How To: Digitize Your Vinyl Records for Mobile Device Listening

Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB turntable
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB turntable offers an easy way to digitize vinyl. Audio-Technica

Vinyl records have experienced something akin to a rebirth after all the years that CD and digital music formats have largely dominated the consumer space. With a good home stereo system, you can hear the differences in depth and detail that an LP delivers over a CD – it's not unlike enjoying a custom-blend pour-over coffee versus the house's regular brew. But what if you want to take that rich sound with you to play back through computers or mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets?

With the right equipment, you can digitize your vinyl collection in no time!

There is no one single way to convert analog music from a vinyl LP to a digital format, such as MP3, AAC, FLAC, or others. You just have to make sure you have the right combination of hardware, software, and careful patience in order to accomplish the task. There are a few more steps within the process of digitizing vinyl versus a CD, which is often a one-button affair. First, depending on the type of turntable and stereo receiver you own, you may or may not need to incorporate a separate phono preamp (needed for delivering a strong enough output for recording/playback). You'll also want to check the audio connection types available on the computer that will be hosting the recording software. But once set up, this is a great way to preserve older recordings and add them to your favorite mobile playlists.

Difficulty: Moderate

Time Required: Varies

Here's How:

1) Set Up the Turntable & Clean the Vinyl

Turntables tend to be far more precise/finicky pieces of equipment than your everyday CD/DVD player. Before you start recording, you'll want to check that the turntable is working it's best. Make sure that the unit is resting flat (a bubble level will help) on a solid surface (i.e. vibration-free) and that the needle is in good condition.

If the turntable can be aligned/calibrated, it's worth doing so right now. You wouldn't want to spend all the time digitizing music just to find that the sound had been slightly off. Listen for any motor hum or vibration from the turntable as it plays, since such undesired noises will transmit through the process. 

Clean your vinyl before recording, even if it looks clean to the naked eye. Dust particles, airborne fibers, or oils left on the surface from being handled by fingers can easily accumulate in the grooves, which can throw off the purity of playback by adding noise. Wet and/or dry cleaning systems can be purchased online and are generally inexpensive and effective.

2) Check the Hardware Connections

The simplest way to convert LP records to a digital format is through a USB-connected turntable. Many of these models, such as ones from Audio-Technica or Ion Audio, have built-in preamps, ADCs (analog-to-digital converters), and also line level outputs that can connect to audio inputs on stereo speakers, receivers, or computer sound cards. Some turntable systems also feature the ability to convert and transfer the files directly to a CD or USB flash drive, essentially bypassing the need for a computer with separate software.

But if your turntable has a USB digital output connection, all you need to do is plug into an open USB port on a desktop or laptop computer, and then run your desired software.

If your turntable does not have a USB connection but does have a built-in preamp, you can connect the line level output from the turntable to a port on a desktop or laptop (typically through an RCA-to-3.5 mm audio cable). Most motherboards in desktops and laptops have a built-in ADC that can accept a line level audio source. If you're unsure, check the product manual for the location of the proper port. More advanced computer sound cards feature additional types of audio input connections, such as RCA or TOSLINK digital, so you can also check for that compatibility between your pieces of equipment.

If your turntable does not have a built-in preamp, then you'll likely have to route the audio signal through your home stereo receiver's phono input first (most systems should have this), before connecting the receiver line level output to a computer's input. Take note, that this may add some extra steps to adjust receiver settings for optimal audio output.

Another hardware option to use with a non-USB turntable is a combination phono/line level preamp with USB output, such as the NAD PP-3 Digital Phono Preamp (also useful if your receiver doesn't have a phono input). Although convenient, many USB-connected turntables can be considered cheap (in addition to inexpensive) when compared to audiophile-grade models. But an external digital phono preamp offers the best of both worlds, allowing users to harness the power of an ADC with preamp and a handy USB output. This way, you can connect a higher-quality turntable to most any modern computer system. Many of these digital phono preamps work with both moving magnet and moving coil phono cartridges for turntables, and often come bundled with recording software.

3) Choose and Configure the Software

In order to have analog vinyl music digitized and saved onto a computer, you'll need the right kind of software. Many USB turntables come with PC-/Mac-compatible audio recording and editing software. You can also find free or trial-version downloads for general purpose software as well as ones specifically geared towards digitizing vinyl. General audio software titles, like Audacity, are quite popular and have been successfully used by many. However, ones more specific for LPS, such as Vinyl Studio, can provide advanced functions for inserting track breaks, importing music, scratch/noise removal, automatic equalizing, metadata support, and more.

It's worth taking the extra time to explore various programs to see which ones might work best for you. Some may be simple to use and configure, while others can be more robust with a host of useful (e.g. audio quality, file format, volume/recording channels, etc.) and adjustable preferences. Those who own smaller collections of vinyl may not care about the amount of automation performed by software. However, if you have a lot of records to process, you'll probably want to minimize the manual work involved. Software that sources music databases can take care of track labeling (artist, album title, album year, track titles, music genre, album art, etc.) so you don't have to look up and enter in everything by hand.

Make sure that the computer/laptop is able to meet the hardware requirements (e.g. processor speed, available disk space, RAM) of the software. Audio files can end up being quite large and taxing on the system during the recording process, so it's usually a good idea to close down all other running programs while doing so. Once everything has been set up and ready to go, fully digitize one vinyl record and then have a listen to the finished files. If some adjustments need to be made, you'll want to do that first before moving on. Otherwise, continue working with each record in your collection and enjoy being able to play all your favorites on any computer, smartphone, tablet, or digital media player!

More From Us