I've mentioned several times on this blog that I planned on writing up a rundown on how I create my vinyl rips -- or "needle-drops," as they're also called. Well, here it is. This is an overview of most of the techniques I employ to convert old albums and 45s into high-quality MP3 files.
When I do needle drops, it's because I want to listen to rare (non-CD) vinyl in my car or on my computer with headphones. Therefore, I try to make my rips as close to CD quality as possible. That means: Clean starting and ending points for each track, no scratches, no surface noise, very little residual turntable noise, and a consistent volume throughout. Over years, this has become an obsession for me and I've discovered more and more ways to get the sound I want.
What follows are the most important techniques I employ in attempting to attain crystal clear vinyl rips. I marked the quirkier techniques I developed myself as "helpful hints," to set them apart from the main text. And, trust me, some of these ideas really are quirky, if not outright strange. But they work for me and should also work for anyone who chooses to use them.
In writing this up, I went on the assumption that everyone reading knows (and has) the basics when it comes to recording vinyl into a computer. You should have an above-average turntable, a good receiver, a pair of high-quality headphones, and some know-how about basic sound editing. Did I mention headphones? I did? Well, I'll mention them again. I can't recommend strongly enough that you monitor the editing process on headphones for close listening. Also, you should do all this in a quiet room, where you don't hear the buzz of the refrigerator or the "whooshing" sound of the HVAC system.
Also, even though USB turntables are sold for this specific purpose, you don't need one to do this. You can just as easily wire the "tape out" jacks of your stereo directly into the "line in" jack on your computer. You also don't need to buy ProTools or any fancy editing program. You can download an excellent freeware program called Audacity and use that to both record and edit. I taught myself digital sound editing with this program in 2002. So can you, I'll bet. For the record (pun intended), when I use Audacity, I set the recording level at 35 and the "Project Rate" at 48000 Hz. Then I hit record, and I'm off-and-running. Now, here's ten other things I recommend.
1). Clean the discs...obsessively
For me, cleaning a record means more than using the popular Discwasher Record Care System. When you have records that are 40- or 50-years old, dust gets embedded deeply in the grooves. Using Discwasher (and its liquid solution) will help, but it can't completely remove decades of dust. I found that water actually works better. Fill a sink up with warm water, then dip LP or 45 in vertically and rotate it, while trying to avoid getting the record's label wet. Then dry thoroughly with a thick, fluffy towel. Then use Discwasher, but without the solution. Use it just use it to collect up the excess dust. And get used to this because you'll be doing it several more times.
Helpful hint: I warned you this was gonna get weird. Well, here the weird part. To bring down the surface noise on old record, play it backwards at least once. Yes, you read that correctly. Backwards. Make like John Lennon and George Martin on "Rain."
Seriously, I discovered by accident that playing a disc in reverse can often wipe away residual noise. I found this by accident while making mixtapes (way back when) and cueing up the beginning of a record. After spinning an intro backwards and forwards to find the perfect "opening" spot, it hit me that the record suddenly sounded cleaner. Who knew?
I used to do this by hand, but started thinking that only insane people spin entire LPs backwards manually. So I went on eBay and bought a used disc jockey turntable -- a Numark TT200 -- that has a switch that allows you to play discs in reverse. (See below.)
To summarize, my entire cleaning ritual is as follows: Clean with water, play disc forward, play disc backwards, then play disc forward again. Preferably twice. And I keep dusting with Discwasher after each spin. Remember: The more you prepare the disc itself for recording, the less editing and correcting you'll have to do later on. An ounce of prevention and all that. Conclusion: When it comes to cleanliness and records, pretend your name is Alice or Hazel (look them up, Millennials).
2). Use ClickRepair...and use it like this
After I record the disc and create a WAV file in Audacity, I run all of my needle-drops through ClickRepair. This program is by far the best when it comes to removing scratches, tics, pops, and surface noise. You can use it for free during a trial period, but after that it's definitely worth it to buy the program and support the guy who invented it, Brian Davies. For me, sending out a vinyl rip without ClickRepair is like leaving the house without clothes.
