Vinyl records – and here we’re thinking of 33 RPM LPs and 45 RPM singles – are capable of extremely good audio quality. This being the case, if you’re keen to preserve as much of the detail in the music as possible it would be wise to spend some time in choosing your equipment and possibly be prepared to invest financially too. This is an area in which there’s a world of difference between budget and top-end products.
The simplest way of digitising vinyl records is to use a USB turntable and these are produced by several companies with prices starting at around £30. These have an in-built analogue to digital converter and are used with the decided software supplied.
While quality tends to improve with price, and you could probably get decent results with the products from specialist companies such as ION Audio, the general consensus among audiophiles is that the performance of even the best is not nearly as good as with a medium-priced conventional turntable.
With an analogue turntable you need to connect the output (or perhaps the output from an attached amplifier, depending on signal levels) to the line input on a sound card and use the Windows Sound Recorder (or Audacity) to digitise it.
Before recording, be sure to select Line In rather than Microphone. The Sound Recorder will save your audio as a WAV file but if you want to store it as an MP3 (although we advise against it because quality will be jeopardised) you’ll need to use a separate converter – there are plenty of free ones to download online. You may prefer to save it in the lossless FLAC format which produces smaller files than WAV, but preserves the full quality.
The cable you’ll need for this job will depend on your turntable or amplifier and you should be able to pick one up online or from a Maplin store. Typically turntables have a stereo phono (also known as RCA) connection, and may or may not have a captive cable.
You can use either your PC’s standard sound card or, for better quality (and this is highly recommended if you’re using a good quality turntable), an audiophile internal or USB sound card such as the £90 Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD. Study comparative reviews before deciding on which to buy.
With regard to your choice of a conventional turntable, if you still have one then you’ll probably use that, at least initially to see if it gives you the quality you want. If you need to buy a turntable, though, the bottom line is that you get what you pay for and prices escalate frighteningly at the top end, to several thousand pounds.
At this level, you need to read reviews before parting you’re your cash, and you’d be well advised to visit a specialised Hi-Fi shop (i.e. not a large chain) who will take the time to give you advice and allow you to audition equipment.