Hardware

Convert your favorite vinyl albums to MP3s with the Ion iTTUSB turntable


I remember a time when the best, most portable way to play music was with a vinyl record. For many of you that may seem like ancient history, but for me the vinyl album is how I think of music even today. I know in the iPod era we live in now, many think of music as a song-by-song smorgasbord of choices, but I still shop and buy at the iTunes music store by album not by song.

And if you were a participant in that lost era of the vinyl record album, you probably have several favorite albums carefully stored in a bookshelf somewhere. Sure you have replaced them with their updated CD-ROM versions, but you miss the richer sound of your vinyl friend. You miss vinyl in particular when you hear how some sound engineer has changed the way the album was originally mixed, rendering it a pale shadow of itself.

I still have all of my vinyl albums, which span musical genres and artists ranging from America to Warren Zevon. The one thing I have always wanted to do since the CD-ROM became the predominant medium is convert some of my old albums into a digital format. And I don't mean just buying the CD version of the album, but capturing that special vinyl sound I grew up with by actually recording from the album record. Some of my motivation stems from the disappointing way some sound engineers' inflict their own interpretation of the music onto the CD mastering process. Albums like The Who's Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy and Jethro Tull's Aqualung come to mind immediately as albums with CD versions that just don't do justice to the actual intended sound. The other motivation is that some very old vinyl albums have yet to be offered in the CD format.

Wishes can come true

And now my wish to revisit the joy of the vinyl record has been answered with the Ion iTTUSB turntable. TechRepublic recently purchased this USB turntable as part of our Cracking Open series of galleries. But before we risk opening up the turntable to see the magic inside, we thought it best to give it a thorough test.

Check out the first look gallery if you want a close-up view of the Ion iTTUSB turntable.

So, to that end, I brought in some vinyl records from my collection and used the turntable to convert them into MP3 files.

The process is not as simple as popping a CD into a player, but it is certainly much easier than it would be with a conventional turntable.

There are, however, some caveats to keep in mind, some of which I found out the hard way. You see, the instructions for how you actually perform the conversion are a little on the sparse side. Ion should invest in a good documentation writer. Anyway, here are the caveats and corresponding advice:

  • Use a PC with a decent processor -- My first conversions were done on a Celeron laptop, which could not handle the real-time conversion stream. The quality suffered tremendously; to the point where the guitar solo in the song Aqualung was actually missing from the MP3.
  • Use a PC with a decent amount of RAM -- 512MB is probably enough, but 1GB is better.
  • Use a PC with a decent amount of available hard disk space -- During the conversion, you are essentially going to have two copies of the music: the Audacity project files and the MP3 file you export. You need to have enough room to handle large files -- one side of one full-length album can easily reach 20MB.
  • Use a rainy day -- This project is not a play-and-forget activity. You will have to be ready to flip the album from A to B and you will have to stop and start the recording process. Be sure to block off enough time for the album to play and for you to edit the file.
  • Use a good pair of headphones or have good speakers -- Before converting to MP3, you will likely want to do some editing for pops and clicks. This is where good quality speakers or headphones are valuable.

After some tweaking of the process, I was converting vinyl into digital music that I could play on my iPod Shuffle. The music quality produced by the turntable was a pleasant surprise and was generally comparable to the quality produced by my expensive turntable setup years ago. The iTTUSB could easily pass for your everyday turntable if you prefer to listen to your vinyl recordings for more than the mere time it takes to convert them to MP3.

Bottom line

If you still own vinyl that you want to listen to on a regular basis, either as converted MP3 files or directly off the plastic itself, I can highly recommend the Ion iTTUSB turntable. It is inexpensive and you get a lot of bang for your buck at around $120. Converting an extensive collection of vinyl (I have about 300 albums and another 50 45s) is going to take you a long time, so you may have to be selective. But the task is really a labor of love and one vinyl audiophiles will likely relish. I'll be looking to buy one for myself -- that is my highest endorsement right there.

About

Mark Kaelin is a CBS Interactive Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He is the host for the Microsoft Windows and Office blog, the Google in the Enterprise blog, the Five Apps blog and the Big Data Analytics blog.

