A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Turning Old LP's Into New CD's

By PETER H. LEWIS (New York Times, 9 DEC 1999)

Even though the music world long ago shifted to the digital compact disc, people of a certain groovy generation -- you know who you are -- still find it hard to part with their large collections of long-playing vinyl phonograph records.

In some cases, interest in the almost forgotten LP's is rekindled when curious children of the digital age, having passed through several unfortunate music stages that may have included Hanson, rap and heavy metal, discover that there is interesting music in the sleeves of their parents' dusty old Elvis, Thelonious Monk or Otis Redding albums.

One alternative to fighting the kids over the fragile old records, or being a slave to heavy crates of vinyl year after year, has been to buy new CD's of old albums as they are re-released in digital format.

It was a happy day for me recently when the long-lost "Roll Over" album by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble finally showed up on disc. But some treasured recordings in my collection, like Tony Trischka's early "Bluegrass Light" album, are either not available on CD or are very difficult to find. Other albums may contain only a song or two worth preserving, and buying a new CD version just for those tracks may not seem worth the expense.

Now, with the proliferation of relatively affordable systems for recording your own CD's, some album owners may want to take their LP's for a last spin and start creating their own CD's. There are a number of reasons to do so.

CD's are more durable and do not degrade with each playing, as LP's do. Also, people today want to listen to their music on the move, and turntables are rarely seen outside the living room or den. There are more than 500 million CD players in the world capable of playing home-recorded CD's, not just in stereo systems but also in personal computers, automobile dashboards and other portable devices.

Transferring an LP to CD can be time-consuming, and it also risks re-exposure to all those amazingly self-important liner notes from the 60's and 70's. Sad to say, the music may not seem quite so mesmerizing as it did 30 years ago, and you'll wonder why you toted it from apartment to apartment and house to house. But for music aficionados and casual listeners alike, creating new digital discs from old analog ones can have practical as well as nostalgic rewards.

There are two ways to go, each with its benefits and drawbacks. The easier method requires a CD recorder that attaches to a stereo system and is designed expressly for copying and playing audio CD's.

The other way demands a relatively brawny PC equipped with a sound card, special software and a CD-R or CD-RW recorder. The PC method can be a lot more complicated but, done properly, yields more satisfying results. And if you use a computer-based CD recorder, there are a number of other tasks it can do, including backing up a hard drive, storing digital photographs and video clips, and storing MP3 audio files downloaded from the Internet.

While the focus here is on transferring analog LP's to digital CD's, the same processes apply to other analog media, like 45's, 78's, audio cassettes, eight-tracks, reel-to-reel tapes and radio broadcasts. Those willing to become proficient with sound-editing software can even create CD's that sound better than the album because they can reduce (but not completely eliminate) the hisses, snaps, crackles and pops.

Before getting to specifics, a note about copyright. The laws are complex, but in practice people make cassettes for personal use all the time and making a CD is no different. It is illegal, and unfair to the artist, to make copies to sell or to distribute free to friends. For now, consumers seem to be on the honor system. As the record and consumer electronics companies wise up to the digital age, which they are doing very quickly, copyright controls will undoubtedly be integrated into CD recording technology to restrict potential abuses.

A Philips CD recorder I tested came with this warning label: "Unless you own the copyright or have permission to copy from the copyright owner, you may be violating copyright law and be subject to payment of damages and other remedies. If you are uncertain about your rights, you should contact your legal adviser."

The technical issues are equally dense. Let's start with the relatively easy one: the stereo-based (non-PC) solution.

A number of companies make consumer audio (stereo-based) CD recorders, including Panasonic, Pioneer, Marantz, Sony, Onkyo, Yamaha and Philips, with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,500.

I've been testing a Philips CDR-765 dual-deck audio CD player and recorder (listing for $599.95). It can be used to make exact copies of audio CD's, but it can also be used with other stereo components to transfer LP's and cassettes to CD's.

The Philips CDR-765 is in the same style as traditional stereo components, so it attaches easily -- well, relatively easily -- to a component stereo system. Some older or lower-end receivers may not have enough connection ports to allow the CD recorder to be attached without detaching some other component. A call to the Philips telephone service for technical support was not helpful, but after fiddling with a variety of connections, I was finally able to get an LP's analog signal to register with the recorder. Then it was simply a matter of loading the blank CD and pressing the Record button.

