Wednesday, August 20, 2008

USB Turntables

I'm about to invest in a USB turntable. I think. Several people I know and trust have recommended this one. But I'd like to get some feedback before I do so.

The one shown here is called the Gem Sound DJ-USB Belt-Drive USB Turntable with Bias Soundsoap SE and Audacity Software, which is pretty scary, when you think about it, and sounds far more complicated than I'd like my life to be. I'd like my life to be simple. Pain-free. Full of joie de vivre and esprit de corps and Boeuf Bourgignon. And I worry about a turntable with a name like that.

Here's what I want to do: I want to magically turn my old, scratchy vinyl albums into MP3 files. I'd like the musical babysitting to be as minimal as possible during this process. I have several thousand vinyl albums. And although I won't be transferring them all to MP3, the prospect of doing this is daunting enough that I have serious reservations about the time commitment.

So, here are my questions.
  1. If I'm transferring, say, a 40-minute Beatles album to MP3, do I have to play the entire 40-minute album as part of the MP3 conversion process? (For what it's worth, I can't imagine that the answer to this question is anything but "Yes," but I hope I'm wrong.)
  2. How does one chop up a vinyl album into MP3 files (one file per song)? Again, I'm assuming that this would require intense babysitting involving some sort of computer work at the end of each song, but again I hope I'm wrong.
  3. How effective is the scrubbing/soundsoap software at removing all those clicks and pops? How easy is the software to use?

Anyone have experience with this? I may be talking myself right out of the prospect, but I'd love to hear your views.

19 comments:

RebelDeadHead said...

I have an ION iTTUSB Turntable similar to the one you are going to buy and I haven't been very happy with it. It didn't bug me that I had to sit through the record to divide the tracks manually (which I'm assuming you'll need to do as well) because it gave me an excuse to be lazy and listen to my record collection in its entirety. The quality is what bugs me. It sucks. It doesn't have a warm, nostalgic sound like a record, nor does it sound clean like an mp3, it sounds like ass. I use Audacity software as well, and it scrubs out lots of ambience in the record in addition to the pops and hisses. Records that are totally clean came out OK, but any ones that show wear and tear will not convert well at all, so I would be wary of spending too much on this technology just yet.

zalm said...

Both my parents and my in-laws have something like this. I forget if it's the same exact model, but it looks pretty similar.

I myself haven't spent too much time digitizing records, but here are a few things that I remember about the process:

1. In my experience, Audacity isn't the most user-friendly program in the world. The interface is clunky and there are a lot of features that you'll never use for this kind of task. But both sets of parents eventually figured out how to use it, and they have significantly less musical and technical knowledge than you do.

2. I think that the unit my parents have had a feature where you could play a record at a higher speed and use the software to shift it back to normal listening speed. I don't know what that does to sound fidelity, but it has the potential to cut down the overall time you spend. Barring that, though, the recording will take as long as the record takes to play.

3. You would track an album in Audacity after the initial recording. Basically, Audacity will display the waveforms for the single sound file, and you will go through that file to add the track breaks manually. Some sound editing programs have a feature that guesses at where the breaks should be (based on periods of silence), but I don't know if Audacity does that. And even if it does, I don't know how accurate it is. My guess is that it would be accurate enough for most fairly standard albums, but if one track flows into another or if there is a substantial pause in the middle of a track, it won't be smart enough to know what to do.

4. I don't have any experience with the Soundsoap scrubbing software, but my guess is that it would take some pretty fine tuning to get it to remove unwanted pops while still retaining the warmth of vinyl.


Overall, I think the player is pretty decent and relatively simple to set up. The real question will be what your threshold is for time spent after recording and whether you like spending time in Audacity.

I believe that Audacity is open-source and free, so you might be able to download it in advance of purchasing the turntable to get a feel for the software. If the instructions for the turntable are available online, they might give you a clearer sense of what kinds of things you'd be required to do in Audacity.

Hope that helps.

Andy Whitman said...

Great feedback. Thanks, Rebel and Matt. I appreciate it.

Julana said...

Audacity is free, online.
It's harder to use than which comes on the Macs. It is learnable, but easier if you have someone who already knows it to coach you, in early stages.

Andy Whitman said...

Ah, the mystery deepens. I have a Mac. I have Garageband, although I've done virtually nothing with it. I'm assuming from your comments, Julana, that Garageband (with its nice, intuitive interface) could be used instead of Audacity. True?

gb said...

Andy!

(Gary B. here... Trinity Arts? I also participated in that GretelHead Immersion-Conversion experience.)

Well, first... I just discovered your blog site yesterday and timing is everything. (Oh, I like reading it and have already passed it on to others.)

About a year ago I spent some heavy duty time investigating exactly what you are talking about here. I had almost made a bad decision to get one of those, then... I found this web site: http://www.dak.com/reviews/2020story.cfm?Ref=G&PM=LPCD&type=GSrch&Srh=turntable

I rememebred DAK Industries from the days/years I received their great little catalog filled with commentaries by "Drew" on each and every item in it. I bought a lot of things from them, they worked well and STILL have most of them today. Well... they are still in business (credibility already established for me) and they have aggressively attacked this specific product issue in their typical, rambling but very thorough style.

