Thanks for (Digitizing) the Memories: How and Why to Transfer from Analog to Digital

Perhaps you are one of the many people who are interested in the reborn world of vinyl. You  have crates of old records that you love. For many years — between the time that vinyl gave way to digital and when it made its surprising and welcome comeback — you considered throwing them all away.  But you resisted. They are not just discs made of polyvinyl chloride that miraculously can reproduce sounds.  They are memories.

The past few years have brought good news. Modern consumer electronics enables the transfer of all this much-loved analog noise to smaller, portable and more or less indestructible media. Your old records can be stored and enjoyed in your device, PC or phone. The transfer is time consuming, but It’s easy and even a bit of fun. 

The temptation is to shorthand this as ripping. Of course, it’s fine to do that. Purists, however, would note that ripping initially referred to extracting data from another digital source. So using it when the source material is analog is an expansion of the definition. The “official” term for transferring analog records to digital is creating “needledrops.” That’s a bit too cool for my tastes,  but it does have a phonographic reference.

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It’s an interesting process. The first step in converting your old records from analog to digital is common sense and perhaps the most important: You need to make sure that they are as clean as possible.

There are a number of approaches to this, ranging from surface wipes to vacuums and washes that are designed to extract decades of grime from deep in the grooves. (Check out HiF & Vinyl Now’s feature on the topic, including five potential products.) The bottom line is that the cost of these remedies varies accordingly. You can spend a lot of money cleaning old albums.

One word of advice: Don’t use DIY approach that involves pouring glue (most likely Elmer’s or the equivalent) over the record and peeling it off, presumably along with the dirt. It’s sort of an analog mud pack, I imagine. The experts don’t dismiss it with a laugh, however. Apparently, it does a great job of removing grime. But it is liable to take Bill Monroe’s mandolin and Oscar Peterson’s piano along with it. They suggest that it isn’t the way to go.

As with just about everything in audio operations, there is a good deal of nuance on how to do the technical operation itself. The easiest is the use of a turntable that can be directly connected to the digitizing device via a USB cable. If the turntable has that capability, all you need is the proper software and you are good to go (actually, you are good to sit while all the albums play).

Not everyone is a fan of this approach, though. Discogs notes that some experts suggest an intermediate step. “Though convenient, USB turntables can get a bad rap from audiophiles. They’ll get the job done, but if you are serious about maintaining the best quality, look into upgrading your specs with an audio interface.”

It’s hard to generalize about how this is done. Audio gear has different inputs and outputs and onboard equipment and therefore must be handled in different ways. There often is confusion over equipment names and functionality. Folks may be using different names to describe the same task. There are lots of sites that give good and detailed advice on how to digitize records. Check out Discogs, What Hi-Fi and Rolling Stone.

It is important to note that this is not a short process. We live in a gigabit per second world and are accustomed to fast download and random access. Analog, however, hearkens back to a simpler time — one in which you often had to sit and wait for things to happen. In this case the record actually has to play in order to for the output to be digitized. That’s bad news if you are an impatient individual with a lot to transfer or want to do this quickly. The silver lining is that it gives you an excuse to listen to all those tunes again. 

The next and arguably more fun part of all this is creating the play lists. You are able to play audio engineer and can organize all that newly digitized content. There are several free software suites that do this. Reviewing each is beyond the scope of this article though the site likely will circle back at some point and do so.

5 Tips on Digitizing Vinyl
– Over time, different functionality has been added and shifted between components. Thus, older turntables may require additional equipment and cables
– Newer turntables generally support USB, which simplifies digitization. 
– Audio digital converters provide better sound and more control
– There are lots of general and audio-to-digital specific software suites available, some for free. Look for those that allow identification of each track 
– Digitizing albums takes time–the records must actually play
The next and arguably more fun part of all this is creating the play lists. You are able to play audio engineer and can organize all that newly digitized content. There are several free software suites that do this. Reviewing each of these is beyond the scope of this article though the site likely will circle back at some point and do so. 

I have quite a bit of experience with Audacity (though not for this purpose). It is reliable and, considering it is a freeware project apparently put together by engineers, surprisingly understandable to regular human beings. Other software to explore, according to, include VinylStudio, Pure Vinyl, Golden Records, Audio Cleaning Lab 2, Spin It Again, Studio One and Ion EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter.

Ketan Bharadia at What Hi-Fi? Makes a couple of good points. The first is that so much time is spent making the transfer that it is prudent to make a backup copy. The other is that spacing between tracks can be tricky and attention must be paid:

Your computer won’t recognise individual tracks, so usually you’ll have to stop recording when you’ve finished recording each one. Tracks that flow into each other are an issue too. Mark these for gapless playback or you’ll have a few seconds of silence where there shouldn’t be.

Software features that provide more control over the spacing between tracks is emerging.

The great thing about the digital/analog divide is that it hardly is a divide at all. Jumping between the two is easy and a bit of fun. This is nowhere more apparent than in the creation of needledrops that fully and completely link your old and new record collection to your digital and mobile world.

So now all that music is digitized and safely ensconced in your device. You now can throw out all those albums…But of course you won’t.

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