Just as if you were recording a cassette tape, you can mix tracks from different albums, or from other CD's, cassette tapes and MP3 files. The only thing that makes the process more complex than recording a cassette tape is that the CD disc has to be "finalized" after the last track is recorded; otherwise, it cannot play in other CD players. The finishing process is usually automated and takes a couple of minutes.

There are drawbacks. In this method, every sound made by the turntable, including pops and clicks, was recorded onto the blank CD-R disc. (CD-R discs are used most commonly for recording music because they can be played back on nearly any CD player. CD-RW discs can be played back only on a CD-RW drive, which rules out most stereos, cars and CD-ROM drives.) The result was a CD that sounded just like an LP.

Then there is the PC method, which requires a little more investment of time and money but yields superior results. The necessary components include a PC or Macintosh, a CD-R or CD-RW recorder, a good sound card, and special software for editing, organizing and "burning" the sound files onto the blank CD-R disc. A big hard drive is helpful, too, because music tracks from an LP are typically stored on the computer as space-hogging WAV files. Each minute of CD-quality music consumes slightly more than 10 megabytes of disk space. Storing enough music to fill the 74-minute capacity of most CD-R discs will commandeer at least 750 megabytes of free hard disk space.

The key is the computer's sound card, which must have a stereo input jack.

In general, a turntable cannot be connected directly to the sound card. The signal must be amplified, either through a stereo receiver (the most common way) or through a simple pre-amp, which can be found at Radio Shack or some other electronics source for $30 to $75. The receiver or amplifier then plugs into the input jack for the sound card's stereo line.

Most newer PC's have adequate sound cards, but a better sound card yields better results. My Dell PC uses a Turtle Beach Montego II sound card, and the results were decent. Audiophiles often invest in top-of-the-line sound cards costing hundreds of dollars and then spend hundreds of dollars more for sophisticated audio editing programs.

Happily, it appears that almost any brand-name CD-R or CD-RW drive can do a good job of capturing LP tracks. Some drives are faster than others, with recording speeds listed as 2X, 4X and so on. The faster the drive, the more quickly it can copy digital files. But they all slow to no more than 1X when copying and converting tracks directly from a slow LP to CD.

Most CD-R and CD-RW drives come with the basic software needed to copy digital CD's, but making CD's from an analog source like an LP usually benefits from a more complete program. One of the most popular is Adaptec's Easy CD Creator Deluxe Version 4.0 for Windows ($99). Its counterpart for the Macintosh is called Toast. Other audio editing programs include Sound Laundry, CoolEdit Pro, GoldWave, Sound Forge and DCart. There are also several shareware editing programs available on the Internet.

Because the CD recording field is so new, it is all too common to have conflicts between one company's software and another's CD recorder hardware. It took many hours, and a reluctant trip into Windows system files, to resolve a system-crashing conflict between Easy CD Creator and my Sony Spressa CD-RW drive. It is probably wise to make sure that the software is compatible with your CD recorder ahead of time.

In the end, it was worth it. The Adaptec software includes a variety of utilities, including one called Spin Doctor, which automates the process of removing pops, ticks and hisses from LP's. Another utility automatically breaks an album side into separate tracks, which in theory makes it easier to edit and arrange the order of songs.

Although it was more time-consuming, I found it more reliable to record each album track separately. The utility isolates tracks by listening for the silence between songs, but on my scratchy old Tom Waits albums, for example, it was foiled by the static and noise between tracks and either recorded the album side as one huge file or broke single songs into multiple tracks.

Like other CD-recording programs, Easy CD Creator lets the user record the album tracks either directly onto CD or onto the computer's hard disk, which is the method I recommend. Despite the extravagant use of hard disk space, recording first to the hard disk, as WAV files, has many advantages. Chief among them is that the tracks can be edited, with special effects like fade-ins, fade-outs and pitch changes, and the tidying up of pops and clicks.

(One Adaptec utility even lets the user add pops to make digital CD tracks sound more like old LP's. That was one special effect I definitely did not need.)

Once the tracks are recorded and stored on the hard disk, they can be used over and over again, edited in a variety of ways, sent as e-mail attachments, converted into MP3 files for transfer to a portable MP3 player, mixed with tracks from other sources to create "greatest hits" play lists or dance tracks, and, of course, burned onto CD's.

A side benefit is that clips can be edited from favorite album or CD songs and used to replace the standard Windows WAV file sounds. For example, snippets of James Brown or Kid Creole and the Coconuts make more interesting sound effects than the usual Windows system sounds.

There can be another side benefit as well. The 12-inch record album was a showcase for clever art and liner notes, and a 5-inch CD jewel case is not friendly to art or text. But Easy CD Creator and some other programs include handy templates for printing colorful CD labels and covers.

