Monday, January 15, 2007

Ripping Records and Tapes With Audacity

Being of a certain age, I have a substantial collection of vinyl and cassette recordings. (Fortunately, I never went in for 8-tracks. A friend of mine even had a car equipped with a 4-track tape deck. Yes, I'm old. Wanna make something of it?)

The vinyl albums and 45's have been sitting upstairs in the attic ever since the day that the cat decided that the turntable would make a nice treadmill. The cassettes have been banished there as well ever since we got our first automobile with a CD player. And now, of course, we're all in the process of compressing every bit of music ever recorded into MP3 files, if we're unlucky enough to only have brain-dead car stereos and iPod clones, or the unencumbered ogg format if we're able to find players for it.

Unfortunately, many songs I'd like to listen to on an MP3 player are upstairs in the attic. I'm not particularly inclined to go out and buy a CD reissue of an album just for one or two songs I'd like to hear, so it would be nice to be able to have a way to get those songs off of the records and into MP3 and/or OGG format. In other words, I want to rip a record, just as grip or sound juicer rip CDs onto disk.

A friend has a high-tech audio system which is set up to copy recordings to CD, and thence to a computer-readable file. Several times I thought about bringing over my whole collection (and a keg or two of beer) and asking for help, but the inertia was too great. So my records and tapes languished in the attic.

Until I read Washington Post tech writer Rob Pegoraro's newsletter, where he mentions an old article about transferring records and tapes to MP3 format.

Now I'm a self-described geek. But I didn't really think I had enough equipment to re-record albums without going outside the house. Duh. Well, except for the fact that I don't have a working turntable.

But I do have a collection of tapes, circa 1980, and an old stereo cassette tape deck, whose age can be guessed by the fact that it only has Dolby A noise reduction capability. So, assuming the tapes are in any kind of decent shape, I just need:

  • A cable to connect the cassette deck to the computer. The deck has RCA output, red and white, and the computer has a stereo plug line-in jack, so I went to RadioShack and purchased a Y-Adapter Audio Cable (part 42-2550, $6.99+tax), which has RCA plugs on one side and a modern-size stereo headphone plug on the other side. If I'd used one of our boom-boxes, I would have used a headphone-to-headphone plug. Check your connections before you head out to the 'Shack.
  • A copy of Audacity, the open source program for recording and editing sounds. It's available in the Ubuntu repository, naturally. I'd used it to edit MP3 files, but never to record. It has many capabilities I'll never even think of using. For now, we just want to record files, so we need:
    • This tutorial, which covers the basics of recording with Audacity. It's written from a Windows point of view, but the basics are the same. Especially heed the warning that by default Audacity records in Mono. It's easy to change the preference to Stereo, but you've got to do it.
    • The LAME package, which will allow Audacity to save directly to MP3. This eliminates the conversion step mentioned in the tutorial.
  • The kid3 utility, which puts in all that nice tag information, letting your MP3 player tell you which song you're hearing.

Once you've got all that, it's fairly easy. Just follow the steps in the tutorial. I prefer to save the entire session in audacity's own format, then go back, select the tracks I want, and export them to MP3. Audacity should then enter the track ID information, but that doesn't seem to work well, so I go back and fix all the tags with kid3.

The quality is surprisingly good, if you started with a decent tape. Really cheap tapes, now well over 20 years old, don't even turn in the tape deck. But higher quality tapes surprisingly retain their sound. The quality is definitely not as good as ripping from a CD, however. There's just too much background noise in the system, and the tape speed isn't exactly constant anymore. Higher-end tape decks and sound systems might work better. If I wanted that quality, though, it would be cheaper to go out and buy the CD-reissues of the albums. For listening on the computer, an MP3 player, or in the car, the quality is acceptable.

I should write a full tutorial about using Audacity, with pictures and diagrams. Maybe later.

Now I still have all of that vinyl to record. I can get hold of a turntable, but I'll have to go out to get a new cartridge so that it can play. Then we just have to keep the cat out of the room during the recording process.