Helpful hint: I found out that this program is more effective if (you guessed it!) you reverse all your WAV files and run them through ClickRepair backwards. Why is this? Because scratches are percussive in nature and sometimes ClickRepair "interprets" percussive drum hits and hi-hat sounds as scratches -- which leaves you with an awkward popping sound on the drums. But if you flip the music running into it backwards, it "hears" the drums as "whooshes" but still hears the scratches as scratches. Therefore, it works better this way and leaves you with a cleaner, more error-free sound.
I use this program sparingly and have found it works better that way. Less is more. The "DeClick" and "DeCrackle" functions can be set as high as 100, but I only use them at 30 (see below). Sometimes if there's a lot of surface noise, I'll set the "DeCrackle" to 40 or 50.
Helpful hint #2: When dealing with albums (as opposed to 45s), I've found it's most efficient to run each full side individually through ClickRepair. After you do noise reduction (see below) you can then split the WAV up into individual files of songs and do close listening to make sure they're clean enough. But beware of one little quirk regarding albums: The closing tracks on each side of an LP usually sound poorer that the others because the grooves are scrunched closer together. This sometimes results in a bit more noise. If you hear a "sizzle" on the vocal or if the track sounds "fuzzy," what you can do is take that individual song file, make sure it's reversed (of course), and run it back through ClickRepair, using ONLY the DeCrackle feature, set to 45-60. That should clean the rest of it up.
3). Reduce noise, don't try to eliminate it
It's called "noise reduction," not "noise elimination." There's a reason for that. The overuse of noise reduction ruins a lot of needle-drops. If you notice a "swirling" metallic sound when your files fade out, you're overusing this function. That means higher-end frequencies are being reduced along with the noise. You might not notice the loss of high end on its own, but if you do a side-by-side comparison with the original record, it'll become apparent.
As I mentioned, I use the program called Audacity to do my editing. I also use it for noise reduction. The settings I found work best are: Noise reduction (dB): 6; Sensitivity: 4.00; Frequency smoothing (bands): 1. I keep the "noise" option at the bottom set at "Reduce." (See below.)
4). Use noise reduction more efficiently
So how do you reduce noise, but keep the sound of the record intact? First off, let's backtrack a bit. When recording the album, make sure you record a generous portion of the "blank space" on a record before the music starts. This way, you have enough noise from which to grab a "sample." (Noise reduction effects allow you to "sample" a portion of the noise, then subtract it from the file.)
This should go without saying, but after running the files through ClickRepair when you go to do noise reduction, be sure to "un-reverse" them. That way you can sample the noise from the beginning of the album's side as opposed to the end. But...
Helpful hint: I found you you can make your noise reduction much more effective if you employ the effect on each channel individually. Audacity allows you to separate the left and right channels and edit each one independent of the other. To do this, use the "Split Stereo Track" feature in the "Audio Track" function, located directly to the left of your actual WAV file (see the red markings in the graphic below).
Once you've separated the channels, it's time to reduce some noise! First, grab a sample that's drawn from the pre-song blank space at the start of left channel and reduce noise on that channel. Then do the right one. This works wonders. Why does it work so well? Well, if you listen to a record with headphones, you'll notice during the so-called "silent spaces" that the surface noise you hear is slightly different on each side. So doing noise reduction globally (to both channels) is really a compromise that doesn't do justice to either channel. But doing it separately for the left and right sides allows you to remove the specific noise from each side of the stereo spectrum.
Helpful hint: I found it best to use noise reduction after I employ ClickRepair, which is why I've numbered them in this order. Doing this works better for me because sometimes noise reduction smooths out a record "hides" tiny scratches or surface noise artifacts from ClickRepair.
Helpful hint #2: Noise isn't consistent throughout the side of an album. So, someone I'll split up the tracks and do noise reduction to the individual songs. This isn't necessary for most LPs. In most cases, reducing noise for an entire LP side works fine. But for really old noisy albums, doing it per song or to groups of songs (i.e. tracks 1-3/tracks 4-6) might be what's needed.
5). Create clean beginnings and endings for each track
One of the things that annoys me most when listening to some needle-drops is when an MP3 begins three or four seconds into the track. We shouldn't have to wait that long after hitting "play." But on the other hand, files shouldn't start instantaneously when you hit play, because then they can come off sounding like their intros are truncated (especially when you put them in playlists). So...
Helpful hint: I found that placing exactly 30 milliseconds (0.30) of silence before the sound of a WAV file commences gives you the ideal starting point. (See graphic below.) It's just enough for breathing room, but not enough so that the track sounds delayed when it starts.
Helpful hint #2: I use the "fade-in" function to assure these milliseconds before the music starts are totally silent. To assure complete silence in those 30 milliseconds, use the fade-in effect three or four times, sometimes starting at the 10 ms mark and moving outward to 30 ms.
As for the end of tracks, my rule is to put three second of silence after each track...unless there is a special circumstance. Some albums have oddly-timed silences that are part of the presentation (i.e. Elvis Costello's Get Happy!!). In cases like this, I honor what the producer wanted and mimic the exact blank space between tracks.
(Once again, I'll stress that you really need to monitor all this on headphones if you want to make absolutely sure your 30 milliseconds of blank space is silent and your fade-outs are smooth. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you do with with speakers, then decide one day to listen on headphones, you may be in for some disappointing surprises.)
6). Make "spot corrections" on WAV files
Occasionally, you'll find that after all of this, there is still a problem. Call it "the scratch that won't go away" syndrome. Repairing such things can get complicated. I've developed so many solutions to this, that I may do a full write-up on them in the future. For now, I'll relate my simplest solution: Do "spot repairs" on just the offending section, not the while file. Here's how.
Audacity allows you to "cut" a section of the WAV file out, then "paste" in back into the exact same place seamlessly. So what I do is I cut out the offending few seconds that have a scratch, create a new file, and then paste that section into the new file and hit "save." (Audacity requires you to name files when you save them. It makes sense to name these correction files something like CRX.) Then I run the CRX file through ClickRepair, but this time I push the settings to their limits -- upwards of 70 for DeClick and DeCrackle. So I really hammer the error with ClickRepair. Usually this fixes the problem.
Since the repair portions are so small, you usually don't have to worry about spinning the WAV file in reverse. But you can do that. When ClickRepair is done, just open your CRX file, hit "copy" and paste it back into the main file. You should have a seamless edit.
Helpful hint: Spot corrections can be done on specific channels. Meaning: If the offending scratch is just on the right side (let's say), I use the Split Stereo Track feature and "cut" that portion of just the right channel. Then I make a file for it, send it through ClickRepair, then pull up the file in Audacity. I then delete the blank left channel and cut-and-paste only the corrected right channel back in where I cut it. Yes, it's complicated but it usually works, and Audacity is great with these seamless edits, so long as you don't mess with the original file after you do your cut.
Finally, sometimes when you record a record, a pop will resound during that specific play because nature or the gods or whomever intended it. Go back to the actual disc and listen to that. If the pop isn't there, it was a one-time thing because that's just the nature of vinyl. Sometimes. So re-record that song from scratch. This doesn't usually happen, but it has happened to me, and it's worth at least looking into.
7). Make sure the file is loud enough
Once you're done cleaning up and editing the WAV files, you can convert them to MP3s. But before doing that, make sure they have enough presence. Presence = volume. Listen to your WAV files next to your favorite MP3s. Are they too low? Are they too loud? Usually, LP files are a bit too low and need a little boost. Use the "amplify" function to be sure the WAV file is raised to its maximum level. If the music still doesn't seem loud enough, that's likely because of the idiosyncratic nature of vinyl. Often a record will have big sonic "spikes" and those will prevent you from raising the volume on the whole track, since a few small sections stand out so much that they prevent the rest of the track from being raised (see the red circle in the graphic below).
Helpful hint(s): There are two effects in Audacity you can use to beef up the volume. The first is the limiter which shaves off the peaks. The second is the amplify effect, which then lifts the overall volume. Whatever amount of limiting you do, you'll do the same amount of amplifying. So if you limit - 1 dB, you'll then be able to raise the volume 1 dB. For the record, I never go beyond 3 dB.
