How can you convert vinyl records to a digital format?

Converting vinyl records from a turntable

If you, grew up in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s and have a massive collection of old records, you may question the wisdom of paying to download all your favorite old songs that you already own on vinyl.

Is there some way to convert your vintage tunes to play on your phone or computer? Indeed there is. You can digitize all of your old record albums them on your own with a specially-equipped turntable, or hook up a conversion tool to an existing turntable.

vinyl record turntable spinning

Go put your records on

So you’ve got a stack of Duran Duran LPs and singles the size of the Burj Khalifa. Or perhaps they’re actually a stack of old Miles Davis records. Either way, I’m not judging — you just want to get those old vinyl records converted over to a digital format so you can listen on your computer.

The good news is you don’t need to be a rocket scientist, audio engineer, or computer programmer to figure it out — you just need to spend a little cash.

DIY conversion

Until the last couple of years, if you wanted to do this you had to take your existing turntable and plug it into the audio input jack on the back of your computer — but first you would have to find an audio preamp, since the standard turntable generates a very low level audio signal. Without this, your digital recordings would have sounded quiet and tinny. That’s not even to mention the maze of cables and adapters and… well, you get the idea.

Fortunately, give electronics manufacturers a hint of a niche and they’ll fill it — quickly and with lots of different products.

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Now there are turntables out there with a direct USB output — just plug it into your computer using a standard USB cable, install some software, and away you go — and most are pretty affordable, depending on the make and model.

A quick search on Amazon yields many results, with this model from Audio Technica leading the way in reviews and popularity. Close on its heels is this one from Jensen (which can do the conversion without a computer, a bonus for some folks). As of this writing (February 2020) these both sit right around the $100 mark and have fairly good reviews.

If you already have a turntable, look into converters like the ION Audio U Record USB Music Archive System.

None of these are endorsements, of course — merely examples of what is out there and what you can expect to pay for base model devices. Do your own research and determine which is best for your needs.

One more thing you’ll need: Patience. Transferring music is done in real-time, so for every 58 or so minutes of music, plan to spend an hour recording (including the time needed to flip each disc from side one to side two).

You may also need a program like Audacity, which is a free audio editor and recorder — and other similar programs are also available.

Quality control: Convert vinyl to mp3

Like much in life, money buys quality. If you’re a true audiophile, the inexpensive turntables are probably not going to give you the results you’re looking for.

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While USB turntables are handy combo devices, they’re often of low quality, and sometimes don’t play so nicely with older and slower computers.

According to the very helpful Audacity page on USB turntables:

If your computer has a line-in (blue) input, you can digitize LPs and tapes with an existing turntable or tape deck at a lower cost. All that is needed is a phono pre-amp for connecting a turntable to the computer, and only a cable for connecting a cassette deck. No intermediate amplifier is needed for a tape deck, because its output will already be at line level, and it does not need RIAA equalization.

If your computer lacks a line-in, you can purchase an external USB interface or soundcard, and connect a turntable through a phono pre-amp to line-in of the USB device. Some USB interfaces already come with a built-in phono pre-amp. An existing cassette deck can be connected directly with an external USB soundcard.

Some users with extensive experience of digitizing LPs and tapes believe that connecting a good quality conventional turntable or tape deck to an external USB interface or soundcard is an ideal solution. USB soundcards usually do not suffer from the transmission problems of USB turntables or tape decks, and are also free from the random clicky noise that can afflict sound devices built into computer motherboards. Moreover, their analog-to-digital converter (ADC) may be superior to that provided with a USB turntable.

Digitally transferring vinyl doesn’t always make sense

If you’re looking to transfer your entire Beatles collection to the digital format, realize that many classic albums are now available in remastered forms — meaning many of them could sound even better than the original vinyl.

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Yes, the downloads will cost money (or you can buy the CDs — even used — and really easily convert those), but you will save time and effort, along with the expense of buying the equipment you need… and might even give you better quality than you’d be able to achieve with low- or mid-range turntable setups.

MORE: How do you choose a good turntable? Tips for the best record players, direct from 1975

After the transfer

Once you get your audio files on to your computer, it’s important to organize them properly so you can find your tunes when you want ’em! Ideally, each album should have its own folder (with album name and artist, and possibly other data like genre and release date), and each song will be labeled with its title.

If you do this right, it should be a relatively simple matter to synch that data and automatically download album cover artwork for all of your converted music. Get the how-to here on how to get the album artwork for your music library.

Before long, you’ll be singing along to your favorite songs of yesteryear — and, best of all, you will finally be able to take your vintage tunes with you anywhere, whether that means the car, seven miles in the sky, or on vacation in Tahiti.

Video: Connecting your new turntable & other recommendations

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