28 comments
Data Ninja
Data Ninja

The link posted in the blog used ittusb.php and it's actually just ttusb.phb, the full link is: http://www.ion-audio.com/ttusb.php From the site: Key Features - Plug & Play USB - no drivers needed! - Adjustable Anti-Skate control for increased stereo balancing - 33 1/3 and 45 RPM - Supports the recording of 78 RPM records through the included software - Switchable Phono/Line level RCA outputs (with built-in pre-amp) - 1/8" stereo line input; digitize music from cassettes or other sources Computer Requirements - PC running Windows 98SE, 2000, ME, XP - Mac running OS9 or higher - One available USB1.1 port or higher - Compatible with most standard operating system drivers Newegg.com has it for $109.99 w/3 day ship @ 13.53 There are two others, the ttusb05, which is a cut down version of the ttusb, and the ttusb10 ($199 w/free ship from some online vendors) which adds a dust cover, lift lever for the stylus and a supposedly 'sleeker design'. From what I can tell it comes with the Audacity Software.

shraven
shraven

If you have albums you want to convert AND HAVE NO TURNTABLE - I could see buying this rather than a normal turntable... maybe... if the quality of this is up to par and this isn't just a toy gimmick relying solely on the USB angle to make sales... big if's. Otherwise, I'm sure you'll get better results from a good turntable and a good interface (onboard audio isn't a good interface but a decent soundcard is fine). Software is a big factor too. You can buy a hardware preamp to boost signal and apply the RIAA curve, or you can get software that does that so you just plug a standard turntable into the soundcard and the software makes the same adjustment the preamp would do. That same software will also do noise removal for clicks and pops. Such software can be free or in the $20 range (or much more if you prefer). If your receiver has a phono input, by all means use that and run an out to your PC. My biggest complaint is scanning the files in in MP3 format. An album side should take a lot more than 20MB. A single song in wav format is about 20MB. If you plan to do any processing - you don't want to start with a lossy compressed file. Garbage in - garbage out. Lastly, the hardware requirements for this are stupid crazy overrated. I was digitizing LPs via my soundcard back on my 486 - which handled 30MB .wav files just fine with 128MB RAM... so something is off here!

Zeppo9191
Zeppo9191

He's been busy for the past few weeks, converting his own vinyl collection - some of which goes back to the 1950s. I've heard the resulting MP3s, and they sounds great.

robert
robert

Digital audio handles spikes in volume by distorting the signal, spikes like scratches which are all too present in good old vinyl. Yes you can normalise (or even compress in audio software) but by then it's too late as it's the sound card digitising that's the problem. I spent 120 on an external Alesis compressor limiter (inbetween my line out of amp and line in of soundcard) and made sure that I had a good sound card to keep the quality as high as possible. I also put everything into a lossless format (even uncompressed .wav will do) and then burn onto a CD/DVD. From there I can convert to MP3. Who knows when you'll buy an iPod or the next version of MP3 will come out - have you ever converted one compressed format to another, Aqualung would never survive intact (nor ELP, Yes or classical!). If you're going to spend that much time converting albums I would rather do it so that the end result is the best possible quality (and flexibility) so I don't have to do it again. (On album 80 out of 500 - still a long long way to go ; )

jsperko
jsperko

If you already have a turntable, you can buy a small pre-amp ($30-40), connect the RCA jacks to the sound card with an RCA-minijack cord, and use Windows Media or something more exotic, like Magix Audiolab, to create WAV files. Magix can do all the ancillary stuff like splitting the tracks, etc.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Then just use your wave recorder program.Do it one song at a time so you can crop out noise an the beginning and fade the end.MP3 is nice your CD writer should be able to make a music CD.Normalize the audio level with Select All,Normalize.Level adjustment is important it has to be just right.Name the tracks too,check out the titling in your player to make certain the title displays.Maybe you could do Kraftwerk Autobahn for me!I think that the first phonograph players were supposed to use plutonium record needles for noiseless playback.Then it was the optical needle.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

this wasn't available when I began my LP to CD conversion process. I have so many LP's that I likely won't have completed converting them before I die! lol I am using LP Ripper/Recorder via a USB connection between my receiver and PC. It works great, but takes up a lot of space. This looks like a too cool idea to me.

Thmiuatga
Thmiuatga

Well, the software I use is Magix Audio Cleaner and it works very well. I have converted some selections of my vinyl with it using my Technics SL6 Linear Tracking Turntable (circa 83). Linear Tracking Turntables play records as they were cut on the lathe (no tracking error). I actually use a preamp with the audio out plugged into my PC's Audiocard (SB X-FI). The amp has a ground connector for the turntable and the turntable has a separate line for it's grounding connection so there is no hum. If you have gold RCA shielded connectors, Use em! Setting the input levels for the sound card is almost a science but you just want to be careful not to set the feed from the amp too high. Over-saturation is a risk. After that, it's just cleaning up the records and bringing the surface noise levels down. Since I have run out of Discwasher record cleaner, I have been using de-calcified water. This won't leave any residue in the surface grooves. I actually work the water into the grooves and pull it up with the application brush. The record will be slightly damp but there isn't any harm. just don't wet up the label! After the record is recorded it's just a matter of normalizing the sound file, cleaning up any noise,setting up the tracks and then burning the project to a disc. Working with mp3 formats have been troublesome for me so I stick with ogg Vorbis. It's just like Mp3 but the encoder is free. Windows Media Player doesn't support this format though other players like Winamp do.

fivemics
fivemics

Does this turn table comes with software? It doesn't say it does, if not what did your father use to record and clean up the vinyl?

gcarter
gcarter

For out of print albums this makes sense to me. But what are the reason for converting to vinyl when the same album exists in CD form? I'm trying to weigh the investment in time and money. Thanks, gc

bruce
bruce

RIP Vinyl, www.ripvinyl.com, is quite good, and enables recordings of 78's when spun at a more leisurely 45 rpm...

dena1936
dena1936

If you do this, I would certainly make sure it is a direct drive or gear driven turntable. The belt driven ones really don't get all the sounds in the deep grooves.

fivemics
fivemics

I have an older ATI All in Wonder pro 128 card that allows me to plug my existing turnbable into the input (RCA) stereo ports. I use Cakewalk Pyro 5plus to do the recording and it has all the filters you need to clean up the hiss and scratch noises, of course the same applies here, one side at a time. I usually just record the whole side, but with patience you could do one track at a time or try to cut the tracks out later. Especially on those albums with only a couple of songs you want.

llandau
llandau

Anybody out there know anything about the possibility of copyright laws when transferring? My brother is starting on his albums and wondering about doing it for profit for other folks. Yea I know they would have to find him first - but I would hate for him to get into trouble. They are punishing those for passing music/movie files over internet. IF enough people start "breaking the law" this could be next. Just wondering what y'all know out there.

Freebird54
Freebird54

even after reading about this, what it actually offers beyond a connection to your PC? USB may be convenient, but surely it has no other advantage over a direct line-level connection to the sound card? BTW - anyone have any recommendations for 'click and hiss' removal - preferably open source? The job'll go much quicker on LInux than on an XP boot (old hardware) - so I would prefer that if possible.... (only 1500 approx albums to go - and 100 singles...) :)

earlyjazz
earlyjazz

Although more labor intensive, I prefer to record the vinyl to Cool Edit 2000, remove unwanted pops, clicks etc. then burn to a CD. This also allows me to edit out those tunes which I don't care to hear and to perform other editing so that the CD is customized for my taste. Cool edit has been taken over by Adobe, I think, and Cool Edit 2000 is no longer supported. However, it is available for download from several web sites. Since it appears to be an abandoned albatros(sp?) I don't have any guilt feelings about using it. Dick Rich

dena1936
dena1936

Very simple. There are sounds deep in the grooves of vinyl that cannot be produced on a flat medium. I imagine the only way you would get those sounds is by converting into your computer and play them right from your computer.

gcarter
gcarter

Thanks. Both replies make interesting points for ripping LPs - richer sound, tracking, warmth, etc. But I will try find examples of both types (ripped LP and ripped CD of the same song) listen to them, and compare for myself. Then decide if its worth trying. I think there will definitely be a difference between the two, but I wonder if my hearing is sensitive enough to discern a noticeable difference in sound quality. I have over 1,000 LPs (many them out of print), so if I go that route it sounds like a task I will need to hand off to future generations before its completed. Not to go to far off track, but I recall reading about a turntable that used an optical "stylus" which used a laser to read the grooves. Maybe such a device (if/when available) would make the task easier. Thanks again for your replies, gc

