Business-like, isn't he?



Burning CDs from LPs and Tapes

by Alan Zisman (c) 2003

Part 1- Getting Connected

    One of the things that many people want to do with the CD-burner on their computer is create audio CDs from their library of cassette tapes, 8-tracks, and vinyl (LPs). While it's relatively straightforward to copy audio CDs or create compilation CDs from tracks from other CDs, it seems scarier to make CDs from other media. I'm not a pro, but here are some tips that I've learned the hard way.

    An aside: you may want to take a look at David Pogue's 2007 New York Times article The Sermon on the Tapes  with information on digitizing audio tapes, vinyl records, videotapes, and film. (Free, registration with the NY Times required). In July 2008, PC Magazine published a short article on the subject, which is a good introduction.


    1) I assume you have a CD-burner (or DVD-burner) on a PC or Mac, and are relatively familiar with burning an audio CD... I'm not going to focus on this end of the process... instead, my emphasis is going to be on getting burnable audio files onto your computer from your tapes and LPs.

    2) I'm assuming that you have an audio system-- a stereo, with a turntable and a tape-deck. Further, I'm assuming that your tape-deck or stereo has a set of output plugs-- either Tape Out plugs on the back of a tape-deck, a line-out plug on the stereo, or (worst-case scenario) a headphone jack. If you can't get an audio signal out of your system, you can't record anything into your computer!

    3) I'm assuming that you're comfortable enough with your computer and with software in general that you can experiment... you're probably using different hardware than I used, and different software. As a result, my instructions and illustrations won't exactly match what you'll see in real life. Be prepared to experiment! Feel free to e-mail me with questions, if you're stuck... but I can't guarantee that I can help!

    Getting Set Up

    The first thing you'll it is to be able to connect your audio components to your computer. Obviously, this is going to be easiest to do if your audio equipment and computer are reasonably close to each other-- at least in the same room. There are a lot of variables here, so bear with me. First, start at the audio-end.

    • Does your audio gear have separate components? If so, perhaps the easiest thing is to go from your tape deck's Play or Line Outor Tape Out plugs to your computer. Typically, these so-called RCA plugs .Your computer uses a 1/8" Mini-stereo plug in the sound-card's Line-In (preferably) or Mike-In jack. So get an adapter cable-- Radio Shack, or most stores that sell audio or electronics parts or equipment will have these. You may also need to get an extension cable to stretch this further. (Make sure it's stereo!)
      RCA to mini jack cable Mini extension
      RCA to Mini cable
      Mini extension cable

    • If you don't have a separate tape deck, but have a stereo receiver, connect to the Tape Out or Aux Out connectors.

    • Don't connect directly to your turntable. Turntables require pre-amps to boost and equalize the signal from the cartridge, and won't record properly if connected directly to your computer. Instead, get the signal from your turntable after it has been boosted and equalized through your receiver-- either directly from the receiver, or through your tape deck. I prefer connecting to the tape deck, as that way I can make CDs from both tapes and vinyl LPs with a single connection. (Yes, if you have a separate pre-amp, you can use this to boost the turntable's signal)

    • If you want, while you're buying cables, pick up a pair of RCA-Y-connectors ... get ones with one male plug to two female plugs. Plugging these into your tape-deck's Line Out connectors will let you leave the tape deck plugged into your stereo receiver while plugging into your computer as well-- this not only saves time and hassle if you do this often, but lets you use your home stereo to monitor the recording process.
      RCA Y-connector

    • Is your tape deck built-in? If so, it probably doesn't have separate outputs. Better one-piece units will still have a Line Out plug-- maybe a pair of RCA plugs, or maybe a single 1/8" Mini plug. Again, get the appropriate cable, with optional extension to connect to your computer's Line In plug. Worst case scenario-- there's only a headphone jack, probably a 1/8" Mini plug, possibly a 1/4" Stereo plug. I say worst-case, because the signal is amplified, and you'll need to be careful not to overdrive your sound-card's input, causing distortion in your recording.

    • Using a Walkman-style portable tape player? Again, you're best-off if there's a Line Out plug, but if not, you can connect from the headphone connector-- with care during recording.

    On the computer, you'll see several 1/8" Mini connectors, either on the sound card on the back of the computer, or on the body of the case... most times, you'll have a cord going from one connector to your computer's speakers, but it's not always clear which one to use. You may have four (or more) plugs:

    • speaker out: for plugging in speakers, using a relatively low-powered audio-amplifier on the sound card. This is also used for plugging in a headphone.
    • line out: for connecting to an external stereo system or to speakers with their own amplifier. (On higher-end sound cards, you may have two outputs-- for front and rear pairs of speakers).
    • mike in (aka mic-in): this is for plugging a microphone into the computer; it expects a higher-level signal than the line in circuit. It can be used in a pinch, but you may have to adjust levels when recording.
    • line in: this is for sending an audio signal into the computer from audio-gear: home stereo, mixing board, etc. This is the one we're looking for.

    These plugs may be identified with icons: a picture of speakers, a picture of a microphone, and maybe an image with an arrow pointing in, and one pointing out... these could refer to Line In and Line Out. For better or worse, it may take some experimentation to find the right place to plug the cable into your computer.

    The sound-quality of your recordings is limited by the quality of your computer's sound card. This can be a relatively crappy component, especially if built-into the motherboard of desktop PCs or notebooks. An alternative is a USB sound device, which can provide a cleaner, better quality way to get sound into the computer. Moreover, some recent Mac models had sound outputs but no built-in sound inputs.  Two examples of USB sound devices are the Creative Extigy , a US$149 external sound unit (PC-only) If using this, connect the cord from your stereo to the Extigy's Line-In plug on the front of the unit. Simpler and more affordable, but still offering good sound quality is the US$35 Griffin Technology iMic . Despite its Apple-influenced name, it works with both Macs and PCs running Windows or Linux. Note if using an iMic... for reasons that I don't understand, this unit has icons that work backwards from what I would expect. Plug in to the plug labelled with a speaker icon, not the microphone icon.

    Creative Labs Extigy
    Creative Labs Extigy
    Griffin Technology iMic

    Other gear that can be (optionally) used: the ART USBPhonoPlus (US$129) adds a pre-amp to a USB music interface, letting you get good results plugging in your turntable. Or the ION TTUSB (US$99) is a complete turntable with USB output, to plug into your computer for recording; line input jacks let you plug your tape recorder or other sound source into it as well.

    ART USB PhonoPlus Ion TTUSB
    ART USBPhonoPlus ION TTUSB turntable

    Notebook users wanting to improve on the sound quality of their built-in sound card may want to check out Creative's Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio Notebook SB0710EF (US$79)- it's Windows only and requires a recent-model notebook with an ExpressCard slot, not the older PCM-CIA slot.

    If you've got your audio gear wired up to your computer (one of these ways!) it's on to Part 2: Getting set on your computer. There are two versions of this- one for Windows users, one for Mac users.

    You may also want to check out c-net's tutorial: Weekend Project- Turn LPs and Cassettes into digital media files. Another good source for information on this topic is

    Last updated: July 18 2008

    The complete Burning CDs from LPs and Tapes series:
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    Note: If you are using Windows XP and the Microsoft Plus! Analog Recorder to digitize your audio collection, check out Jake Ludington's Digital Lifestyle guide.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan