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The cheap way to convert LPs, audio cassettes to digital

Connect your stereo amplifier to your PC's sound board and use the free, open-source Audacity audio-conversion software to create MP3s, WMAs, or other digital copies of your analog tunes.

A couple of weeks ago, "k_hettich" posted a question in CNET's How-To forum asking about converting vinyl LPs to CDs. A couple of people recommended USB turntables that automate the process and cost from $70 to more than $230.

Over the last couple of years I've converted a couple hundred audio cassettes and dozens of LPs to MP3s and WMAs, many of which were ultimately burned onto CDs. The only expense required was a $5 connector between my stereo amplifier and PC sound card. The real work was done by the free Audacity audio-conversion software.

Back in October 2009 CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell presented an 11-step tutorial on using your PC to record audio that provides both a video and a slideshow explaining everything you need to know about PC audio recording. The how-to briefly covers converting analog audio to digital using Audacity.

Audacity audio-conversion software
The free Audacity audio software records analog tracks and lets you convert them to various digital formats for copying to CD. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

As the how-to points out, Audacity was designed for sound engineers, so the program can be daunting to learn. In fact, on my machine the software crashed repeatedly, especially when other apps were active. The online Audacity manual provides a series of tutorials for beginners and other help resources.

Most of the problems I encountered while using Audacity were overcome through good-old trial and error. Here are a few of the lessons I learned:

Notebook computers may not have the required sound-processing hardware. When I tried using a two-year-old laptop to convert analog audio, I found the sound chip built into the machine's motherboard simply couldn't handle the load. For as little as $15 you can buy a USB sound adapter that supplants the notebook's sound chip, but the sound card that came with a six-year-old PC (like the one I use for the bulk of my audio conversions) will likely give you a better end result.

Record a few tracks at a time. In my experience, Audacity was more likely to crash if I had recorded an hour or more of audio in one go. I soon got into the habit of recording and converting tracks in 30- to 45-minute chunks, which is roughly one album or tape side at a time.

Use the maximum record volume. The MP3s and WMAs I converted from analog tend to have a lower default volume than native-digital audio files, so combining analog-native and digital-native tracks on the same CD makes the disc's volume uneven. Even setting Audacity to record at the maximum volume often leaves the converted tracks quieter than their native-digital counterparts.

Audacity features an Amplify option on the Effect menu that can mitigate some of the volume difference, but I have had mixed results using the feature. As I mentioned, I'm no sound engineer, so you might have better luck than I had evening the track volumes. Other effects include filters, fades, bass boost, echo, and equalization.

Don't be afraid to edit. Some of the tapes I converted date back to the 1970s, a time when my recording "skills" included splitting a single track on two different sides of the same tape. It's surprisingly easy to splice such tracks back together, as well as to remove or reduce the applause at the end of live tracks and the dead air before and after individual tracks.

After you become more familiar with Audacity's many extra features, you may start feeling like a home-grown record producer. Grammys, here you come!