Burning CDs from LPs and Tapes

by Alan Zisman (c) 2003

(Printer-friendly version: Windows)

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.


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.

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:

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 (http://www.soundblaster.com/products/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 (http://www.griffintechnology.com/audio/imic_main.html). 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

Part 2- Getting set

On a Windows PC, you will most like see a little speaker-icon in the bottom-right corner of your screen. (If it's not there, check your Control Panel's Multimedia item, and you may be able to enable it). Right-click on it, and choose Open Volume Controls from the pop-up menu. You'll see a bunch of volume controls for playing-back different sorts of signals; your exact set will vary depending on the capabilities of your sound card. The illustration is showing the set for a Creative Extigy:

Speaker Controls

Click on the Options menu, select Properties, and then select Recording to get the similar set of level controls for recording... make sure that your levels are turned on for the inputs you'll be using. (Again, you may have fewer-- or more recording controls. The picture is for a Creative Extigy; on my notebook, there are only two controls, labelled Microphone and Line In).

Recording Level controls

These controls are very important, as they'll be used with your recording software to make sure that the levels of the sound coming into the computer are neither too low nor too loud, but just right.

About signal levels

The trick with recording (not just in the case, but in all sorts of recordings) is to get as hot a signal as possible that isn't too powerful. If your signal is too low, the quiet portions of the music can get lost in the ever-present background hiss and noise. So you want to boost your music signal as much as possible, relative to the background sound. However, if the signal is too high, the loud portions will over-drive the recording circuitry, causing audible distortion and clipping. Most recording software (and hardware) will include meters, (known in the trade as VU Meters). Typically, the top portion will be coloured red. While playing or recording, you're best off if the signal is high, going into the red momentarily. If it is in the red for extended periods, you're probably getting a distorted signal. If it's never in the red, you're probably too quiet.

You may be able to adjust the level with a Gain or Level control (as in the Mac Sound control panel or the Windows speaker controls), or with a volume control on your stereo. (Depending how you're hooked up, your stereo's volume controls may or may not affect the strength of the signal being sent from your audio equipment to your computer). If you can't control the levels at this stage, you're better off with a lower-strength signal; you can boost a quiet sound later, but if you've recorded a distorted signal, there's nothing you can do later to get rid of the distortion. However, if your signal is too low, you'll get a lot of background noise, and boosting the signal will also boost this noise, sometimes making the music unlistenable.

Unlike the Mac equivalents, in Windows, the speaker controls offer level controls, but no metering to show the effect of making changes. To get meters, you need to use some of the software discussed below. This is more awkward, having to keep two windows open at once, but it can be done!)

Part 3 Ready to Record

Windows users have a simple recording utility built-in: Sound Recorder (in the Start Menu's Accessories/Entertainment sub-menu). It stops recording after 60 seconds or so, making it less than useful for recording music, though perfectly usable for creating short sound-effect clips to use with system events like errors or start-up.

You will want a more sophisticated recording program. There are lots of options, many of which can be downloaded-- though in most cases, users will need to buy a product code to continue to use a program after a trial period. On the Internet, you may want to go to someplace like Download.com and search for recording. Doing so  got me 131 Windows hits and 17 Mac hits-- though many are for CD burning, 'ripping' audio from CDs inserted into your computer, or other things that while interesting, may not be what you want to do right now.

Worth checking out: Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/),  very capable and free recording program, available in versions for Windows, Mac (both classic and OS X) and Linux.Unix. Plug-ins (to the free, open-sounce Lame (http://lame.sourceforge.net/)) are required to save in the popular MP3 format; these are available for most (but not all) versions on the site.

The biggest lack in Audacity is that (at least as of Jule 2003) it doesn't provide VU meters-- a way to keep an eye on the levels while recording. This makes it difficult to know in real-time whether you're recording is too loud (and distorting) or too quiet to be usable.  There are lots of other options-- though many downloadable programs are demo-ware, which will work for a limited amount of time, then may disable themselves unless you purchase a serial number.

Stop the presses!  The current versions for Audacity now have VU meters, making this a very usable-- and free program. Check it out!

Also worth checking out: WavePad is a small, simple, free audio recording application with some nice features including built-in CD ripping and burning, MP3 support (along with other audio formats), noise reduction, and more. Musicians will like its ability to play tracks slowly without changing pitch.

Rosoft Audio Recorder is free (Windows) recording software- if you are recording from an LP or tape, it can automatically find the silences between tracks and split the recording. (Note: the free version of this software automatically installs the Ask Jeeves 'My Search' toolbar into Internet Explorer-- which can be uninstalled using Add/Remove Software if unwanted).

