I’m really happy with my USB preamp for digitizing vinyl records and kinda wish I’d bought it years earlier. It’d have saved me a lot of money in CD remasters and other forms of buying-the-same-damned-record-again. What it allows me to do is remaster the records myself according to my own requirements. I find that I can get a very clean, dynamic sound out of most records I own, without having to worry about the digitized end product being clipped or overcompressed due to the Loudness war – even though I do normalize them to be pretty loud.
And I’m also finding that, because my records are for the most part very clean, it’s dead easy. Here are the steps I take to digitize an LP side. These steps assume you have Audacity and a reasonably clean, modern lawnplayer:
Start Audacity with the USB preamp hooked up (doh) and the correct preferences set.
Put record on turntable and start. If necessary, clean record with antistatic brush.
Hit record button on Audacity. Drop needle.
Wait 20 or so minutes, listening to the record to make mental notes of bad clicks or other rough spots.
When the needle lifts, stop recording.
Using the visual representation on screen, delete the bits before the needle drop and the bits after it is raised. Keep some of the “silent” parts before and after the end of the music.
Save file with the naming/folder sorting scheme of your choice. I sort by artist and album but give the actual files basic names such as “Side A” or “Side B”.
In the main menu for Audacity, go to Analyses menu and select Silence Finder. Accept the default settings and hit OK. A label track will appear marking silences of a second or longer with an “S”. Usually, the mark appears right where the next track begins. Go through the markings, checking them as necessary and editing them so they show the names of the songs.
While doing this, if you know any spots where there are major clicks, or you spot them as you go along, mark them on the label track as well, so you can cut them later.
In the main menu under File, go to Open Metadata Editor. Fill in the Artist name, album name, year and genre, but nothing else, and hit OK.
These steps should give you a raw recording with everything properly labeled. The reason I do the labeling first is because I don’t want to endlessly repeat listening to the album. I also don’t like cutting the album into separate songs until the final stage. But if you want to do that, that’s fine. The next few steps affect what is actually in the recording. Because Audacity does not support non-destructive edits, now would be a good time to save.
Next up, I usually normalize. You don’t have to do that, but I want the tracks to hold their own against the tracks I already have in iTunes. “Loud” tracks get normalized all the way to 0 dB – after which I check for clipping. “Softer” tracks get normalised to -0.5 dB, the default value.
Then, go back to the clicks you’ve marked, zoom in on them until you can see their own wave form. Select it and delete it – it is usually just a few thousandths of a second, and no musical information is preserved in a major click, so no one will notice it. It pays to use your eyes – select so that the waveform you get after deletion looks uninterrupted.
Next, select some of the silent bits from the beginning or end of the record and go to the Effects Menu -> Remove Noise. In the window that opens, hit Create Noise Profile. Next, select the entire recording, go to Effects Menu -> Remove Noise again and start experimenting. You may want to try with the default values first, but I think that removes too much noise at the expense of the overall dynamics of the recording – after all, it uses an algorithm to guess at what is and what isn’t noise, and sometimes gets it wrong. I usually end up taking out 10 dB or less – especially if for some reason I haven’t been able to normalize all the way up to 0 dB. You’re going to have to use a lot of trial and error here, and this is where you’re most likely to get it wrong and have to redo the work. When in doubt, skip the step entirely and live with the noise floor.
Once you’re satisfied, select individual songs using the markings you made earlier, and export to the format of your choice using File -> Export Selection. You’ll be prompted again with the metadata editor window, and this is where you enter the track name, number and the year if it’s not the same year as the other recordings on the album. Don’t use Export! It will export the entire LP as one track.
After that is done, I usually close without saving so I keep the unedited music in case I’m unhappy with the results later. This sometimes happens, but by this time I usually have a recording that is clean and loud without being clipped or smooshed. And because the normalization and noise reducing steps are really macro steps that don’t require close interaction with the recording, I can reproduce them easily.
This is my approach; there are others and I may change mine as I learn more. If you like separating the songs out early, you can do so. Noise removal is more important if you use headphones a lot; I find the existing noise levels to be less of a problem on speakers. Because I expect to use headphones more in the future, I am hedging my bets here.