How to Convert Vinyl Records to MP3 or AAC: A Step-by-Step Guide
Do you have a large collection of vinyl records that's been gathering dust since you switched to CDs and then to MP3 or other digital formats? Do you want to enjoy those old LPs from the 1960s, 70s, or 80s (or earlier) without shelling out more money to buy the same music again in a different format? You've probably done that already with some of your favorites — maybe bought the CD, or the cassette, or (God forbid!) the 8-track tape. Why do it again?
Instead, consider converting your old vinyl records to MP3, or, if you use iTunes or another compatible music player, to the more advanced AAC format. You'll have the advantage of getting all of your music into one accessible, digital place, and you'll also be able to reduce your storage needs by eliminating those bulky vinyl LPs. Maybe sell them at a garage sale, or, if they're in good condition, you may be able to find a dealer to buy them, or sell them on eBay.
You'll need to invest some time to convert your vinyl records, but if you follow the steps recommended here, your financial outlay will be limited to the modest cost of a USB turntable that you can connect to your computer (and you can always sell that after you're finished converting your records). All the software you need is free.
In preparing this step-by-step guide, I used a Mac and converted my vinyl records to the AAC format for iTunes. But the same procedure works equally well with a PC, either with iTunes or another music player. And converting to MP3 rather than AAC just involves using a different encoding library at the end of the process (see Step 8 below). Alternatively, you may want to convert your records to WAV or AIFF files — especially if you also want to make a CD — and convert those files to MP3 or AAC in iTunes or your music player of choice. But for this guide, I'm outlining the conversion process from vinyl directly to MP3 or AAC for use in iTunes.
Step 1: Download and Install Audacity Recording Software
Audacity® is free, open source software for recording and editing sounds, which can be downloaded from the Audacity website. It is a cross-platform program that is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Since my Mac is running OS X El Capitan (10.11.6), I'm using Audacity version 2.1.3, which is recommended for that operating system. I've used earlier versions of Audacity, beginning with version 1.2, with the same great results. The recommended versions of Audacity for various operating systems are listed on the Audacity download page.
In order to convert your vinyl to MP3, you will need to download and install the LAME Encoder, a plug-in library for Audacity. To convert your records to AAC, you'll need the FFmpeg Import/Export Library. Comprehensive instructions for downloading and installing both of these libraries on Windows, Mac, and Linux systems are located on the Audacity website's FAQ page for Installation and Plug-Ins. Installation of both the Audacity program itself and the two encoding libraries is very straightforward.
Step 2: Connect a USB Turntable to Your Computer
I use an ION iTTUSB turntable that I've had for several years. Amazon.com sells various newer USB turntables from ION, Audio Technica, Jensen, and other manufacturers at various price points. Any turntable with a USB interface will do the job.
Many USB turntables, including the ION and Audio Technica models, come with Audacity software, but you may want to check the Audacity website to ensure that you use the best version for your operating system. The turntables work with both 33-1/3 and 45 rpm records. (You can also record 78 rpm records at 33-1/3 or 45 rpm and convert them to 78 rpm in Audacity.) The turntables connect easily to your computer using the included USB cable. No special drivers are required.
Most USB turntables also include line-level outputs and an RCA cable so you can play your records through your home stereo system. So if you have some vinyl LPs or 45s that you can't bear to part with, you can use the turntable to play them "the old-fashioned way."
Step 3: Clean the Record
Although you can clean up the recording in Audacity, it's a good idea to clean your vinyl records as well as you can before you begin the recording and conversion process. Specialized vinyl record cleaner brushes and kits are available, including the simple and inexpensive RCA Discwasher kit, which I use and recommend. I have also found that liquid screen cleaners work well when gently applied with a microfiber cloth.
Step 4: Record the Vinyl Record in Audacity
Open Audacity, click on "Save Project As..." in the File menu and name your project, then set the preferences. First, make sure that your turntable is selected as the recording device. It may not be listed by its exact name, but it should include "USB" in the name — mine appears as "USB Audio CODEC." Select one or two channels, depending on whether you are converting a monaural or stereo record. The recording playthrough preference should be set to "Software Playthrough." The default quality preferences — 44,100Hz default sample rate and 16-bit default sample format — produce good audio quality for MP3 or AAC purposes, so I don't usually change them.
There are many options for recording in Audacity — the program can be used for many other sound recording purposes besides converting vinyl to digital formats — and you may want to experiment with different settings for your own recordings, but these standard settings have worked well for my conversion projects.
Once your cleaned record is on the turntable and the turntable is spinning, click on the red Record button in the Audacity toolbar and place the stylus on the record to begin recording. Don't worry if there is "dead space" before the first track begins (even if it's noisy), since you can clean this up later (see Step 6).