Bottomline: I did not buy anything I had been looking at. I decided to save up and buy their system. I have and now as soon as I have reorganized my listening/recording room-studio, I will buy it and start using it.

Oh... my initial goal was to transfer a lot of old (even "original") 78s for an "old" friend of mine (we discussed her at the Conference). Then I realized that I also wanted to use the same mechanism for transferring and preserving a fairly large vintage LP and cassette collection of my own, as well. This system does it all. I think it addresses every item of concern you mentioned and many more. It has a no questions asked 30 day warranty and a 5 day guarantee on the downloaded software package. I cannot vouch for it now but it all seems to be straight up and is the one I will buy when I am ready later this year.

Hope this helps a little,
Gary
Dallas

Mike G said...

I haven't used a USB turntable. Instead, I run the signal from the turntable through a receiver and into a cassette deck as if I were recording, then send the signal to my Mac through an iMic hooked to the USB port. Sounds complicated, but not too bad. Advantage: I'm running throught decent equipment. When I was looking, the Ion USB turntable looked to be vaporware; announced, but couldn't find one anywhere. Plus, I couldn't find any stereo type specs about it.

The remarks about the recording process are true. A 40 minute album takes 40 minutes to record, but you end up with one long track. I use Sound Studio (I think it's now available through Freeverse.com) as my software. I manually put in the track markers, then wait for the software to split it into separate tracks. As far as noise, I manually fix really bad pops and clicks, but if you do too much, you can lose some of the music. I figure, pops & clicks are what I'm used to, so it's not a horribly big deal.

Upshot: it probably takes an additional 15 minutes beyond the recording to get separate files. I export to AIFF files, burn a CD, and then convert to mp3s, but that's just me. I don't remember if Sound Studio can go directly to mp3s.

Grant Wentzel said...

Hi Andy --

I ripped your Ronald Koal album to mp3 a few years ago. I don't know if you ever got a chance to hear the mp3s but they turned out really well.

My signal chain was: Old mid-grade Sony rack system (vintage late 80s type) through the headphone out into the soundcard on my computer. I used Audacity to record the wave, used the built in Audacity pop/click remover and then broke it into seperate mp3s. I probably took me about an hour and half to do, which was fun once, but I wouldn't want to do it 1000 times.

Still, the mp3s sounded as good as mp3s can, and it was fun to be able to rock vintage c-bus vinyl on the Planet Fitness elliptical trainer.

Rob S said...

Seems no one has recommended Rogue Amoeba's Fission (splits tracks) and Audio Hijack Pro for the Mac. Looks like both can be had for $50 and there are demos available. I was contemplating volunteering to convert my uncle's beatles, harrison, van morrison albums before he leaves them by the curb. That software would be where I would start.

JohnPEpstein said...

Hi Andy,

I don't own a USB TT, but I'd strongly suggest you spend some time at Amazon.com reading the user reviews on the USB turntables. Here's a link to that category:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=usb+turntable

And here is a direct link to the GEM table you've mentioned:
http://www.amazon.com/Gem-Sound-GT-USB-Belt-Drive-Turntable/dp/B000UAAAEG/ref=sr_1_27?ie=UTF8&s=musical-instruments&qid=1219297016&sr=8-27

If you read the user reviews carefully, you learn a considerable amount about the quality of the product, the ease of operation, and the overall customer satisfaction. Just take the vague reviews with a "little" grain of salt. You'll see what I mean pretty quickly.

Also, an incredible site (and company) for audio/video is Crutchfield. In most cases their user guides are second to none and their support ranks 11 on a scale of 10. Here's a link to their USB TT offerings:

http://www.crutchfield.com/g_10500/Turntables.html?search=usb+turntable&tp=200

Be sure to click on the 2 articles on the bottom of the page in the "Crutchfield Learning Center". They will probably answer all of your questions.

Sorry I can't give you my own personal experience, but if I were shopping for this product, these are the two places I'd start.

But, then I seem to have way too much time on my hands!

Good luck,
John in MA

hallga77 said...

Andy,

Please don't buy that plastic POC.

It is like thw crap turntables that came with "rack" systems when CD's first started becoming the thing. No small wonder people thought CD's were the way to go after hearing those contraptions. If you must bus a USB check out the Pro-Ject Debut III USB.
You can plug an existing turntable into your PC via the line in jack with an old receiver or a magnetic
phono preamp from Radio Shack. If you need more details email me.

The ion is plastic junk. A plastic
platter+ plastic sound.

Tim

HCJoel said...

My dad bought one of these fancy USB units. It seems alright but I went the old fashioned way. My wife bought me a nice Sony turntable for Christmas so I just run it into my soundcard's 'line in'. I use a freeware version of WavePad.
Put the needle on the record, hit the 'record' button and the drumbeats go like this... Of course, I do have to manually separate each track. But I like that anyways because I can cut down the silence between each track (so I can pack more in on one CD).

