Why Convert Vinyl to Digital?
You’ve spent a chunk of money building your record collection. Every evening, you sit down, pop in a record and sink into the warm comfort of music on vinyl. It’s bliss.
Daytime is different. Record players are not exactly portable, and now all of your favorite music is in streamed or downloaded digital form.
It sounds colder, more sterile, perhaps over-compressed. It’s not the same.
Don’t worry though. The next time you’re at home listening to one of your prized records, you can also record the tracks to your computer and create your own digital copies that retain the vinyl sound.
Portability and Preservation
If portability isn’t your main concern, consider preservation. Vinyls have a finite lifespan. Records that you listen to regularly can wear out, especially if you have trouble keeping them in suitable humidity or temperature, stored correctly, or your turntable’s counterweight isn’t suitable, or the needle has the wrong tip – you get the idea.
Records can be more fragile than CDs, and audio files stored on hard drives or flash storage will last longer than a vinyl record played with any regularity.
Turntable Requirements to Convert Vinyl to Digital
Your turntable needs to have either a USB output, or a line out connection which will require an RCA to 3.5mm cable.
You may also need an external preamp or analog digital converter (ADC) if your turntable is on the budget side.
As I mentioned previously, if your turntable does not have a good preamp built in, you may need to purchase an external one to get the desired results.
For best results, ensure that your record player is spinning consistently and at the perfect speed.
A great turntable that won’t break the bank but excels at converting vinyl to digital files (I own one personally) is the Audio Technica LP120X-USB. Find it here on Amazon (affiliate link).
Recommended Software to Digitize Vinyl: Audacity
Hands down, most people who convert their vinyl records to digital files will use a piece of software called Audacity. It’s free to use without restriction, it works on Windows, Mac and Linux, and it is extremely powerful.
The one downside to Audacity is that the interface is not the most user friendly experience you’ll ever encounter. Hopefully, the step by step guide below helps you overcome this.
Alternatives to Audacity
There are a couple of premium (paid) alternatives that are designed specifically for converting vinyl to digital, such as VinylStudio and Pure Vinyl. The main advantages they offer are a cleaner interface and a wider range of file types.
Most devices can play .flac or .mp3 so these advantages are, in my opinion, not worth spending money on.
The guide below is focused on how to use Audacity.
.Flac vs .Mp3
.flac is a lossless format and larger file size, whereas .mp3 is compressed and therefore a smaller file size.
When you convert vinyl records to digital format for the first time, I would recommend purchasing (if you don’t already have one) a high capacity hard drive – the size depends on your library obviously – so that you can digitize your records in a lossless format, like .flac. From there, you can make copies into more portable file types such as .mp3.
You should also ensure that the sampling rate is at least 44.1kHz in 16 bits. The higher the better here though if you have the storage space and a decent computer.
How To Convert Vinyl Records to Digital Files (Using Audacity)
The initial step is to prepare your space. Chances are you’ve already got a decent environment for listening to your music, though now you need to take some extra care.
While recording, any external noise and vibration can end up on the recorded file, so try to make sure there are no annoyances around that can cause the needle to skip or the turntable to vibrate.
- Make sure all of your records are clean before recording. You are trying to get the best recording possible, so any build up of dust or skin oils could potentially cause immortalized blemishes – and I’m going to assume that you don’t have limitless free time to record the same records over and over.
A microfiber brush may be enough to remove any noticeable problems. (For more specifics and thorough cleaning techniques, check out our complete guide to cleaning records.)
- Connect your turntable to your computer. If you’re using a newer Mac, you might need an adapter when using the USB connection. If you’re using line in and line out, make sure your cables are in good condition and don’t create any buzz – you can test this with headphones. Make sure you use Line Out if that’s an option.
Now is the time to test how good the preamp on your turntable is. Again, this can be tested with passive headphones. If the output is too quiet, or the sound quality is not what you expect, then you may need to purchase a preamp. (Check out our list of best preamps under $200 if you need some recommendations.)
If you don’t have passive headphones available, you’ll need to check a short recording before diving head first into the whole catalog.
- Start Audacity. Select the input that you want to use by going to the Edit menu and then in the Recording section, choosing either Line In or USB. Then, if you’re using Windows 8.1 or above, press the Start button, then type Settings. Go into the System section and then Sounds. On the right hand sound it will say Choose Your Input Device. Click on it and select your turntable connection, whether USB or line in.
- In Audacity, press the record button in the top left of the interface and start playing your record. Don’t worry about dead air or sounds made when swapping sides of your record, you’ll edit the gaps out later.
- When your album has finished recording, it’s time to split the tracks and cut out unwanted silence. In Audacity, click and drag on a section of the wave form in the center of the interface, then click Edit from the menubar, then Labels, then click on ‘Add Label at Selection’ and type in the correct track name.
- Now it’s time to export your tracks to their own individual files. Click the File menu and select Export Multiple. Choose the file format that you want (again, I suggest .flac to start with), the location that you want the files saved to, and enter in the metadata (such as artist, album title, year, etc) in the following pop-up. When that’s done, click on Export.
- Make your files more suitable for portable playback.
There are apps that play .flac on Android and iOS, but they are large, uncompressed files and a big music library will quickly eat up all of your device’s storage space.
Here, I recommend using a free tool called fre:ac, which you can get from the Windows store or from here on the official website.
Open fre:ac and from the menu at the top, click on Add and then Audio Files. Here, you can choose to add your entire catalog at once to save time, or just a selection.
NoteL If any of the metadata is wrong, you can edit the metadata that by clicking on Show File Information, and go even more in depth by clicking on the Labels tab.
- Export the tracks.
Click on the Chosen Compressor dropdown menu and select LAME Mp3 Encoder v3.x. Choose the output folder where you want the mp3 files to be saved. I would recommend starting at a different root than your .flac library to avoid confusion.
- Click Start and your files will be converted and placed in the chosen folder. From there, you can transfer them across to your smartphone via USB or numerous apps available on both iPhone and Android. I would suggest KDE Connect as a powerful and free option.
The Audacity team provides an online user guide if you have more questions on using their software.
That’s it! Your vinyl collection is preserved and you can listen to the same wonderful vinyl-ness even on your smartphone thanks to digital files sourced from your very own collection.
Best Record Player to Convert Vinyl to Digital
The Audio Technica LP120X-USB is an excellent turntable for converting your vinyl to digital files, has high quality components, and works perfectly with Audacity.
Here’s an Amazon link to the AudioTechnica LP120X-USB turntable (affiliate link), followed bytwo YouTube videos showing walkthroughs with that record player.