I will eventually transfer my entire LP collection onto CD's, and with any luck I'll finish before compact discs are replaced by something new and even better, like DVD-Audio or holographic crystals. Even then, I'll probably continue to haul the old albums around because I still can't bear to part with them.

Squeezing an Album Cover to Fit in a Jewel Case

Compact disc labeling kits can reproduce images from old record album covers and print them in jewel-case or CD-label sizes. Limited scanner width can restrict the size of the image copied or require the use of an editing program. Both circular and square CD labels can be created using the templates contained in some programs.

Such kits, including MicroVision Development's SureThing CD Labeler (www.surething.com, $40), Stomp's CD Stomper Pro CD/DVD Labeling System (www.cdstomper.com, $40) and Neato's CD Labeler Kit (www.neato.com, $30), contain software that will import images into square jewel-case-size templates, as well as circular templates for labels that go directly on the discs. And for a start-your-own-record-label trick, many of these programs have a software feature that lets you wrap text around a circular disc label.

Although it is relatively easy to design jewel case liners and disc labels using the clip art software provided in the label kits, reproducing the art from an old album cover is trickier. Most scanners are too narrow to accommodate an entire album cover, which measures almost one square foot.

One option is to scan in the top half of the cover, then the bottom half, and stitch the two together in an image editing program like Adobe Photoshop.

The Surething CD Labeler will join an album cover's two halves directly within its template, said Paul Cary, a spokesman for the company. If joining two halves seems too complicated, the only other alternative when using a scanner is to center the album as much as possible onto the scanner bed and do without the leftover edges.

Another option is to take a snapshot of the album cover front and back with a digital camera, then enlarge or crop the images to fit into a jewel case template. The fine print is likely to be blurred, however, even if the image is taken at the highest resolution.

Each of the label kits comes with a supply of paper for printing the booklet found in a jewel case's front, the disc label and the tray liner and spine. Applicator devices are included for positioning labels precisely onto the disc.

It is also possible to create CD labels and jewel case liners using popular desktop publishing software like Corel Print House or Broderbund Print Shop Deluxe.

Some of these programs contain circular and square label templates that can receive imports of graphics and text. Avery, Americal and Memorex are a few companies that sell packs of printer-ready jewel case and CD labels that can be used with these programs. If you work with 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper instead of the label paper, you will have to cut out the shapes after it comes out of the printer.

Some music enthusiasts find jewel cases cumbersome and prefer to focus on the design of the disc label. They then store the CD's in plastic sleeve-type cases. Mirage Inkjet Technologies (www.mirageinkjet.com) and Kyso (www.kyso.com) produce glossy photo label paper, and Kyso sells label paper flecked with iridescent sparkles.

The ABC's of CD's: Read-Only, Recordable and Rewritable

Some rewritable CD's can be recorded on many times, but others only once.

CD-ROM is read-only, which means the data are stamped permanently into the disc, and additional data cannot be written onto it.

CD-R discs (the R stands for recordable) have a dye-based recording layer that allows them to record information like data files, digital photographs, video or audio. A low-power laser beam alters the dye in the recording layer. CD-R discs are sometimes known as write-once discs because the encoded data cannot be erased or overwritten. CD-R audio discs can be played back on almost any CD player.

CD-RW (for rewritable) discs can be erased and rerecorded hundreds of times without a loss of quality. They use slightly more powerful lasers that heat a silvery recording layer of silver, antimony, indium and tellurium, altering its reflectivity. The tracks are erased, or more accurately, annealed, by reheating the layer with the laser, in effect transforming the silvery alloy back to its original crystalline state. Erasing is possible only on the most recently recorded track or on the entire disc.

An important note: Because of their much-lower reflectivity, CD-RW discs can be played back only on CD-RW drives. In other words, if you want to record an album to play in the car or at the gym, use a CD-R disc.

A CD-RW drive is recommended because it can create both CD-R and CD-RW discs, depending on the type of blank disc that is used for recording. A CD-R drive can create only CD-R discs.

Either way, the recorders work only with special blank CD-R or CD-RW discs found at electronics and computer stores. CD-RW discs are slightly more expensive than CD-R discs, which cost about $2 each, although in bulk the discs can be as little as $1 each.

Sorry, you can't record onto old, unwanted commercial CD's, which are permanently molded and stamped instead of burned. You're stuck with that collection of Rippingtons CD's you got last Christmas.