There’s nothing like high-fidelity audio, particularly the warm, uncompressed sound of vinyl pumped through a sweet A/V system. Audiophiles swear by the record player and for good reason. But like much of the analog landscape, an LP can only handle a finite number of needle trips around the groove before some degradation in sound starts to occur. Now, you could just go out and grab another copy, but that gets costly, especially if it’s a rare first pressing from the U.K. you found on Discogs. For those gem records that you simply can’t fathom living without, you can spare them another trip around the platter and preserve them digitally. This is a process by which the vinyl itself is encoded onto hard disk, allowing your treasured albums to endure past their physical expiration date. We’ve put together a guide of exactly what hardware and software you’ll need to do this, along with a step-by-step walkthrough for going digital.
Sadly, there is no catch-all method for digitizing your vinyl collection, and the exact process depends on what kind of equipment you have. Some turntables come with built-in phono preamps — electronics that boost the typically lower signal produced by the needle and cartridge alone before sending it to the receiver or set of powered speakers. Turntables without preamps will rely on a receiver with a phono input or a stand-alone phono preamp. Many modern turntables feature both a built-in preamp and a USB output, allowing you to quickly and efficiently convert that musty copy of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill with little effort.
That’s not to say you can’t convert your vinyl to a digital format without an integrated USB output, but opting for a turntable built with said output makes the process far easier. Below is one such turntable we recommend. If this doesn’t work for you, check out our rundown of the best turntables under $500.
If you’re deeply invested in a large collection of vinyl records, a high-quality player like the Audio Technica AT-LP120XUSB might be worth your money. A popular turntable among newbies and mid-level vinyl heads, the AT-LP120XUSB is outfitted with a pro-grade anti-resonance aluminum platter to seat your records, a balanced S-shaped tonearm, and variable pitch control with a quartz speed lock. But obviously, it’s the built-in USB output that makes it ideal for transferring your wax to zeroes and ones.
Getting the signal from your turntable to your computer is only the first step. The second part of the process is finding the right software application to record the audio. Although there are several premium applications designed to help you rip audio from your turntable — like Pure Vinyl and Vinyl Studio — the open-source Audacity will suffice for most users. This freemium application may not offer dedicated tools for converting vinyl into more accessible formats, but it can still record at sampling rates up to 192kHz, and export the resulting audio files as either an MP3, AIFF, FLAC, or WAV for playback on a slew of popular platforms. The interface may not be polished, either, but the software works with Windows-, Mac-, and Linux-based machines.
Regardless of which software you use, we recommend that you record at a minimum of 16 bits sampled at 44.1kHz. You can always create a compressed copy from a lossless one, but you can’t improve the quality of audio files without going through the recording process again. If you have a large library of vinyl — which seems likely, given that you’re here looking to digitize your entire collection — that is a serious time commitment.
Once you have the necessary gear and software in order, it’s time to start the digitization process. Although you’re more than welcome to digitize your vinyl wherever you see fit, we recommend choosing a space that’s relatively quiet and devoid of outside vibrations — i.e., passing trains, stomping children — that may cause rumbling or an unwanted needle skip.
Step 1: Clean your vinyl
Vinyl has a knack for getting dirty — dust accumulates over time, fingers leave behind oils and other muck — so it’s best to clean your albums. Any imperfection, whether it stems from scratches or mere dust, will be recorded when digitizing. Consider buying at least a simple bristle or micro-fiber brush and some cleaning solution if you haven’t already, or something a bit more involved like a Spin Clean record washer.
Step 2: Connect your devices
Next, connect your devices. If using a turntable with an integrated USB output, plug the USB cable into the corresponding port on your computer. If using a turntable without a USB output, connect your record player to a stand-alone preamp or A/V receiver before relaying the RCA connection (via monitor output) to the “line in” port on your computer using the RCA-to-3.5mm cable.
Step 3: Launch Audacity
Open Audacity, or your preferred audio-recording software of choice, on your Mac or PC. Select the appropriate input source from the system preferences pane or a similar settings panel in the program. If using Audacity, click Edit and select System Preferences before selecting “Line in” from the drop-down menu within the Recording section of the Devices pane. Keep in mind you may have to additionally select the input source from within your computer’s main sound panel.
Step 4: Record
Click the Record button and start your record to begin capturing audio from your selected source, adjusting the input levels to reduce clipping and subsequent distortion when needed. In Audacity, the record button is represented by a red circle in the topmost navigational toolbar.
Step 5: Wait
Allow your desired section or the entirety side of the record to play through before clicking the Stop button, represented by a yellow square in Audacity and typically resting beside the Record button in most audio suites.
Step 6: Split the tracks
If you’re like most people, chances are you would rather split the entirety of the record into individual tracks. If using Audacity, click and drag your cursor to highlight the duration of a particular track. Afterward, click the Tracks option within the toolbar, select Add Label At Selection from the resulting drop-down menu, and name the track appropriately. There are better tools for this process than Audacity (see: Perfect Tunes) but it’s free, which is nice.
Step 7: Export
Once you have split and named each track, click File within the toolbar and select Export Multiple from within the drop-down menu. Afterward, choose your desired file format, save location, and enter any missing metadata in the resulting pop-up menu before clicking the Export button in the bottom-right corner.
Step 8: Enjoy
Once finished converting, enjoy your newly digitized music in the media player of your choice!