Among other programs worth checking out are:

A good place to check for audio-software is Harmony Central (http://www.harmony-central.com/Software/), with resources and news for Windows, Mac, DOS, Atari, Amiga, BeOS, and Unix.

I've mostly used SoundForge XP and GrooveMechanic. GrooveMechanic is especially nice, as it lets you record an entire side of a tape or LP, then attempts to split it into individual tracks-- a task that can be done manually, but is tedious at best.

By now, you should be hooked up to your audio hardware, and have software up and running. It's time to put the vinyl on the turntable or the cassette tape in the tape deck (or just turn on the radio), and load up your chosen recording software.

When you get ready to record, you may be asked what quality to make your recording... if you aren't asked about this, check your software's Preferences or settings to make sure they're what you want. Here's the  dialogue for SoundForge XP Studio 5:

Sound Forge sound quality settings

These choices-- a 44.100 kHz sample rate, 16-bit sample size, stereo, will provide CD-quality recordings. Figure on needing about 1 MB of drive space for each minute recorded.

Check your levels

Do a test-run, recording something, just to make sure everything is connected properly and your levels are at reasonable. 20 seconds or so of music ought to do it (unless your music has very quiet and very loud portions, in which case, you should check some of each)... Stop and play it back on your computer. Hopefully, it worked and sounds good... if not, keep fiddling with the level controls, both on your audio gear and on your computer until you find that happy medium.

Part 4: Making the recording

Note: The previous two sections had separate Mac and Windows pages; this time around, I've just produced a single version-- using the Windows SoundForge XP software. You may be using a different program on a Windows system or on a Mac; in that case the specific command-names and dialogue boxes will look different. But there will be enough similarities that hopefully this will prove usable. If you have any questions,, feel free to drop me a line.

If you've been following this series of tutorials, you've connected your audio equipment to your computer, set your control panel or system prefence for recording, gotten a better recording application than what came with your computer, and set test levels for a recording. You're ready to go!

What not to do!

You may want to press record on your computer software, start up your LP or tape, check your levels, and then go away until you've finished recording one side of the LP or tape (about 20-45 minutes worth of music). After all, you can always cut and paste to individual tracks later. This will work, but it turns out to be a very inefficient use of your time. Your software takes a long time to process large files. Using SoundForge XP 5.0, for example, I recorded a 45minute  file containing 18 songs. It took about 6 minutes for the software to process the file when I tried to select and cut out one 3 minute tune, in order to paste it as a new, separate track. As the file got smaller and smaller (as I removed each song individually), it took less and less time-- but there was a lot of time wasted after I had the whole thing recorded.

(Here's a tip suggested by reader  David Bentley of  Walnut Creek, CA, USA. He says:

" The trick is to start at the end.  Then it takes Sound Forge very little time to rework the remaining parts of the file.  If you need something from the middle, first delete whatever follows it (or cut & paste that to another file),  then cut off the part you want, which is now on the end!  If you want, of course you can always use undo to restore the file to what it had been, and this will probably be faster too as it is adding things to the end, and doesn't have to shuffle huge amounts of information forward to eliminate the gap.  I think that is what takes all the time."

-- Thanks David!)


Best, in my experience, is to record each track on the LP or tape individually, saving it before going on to record the next track. Once it's saved, you can clean it up later, but get each track recorded and saved individually first. Try something like this:

Sound Forge recording window

Most of your software will have lots more bells and whistles you can play with, but personally, I'd recommend using as little as possible, to get as clean a recorded sound as you can. Even software that promises to remove pops and scratches when recording old LPs does so by altering the sound of all the music. You may be better off keeping the scratches in the recording.

When you've got a set of usable recordings, you're ready to burn them to CD.  The software that came with your CD burner will do fine for this, though deluxe commercial versions will again offer more features.  For example,
Roxio Easy CD Creator Pro (http://www.roxio.com/en/products/ecdc/ecdcfeatures.jhtml) or Platinum editions, unlike the Basic version that is often packages with PC CD-burner hardware, includes a SpinDoctor module which includes features to remove clicks, pops, and hisses, and normalize (balance) levels between tracks recorded from different sources. Mac users can get similar SpinDoctor features from Roxio Toast Titanium (http://www.roxio.com/en/products/toast/features.jhtml) . These are not (legally) downloadable, but can be purchased online (http://www.roxio.com/en/store/index.jhtml US$99).

Last updated: 15 September, 2005