Why? Because if you use any more than that, I found, starts to affect the sound -- something that has caused controversy among audiophiles since modern-day producers overuse limiting and compression to make their tracks sound hotter. Unless your goal is competing with Katy and Miley, keep the limiting to a minimum and use it only to saw off the sonic anomalies.
8). Make like the Cookies and use chains
Employing these two aforementioned effects one after the other can get confusing and tedious. So what I've done in Audacity is developed "chains," which let you apply both effects at once. Just make sure you do them in the right order (limiter>amplify). I created a bunch of "limiter/amplify" chains for different occasions, ranging from - 0.50 dB to 3.0 dB.
As for Audacity's chain device: It isn't found in the effects section. Rather, they put it under the "file" tab (first one on the left). Clicking file>edit chains lets you set one up. This can get complicated to explain, and not everyone uses Audacity, so for details, go to the Audacity Forums online. One final note about chains: When you use them, do not highlight the file with your mouse. If you do, Audacity adds a few milliseconds to the end of the tile for some reason.
I personally like doing things like setting up chains and spending days exchanging ideas on the Audacity Forum. Not everyone does, however. So if developing custom chains seems too much of a pain, you can also do limiting and then amplifying individually to each file, as I mentioned earlier. But I found that got too time consuming and left a lot of room for error. I'd be in the middle of doing ten files and then stop to think "Wait, did I limit Track #4 already, or do I need to do that?" The learning curve here is a pain, but once you get it down, it's easy to do (even if it's not so easy to explain in writing).
9). Avoid equalization
Sometimes it's not what you do, but what you don't do that matters. If you want to preserve the integrity of a record, don't use any equalization, ever when ripping vinyl. The goal should be to capture the exact sound of the disc. Yes, using limiting (above) will slightly affect the dynamic, but if you use it sparingly, it will be inaudible. Altering the EQ settings, on the other hand, will change the tonal quality of the recording. The way I see it, when I do rips, it's not my job to alter the amount of bass or treble on a record and second guess the recording engineer and/or producer. If Quincy Jones had wanted more bass on that Lesley Gore LP, it would have had more bass.
10). Converting WAVs to MP3 files in batches
To do this, I use another freeware program called Format Factory. This enables you to do conversions in batches and, again, this leaves less room for error than when you do them one by one through Audacity. I set the MP3 conversion to 320 kbps and 48 khz.
11). Save the WAVs!
I also recommend saving backups of your WAV files. I bought an external hard drive specifically for this. I learned the hard way why you need to save old files. A few times I created rips that I thought were high-quality, only find later on that they had nasty sonic artifacts I missed the first time around. Oops. This recently happened with the rip I did of Marshall Crenshaw's "U.S. Remix." It sounded good last year, but listening again it sounded lame. But I didn't save the files, so I had to re-record the entire disc and re-do the project. Luckily, it was a short EP and not an LP, but still: Lesson learned.
12). Watch your speed
Before doing any needle-drops, make sure your turntable is running at the proper speed. I didn't include this earlier in the list because it sort of goes without saying. But it still needs to be said, so here it is. Fewer things bug me more than finding an old record I love on YouTube only to discover that the person who recorded it has a turntable that runs at (let's say) 36 r.p.m. not 33. I can't listen to things like this.
I found people with belt drive turntables have the biggest issues because the belt stretches over the years and that affects the speed. Even if you have a direct drive turntable, be sure to reference the record your spinning against its CD counterpart. In most cases, this will expose speed issues. What was that old saying? Oh yeah: "Speed kills!" In this case, it kills the ears of those of us who can spot flawed turntables.
Some of my better needle-drops:
Chad & Jeremy - Yesterday's Gone (Mono Mix, 1964)
Cristina - Cristina (Vinyl Edition, 1980)
Keith & Donna - Keith & Donna (1975)
The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. - The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. (1976)
Lindy Stevens - Pure Devotion (1972)
Lucy Simon - Stolen Time (1977)
The Lonesome Rhodes - Sandy & Donna (1967)
NRBQ - RC Cola and a Moon Pie (1986)
The Sidekicks - Featuring 'Fifi the Flea' (1966)
The Velvet Underground - Squeeze (1973)