The recording is best done at the correct speed in real time. This also gives you an opportunity to listen to the vinyl record one last time. If you're a multi-tasker, you can listen to the music in the background while you do other work, or you can just sit back, enjoy the music, and relive those days in the dorm!
If you're recording an LP, you can flip the record over and play side 2 after side 1 is finished without stopping the recording process, and then remove the extra space between the two sides later on. But if you prefer, you can pause the recording in Audacity and restart it when you start playing side 2, or you can even stop the recording and append side 2 later by holding down the Shift key while you press the Record button.
Once your recording is finished, press the Stop button and save your project. You should also save the project periodically as you continue with the following steps.
Step 5: Reduce Noise
Noise reduction in Audacity is a 2-step process.
First, select a small section of your tracks that contains typical noise and no music. Often you can find a good representative section either near the beginning or near the end of your recording. To make your selection, just click in one of the tracks where you want the section to begin and drag the cursor horizontally.
After you've made a selection, go into the Effect menu and click on Noise Removal. It will bring up a dialog box as shown below, listing the 2 steps of the noise removal process. Since you've already made your selection, click on the Get Noise Profile button. The noise profile will be created "behind the scenes," and you will be ready for the second step.
Now select the entire project by double-clicking somewhere in one of the tracks or choosing Select All in the Edit menu. Re-open the Noise Removal dialog box and go to Step 2. You can change the options to adjust the noise removal filter to your liking, and preview the result. But the default selections will most often work well.
Step 6: Remove Dead Spaces in the Recording
You will most likely have some "dead space" at the beginning and end of your recording, and between the two sides of the album as well if you've recorded both sides without pausing or stopping the recording. You may even want to reduce the amount of space between tracks when you create your MP3 or AAC copies.
To eliminate a dead space, select it using the same method that you used to select a section for noise reduction. Zoom in (View > Zoom In} as necessary to make an accurate selection. Alternatively, if you use the Select command in the Edit menu, you can make a predefined selection like "Track Start to Cursor," which may be quicker. Press the Delete key or choose Delete in the Edit menu to remove the selected portion, and repeat as necessary.
Step 7: Divide the Recording into Tracks by Adding Labels
Use the Skip to Start button in the toolbar to go to the beginning of the recording. Click Tracks > Add Label at Selection and type in the name of the first song.
Next, click in the space between the first and second tracks. Adjust the zoom level to your satisfaction so that you can position the cursor accurately. Once you've positioned the cursor, you can use the space bar to toggle playback of the recording from the cursor forward, to confirm that it's positioned correctly. If you need to adjust the position, you can easily do so with the left and right arrow keys.
When you're satisfied that the cursor is in the right spot, click Tracks > Add Label at Selection and type in the name of the second song in the label marker that appears. Repeat this process for each of the tracks on the album, and then re-save the project.
Step 8: Export the Tracks to MP3 or AAC Format
To export the individual tracks in the album, select File > Export Multiple... This will bring up a dialog box in which you can set the export options. There is a range of Export Formats available; if you've installed the LAME Encoder the list will include MP3, and if you've installed the FFmpeg Import/Export Library it will include M4A (AAC).
Choose the one you want, and choose an Export Location for your files. Keep the default "Split files based on" option set to "Labels." I also keep the "Name files" option set to "Using Label/Track Name," since iTunes will number the tracks automatically. Track names can also be edited later if necessary.
Once your options are set, click on the Export button. This will bring up an Edit Metadata dialog box showing the first track. Edit the values for each of the tags (Artist, Track Name, Album Title, etc.) and click OK. The dialog box for the second track will appear. Repeat the process for each track in order. You can change the tags or add new ones, but the metadata can also be edited in iTunes, so I usually stick with the defaults.
When you've completed the metadata for the last track, the exporting process will begin automatically. You'll find your tracks in the directory that you specified as the Export Location.
Converting Your Vinyl LPs
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Step 9: Add the Tracks to Your iTunes Library
This last step is simple. In iTunes, click on Add to Library..., navigate to the Export Location, and select the tracks to copy them into your music library. iTunes will usually put the tracks in the correct order and add album art, but if not, you can re-set the track numbers, and add additional metadata including art, using the "Get Info" dialog box.
You can now enjoy your old music whenever and, if you have an iPod or other portable music player, wherever you like, without being tethered to a turntable and stereo system. You can sell or give away your old vinyl records — and the turntable too — and free up some storage space. Of course, it's also possible to become a "digital pack rat," but that's a different subject.
© 2011 Brian Lokker