Almost exactly three years ago, Mike wrote about finding (or not finding) stuff in his library, archiving, and so on. Free association combined with his columns about putting in new bookshelves and buying classic stereo gear made me decide to digitize all my AV stuff.
I owned about 500 record albums and 500 CDs. The CDs got listened to almost entirely on my computer or in the car. The vinyl, except for the albums that I'd put on cassette, pretty much never got listened to. I just wasn't playing music in the "living room" anymore, where the stereo, turntable, and speakers were. I doubt that I had listened to more than a dozen albums in five years; the vast majority of them hadn't been played in at least a decade. All that music, losslessly-compressed with full fidelity (flac, natch) would consume about half a terabyte. An iPod would even make the music portable. But what a lot of work.
What pushed me over the edge was the realization that once I digitized all that stuff, I could get rid of it! I don't care about vinyl albums as physical artifacts, as many people do. I only care about the music on them. Which, I must emphasize, wasn't being listened to.
You can figure out how many feet of shelf space all that music and video took up. Plus, I could sell the CDs and the vinyl. I'd clear about a buck apiece on the vinyl, twice that on the CDs. So I'd be getting back about $1500 and a lot of free space in my house! Most of said space (and some of said money) would go for additional bookshelves. Of course.
I figured less than an hour a day of my time would complete the job in a year. Well, that turned out to be totally wrong, as I'll explain. I couldn't just transcribe and convert all those record albums in the background while I was doing other things. It took more than three times as long as I thought it would.
Fortunately, my standards were modest. This is a project at which you can throw huge amounts of money, even into the low five figures, without getting into stupid-rich territory. Each incremental debit of your bank account buys you higher audio quality that is audible with sufficiently good equipment and a sufficiently good ear. Happily, I only wanted the transcriptions to sound at least as good, on equipment that I could afford, as the way the records had for me. No "golden ear" much less "golden equipment." I had an acceptable direct-drive turntable (Akai AP D210) and cartridge (Shure M91ED). I'd buy a new needle for the Shure cartridge and a couple of hard drives. A few hundred bucks.
I turned to Mike for mid-level audio advice and to my friend, Alexia, for the really tough stuff. You know how much I know about photography relative to someone who just bought their first camera last week? Well, that's Alexia's level of knowledge about computer music and audio compared to mine. Back in the mid-'80s when I was dreaming about having the power of a Cray to do image processing, she was dreaming about it for music analysis and synthesis.
Mike suggested I replace my whole cartridge. His recommendation, for less than $100, an Ortofon OMB 10. It was a winner; distinctly better sound than my Shure, which was not a bad cartridge.
I asked Alexia about data rates. Did I need to go to 96 kHz or even 192 kHz instead of 48? And what bit depth? At my middlin' level of quality, Alexia said I wouldn't be able to hear any difference between 48 kHz and 96. On the other hand, she strongly recommended 24 bits per sample. The logic is much the same as using 16 bits per color instead of eight for image processing. You can get by with eight bits of color if everything is just perfect and you're not massaging the data much. Make substantial changes, though, and there may be noticeable gaps in your histograms. The same logic applies to 16-bit audio. 24-bit ensures that you've got margin to work with when you process the audio files, and it means you don't have to be anywhere as fussy about getting the peak level set perfectly.
Alexia also told me not to trust the A-D converters built into any of my computers. They might be good...but probably not. The problem? Timing. As the old joke goes it's...
48 kHz is hardly a fast sampling rate for modern computers, but unless the interval between samples is extremely precise (fractions of a microsecond) and the sampling window kept narrow, phase and harmonic distortion creep in. No matter how fast you're sampling, poor timing will make it sound crappy.
Off to buy an A-D converter. FireWire, of course; for real-time data recording, don't want to trust a CPU-mastered bus like USB. At my level of quality, there was plausible gear under $200 from M-Audio and PreSonus. The latter's Inspire-1394 looked like just what I would need. It had audio line inputs on channels three and four, built-in RIAA compensation, and it was powered off the FireWire bus.
A mistake, at least on my Mac. First was that the built-in RIAA compensation did a really lousy job, introducing horrendous hum. Yeah, ground loop problems, but running some external gounding leads from cases-to-cases eliminating that...until I turned on the RIAA function. So it was off to buy an RIAA preamp. Fortunately they're not expensive.
Then I discovered a modest incompatibility with Audacity, the excellent freeware audio processing software. Audacity can handle input on channels three and four, but some important things like the peaking VU meters don't work. There was no way to map Inspire's line audio to channels one and two. So I switched to CuBase LE, which came bundled with the converter. Its VU meters sucked; it also had much poorer controls for cleaning up and editing the transcription than Audacity. Worst of all, I discovered it (or maybe the Inspire, could never sort that out) had an annoying tendency to lose timing synchronization if I was using the computer for much of anything else. Audio would stutter or drop out for anywhere from a fraction of a second to minutes, mid-recording. This was not a basic CPU or FireWire bus load problem; I had much extra capacity. It was a prioritization problem. Still, it meant I couldn't do the transcribing entirely in the background while doing my normal work, and it also meant I had to go back and re-record a lot of licorice after I discovered this.
Maybe all the low-to-midpriced converters have such problems. Maybe it was unique to my Mac. I bludgeoned the Inspire into doing the job and doing it well, but there were so many glitches along the way that if I had it to do over again, I'd buy something else.
Learning curve aside, the work went quickly; in spare time, I could copy 3–6 albums a day. I carefully washed each platter before transcribing it, cleaned and dusted each side when I put it on the turntable, and cleaned the stylus between sides. My records had never sounded cleaner. But they were still pretty noisy, compared to digital, anyway. I knew that was going to really bother me if I mixed together tracks from both media in my playlists.
That's when things started to go very sloooowwwwwwly.
Tune in next time to find out how I got to the right answer, Adobe Audition, by the long way around. Wish I'd known about that program when I started the project.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on TOP on Wednesdays. Note: Part II might be delayed for a few days if Mike is still on hiatus. We apologize for the interruption in service!
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Nico Burns: "I wonder what the legal status of downloading a vinyl rip of a vinyl you own is...because there are high-quality rips of almost everything [i.e., on the internet —Ed.] if you know where to look."
Featured Comment by Robin P: "For the odd bits of my vinyl collection that it's hard to find on CD I had a Philips CD recorder connected to the 'tape out' of the amplifier. I recorded to CD-RW, converted to .wav on the PC and used a program called Groove Mechanic to clean up hiss, rumble and clicks. Reasonable results but no competition for many recent 'remastered' CD releases...and the whole process is so time-consuming that after initial enthusiasm the CD recorder lay unused for years and I recently sold it on eBay. Spending time rejuvenating old tape recordings of musical friends seems more justified, similar to breathing new life into old negs with a scanner and image manipulation software."