Export’. Set the file type to ‘MP3 files’, configure the bit rate, and hit the 'Save' button.