We’ll assume that you’re a musician, not a professional archivist, and therefore have limited time and resources. Sure, you could import your material into a digital workstation and spend endless hours cleaning up, remixing, and EQing it to perfection. But you don’t want to be a slave to the past, either. Here’s the approach I took to converting a sizeable number of analog recordings while retaining the heart of the original sound, minimizing any negatives, and doing so in a reasonable amount of time.
Start with as clean a recording as possible; don’t expect to fix it in the digitization process. If you have original multitrack tapes you can remix, so much the better, but you can only optimize what you have. This isn’t about remixing legendary Jimi Hendrix lost sessions.
Be wary of consumer-oriented products that claim to take your old LPs or tapes and convert them to CD, as they offer little or no ability to use EQ or other editing options. For a more pro job, hard disk recorders are an affordable way to import analog media.
Connecting your analog gear to a digital recorder is still “wired technology,” so use good cables. You’ll need a phono preamp when running a turntable into your system; quality among these varies dramatically, so seek out the best possible. As you monitor the original recording, play with options like level, EQ, compression, limiting, and the like to see if you can enhance the original recording. Most digital recorders have presets with clever names that provide a clue to the overall sonic objective, but use these sparingly — you can always add more effects, but you can’t take them away.
A HISS-TORY LESSON
When transferring analog tapes, the enemy is hiss. Pro reel-to-reel decks had decent specifications for frequency response and signal-to-noise ratio, but cassettes are a different matter. Most used a noise reduction system (Dolby B, Dolby C, or even dbx), so find a playback machine that offers the same noise reduction scheme used while recording. Turning off the noise reduction will give more perceived high frequencies, but the price will be more hiss.
Vinyl records will have pops and scratches but the turntable itself will likely contribute “rumble,” where the motor sound gets into the audio, and hum (50/60Hz and its harmonics). Most turntables have a grounding post; creating a secure ground between your turntable and preamp will help reduce hum. If not, you may need to use a steep low cut (highpass) filter to reduce low frequencies, particularly those below 50Hz in the case of rumble (this won’t affect bass much, as mastering engineers often rolled off frequencies below 50Hz during mastering to make more needle-friendly grooves).
MAKING IT BETTER
Digital editing is a boon to those old recordings. Fade-ins and fade-outs can reduce noise preceding and following the music itself. You probably won’t need to copy and paste if the core song is already in place, but if part of the song is seriously damaged, you may be able to find a similar section and replace the damaged part. Digital filters with steep slopes can remove subsonics from vinyl, or hiss from tapes. Many times highs were deliberately cut during mastering, so you can often cut above 10kHz and eliminate hiss or crackles without affecting the music.
Once the original analog sound is digitized, not only can you add effects, the adventurous can overdub new parts. However, if you make any significant changes, retain a copy of the original digitized material. That way you can live with any changes you make, but go back to the original if you decide later you went too far.
All the techniques involved with mastering apply here; even if the material was already mastered once, it may not have been under optimum conditions (for a useful review of the mastering process, see “Mastering in the Digital Age” by Dave Kutch, 2/07 EQ). Don’t get carried away; theoretically, you’re just changing the format. Still, the power to shape the final sound in ways not previously available to many musicians can yield many sonic benefits.
BURNING AND BEYOND
Next, transfer the file to a more permanent storage medium, such as CD, DVD-ROM, removable hard drive (but spin it up periodically or it may “freeze”), RAID array, etc. The key to this step is to watch your peak levels. While analog was famous for soft distortion, digital is not forgiving when overdriven. This is particularly problematic when trying to get a hot enough signal to be in at least the same ballpark as today’s ear-burning, highly compressed levels. But err on the side of caution. Super-hot recordings can go out of fashion just as easily as they became the fashion; you don’t want your recordings to sound “so 2005” in a few years.
To store the results as an audio CD, many programs — not just stereo editors, but also multitrack hosts — let you burn audio CDs. Some, like Sony CD Architect, allow sophisticated sequencing and processing options. Look for a program that handles CD Text, as you can store info on the title, artist, etc.
After archiving your material, you’re still not done because you need to make a backup. As the old saying goes, “digital data isn’t real until it exists in at least two places.”
You may also want to go to create additional formats, like MP3, as they are a common way to exchange songs and don’t take up much space. There are many options, ranging from free (Windows Media Player or iTunes) to sophisticated (two-track editors like Sound Forge, Wavelab, Peak, Audition, and the like; see Figure 1). I used Easy CD Creator.
Consider ripping the songs in two versions: the highest possible bit rate (which will sound close to CDs) and for MP3s, the “consumer standard” of 128kbps. Low rates are useful to post on the Web as streaming files because they download rapidly; I made these versions free, but asked for a donation from those who wanted to download the higher quality files.
Also consider creating a third version at 256kbps, which sounds fine in a normal listening environment. A typical song weighs in at about 5MB, which isn’t much memory given the capacity of today’s hard drives and flash RAM.
As I wrote all the original material, I also made sure that the song title and artist tags in the MP3 files were updated accordingly (although you can add these tags to any material you convert to MP3; other data compressed formats also allow for tagging). If your ripping software can’t edit tags, MP3 Tag Editor is an inexpensive option (Figure 2).
LISTS AND LYRICS AND LISTS . . .
I already had my song lists in both Word and Excel, organized into albums with their own titles. But when they’re all in one MP3 jukebox, it doesn’t make any difference what album they came from! You can shuffle them any way you want. Surprisingly, alphabetical order flowed rather well (another reason to update the tags).
Lists are useful to make menus and hyperlinks on websites. One page can link to others and if you already have the menu lists, much of the work is already done. For example, an artist’s works may begin with album titles, then go to individual songs, then further to lyrics or artwork in each album.
When printed out, your lyrics are useful cheat sheets for rehearsals, copyrights, or gigs. Once on your PC, you can burn lyrics along with the songs onto a multimedia CD. You could also include graphics or movies. I scanned all my artwork and graphics into JPEG files so they could be filed and copied like everything else; videos would be next.
For me, the next step beyond creating CDs and MP3s was “digital publishing” — posting everything I digitized on my website. Then you want to get into search engine optimization, so people can actually find you . . . but that’s a whole other topic.
Regardless of your project’s scope, keep working until it’s done. When I ask myself what I’ve done with my life, I can answer that I have indeed done something: I’ve unwound my reels of rolling tape, and organized piles of words on paper, to put them in digital media. In my case, it was all my own material. But the same basic method works for anyone who wants to organize piles of their favorite stuff into compact and long-lasting formats that can be enjoyed for years to come.
It was amazing that everything I had worked on for years could be handled in the end like just so many files. I was even more amazed that all my stuff would fit on a single little memory stick or compressed onto one CD! That part was actually kind of depressing. But if nothing else, know that you can burn the best music of your whole life on your iPod, and probably everything else about yourself on a computer drive.
And now that I am fully unwound, I need to get back to work now to create more original digital material!