Thmiuatga
Thmiuatga

I'll try to keep this simple with a personal example. Among the various audio CD's I have in my truck, I have 3 conversions from vinyl. Wind & Wuthering by Genesis, Back To The Egg by McCartney & Wings, and Lyle Mays (Pat Metheney Group Keyboardist). Among some selections I have recorded from XM Radio One of the songs from the Lyle Mays Lp was played. It sounds clean just as my record does but the overall pitch is altered. They call it the sampling rate but I grew up with Reel Deck Tape, 8 Track, and cassettes so I'm very familiar with pitch controls and almost anything analog. There is an absence of warmth with digital conversions that vinyl has. A lot of it has to do with compression and I avoid using it when I transfer a vinyl recording to digital. The metallic sound you hear from compressed sound file samples? that's compression. At this moment I'm listening to a personal compilation I recorded of all the Cheap Trick albums I have. All of it is vinyl, and I had no choice but to omit a bulk of selections from the first album because of surface noise I couldn't completely quiet down. There is still some but you'd have to really listen hard for it. Also some of the remastered selections just don't sound the same as the original. There's an album by C.O.C (corrosion of conformity) called "Blind" that I originally heard on the radio and recorded. About 3 years later I bought the CD. It's the remastered version and the sound is so different, plus they added some tracks that were not on the original album. Also converting makes sense since it is cheaper to do it yourself if you have the gear and the time as opposed to replacing your entire vinyl collection with CD's and I have somewhere between 350 to 500 vinyl Lp's. The CD's start from at least $12 up to $15 or more. You can get a stack of 100 blank CD's for &20 or less! And there you go.

Larry the Security Guy
Larry the Security Guy

Personal preference, mostly. One reason most appreciated by audiophiles is that vinyl can produce a richer sound than CD. There's definitely something to be said about good old analog recordings, and CDs often have problems reproducing them. And some CDs have been remastered, which means the CD and original vinyl sound different, and usually it's not an improvement.

OldER Mycroft
OldER Mycroft

Unless you buy, then fit a hybrid stylus for that very purpose.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

You already own the LP so this is the same as when we would make collections of songs from the LPs to a cassette tape. No copyright problems there. Doing it for someone else shouldn't be a problem either as long as you aren't keeping copies of the recordings for yourself or for distribution.

john3347
john3347

There is a Dutch (or possibly another small European country) company that markets a wonderful audio recording and editing progran that is wonderfully intuitive and simple to learn and use. You can edit your recording rather extensively or not at all after you record your input. I use the microphone input on my computer connected to the earphone output on the source device. A simple 1/8" stereo plug at each end and a couple of cheap adapters to connect to whatever source you are using puts you in business. The program gives you a two week free trial and only costs about 35 US dollars. Price varies daily a few cents according to current exchange rate. http://www.polderbits.com puts you in touch with them. Best program available for recording vinyl, 8-tracks, and cassettes to CD.

Freebird54
Freebird54

Now I have to decide what my time is worth, vs keeping it on vinyl and buying one of these! BTW - the price has dropped significantly from your quote - apparently because they now have a distribution system of sorts in place. Does $9,000 (plus $2,500 for a real-time declicker) sound a little better? I thought it could be commercialized at some point, but didn't know that it had been - thanks! (note to SWMBO - not yet, dear)

Freebird54
Freebird54

but unfortunately, the last I heard of it, it was a lab-only, high-priced system converted for use in recovering 78's and wax cylinders and similar endangered species. I have not yet heard of even plans for commercializing the technology (sigh). As for the time taken, you can easily convert 3 albums in a 2 hour session (while mostly doing other things) - meaning 333.33 sessions are required. Say 3 sessions a week (over the 50 weeks you're home) and you're just under 27 months for the lot! BTW - such projects fit well into other tasks. It combines with doing the laundry and house cleanup quite well - and even makes it more pleasant if the volume is up while recording! Another thing that can help is someone else to split recording tasks with - assuming you can trust their turntable of course - or even another member of YOUR household with sufficient expertise. Final clean up, track splitting, mp3 generation etc ought to be done later and separately though... (Sigh)

Freebird54
Freebird54

it does not appear to have a Linux version. Also - foreign purchase (without an internet-ready credit card) is not a very viable solution for me at the moment :) I am looking for a lazy alternative if possible....

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