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Digitizing your record collection is a great way to take some of the warmth of analog music with you on the go. Plus, you can enjoy your vinyl without the risk of scratching or wearing them down.
I’ve digitized hundreds of albums from my collection, and it’s one of the most fulfilling music projects I’ve ever undertaken. I’ve preserved music that’s not available digitally, and gotten to appreciate it a lot more through multiple listens.
Digitized vinyl won’t sound the same as playing it on a turntable through your stereo, but creating needledrops (the official term for digitized records) will let you recreate at least some of that magic.
How to Create Needledrops With a USB Turntable
Many modern turntables have a built-in preamp and USB port, which makes needledropping a lot easier. You connect the turntable to your computer over USB, open a recording program (we’ll recommend a couple of options a little later), and start recording.
If you don’t have a USB turntable, but are interested in making an upgrade or getting a dedicated machine just for needledrops, here are a couple of great choices.
1. Audio-Technica AT-LP60XUSB
Audio-Technica’s AT-LP60XUSB is a great entry-level turntable for digitizing your records. As its name suggests, it’s a combination between the AT-LP60 and a USB port.
The turntable runs at both 33 and 45rpm (rotations per minute), so you can digitize your albums and singles, and has a button that lets you switch between the two modes. It also comes with a 45 adapter, which you’ll need to insert into the larger hole of your single before putting it onto the turntable to keep it from moving around.
Whether you’re new to record players, or an old pro getting back into record collecting, the AT-LP60XUSB’s front control buttons will make your life easier. The one on the left changes its speed from 33 to 45rpm, and the three on the left let you start, stop, or lift the needle off of your record. A switch on top lets you select whether you’re playing a full album or single, so it can automatically drop the needle in the right spot.
Around the back you’ll see a switch for phono (using the turntable’s built-in preamp) or line (lets you connect to an external preamp), analog out (lets you connect to a stereo system), and USB port (lets you connect to a computer). Audio-Technica includes a USB cable, so you can set this turntable up and start digitizing your albums in a few minutes.
2. Sony PSH500
If you’re really serious about digitizing your records with the highest level of fidelity, you’ll want Sony’s PSH500. This is the turntable I use to make needledrops, and I’ve been very happy with the results.
Like Audio-Technica, Sony designed this turntable with vinyl recording in mind, though it’s not as beginner-friendly. It can play 33 and 45rpm records, but doesn’t come with a 45 adapter. There’re no start or stop buttons, and the tone arm doesn’t automatically return at the end of your record.
But what it lacks in user friendliness, it makes up for in recording fidelity. The PSH500 can digitize your records in 2.8 MHz DSD — an audio resolution that’s higher than high-resolution (it’s currently the gold standard used by audiophile record labels like Analogue Productions). Recording at that resolution will make your albums sound as close to analog as possible, picking up every nuance of your record.
Another benefit to this turntable is that you can upgrade its needle and cartridge — the one it comes with is pretty good already — for even higher fidelity recording.
Besides the USB port, the PSH500 has a phone and line switch, so you can choose between its built-in preamp and using an external one, And a pair or RCA (red and white) outputs, so you can connect it to a stereo. It even has a ground line, so you can connect the turntable to a piece of metal to reduce buzzing noises created by electrical currents running through different pieces of audio equipment.
How to Create Needledrops With An Analog Turntable
If you already have an analog turntable you like, there’s no reason to run out and get a new one with USB just for needledropping. There are two ways to connect older gear to a computer.
1. A “Y” Cable
The easiest way to connect your old gear to a computer is using a standard “Y” audio cable. The cable terminates to a 3.5mm audio plug on one end, and a pair of RCA jacks on the other end, which forms a Y shape.
To make the connection, plug the RCA plugs into the back of your turntable or preamp, and the 3.5mm plug into your computer’s sound cord or line-in port. On laptops, the line-in is generally paired with the headphone jack. Once everything is plugged in, you’re done.
This is a simple solution, but it has a couple of downsides. First, some computers — especially laptops — don’t have a line-in port anymore, because they weren’t widely used after the adoption of USB audio equipment. If that’s the case, this method wont work at all.
Second, the DAC (digital to analog converter) in your computer won’t be good as the dedicated ones on turntables with USB ports on them, or a dedicated DAC. The quality of your recordings will suffer because of this. That said, if you want a quick, simple way to digitize records using an older turntable, this is your best choice.
2. An ADC (Analog Digital Converter)
If you want more control over your recordings, and really care about the audio quality of your digitized vinyl, you’ll want to connect your turntable up to an ADC (Analog Digital Converter). An ADC is purpose-built to convert analog sounds into a digital file, so your recordings will sound a lot better.
I’ve used a setup like this before, and I recommend using an audio interface, which is typically used by musicians to record their music. I used a previous generation of Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 to record music and create needledrops before I bought the Sony’s PSH500, and I liked how they turned out.
The Scarlett 2i2 is small enough to fit comfortably on a desk, and has two inputs, so you can record two tracks at once. For musicians, that could mean an instrument and vocals, but for needledrops it means you can record music in stereo. It can record music at 24-bit resolution at 192kHz, which is considered high resolution (better than CD quality).
Using an ADC with an older turntable is a little more difficult than just plugging in a Y cable, but it’s easier than you might expect. First, connect a pair of RCA to 1/4 inch cables from the back of your turntable to the two inputs on the front of the Scarlett 2i2. Then connect the Scarlett 2i2 to your computer with the included USB cable. That’s it. This process is basically the equivalent of adding a USB port to your older turntable.
Getting an ADC does mean buying a new piece of gear, but the upside is your needledrops will sound more professional and you can use the Scarlett 2i2 to record your own music, so you can solve two problems at once.
Recording Your Vinyl On A Computer
Once you’ve gotten all of your hardware ready, it’s time to actually digitize your records. There’s a lot of really great apps out there, but I recommend VinylStudio. Most recording software is designed to record instruments, but VinylStudio is purpose built for creating needledrops.
The app (available for both Mac and PC) is set up to work you through the entire workflow of creating a needledrop. First, you enter in its metadata (album name, artist name, year, genre, etc.) and whether you’re recording a full album or a single.
Once it’s recorded, you can split the albums into individual tracks rather than one large file. Then you can run each track through an audio filter that VinylStudio created to remove clicks, pops, and other abnormalities from your recording. Finally, you can burn your needledrop to a CD, or export it as a series of digital files in several formats.
I’ve used VinylStudio to digitize hundreds of albums, and each one has turned out perfectly. I’m especially impressed by its cleanup feature, which has saved many 50-year-old albums that didn’t weather the decades particularly well.
VinylStudio isn’t free, but you can download a free trial and create five needledrops to decide whether it’s for you.