Friday, April 20, 2007

Preserving Old Vinyl In The Digital Age

Preserving old vinyl in the digital age
Scratching around for the best software to keep your record collection playing
By David Sharos
Special to the Tribune
Published March 26, 2007

Although digital recordings have become today's medium of choice for music, there are legions of fans that still cling to the retro groove of their vinyl record collection. But it is hard to take those 12-inch platters for a spin on your MP3 player.

In the past few years, however, a host of new hardware and software products have unshackled music lovers from their turntables. Digital has met analog, making even the oldest jazz recording an on-the-go experience.

For those raised on phonograph records, the technology allows them to archive their vinyl and protect it from deterioration, and to make their music portable.

"Records can deteriorate over time, and making CD copies means people don't have to play those albums over and over and can preserve their sonic future," said Frank LaRosa, 41, who operates Frank's Vinyl Museum, an Internet-based business that caters to esoteric record fans.

But the allure of software that converts vinyl also seems to be crossing generations. Shane Smith, 24, an electrical engineer who lives in Chicago, said that so-called white-label releases got him hooked on burning vinyl to CD and fixing tracks with Sony's Sound Forge program. White-label records are 12-inch vinyl records that are released in small quantities, mostly to radio disc jockeys, by record labels.

"I'm a guy with an iPod who wants to listen to unreleased songs I get on vinyl, things that are usually only released to radio stations," Smith said. "I have an engineering background and I like to tweak things after I copy them to remove some of the ticks and pops."

Products that convert vinyl to digital range from simple to use to technologically sophisticated. Aimed squarely at Baby Boomers who did not grow up with computer technology, drop-and-record turntables that convert vinyl into MP3 files and burn CDs are availx able through manufacturers such as Teac and the Crosley Radio Corp.

Teac's GF-350 ($400) includes a three-speed turntable and a slide-out CD drawer with manual recording-level controls, much like those found on cassette decks years ago.

Ken Hirata, marketing communication director for TEAC, said if you can play a record, you can make a CD.

"We introduced this product as something that would be as easy to use as possible," he said. "A lot of people that have bought this represent the demographic of people that played records when they were kids, people that bought and owned those classic jazz records from the '40s and '50s. These are people who might not be comfortable using a PC."

The GF-35, introduced in 2005, is poised for an upgrade. Prototypes of new models were shown recently at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show and feature improved tone arms and swappable rather than fixed phono cartridges and styluses.

The Teac and Crosley units perform pretty much the same, but there are cheaper alternatives that may archive better.

DART [Digital Audio Restoration Technology], Roxio Labs and MHC are among the growing number of software manufacturers making programs that allow computer users to convert their LPs to CDs.

Some, like Sound Forge, are powerful programs that require more technical skill and are capable of tweaking music files and removing sonic imperfections. Roxio's RecordNow 9 Music Lab package converts LPs and cassette tapes into a digital format for PC and Mac computers.

One of the cheapest and easiest-to-use software options comes from California-based Acoustica Inc., makers of Spin It Again. Dan Goldstein, senior vice president of development, believes the desire to archive vinyl treasures not available on CD is the major reason behind the popularity of the company's software.

"We conducted customer surveys a few years ago of over 2,000 people, and the No. 1 thing they wanted was a program that would convert vinyl into CDs," Goldstein said. "The Spin It Again product is our best-selling by far, and we think we've geared it to the demographic that will primarily use it."

That demographic is the same as the TEAC buyers--older Baby Boomers. Goldstein said the software, which is completely automated, takes all the guesswork out of making digital copies.

"We realize there are people out there who don't know a lot about the digital audio business, and we've removed a lot of the technical and trivial aspects," he said.

Smith said he first bought the Spin It Again software for his father, a carpenter who lacked a lot of computer knowledge but wanted to copy his old LPs.

"My dad was one of these guys that took six months to learn how to use e-mail, but he found the software very easy to use," Smith said. "I burn tracks using it and then clean them up with the Sound Forge."

Al Cheeks, 73, is the president of the Chicago Computer Society, a group founded 24 years ago to help members solve hardware and software problems. He said vinyl conversions can solve storage problems.

"I personally think vinyl is making a comeback, and I think these software programs make the conversion easy for people wanting to make CDs," Cheeks said. "Regardless of what software you buy, I think one of the advantages of burning CDs made from vinyl is the storage issue. Storing records takes up a lot of space."

Some may fear that converting vinyl to CDs may distort the warmth of those classic LPs. Experts, however, say the digital format doesn't have to compromise a thing.

"You can achieve a good result by burning your vinyl to CD-R using a great turntable, cartridge and phono stage," said Steve Hoffman, a renowned sound engineer. "I've done it myself, and it serves two purposes. First, you can safely play the heck out of your rare records this way. And second, you can actually hear the vinyl `breath of life' on this version over the actual commercial CD of the same item."

Archiving the musical past is important, said Bob Scranton, who imports and distributes high-end audio equipment for Audiophile Systems of Indianapolis.

"Music is deeply wired into the human condition," Scranton said. "Music is more complex and revealing than paintings or sculptures, and less prone to misinterpretation due to changes in language than the written word. We should archive our musical past because it is us and it made us."

Software for portable conversion

If you're looking to convert your vinyl albums into portable music files, there are a host of downloadable software programs that are just a click away. Most offer fairly detailed descriptions of their features, which should help in selecting based on your level of computer expertise. For the neophyte, look for programs that offer a trial version and walk you through the recording process.!spinitagain ($34.95): Offers complete hook-up instructions of your turntable to the computer. Includes 24-bit audiophile recording, real-time noise removal and includes effects such as tube amplifier simulators or the Sony noise-reduction-effect package. ($59): A 2.0 version of MHC's Vinyl Ripper was released in the past two years. A trial download is available. Click on the "example" button from the menu page to see how two wave files can be recorded and split into separate tracks.!products/r...overview.html: Roxio Labs makes a number of CD burning products, including this RecordNow program ($50), which is Vista compatible. It's also available as part of the suite of a larger package, the Toast with Jam 6. Check out the Dart CD-Recorder 4.1($30). Features a free trial download and has digital audio restoration technology. You can buy other professional-level products as well.

For the professional: ID=961: Sony's Sound Forge ($69.95-$299.96) is a digital audio-editing program, with no provision for automating the recording of vinyl LPs. It is popular among audiophiles wishing for total control over every aspect of a recording.

As always, comments are welcome.


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