Play it again, Linux

Some of your most precious LPs can be turned into more durable CDs.

The other day I was poking around in my attic when I came upon several boxes of old LPs I had stored away. On a lark, I decided to pull them out and listen to some old tunes. The music sounded better than ever on my turntable, but it got me thinking.

Many of the old LPs I have are no longer available. Some of the records were produced by small jazz labels that are not around anymore. I wondered if there was a way to preserve my collection by saving copies of the rarer recordings.

The answer, of course, is yes. Using some basic cabling (available from nearly any electronics store) and my Linux box, I was able to save the recordings. In fact, I was even able to improve the sound quality of several older LPs.

Get organized

Before you dive into saving your records, you should determine what you want to do. For example, do you just want to save the recordings to a hard drive or a Zip disk for later retrieval? Do you want to create MP3s to play in a portable MP3 player? Or do you want to create audio CDs that can be played in the CD player you have at home or in the car?

If you are going to save the records to CDs, you’ll want to consider how you will organize your CDs. Do you want to save a separate CD for each record? Or do you want to save your favorite tracks and create compilation CDs?

Furthermore, do you want your saved CDs to have the jewel cases you commonly find with CDs? Most office-supply stores sell CD jewel cases that you can print on. And there are numerous sites on the Web that offer CD covers (mega-search.net, www.cdcovers.cc). Be warned, though, that many older recordings will not have cover images readily available, and you will have to create some yourself.

Clean up those tunes

Now that you’ve figured out what you want to do, it’s time to clean up those old LPs. Linux offers some ways to remove some of the cracking and popping that is inevitable with older recordings, but it really helps to start with records that are cleaned up. You can purchase LP cleaning kits from electronic stores or online from several sites, including www.amazon.com. You should also consider replacing the needle on your turntable if you haven’t done so in awhile.

Disk space

This is also a good time to calculate how much hard-disk space you’ll need. Even if you plan to save the LP tracks and move them to a CD, you will need a bit of disk space to carry out the process. If you plan to save the recordings as MP3 files, a typical track might take up from 1MB to 20MB or more, depending on the length of the tune. If you want to save files in a .WAV format, file sizes can exceed 100MB.

Since the price of disk space has come down quite a bit, I decided to buy a separate hard drive to save my records. You needn’t buy an extra drive, but be sure that you have available disk space, or the process could get complicated.

Hook up the hardware

You can create an elaborate configuration with Linux and your audio and video devices. To save old LPs, though, you merely need connectivity between your computer and your amplifier and then again between your amplifier and the turntable.

For my purposes, I attached my computer to my amplifier using the jacks on the back of the amplifier that are normally used for a tape recorder. Your amplifier might be a bit different, but you probably can use jacks that are for auxiliary devices. I already had the amplifier and the turntable connected, so there was nothing else to do.

I decided to use the speakers on my computer since I have a digital audio system installed. If your computer speakers are not the best, you might also want to leverage the speakers on your stereo for playback. In fact, this latter arrangement is nice for playback of any type of music files–whether preserving old albums or listening to other cool tunes.

There are also prefab units you can buy that help you hook up your stereo and computer. The SL 1200 from Stereo-Link www.stereo-link.com costs about $200 and can simplify the hook-up. Although the SL 1200 supports Windows and Macintosh platforms, it can also be used with Linux. The SL1200 is a USB device, and it requires the 2.4 version of the kernel.

If you don’t want to wait for your favorite distribution to implement the 2.4 kernel, you can patch the 2.2.x kernel and add the USB support. I added USB support and was able to get the SL 1200 working successfully.

Recording

There are many audio tools available for Linux. Some are X-based and others are command-line-based. I decided to use Sound eXchange (SoX) to record my albums. SoX should be available regardless of which Linux distribution you use www.hitsquad.com/smm/programs/SoX/. Before beginning to record, examine the help for the rec command by typing rec -help. There are several options, and you may wish to create a script to simplify executing the rec command without having to enter all the appropriate options each time.

The rec command you issue might look something like this:

rec -s w -c 2 -r 44100 track01.cdr

The command above will create a CD-R file (CD-ROM format) that has a sample rate of 44.1KHz and is recorded in stereo.

The trickiest thing I found was timing the start and end of each track with the rec command. This will take a little experimentation, but a utility called dd can help you remove silent portions of audio recordings should you goof (as I often did). After you record a track or two, try using the SoX command play to see how the recording came out. Sounds pretty good, yes?

Cleaning up audio

If your record is really old and it records some crackling and popping noises along with your favorite tune (even after cleaning the LP), you can use SoX to clean up the track. Check the SoX documentation for available options. You’ll want to save a new copy of the track once you have cleaned it up.

Saving it

What you do next depends on what your plans were in the first place. You can leave your recorded tracks on your hard disk and play them back whenever you like. This presumes you have plenty of hard-disk space and you’ve organized the files in a way that makes them easy to find.

Or you might wish to save the tracks as audio CDs. The cdrecord command offers an easy way to do this. If you have a CD burner, you might issue the command:

cdrecord -v speed=8 device=0,0 -audio track1.cdr

In a nutshell, you are saying that you want to see what is going on during the recording process, and the speed of your CD burner. You also tell Linux to look for your device, and you define that you are recording an audio CD (not a data CD).

If you want to save your tracks as MP3 files, Linux offers several ways to do this. During my exploration, I used SoX to convert my CDR files to .WAV format, and then I used bladeenc to convert to MP3 format. The bladeenc command you might issue looks something like:

bladeenc track01.wav -128

The last option (-128) specifies the bit rate of the MP3 file after conversion. The higher the number, the better the quality. I found that a bit rate of 128 was fine for my LP tracks.

What next?

I had a fun time saving my one-of-a-kind albums. Linux is economical as a business platform, but it also offers a myriad of tools for the home user. With a little effort, you can create your own Linux-based jukebox or save albums to audio CD so you can play them while traveling or anytime.

I seem to remember another box or two in my attic that contains 8-track tapes and a player. Hmmm … perhaps I’ll dig through and save some of those tunes as well.

Maggie Biggs has more than 15 years of strategic and tactical business and IT experience. She also has way too many old albums.

Related posts

Leave a Comment