I haven't made efforts to use any software to remove cracks/noises. I try to clean the LP well so I don't have to. Like Rebel, I like the feel. And most of the time, I don't even notice any excess noise when I'm playing the songs back. Sometimes the slightly less convenient way is still the best.

Andy Whitman said...

I appreciate the feedback. I should note that if I want to transfer the vinyl to MP3 I have no option but to buy another turntable. My existing turntable is a nice NAD model from 1982 (it still works wonderfully, by the way). USB ports? What's that? In those days "computers" were still the exclusive domain of the government, and were the size of double-wide trailers.

For what it's worth, I think I've talked myself out of the prospect. I just can't justify the time commitment that this would entail. There have to be better ways to spend a life.

gb said...

Andy,

There may be other, simplified strategies for you. Since simply sharing the music and delegating the task among trustworthy, like-minded friends and audiophiles who are already set up to do this and would thoroughly enjoy the task, is both the most efficient AND the most problematic way to quickly resolve this matter (since it gets into that whole copyright and personal use issue)... have you considered that there is the "chance" that plain old patience will win this game?

Who knows but perhaps eventually, two fairly logical things will happen.

1) "Everything" (especially vintage works) will eventually be professionally digitized in a masssive, complete and uniformly accessible file method, FOR you.
AND
2) After this happens, then that phenomenal volume of material will need to be somehow packaged and mass marketed and sold. Prices for individual albums and collections could possibly drop like a rock.

Even better: Possibly some massive "compilations" by era or genra will be bundled and marketed for mere pennies per song (in batches of hundreds or thousands).

MEANWHILE you might consider an efficient "middle ground" method. Find a relatively simple and flexible system you can learn and then be comfortable with. THEN, just record and save the albums you normally would listen to, AS YOU ARE NATURALLY LISTENING TO THEM. Save only what you actually listen to and over time, you will less painfully end up assembling a collection of only what you actually enjoy the most.

Again, when it comes to MAJOR PROJECTS like yours, just maybe patience will win this war and then think of the thousands of hours over several years you would have better spent doing... life!

gb

lifeintheslowlane said...

Andy,
You're right; life is too short.

I am not a techie. I went to at assistive technology training class offered by the local school. The staff were digitizing picture books with accompanying CDs into an Intellitools program.

They scanned the pictures in, then copied the CDs onto the Mac, and then used Garageband to break the audio (spoken words and music) into page-length units. Students pressed the touchscreen or mouse to simultaneously advance picture and audio.

We have PCs at home, so they advised me to download Audacity as a substitute for Garageband. I did. Audacity was not as user-friendly--although they've updated several times since, and it may be easier for novices to use now.

I would say Garageband does what Audacity does, and makes it a lot easier. There may be techno-wrinkles I don't understand. These techie Audacity guys might have some bells and whistles added by now.

You can see the sound waves, cut them into pieces, save separately, re-arrange, amplify, etc. Maybe even separate layers, can't remember.

Ruben said...

Andy,

I've done the LP-to-MP3 conversion many times, but not with USB. I use my trusty old Dual direct drive TT, sending it to a Rolls phono preamp and then into my mixer/computer. So with the right parts/connections you could use your NAD TT with Garageband. There are also many audio editors that you could use besides Audacity or Garageband. For example, Sound Forge is an expensive option, but they have one of the best click/pop removers available.

As for the time to record the MP3, it's basically real time, although if you only wanted one song from a record you could just record the single song rather than the whole side, saving yourself some time. But it does become time comsuming. I have a home recording Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) PC which includes a multi-track sequencer, professional audio editor and 16-track digital mixer, so I have more that enough tools to create MP3s from my albums, but I rarely do it because of the time committment involved. Sounds like you're considering that as well.

Anonymous said...

i have done digital conversion of LPs to MP3s also. i did not have a USB turntable. my parents had bought me a regular turntable with pre-amp and RCA output. i bought a $2 RCA to 3.5mm adaptor for JayCar electronics (any electronics store ought to have one) and just plugged it into my 3.5 line-in on the computer. i then sufred around for a little ont he internet and tried out a few freeware programs before i foudn a small combination that would do what i wanted. that was about 7 years ago... haven't done it in a while but my partner now wants her LPs converted, so i'm on the hunt again coz i don't have that setup anymore...

even if your system is older and doesn't have RCA output, you can buy RCA plugs and solder (or just twist the cables) onto the plugs, then use an adapter (each line would be a Left and Right output, i assume). if your turntable is only mono then perhaps you can skip the RCA and go straight for a 3.5mm plug.

but you do need time.

Alex said...

What the best USB turntable available (price is no issue)?
Is there a site that sells/compares different ones?
I've seen a few in HMV and on I want one of those.com.
Anyone suggest anywhere/any sites?
Cheers.

usb turntable said...

I have the new denon turntable. all I can say is...WOW

You can record straight to a memory card or hdd :D saves alot of time