Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Murder, The Who, digital recordings of vinyl, and how one thing leads to another

It all started on a dark and stormy night....  well, not really.  We have hosted and attended Murder Mystery events for many years now and really enjoy doing so with our close friends.  Who doesn't enjoy solving a murder amidst various characters who themselves have committed murder, mayhem, deceit, and all manner of other heinous and despicable crimes.  We get to do so in the company of friends, eating and imbibing (in the reverse order), puns flying, dressed in character costumes, and house decorated.  This time around we played "The Tragical Mystery Tour".  Part of the ambiance for any good theater is appropriate music.  So I was compiling on the iPod a varied selection of sixties music to fit the theme.  What better music to include in an evening getting ready to climb onto a (imaginary) cross country party bus than The Who's The Magic Bus.  (Yes there is other good music that comes to mind and it was included - but that is not part of this story). 

I don't have the Live At Leeds album on my iTunes, which has my favorite version of The Magic Bus.  My copy of the album is on vinyl.  At this point most folks would have just gone to the iTunes store and bought it.  Oh, no, I'll have none of that.  Had I done so, you wouldn't be reading this overly long blog post.

If you are from my generation (ha - intentional song reference) you likely still have a stack of vinyl LPs still.  In my case I still have about 150 of them, of which about one third have been replaced with CD copies.  My turntable is no longer connected to my stereo receiver in the family room; it has fallen victim to it is 'unsightly and takes up too much space' syndrome.

So in the spare bedroom I setup a table, haul out the old turn table and plug it in to the laptop for a sound level test.  Except, I cannot find my adapter cable which has two RCA style female plugs on one side and a male 3.5mm on the other.  Insert trip to my friendly local Radio Shack and return successfully.  Attach the turntable, run some Windows recording software, and there you have it: nothing.  The recording software cannot handle input from the line in jack.

Next I go out to the Interwebs to get an update to my favorite recording and editing software: Audacity.  It is open source goodness, and way more technical than I will ever be but has enough default settings and help on the web site to get me through.  Audicity is more than a competent substitute (ha - another intentional song reference) for the pitiful default recording software Microsoft provides and is easily able to select the line in port and record the music from my turntable.  Drop the needle on the LP and there you have it: a high bias recording with incredible clipping.  The turntable does not provide computer friendly output.  (sorry - if you don't know what those terms mean I'll have to explain in the comments below - this is already too long)

I figure I need a pre-amp to fix the problem.  I haul out my old receiving and set it up on the table in the spare bedroom next to the turntable.  Hook the turntable to the receiver, receiver tape out to the laptop, drop the need on the LP and there you have it: almost evenly biased input that is clipping on both sides.  The sound level input control on the software does not seem to work on the line input.  Now I am so mad I am nearly shakin' all over (ha - another gratuitous song reference).

If I cannot control the volume in on the laptop side, I must do it on the receiver side.  The head phone jack looks like a viable candidate.  I rummage through my box of old adapters and locate a male 1/4" to female 3.5mm adapter.  Connect the head phone out on the receiver to the line in on the laptop, drop the needle, adjust the volume control on the receiver and there you have it: I am able to get the recording unclipped and only slightly high bias at a low volume.  I am finally making progress.

Without going into a lot of detail on each step I will highlight the process.  First you record a side of the album.  You use the tools in Audicity one at a time to removed the bias (DC offset), remove the noise, remove the clicks, normalize (amplify), remove leading and trailing excess, and cut the side into tracks when you export them into WAV files.  Rinse, repeat.  Lastly import the WAV files into your iTunes, and burn a CD for play/archive.

Is it worth following this process as compared to buying the CD or downloading an MP3?  The answer to the question is it depends.  Some of my vinyl is not available as CDs - so if I want those selections digitally, this is the only path.  Some of my vinyl is live or otherwise poor quality recordings - these are good candidates for MP3s because you are not going to lose any fidelity.  If you have an album which was considered a studio masterpiece, (say Dark Side of the Moon) you will be disappointed in your version as compared to what you can get in buying the commercially produced CD.  On the other hand, if you have a large collection, and have the time to invest (or are basically cheap) and are not so concerned about the slightly substandard recording as compared to the commercial CD release this could be the way to go.  Once you get good at the process, it takes about a half hour to forty-five minutes of your time to follow this process above the actual play time of the vinyl.  If you have the money to simply replace them, and available time is a challenge then I suggest Amazon is your friend.

Lastly, what about the Live at Leeds album?  If you are fan of The Who it is a must have.  The recording quality is poor, but the energy and versions of the songs are just amazing.  Daltry's voice is a bit off in places, but Entwistle's bass and Townsend's guitar work is quite good even given the poor recording quality.  Some of the verbal back and forth during the singing is quite entertaining with my favorites being during The Magic Bus.  "You can buy the Magic Bus for 100 English pounds."  "No, too much!"

Thanks for reading - cheers.


  1. I've done a bunch of vinyl conversions with Audacity - not too bad if you don't mind albums as two tracks, but it gets tedious if you want to chop them into tracks. Can't beat free.

  2. Free is good. Thanks for corroborating I am not making things up. ;-)


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